Here he was, the lawn service man from Saint Gregory’s, whispering a quick hello as he slid into an open seat at the adjacent table. He smiled her way, and Alyson smiled in return. She scooted closer to the table, opened her notebook, and slid her hand over the cool smooth page. Even in childhood, the act of running her hand over a new sheet of paper was deeply satisfying. Again the familiar stranger glanced Alyson’s way and smiled.
She’d noticed him at Saint Gregory’s where she volunteered for parking lot duty on Wednesdays, but hadn’t known that his name was Michael until they found themselves together in RCIA classes, which prepare converts for initiation into the Catholic faith. Alyson had committed herself to conversion solely out of duty. I know I need to do this had become her mantra.
Out of nursing school less than a year at the time of her husband’s farming accident and subsequent death, Alyson had felt terrified and inadequate waiting for the rescue workers. Instantly she was a young widow with a two-year-old son to raise. At first she questioned and blamed. Eventually what little faith she had shriveled up and died. When her son Jackson was old enough, though, she kept her promise to Mark her late husband, and sent Jackson to Saint Gregory’s. Now Jackson was a second grader preparing for First Communion.
“Can’t you be Catholic too Mom?” he’d asked one afternoon. “Please?”
She had expected to encounter patriarchal Catholic doctrine and wasn’t sure how to reconcile herself with it. Instead, after a lifetime of anxiety, obedience to something larger than herself was beginning to feel attractively freeing.
Handouts were being distributed, and Michael got up to help.
“Before joining the Church,” Father Scott said, “you will receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation.”
His warm voice and kindly face made him seem like a favorite coach or teacher, but with a dose of holiness. As he went on to describe the benefits of confession and reconciliation, Alyson felt herself starting to relax.
“The Sacrament of Reconciliation is a healing sacrament,” Father Scott explained.
Alyson shifted in her chair. When she looked up again, Father Scott seemed to be looking right at her.
The final night after RCIA class, Alyson and Michael sat on the church steps until well after Father Scott had locked the door to McCormick Fellowship Hall and returned to the rectory.
“One thing I don’t understand,” Alyson said, pausing until an approaching car passed on the street, “if you’re already Catholic, why did you take the RCIA classes?”
“It’s a pretty long story,” Michael began. “You see, when I was younger my faith was extremely important to me. In fact, the summer between my junior and senior years in high school, my class took a trip to Poland for World Youth Day. It was incredible. Just before the Holy Father addressed us, there was a swell of excitement and the chanting began: ‘J. P. 2, we love you. J. P. 2, we love you’. I came back from that trip certain I was being called to the seminary.”
“And did you answer the call?”
A warm spring day had given way to a cool spring night and Alyson folded her arms, one over the other, and held them tightly against herself for warmth.
“Unfortunately no,” Michael said. “When school started in the fall I got involved with a girl who’d gotten into some trouble at home and had come to town to live with her grandparents. One thing led to another, so to speak, and before you know it she was pregnant with our son.”
Alyson glanced reflexively at Michael’s left hand and found it bare. Michael leaned forward on the second step.
“We never married. As soon as our son was born, she left us both. I guess it was more than she was ready for. Somehow I managed to graduate from high school. I never got to go to college, but I’ve been pretty successful with my own lawn service business. At any rate, my son is fifteen and I’ve raised him myself all of these years. I thought I’d been doing pretty well until recently. He’s starting to hang out with a pretty rough crowd. It seems like all he wants to do is skateboard, listen to loud music, and play his guitar. I figured maybe getting back to my faith would help us both through this rough spot.”
Michael turned slightly and looked more fully into Alyson’s face. “So how about you?”
“Well,” she answered, “I have a seven-year-old son, Jackson. My husband Mark, Jackson’s father, died in a farming accident when Jackson was two. For now, I am working three twelve-hour night shifts a week as a resource coordinator at the hospital.”
“Hmm, I’m not sure I’d like taking care of sick people all day,” Michael said.
“Actually, the patients are the best part of the job, but I don’t really take care of sick people much anymore. A resource coordinator is like a house supervisor. I place admissions, move staff around to meet patient census needs, get supplies that are needed from departments that are closed at night. There’s no charting, so no overtime. Most days I get home right on schedule, something that’s extremely important to me right now.”
“So what made you decide to join the Church?”
Alyson stretched her legs out in front of her and looked up at the stars. “Mark was Catholic,” she started.
