This story is by Rev. William O. Websster,Jr. and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
He thought he was dead. In the distance he heard words echo through the room then drift away to a rumble resembling the sound of distant thunder. George Taylor slumped down, down, down into a plastic molded chair. Time stopped.
She walked into the room with her light blue surgical scrubs leaking out beneath the long lab coat, where her name, Dr. Beatrice Rieux, was carefully embroidered in pink thread. She clutched against her breasts manila file folders stuffed with papers and X-rays that peeked out from the sides. Dr. Rieux tucked her caramel-colored hair behind her ear, shifted the folders from hand to hand, then stared down through the white tile floor as though she could see through it.
George knew from experience that people avoided eye contact if they were lying or if they felt guilty or if they had trouble bringing bad news and they can’t bear to see the person in pain. Studying her face he knew it was not guilt or lies. He knew it was bad news . . . sad news. As a police officer he had seen that look more times than he wanted to count. He had even given that look many times. Last month he pulled his cruiser up to a white house with a manicured lawn near the city park. “Your son is in the hospital – you need to go to the hospital right away.” He knew the boy was dead. And the parents, standing at the front door, knew that their son was dead as George kept his gaze focused on the worn-out rubber ‘welcome’ mat on the cement stoop.
In the doctor’s examination room George shut his eyes in the hope that the room would stop spinning. He thought, “With my eyes shut I can’t hear the news. “If I can’t hear it, it can’t be real.” George’s wife, Susan, touched his hand, the thunderous roar changed back to words and he realized . . . it’s all true.
Susan sat on the edge of the examination table dressed in a somber, olive colored hospital gown that rested just above her knees. She shivered. A white blanket draped her shoulders like a shawl she would wear to the symphony. She pulled it tighter, almost hugging it, revealing a band-aid that covered the latest blood draw. A dark red stain showed through the band-aid. Flimsy hospital slippers covered her feet. Hunched over, Susan started shivering again, but not from the cold. She pulled the cotton blanket tighter around her shoulders. The paper slid and crinkled under her weight as she stretched, arching her back in a vain attempt to find a comfortable position on the table. Looking up she gave the window a cold stare. The leaves draping a red maple tree outside the window quivered in the breeze. The soft yellow-green of the under belly of the leaves showed itself as the breeze grew in intensity. Her grandfather’s words raced through her mind, “When you see the leaves flip upside down, it won’t be long before the storm hits.” A soft knock on the door threw her back into the sterile room as Mia, Dr. Rieux’s assistant, came in the room with additional stacks of manila folders. The storm had come.
Reviewing the folders, Dr. Rieux scanned the pages looking back at the couple.
“Well, like I said, the tests have all come back. It is serious, very serious. There are options. I’d like to talk to you about . . .” Her words drifted away never reaching listening ears. Susan’s lower lip quivered. A tear welled in her eye slowly rolling down her cheek, creating a black streak as it mixed with her mascara giving her a halloween like mask.
George looked like a balloon that had all the air punched out of it. He was deflated. With a groan more of frustration than pain, Susan slid off the examination table and into a molded plastic chair next to her husband and reached for his hand. With their hands locked together, almost crushing their wedding bands, Dr. Rieux slid a metal stool out from under the counter and sat down in front of the Taylors as her eyes raced through the summary. “Cancer.” The word devastated them. It sucked all the life out of the room. Susan was diagnosed with Stage IV metastatic breast cancer.
Dr. Rieux, like an apron clad waitress listing the daily specials in a greasy spoon diner, described possible treatments while keeping her eyes fixed on the papers, avoiding Susan’s mascara smudged face. “There’s a new chemotherapy protocol and a possible radiation treatment that could shrink the cancer cells”. Without looking up she referred Susan to a board-certified radiation oncologist and to the surgical oncologists who performed Susan’s first biopsies and lumpectomy. Reaching for the wall phone, she punched his number and setup an appointment for the next consultation.
“Susan, there are options. We’ll find the right ones for you,” Dr. Rieux said as she stood to leave. Her voice was hard and strong and caring, “We will get through this. Ok?” She walked out the door.
Alone, the Taylors sat in the room gazing down at the floor. Susan reached for a tissue. She shook her head in disbelief mouthing the word cancer over and over. She dabbed her face, drying her eyes, erasing the mascara that stained her cheeks with the tissue that was just a little softer than sandpaper. Glaring out the window she let out a long sigh and started to cry again.
After getting her street clothes on they sat in silence staring beyond the windows that lined the wall, past a strand of tulip poplar trees that gave way as she pictured the home they lived in for most of their married life – a two story, three bedroom gray house filled with a lifetime of memories with their three children. George and Susan were married for nearly three decades. For some couples that can be a long time. But for the Taylors it seemed like only yesterday when they were married in the local Presbyterian Church, a large colonial looking building framed by white columns near the center of their small town. That autumn day in 1971 the church’s sanctuary was filled with friends and relatives who had traveled to see them exchange vows and rings.
In the examination room George held Susan’ hand. Playing with her wedding ring he remembered their wedding day and their vows.
Gowned in his black Geneva robe, Rev. Edmunds walked from the pulpit to the center of the platform where he met the young couple who were already holding hands. Edmunds was balding when he came to the church. Five years later, when he stood before the packed church to officiate their wedding, his forehead had grown extensively in territory. Comb overs no longer worked. But he tried. With his left hand he pushed the thin threads of his coffee-colored hair back in place, and smiled at the couple standing before him on the platform.
“Vows and promises are not new to you.” Rev. Edmunds said.
Looking at George, he said, “When you became a Police Officer you took a vow to serve and protect the community, her businesses and her people. You promised to always have courage, to treat everyone as an equal and to hold yourself accountable for your actions. And through the years you have kept these promises to the community. Promises made. And promises kept.”
“Susan,” he said as he turned his gaze upon her, “As a registered nurse you took a vow to nurse the sick and to provide for their care. When you got pinned, after graduation, you took a vow. Before your peers and family and teachers you said, ‘I solemnly pledge myself before GOD and in the presence of this assembly to practice my profession faithfully. With loyalty I endeavor to aid the physician in his work, and to devote myself to the welfare of those committed to my care.’”
Rev. Edmunds smiled, “Susan, you have kept these promises and more to our community. I have witnessed first hand your love and devotion as you cared for my father in the Emergency Room. You were gentle and understanding, kind and compassionate. Promises made. And promises kept.” “Now” he said, “you two are making new promises. These vows that you say today are just as powerful and full of meaning.“
Turning to George, Rev. Edmunds said, “Repeat after me.”
George nodded. He smiled. With a deep breath he looked at Susan, still holding hands.
“I do promise and covenant before GOD and these witnesses to be your loving and faithful husband for better for worse, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part.”