The child’s cry echoed in Gabby’s mind. She had heard it so many times before. She hopped out of the police cruiser and closed her eyes, using her ears to lead her to its source.
“Gabs, we’re supposed to stay in the car,” Emma said through the window.
Guided by the child’s screams, Gabby jogged toward the back of an ambulance. Jasper, a paramedic, struggled to calm a small five-year-old girl fighting his tight grip, using all her strength to squirm away.
“Girl, you have to sit still!” Jasper said. “Please! Stop moving!”
“Her name is Stacy! She’s deaf,” Gabby yelled. “And she doesn’t read lips.”
Gabby grabbed Stacy’s tear-streaked cheeks and looked into her frightened eyes. Stacy looked up with recognition, stretching her arms out to Gabby, who spoke as she signed.
“Are you okay?” Gabby asked.
Stacy yelled, her arms stiff, her fingers opening and closing, trying to draw Gabby near.
“Are you hurt?” Gabby signed.
“No,” Stacy signed back. Her hands then burst into a flurry of movement.
“What is she saying?” Jasper asked.
“She wants to know if her mom is okay.”
Jasper’s pause told Gabby everything. He shook his head. “No, she didn’t make it.”
Gabby lifted Stacy into her arms and embraced her, feeling the child’s chest heave with nervous, shallow breaths.
Gabby knew she should say something, comfort her in some way, but words weren’t enough. She didn’t know how to explain to the child that her mother had just died. No more than when Gabby’s second grade teacher had met her on the playground with a worried look and told her the same thing.
There was no good way to tell someone terrible, life-changing news or avoid the damage it would cause. There was nothing good about death.
“No,” Gabby signed. “I’m sorry, sweetie, but your mom is not okay. She… she passed away.”
She burst into tears, unable to hear her screams rising above the turmoil. Stacy signed the same words over and over again, tears of anguish streaming down her face.
“What is she doing? Is she okay?” Jasper asked.
“She keeps saying it was all her fault,” Gabby said. “It’s all my fault. It’s all my fault. Over and over and over again.”
She pulled Stacy to her chest and whispered “Sshhh,” into ears that couldn’t hear.
“Are you family?” he asked.
“No. I used to babysit her.” Gabby looked over Stacy’s shoulder and asked the paramedic. “What happened?”
“From what they could tell,” he started, “it looked like the girl’s mom…”
“Regina,” Gabby said.
“Regina was getting two cones over at the Depot and…”
“Stacy wandered over near the railroad tracks. She didn’t hear the train coming, so Regina ran over and pushed her out of the way, but she got caught under the wheels.”
Gabby looked toward the Depot and spotted ice cream splattered on the road, the white and brown cream melting into the gutter.
“The mom, Regina, saved her daughter’s life,” Jasper said. “She’s a hero.”
Gabby stepped back and glared at him with enraged eyes. “I think Stacy would prefer a cowardly mother rather than a heroic corpse.”
Jasper’s brow furrowed with confusion. “But… but, she saved Stacy’s life. The girl would have died.”
“Maybe she would have preferred to have been the one to die instead.” Stacy buried her head into Gabby’s shoulder, and she returned the affection by caressing her hair.
“Gabby!” Durant yelled as he approached, his thick form towering over her. “I told you to wait in the car.”
“Stacy was crying,” she said. “She needed me.”
“I understand that, but you should have done what I told ya to do.”
“I do, Mr. Durant. Usually.”
“Well, try harder. How’s Stacy doin’?”
“Her mom just died. How do you think?”
“I mean, is she hurt, physically?”
“Just some scrapes and bruises,” Jasper said. “Nothing serious.”
“Nothing serious?” Gabby whisked around and punched Jasper in the chest. “What the hell is wrong with you? Nothing serious!”
Durant put his arm around Gabby and pulled her aside. “I know you’re upset, Gabby. We all are. Regina was a brave woman, handling Stacy all on her own after her husband walked out on ‘em and all. But, punchin’ poor ol’ Jasper for doing his job ain’t exactly the right way to express it.”
“The guy’s heartless!” Gabby said loud enough for Jasper to hear.
“He is not. He’s a professional.”
“Yeah, a professional idiot.”