Despite its vast blackness, the sky seemed extraordinarily three-dimensional as she looked up at the stars. One twinkled brilliantly capturing Alyson’s attention. She always told Jackson that Daddy was in heaven—up there. They talked a lot about Daddy; what he was like, and how his favorite thing to do before dinner was to sing the “Wheels on the Bus” song to Jackson.
“Daddy would help you throw your chubby little baby arms up in the air like a giant sunburst each time the bus went all through the town,” she’d tell Jackson. “And each time he did, you grinned like nobody’s business, and it filled him with happiness.”
Daddy conversations were frequent at home, but Mark’s name—that was something different. A slight chill went through Alyson. How long had it been since she’d had the chance to say his name out loud? Who could have imagined, in those happy years as a new family, that by the time Jackson was two she would be a young widow and Jackson would be a little boy without a daddy to hold his hand or to tuck him in at night.
Reluctantly, Alyson ended her reverie and looked back at Michael, who was leaning against the church’s stair railing looking down at his shoes.
“Mark,” she began again, “went to Saint Gregory’s when he was a little boy. When we were married, I promised to raise our children in the Church. I guess I just felt it wouldn’t be right if I didn’t keep my promise. When Jackson was ready for First Communion this year it was suddenly very important to him that I join too. I wasn’t thrilled. I had no idea then that it was going to be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made for myself.”
The next few moments were spent in silence.
“Speaking of Jackson, I’d better get home and make sure the sitter has gotten him to bed.” Alyson pulled the sweater she had draped over her shoulders more tightly around her arms.
“Right, I’d better get home too.” Michael thrust his hands in his pockets. “If I’m not there to police Seth in the evening…well, let’s just say I’m sure he’s not sitting at the kitchen table working on his homework.”
They walked slowly together toward the green minivan Alyson and Mark had purchased just after Jackson was born.
“So our big day is almost here,” Michael said when she was seated in her car.
“Saturday,” Michael said and he softly closed the door.
The night of the Easter Vigil arrived quickly. Alyson felt herself flooded with gratitude as she entered into full communion with the Church and received the sacrament that the RCIA classes had prepared her for. Each week, when the server held the small gold tray under her chin, to protect even the smallest bit of Christ’s body in the Eucharist from falling to the floor, Alyson knew that she was in the right place. As spring turned to summer, Alyson continued to feel at peace during weekly Mass. She even felt a little more at peace in her life. Still, she missed RCIA classes, and the way Father Scott brought the teachings of the Church alive for her. She missed seeing Michael and wondered why he hadn’t called. She thought they’d become friends.
One Wednesday afternoon, after Alyson had just put a load of clothes in the washer, the phone rang.
“Hey, it’s been awhile” Michael said. “How are you?”
“Good, good. Doing fine. You know, I mean I’m doing well.” Alyson clutched the edge of the kitchen table as she held the phone to her ear.
“Say, I’m really sorry it has taken me so long to call. Work has been busy and my evenings, well it’s been pretty tough around here lately, you know, teenagers. But hey, I hear there’s a concert in the park this Saturday. Can I pick you up at noon if I bring the picnic basket?”
Alyson relaxed and smiled “That’s the best offer I’ve had in a long time.” She traced a circle with the tip of her finger on the cool smooth tabletop.
The day of the picnic was warm, but without too much humidity, and remarkably, without a mosquito in sight. Alyson spread their blanket on a gently sloping spot at the north end of the park.
“What smells so good?” Alyson glanced around searching for the source of the pleasing fragrance.
“It’s those American Lindens over there.” Michael pointed to tall leafy shade trees bordering the west end of the park.
“It almost smells like perfume.”
“Actually, you can make perfume from their flowers, and Linden trees are special in other ways too,” he said. “According to Polish legend, the Little-Leafed Linden was the favorite tree of the Holy Mother. In Poland they say that prayers offered under a Linden tree have a good chance of being answered.”
While the band tuned up and the sound men made their last minute pre-show preparations, Alyson and Michael ate baloney and cheese sandwiches and drank grape Kool-Aid out of Styrofoam cups.
“How about I do the cooking next weekend?” Alyson brushed away a small black beetle that had traveled the length of Michael’s sleeve and was approaching his collar.
“I accept!” Michael help up his cup and raised his eyebrows. “Did you know that Kool-Aid was invented in Nebraska?”
