“Do you know the saying, ‘a mother becomes a mum the day she finds out she’s pregnant; a father the day he holds his child’, doctor?”
“I’ve heard it, yes,” the doctor said as she busied her eyes with the numbers and figures on the chart before her. That was Lucile’s life, the only parts, at least, that meant anything to the doctor, scribbled on a chart.
“Does that piece of paper tell you the choice I had to make when I found out I was pregnant?”
“No,” the doctor replied as she turned towards a nurse and muttered a few, low words of instruction.
“It was me or the baby. I had cancer. Breast cancer,” she added as if that would make her doctor look at her and actually see her, a living, breathing woman and not just a patient on a clipboard. “They said that I could ‘evacuate the fetus’ – as if it was that easy – and take chemo. Or I could have my baby but I’d die before she went to school. That was my choice, doctor, did you know that?”
Something in the woman’s voice, desperation maybe, made Doctor Leren look at Lucille McConlai. Her old instinct wasn’t so easily bested by a cheap trick, however.
“I do now, Mrs McConlai,” she smiled a porcelain smile.
“Miss. He left me,” the words were brutal. Gun shots cracking down the bustling hallways of the hospital. “Not when I had cancer, oh lord know,” she laughed for the first time in a lifetime. “No, my husband was an honourable man. He just couldn’t take the strain, I guess, in the end. Left for Ireland. Still lives there, I think.”
“You really don’t listen do you? Not at all. Not to a word I say. He’s an honourable man is Jack. Too honourable to leave me for some silly girl in a low cut top. No. He just grew tired and in the end it was better for us both. He used to still see Lara, of course, he just can’t look at me.”
“I’ll have you sent down for an MRI in the morning, Mrs…Miss McConlai,” Doctor Leren smiled like a school boy that thought he’d just been caught cheating on his math test.
“He couldn’t forgive me. Not for what I did. You see, he couldn’t understand, could he?” Lucille reached out and grabbed the doctor’s wrist as if it were her last thread to the real world and not the horrorscape inside her head. “I chose her, Lara, over him. Over us. Me. I chose her.”
“You’re hurting me, Miss McConlai.”
“Am I? Perhaps I am. But I hurt us more that night than I could ever hurt you now. I broke our union. He couldn’t understand. To him she was just a pile of cells, no soul added, not yet anyway. He couldn’t see why I’d choose that over him. Over myself. He just couldn’t see that, to me, she was already a person. But, ha,” Lucille laughed again, “what did I know, right? Nothing,” she was as morose as she had been manic, instantly switching between one and the other. “Are you religious, Doctor Leren?”
“No,” she careful extricated herself from her patient’s grasp. She rubbed the skin on her wrist, the patient’s sweat still clinging to her like it could infect her. Infect her with the disease of empathy.
“Neither was I. But I felt then, as I was choosing between my life and hers, that God had forsaken me. That he wanted me to choose for…well, I still don’t know the answer to that question.”
“If you excuse me, I have other patients to attend.”
“I spoke to the Devil,” Lucille admitted. Her eyes were round and innocent, shocked as if it was the first time they’d ever heard that sentence before. It probably was. It wasn’t a sentence often said aloud. Her lips covered into a shocked little ‘o’ and tears fell down her cheeks. “That night. When the doctor, like you are now, asked me to make a choice. I spoke to the devil and begged him to let my little girl live. He answered. He’s always listening. Always available. Unlike God. He granted my wish. She was born and she was happy and fat and healthy. And then, like some kind miracle, I survived too. My cancer shrunk away against the chemo and I’ve been in remission for seven years. Seven whole years. They told me I wouldn’t see my daughter go to school. And I did. It was the best day. The best day of my life. I watched her climb those steps, her yellow backpack bouncing like a buttercup amongst the throng of greys and blues. She went to school and came back and told me her teacher’s name was Miss Rose. Isn’t that a fabulous name for a primary teacher? Miss Rose? Like something from a story book.”
Doctor Leren didn’t know why this woman was telling her all this. Her pager was buzzing wildly at her side, its shrill calls for attention muted to violent vibrations on her hip bone. She knew she had to leave, she wanted too as well. But instead she was stuck here, bound to the floor as a desperate woman told her story.
“I cried all day. All day until I had her back. Then I cried when she’d gone to bed. I’d done it. I was out the danger zone. I’d beaten the odds. But that’s just it, isn’t it? The house always wins. I spoke to the devil that night, and the devil doesn’t deal in miracles. He deals in tricks. And pain. And abject, all engulfing, heart destroying misery,” Lucille wept openly as her hands began to shake, vibrating almost as fast as Leren’s pager. “She died two days later. Hit by a car. A car, indeed. A car. That was all it took. Some silly girl, too silly to really blame, playing with Snapchat or whatever on her phone. And Lara was gone. And do you know how I know it was the devil that night, Dr Leren? Because when that car swerved just a fraction to the right and hooked itself around my daughter’s backpack, it wasn’t just evacuating a fetus, killing a ball of cells. It was taking away my Lara. A girl who loved buttercups. She loved them so god-damned much that she couldn’t pass one without picking it from the dirt and resting it beneath my chin as she laughed wildly and said, ‘Mummy, you like butter!’. A girl whose favourite book was Green Eggs and Ham. A girl who made me read the speaking parts in a funny voice – even one week when I had the flu – or she’d pout her adorable little pout and not talk to me as I finished the story. That car took, not the potential of a human, but a little girl, my little girl, that wanted to be an archaeologist, like Indie, and discover a tomb beneath the sand.
“I buried her with her backpack. The yellow one I told you about. A new one, of course, there was too much…” she steeled herself, her eyes closed and desperate, to say the word, “…blood on her old one. And I gave her her favourite book. I recorded my voice saying the silly words and put it on a little microphone, you know those old ones that they use in the movies? Private investigators and the like? I had to record it eight times because I kept crying. And that’s how I knew it was the devil. He didn’t save my girl, he gave me her just long enough for me to know that I was losing the most talented, clever and beautiful little girl in the world. All so I could live. Can live.”
Leren said nothing. She was too shocked. She raised her hand to her face and recoiled at the glittering shine on her fingertips. She hadn’t cried since Christmas, and even that was because of the litre bottle of vodka she’d drunk by herself. It had been Dr Macie’s turn to work Christmas last year.
“I became a mother when I found out I was pregnant, he became a father when he held her and all was forgiven between us. He felt then what I’d felt for months before. She was glorious, she was precious and she was ours. Ours to protect from all the world would throw at her. We were supposed to protect her. But what am I now?” she turned those primal eyes on Leren again, the sheer agony and desperation within them was too much for her to bare. “Now that she’s gone? What am I now?”
Doctor Leren had no answer for her patient. So she did all she knew how to do and walked away, leaving Miss McConlai to await her MRI in the morning.
“It wasn’t the saying goodbye part, you know,” Lucille called after her doctor. Nurses, interns and patients alike flocked away from the charging woman, whose face was so blinded by tears that one orderly thought that she must be very sick indeed to let her mask slip like that. “I’d said goodbye a hundred times. It was…it was knowing,” she felt as she had when she’d recorded one last story for her little girl, the Lord’s new angel, “…it was knowing I’d never get to say hello to her again after her day in school.”