“Now, I know this is churnin’ up bad memories for ya. Nobody would blame you for revisiting it all. But, we need to be focusing on Stacy and Regina right now.”
“What do you think I’m doing?” she asked.
“I think you’re doin’ a little bit of both. Now, Regina’s sister is on her way to pick up Stacy. Why don’t ya pass her along to me and we’ll get you on your way?”
Gabby pressed her face into Stacy’s hair, smelling the familiar scent of the coconut shampoo Stacy liked. “I can wait until Rhonda arrives. Father Peters will understand.”
Durant gently pried Stacy from Gabby’s hands. “Let’s get you to your appointment.”
Stacy rested her head on Durant’s muscular shoulder and Gabby kissed her on the forehead, signing as she spoke. “I’ll see you soon, okay? You be a good girl. And it’s okay to cry, no matter what anyone says. Don’t forget that.”
Stacy nodded, tears welling up once again. Gabby gave her hand one last squeeze and walked back toward the police cruiser in a daze. She knew what was heading Stacy’s way, and every step was going to be difficult. Overwhelming. Depressing. The loss would feel like it was going to linger forever. And it would. Things wouldn’t make sense. Colors would look like they were washed with gray, and days would blur into months and years. There was no way to avoid it or make it go away. This was going to be her life from now on.
As Gabby slid into the hard, plastic backseat, she felt a guilty moment of relief. At least she wasn’t responsible for her mother’s death, even inadvertently, like Stacy. That weight on Stacy’s soul was something Gabby couldn’t fathom. It was a burden that may well crush her, breaking her into a million pieces that no priest, relative, or psychologist would ever be able to reassemble.
One of Durant’s officers drove Gabby to the church. On the way, Emma inundated her with questions that Gabby couldn’t answer. She didn’t know what to say or how to say it in a way that Emma would understand. Emma had never experienced loss like that. Her prime mission was to pry joy out of every mundane moment. Her life was full of fun and frivolity. It was one of the reasons Gabby loved spending time with her. Emma brought a light into the world Gabby wouldn’t normally see. But she couldn’t explain to her the purpose of the tragedy. Her dad would have to do that. She was certain he had done it hundreds of times before.
Gabby left her bike unlocked outside of the church rectory. Actually, she left it unlocked everywhere, hoping someone would steal it. Unfortunately, thieves had the same aversion to it as she did.
She entered silently into Father Peters’ small and cramped rectory office. There was only one place in the room where a chair would fit for his infrequent visitors, in the back corner next to a fake potted plant in serious need of dusting.
Father Peters stood behind his big desk with his back to the door. Piles of things he needed to do, things he wanted to do, and things he’d been avoiding sprawled across it. It appeared his prayers for tidiness had not been answered.
Behind the desk, and wrapping around two of the walls, were floor-to-ceiling shelves. He filled them with books on faith, marriage, addiction, abuse, and forgiveness. It seemed like a lot of books for one man, but Gabby knew he relied on them to help him do his job.
Father Peters hunched over and scoured through an opened shipping box. Gabby slid across the room, plopping into the chair with a loud thump.
“You’re late,” he said without turning around.
“Sorry. Regina Simpson died.”
He tilted his head to peer over his shoulder. “What happened?”
“Got hit by a train. But she saved Stacy, so I guess that’s something.”
“Dear Lord, that’s horrible. Regina was such a nice woman. I’ll have to call on the family later. They’re not Catholic, but grief doesn’t have a denomination. Was Stacy okay?”
“No physical injuries.”
He stopped and eased his rotund form into his desk chair. “No physical injuries,” he said. “But she has others?”
“She will. You know that.”
“Yes, her life will be different now, but she’ll overcome it. You have.”
She chuckled. “Have you been listening to me for the last seven years? I haven’t overcome anything.”
His chubby cheeks rose as he smiled. “Don’t exaggerate. When your father suggested I help you, do you remember what we did that first meeting?”
“Nothing. You sat with a scowl, much like the one you have on your face right now, with your arms crossed, slumped in the chair. You stared at me for sixty straight minutes.”
“I don’t remember much from back then,” she said.