“I did not, but I’m beginning to understand more and more that lots of good things come from Nebraska.”
The next weekend Michael and his fifteen-year-old son, Seth, arrived nearly half an hour late for dinner. Though Seth stared at the floor, and his shaggy brown hair covered his eyes, the teenager’s scowl was apparent.
Alyson introduced Jackson to Seth before glancing uncertainly at Michael who appeared miserably uncomfortable.
“Want to see my Eclectus Parrot?” Jackson asked. “He can talk.”
Seth kept his arms folded and dropped onto the couch nearly landing on Alyson’s open purse and cell phone. A manila envelope on the couch slid toward the crack between the cushions and a modest stack of ten and twenty dollar bills appeared at the open end. It seemed to Alyson that she and Seth spotted the bundle at exactly the same moment.
“Jackson’s school fundraiser,” Alyson mumbled scooping up the envelope and its contents and placing them deep inside her purse. Quickly she secured her purse in a coat closet by the door.
“I’d sure like to see your parrot,” Michael said.
“His name is Lucky,” Jackson replied. “Come on, I’ll show you.”
While Michael and Jackson went to look at the parrot, Alyson remained with Seth. She settled into a chair and sat quietly for a few minutes trying to peer through gaps in the boy’s shaggy hair to get a glimpse of his eyes. “I hear you play the guitar,” she finally said.
Seth shifted himself more deeply into his corner of the couch. “So?”
“I tried to play a little in high school. You know, ‘The answer my friend, is blowin’ in the wind, the answer is blowing in the wind.’ My singing was probably a little better back then.” Alyson smiled at him but Seth gave no response.
“So what can Lucky say?” Michael asked as he and Jackson wandered back up the hall.
Seth twisted in their direction just as Michael turned away from Seth and turned toward Jackson. Just as she knew he would, Jackson locked eyes with Michael the way she’d seen him do with people of all ages since he’d been old enough to talk.
“Oh he can say lots of things, like pretty bird, or goodnight, or Mom’s a pretty girl.”
“Wow, he’s one smart parrot!” Michael said.
Suddenly Michael turned toward his own son. “Seth, you’ve got to come see this parrot, he’s an amazing talker.”
“Yeah, we got him at a parrot rescue,” Jackson said to Seth who didn’t acknowledge him. Jackson continued talking. “I wanted to get a gecko, but Mom looked them up on the Internet. She said geckos are hard to take care of. She said it’s not fair to get something if you can’t take care of it right. Mom said that most reptiles, like lizards and snakes and things, don’t live long. She said it’s hard to love something and then it dies way before it’s supposed to.”
Alyson felt a twinge of sadness as she listened to Jackson.
“Maybe we’ll have to check into a parrot rescue ourselves some time. Whaddaya say Seth—think you’d like that?”
“Who wants a stupid parrot?” Seth spun his head away from Michael and scratched an imaginary something off the top of his pant leg.
Alyson’s body tensed. “Jackson, why don’t you and I go finish in the kitchen. We’ll call you two as soon as we’re ready.” She nudged Jackson in the direction of the door.
The evening passed and Seth never did join in, not even for dinner, choosing instead to remain in the living room, eventually, in near darkness as the night grew later.
The following Monday was warm and windy. “Come on in here, Alyson,” the school secretary said, motioning to the copy room behind her desk. You have to try the coffee cake one of the parents dropped off this morning. Sister John is at a retreat so I’m the only one here to eat it.”
School was out for the summer and the secretary was busy at work on the school’s most important fundraiser, Saint Gregory’s Annual Barbeque and Bazaar.
“I’ve got something for you too,” Alyson said, reaching into her purse. A sick feeling overcame her and she paused briefly. “That’s odd,” she said digging a little more deeply. “Jackson sold his last packet of raffle tickets Friday to a friend of mine from work. We put everything together in his envelope, all two hundred and fifty dollars and the ticket stubs. I put the envelope in my purse Friday evening so I’d have it ready to give to you this morning. I must have left it laying somewhere else.” Dread blanketed her, knowing she had not.
Alyson waited until noon to call Michael, hoping to catch him on his lunch break. She chose her words carefully, sticking only to the facts: “I put the money in my purse Friday evening, and when I went to the office this morning to turn it in, it was gone.”
“I’ll talk to Seth,” Michael said. “I know he’ll deny it, but his word isn’t worth much anymore.” Alyson held the phone in one hand and rested her forehead in the other. “Can I come over so we can talk?” he asked.