“It took three months for you to tell me anything substantial. You were quite adept at internalizing your pain. You still are. You were beyond wounded. You were broken. But, look at the young woman you have become. Faithful. Determined. Gifted. You help people. Granted, I still don’t approve of all of your methods, but that’s for another day.” He motioned to a ceramic vase filled with silk flowers on the table next to her. “Do you remember knocking that over?”
“No,” she said.
“Thrown would be a better word. Anyway, once something breaks, it will never be the same again. It can heal and function like it did, but the scars will always remain. You and I have spent our time together gluing you back together one piece at a time. You may never be able to go back to before your mother died, but you are still a tremendous young woman.”
“Wow. Compliments. I must really look like shit.”
“Crap. We don’t say shit here.”
“But you just did, Father.”
“Don’t be a smart-aleck.”
Gabby tried to enjoy her attempted humor, but the weight of the morning would not abate. She shifted in her seat.
“Something is on your mind?” he asked.
“Yes, Father. I don’t get it,” she said.
“Today, Regina died saving Stacy…”
“As tragic as that may be, considering the alternative, that’s a good thing, isn’t it?” he asked.
“Is it? With all the stuff with my mom, what happened to her and all, I was wondering if maybe it was Stacy’s time. Maybe Regina got in the way of how things were supposed to play out.”
“Parents aren’t wired that way, Gabby. Regina couldn’t sit by and watch her child get hurt.”
“But aren’t they messing with things? Destiny or fate or something?”
“Gabby, you are the last person to let fate play out.”
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“Your friends, your classmates, they come to you with a problem and you help them. You step in. You fix it when you can. Often times, you make a mess doing it, but, you, of all people, never leave it to fate.”
“That’s not the same thing, Father. Finding a missing cell phone or helping a kid stop getting picked on isn’t changing lives.”
“It is for the person you’re helping,” he said.
Gabby stood and paced the room. “I’m not talking about petty things, Father, the stupid stuff that I do. I’m talking about… My mom died. It was her time. That’s it. In God’s master plan, her life ended on that day, at that moment. All of our clocks run out, right? Only God knows when. Then why fight it?”
“So, what you’re saying is Regina should have done nothing?”
“I’m saying, her sacrifice didn’t mean anything. She just shifted some of her minutes to Stacy’s clock, but nothing changed. We all die.”
“Yes, we do.”
“And it’s supposed to be better afterwards, right? Heaven and all?”
“That’s the general idea, assuming you’ve lived a holy life,” he said.
“Then, why fight it? Why stick around here with sadness, accidents, husbands who walk out, and daughters who are born deaf?”
“You expect life should be without suffering?” he asked.
“No. Life is suffering. I just don’t see the point in hanging out to indulge in it when your clock is supposed to run out.”
“Gabby, I know the events of this morning have brought you back to a dark place, but you have to fight the urge to stay there. Yes, life has suffering, but it is not just a burden. It’s more than that. God has a plan for you. A path. And yes, that path may be difficult and we may not know when our journey ends, but that’s not important. What’s important is what we do while we’re here.”
“Like saving a daughter,” she said.
“Yes, like saving a daughter.”
Gabby sat back into the chair. “No offense, padre, but I think I’ve had as much of God’s planning as I can take.”
Father Peters spun around and slid the cardboard box onto his desk. “You see this? My mother cleared out her closet. She’s in her eighties now and growing more fragile every year. To prevent any family squabbling, she decided to go through the house and send us the things she thinks we’d want ahead of time.” He frowned. “Her goal is to die in an empty house.”
“I’m sorry, Father.”
He pulled out an old Little League baseball trophy wrapped in thick bubble wrap. “When I was a kid, I played baseball. Loved the game. Had major league dreams… everyone does at that age. I was the starting pitcher my last year. I loved trying to outwit the batter. Set him up with an inside fastball, strike him out with an outside change-up. I was in my element.”
“Is that a championship trophy?”
“Dear, no! We lost every game that year.” He leaned back in his chair, his eyes scanning through memories as if he was watching a movie. “I was so frustrated, Gabby. Borderline depressed, because no matter how hard I worked, the outcome remained the same. We lost. Every time I tried, we failed. I remember asking my mother why God wouldn’t let me win. Do you know what she said?”
“You’re not a good pitcher?” she teased.
“No, she told me God must be preparing me for something. Something that would make sense later on in life.”