“I can’t right now. I have to be at a meeting at the hospital in half an hour, and I really need to sleep a little this afternoon before I try to work tonight,” Tears filled Alyson’s eyes. “How about tomorrow after I’ve picked Jackson up from school? By then you’ll have had a chance to talk to Seth. It isn’t the money that worries me so much, although I am worried sick about that. It’s the ticket stubs I’m really worried about.”
The next afternoon Michael stopped by to talk. “I’m so sorry,” he said. “I mean how stupid could I have been. Thinking Seth would have behaved decently. Why would he, there hasn’t been anything decent about him in over a year.” Michael ran his hands along the sides of his head.
“Don’t Michael, you don’t mean it,” Alyson said. “Seth’s hurting, that’s all.”
He turned and faced the window. A favorite framed picture of Jackson caught Alyson’s eye and the look of trust and wonder in his eyes overwhelmed her with love and sadness. He was so young and had already lost so much.
Michael paused and looked back at Alyson. “Seth was such a sweet little boy. I just don’t understand what happened. I tried so hard.”
When he turned and faced the window again, Alyson guessed that he was crying. She wanted to go to him. To hold him and tell him it would be all right. But something stopped her. The room was quiet for a while then slowly Michael began shaking his head. Alyson went to him and put her arm on his shoulder.
“I’m sorry,” he said again. “I never should have done this to you, it wasn’t fair.”
Michael took three, one hundred dollar bills from his wallet and placed them on Alyson’s coffee table before leaving. “You and Jackson don’t need this kind of grief,” he said just before he closed the door.
Alyson looked out the window for several minutes at the place where Michael’s truck had been. Minutes after Michael pulled away, Alyson heard Jackson at the back door. She closed her eyes and tried to focus. It took all that she had to compose herself but when Jackson entered the living room she managed to smile. “What do you say we ride out to the park and see what the ducks are up to?” she said.
June gave way to July, July to August, and August to September. School was back in session and slowly Alyson’s life began to normalize. Then, on the Friday before Labor Day, Seth’s name was on the hospital census sheet, room 229, when Alyson arrived at work. The first hour of her shift Alyson felt completely out of sync as she tried to decide whether to stop in to say hi, or to avoid the second floor east hallway as best she could. She was carrying an armload of isolation gowns to the second floor nurses’ station when she nearly ran into Michael close to the elevators.
“It’s pretty bad news,” Michael told her as they stood together talking. “Seth has an infection in the bone. He’s going to need IV antibiotics for at least six weeks. They took him to surgery yesterday. He’s got a long IV tube in his arm that goes up into his heart or something.”
Michael laced his hands behind his head and looked up at the ceiling. “And we don’t have health insurance—what was I thinking? They’re trying to figure out if they can send him to the rehab floor for a while or if he’ll have to come in to the clinic, twice a day, for antibiotics. With a teenage son, how could I be so stupid? Why did I think I could get by without insurance? They’re trying to figure out how to keep the costs down. I don’t need this kind of problem now.” Michael closed his eyes and let his hands slip down to the back of his neck.
“I can tell you exactly how you can keep cost down,” Alyson said. “You can have them send Seth home and I can come by twice a day and give him his antibiotics. If they’re twelve hours apart, I can come when I get off work in the morning and again before I go to work in the evening.”
Michael stared down at the floor. When Alyson was finished talking, he raised his head slowly. “That’s a huge commitment. Are you sure you really want to do that?”
“I haven’t a doubt in my mind,” Alyson said, marveling at how easy it was as a nurse to assume a no-nonsense, take-charge attitude. “You talk to your doctor and the nurses and see if we can’t get something worked out.” She gave him a quick nod and a reassuring smile.
It was nearly seven o’clock in the evening on Seth’s final day of treatment and already dark outside as Alyson hurried to her car. A light to moderate rain had fallen most of the day and puddles of rainwater still lay on the sidewalk. It had not been a good morning with Seth—not that any of them had been good. For six weeks he pretended not to know who she was, and she acted as a nursing professional and never reminded him of his visit to her home. When she put a plate of still-warm chocolate chip cookies on the seat beside her, Alyson told herself that maybe somehow, on this last day, she could make a small difference with Seth.
Michael’s house was dark when Alyson pulled in the driveway. “Okay,” she muttered to herself as she cut the engine. “Now what?”