Curious, Gabby leaned forward. “And what was that?”
“To never give up. To focus only on what you can control and let God handle the rest.” He moved the trophy atop a filing cabinet next to an Integrity Award given to him by the bishop. “If God didn’t teach me that lesson, to keep pitching no matter what happened, I’m certain I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
She sat back in the chair, frustrated. “God doesn’t seem to be as clear with me as he was with you. I mean, what is Regina’s death supposed to teach me?”
“You have to have faith.”
“Is that your answer for everything?”
He nodded. “It is the answer for everything.”
Gabby stared at the floor and sighed. She was private about her faith and relied on it more than anyone realized. Especially on days like today. She wasn’t preachy about her beliefs. She wasn’t flashy. She wasn’t even sure she was any good at it. In fact, the older she got, the more questions she had about it. Her church’s teachings were strict, unyielding, and out of step with the rest of the world. So many questions, one piling on the other, with no satisfactory answers waiting for her.
Faith. That was tough, at times. Trust. That was harder.
Gabby turned and stared out of the window overlooking the rattling air conditioner. Only a few hours ago, she was enjoying a piece of pizza and hoping to figure out how to use her God-given gifts in a way that didn’t offend him. And, if she was lucky, maybe keep herself out of prison in the process. After Regina’s death, all those concerns went away. The world lost its light again.
If Stacy was to live a longer life, why did Regina have to pay the price? Why couldn’t God have stepped in and nudged Stacy out of the way? Or kept them from getting ice cream in the first place?
Why did Gabby’s mom have to leave the house and never come back? Why didn’t God put obstacles in her way, forcing her to stay home? Why did God sit and watch our lives collide with brutality and do nothing about it?
She had asked these questions of Father Peters many times. Sometimes eloquently. Sometimes with a lot of words not allowed in his office. He would explain the consequence of sin, of free will, and of a number of other precepts. As much as Gabby’s mind could wrap itself around those concepts, she couldn’t figure out a way to turn that knowledge into faith.
The silence after all her questions to God was an expression of her doubts. She was finding the world moving from simplicity to harsh complexity. She was no longer sure if she was heading in the right direction.
“How do I know if I’m on the right path, Father?” she asked.
He looked over to the cardboard box and smiled. “I think I have a way to explain it that will be easy to understand.”
“That’ll be a first,” she teased.
“Smart aleck.” He unrolled the rectangular piece of bubble wrap and held it up in front of her. “Let’s say this bubble wrap is your life.”
“Not as impressive as I had hoped.”
“And let’s say each one of these bubbles represents a major decision in your life. Since you have free will, you can choose to follow God’s path or your own.”
“Free will again, huh?” she asked.
“Yes, free will. Now, listen.” He held his thumb over one unpopped bubble. “Let’s say this bubble is the decision on whether you will smoke marijuana or not.”
“Okay.” He popped the bubble. “That decision has been made. And every decision that would result if you had said ‘yes’ also disappears.” He popped four other bubbles. He then hovered his thumb over another bubble. “And on to your next decision. And so on.”
“So, God knows every decision I could make?”
“Yes. And the effect of every decision you could ever make. That’s his omnipotence.”
“That doesn’t sound like free will to me. Sounds like we’re pieces on a game board and he’s just hanging out, watching how it all turns out.”
“He’s not just watching. He has a path all mapped out for you. It’s a hard and narrow road. Whether you take it or not is entirely up to you. That’s your free will.”
“So, how do I know which bubble God wants me to press?”
“Through prayer and through listening, you’ll know.”
“I pray a lot, Father, but I don’t hear too much.”
“Keep trying. And stop talking. He’s very polite. He doesn’t interrupt.”
“Okay. So, what you’re saying is God has a bubble wrap of my life, he has some bubbles he wants me to press, and it’s up to me to press them or not.”
“Yes. And the cool thing is, no matter which bubble you’re on, God always has a path back to him. That’s his eternal mercy.”
“I can see the giddiness in your eyes. You’re going to use this in your next homily, aren’t you?”
“I’m considering it.”
“Okay, padre, let’s say you’re right.” She took the wrap and rubbed her fingers over the pillow-like bubbles. “Then which of these is when my time runs out?”
Tomorrow – Chapter Four