The front door was open, and she could see Seth in the dark sprawled on the couch playing a video game. As she entered the room, she turned on the light and he flopped back on the couch pulling a tattered blue blanket over his head.
“Not you again,” he said from under the blanket.
The childish response made her smile, reminding Alyson of how young Seth really was—perhaps younger emotionally than Jackson.
She pulled a chair up next to the couch, sat down in it, and rested her hand on the cushion near his knee. “How’s the leg?”
“Why do you care anyway?” Seth sat back up and resumed his video game. “Can we just get this over with so you can get out of here?”
Alyson went to the kitchen to gather the supplies for Seth’s treatment. She stood for a moment and stared at the blackness through the window before returning to the living room.
“I want you to know I forgive you for stealing from me,” Alyson said as she expressed the air from the syringe of saline she would use to flush Seth’s line before starting the antibiotic treatment. “I guess it would make me feel a little better if I knew why,”
They sat in silence while the antibiotic ran into Seth’s IV line. When the dose was complete, Alyson carried the alcohol pad and empty tubing package back to the kitchen and disposed of them. She returned to the living room and sat down again. It was her night off, Jackson was with a sitter, and she was prepared to stay as long as it took.
“What are you just sitting there for?” Seth asked.
“I’m here to help,” Alyson said. “I care about you and I know you are hurting.”
Seth stood up and threw his blanket on the floor. “Get out! I hate you and I don’t want you here. Go back home to your perfect little son and just leave me alone.”
Anger and sadness battered her. She no longer ached for Seth, but for Jackson. She was reminded again of what could happen when young boys suffered huge losses. Alyson picked up her purse and reached for her jacket.
“Wait,” Seth said as she reached the door. His voice was fragile and uncertain.
She felt herself relax, but before she could turn and go back to Seth, he lashed out again. “I don’t need you! My mother didn’t need anyone and I don’t need anyone!”
Before Alyson could reply, Seth began yelling. “I’m just like my mom, screwed up.”
“It’s not true,” she said starting toward him.
Seth dropped back onto the couch and sobbed into his hands. “Why do you even care?”
She tried to hold him, to comfort him, to tell him that his mother didn’t need to define him, but he shoved her away. Immediately he was on his feet.
“Get out,” he yelled at her, “I hope I never see you again. Please just go on back to your perfect life and leave me alone.”
Alyson looked at Seth again before leaving, wondering if he was right. Maybe she was making things worse. Maybe she really couldn’t make a difference for him.
Jackson was asleep when Alyson returned home. She sat for several hours with only the light from above the stove glowing from the kitchen. Finally, she forced herself to go to bed.
Michael called the next day to thank her again as he already had so many times before. He didn’t mention anything about Seth’s outburst, and Alyson knew that neither had Seth.
The weeks passed and Alyson continued to wonder and worry about Seth and Michael. Some problems were just too big. Jackson was her priority. Still, she thought about Seth often and ached for him whenever she looked at Jackson and considered his innocence.
It was early November, but the day was remarkably warm when Michael called on a Saturday afternoon to see if he and Seth could stop by and drop something off. Seth’s leg was healing beautifully, Michael reported, and they just wanted to thank Alyson again for all she had done for them. Alyson straightened a few things in the kitchen that didn’t need straightening, then sat at the table and awaited their arrival. When the doorbell rang Alyson tensed.
“Flowers for our favorite nurse,” Michael said when she opened the door. He held out an arrangement of gold and red chrysanthemums tucked into a porcelain turkey. As always his smile was warm and friendly.
Alyson took the arrangement and smiled. She invited them in, not knowing what else to say. Jackson stood beside her.
“Hey, do you still have your parrot?” Seth asked with some hesitation.
Jackson looked up at Alyson, who nodded. “Sure, come on,” he said and the two boys were off together to the back of the house.
“I just want to thank you again for all that you did for us,” Michael said. “I mean, we’re not out of the woods yet, and some days are better than others. Still, something has changed and I believe you had something important to do with that. Anyway, thank you.” He took Alyson’s hand and held it tightly. “You are truly a blessing.”
Alyson knew there were no guarantees for any of them, but she felt completely at peace. Something had changed in her and she wanted to believe something had changed in Seth, too. She smiled up at Michael. “What do you say we give the park another try, this time all four of us?” Alyson stepped back and closed the front door. “Right now, though,” she continued, “maybe we should go catch up with two boys and a parrot.”