Remembering Wheatfield Bridge
by Joni VanNest
Copyright © 2016 Joni VanNest All rights reserved.
ISBN: 1540683826 ISBN-13: 978-1540683823
Have you ever wondered where literary characters go when you are done with them, when they are left to the devices of what remains of their own reality? You probably think it an odd question to ponder as heroes and villains are merely contrivances of someone’s vivid imagination, not born of flesh and bone. How could they go anywhere or do anything? Their existence is solely at the behest of the one experiencing the story, and when the story is over, THE END become final words on the subject.
Rhetoric asks, “If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” Philosophy and science both attempt to answer the question, however unsatisfactorily to the other side. Truth is parochial. We believe what we want to or are able to believe.
And I am no different. I, too, weigh the great themes of life, occasionally to much success. Other times, not so much. Like with the sound of the tree, or lack thereof, it is a quandary that will haunt each new freshman academic until thought is no more. But, of one thing I can vouch for with unwavering certainty: that now and some other time aren’t the only planes of existence.
The alarm sounded, an annoying high-pitched repetitive beep. The first time I heard it, it sent an already weakened heart into an overtime it could scarcely afford. Was something wrong? “Nurse, NURSE.” Back then the words came out much stronger than they do now. I hit the call button too—appropriately, the big red cross in the middle of the speaker clipped to my pillow—like I was going for a world record on the panic button. My heart jumped from my chest to my throat where I felt it pound out my life’s rhythm. Shallow, rapid-fire respirations failed to produce the consolation of a refreshing breath.
A second alarm sounded, followed by a woman in flowered scrubs who appeared in the doorway. Her first glance was at me—conscious—her second glance at the monitors.
“What’s up sweetie? Your bp is through the roof.”
Did I really have to tell her? Couldn’t she hear? Her calm approach and relative comfort with my predicament did little to still my nerves. Between breaths I managed, “Lots – of – beeps. What’s – wrong? Make it – stop.”
“Just the IV monitor telling me your drip is done.” She hit a button to silence the initial squawk. I must have visibly exhaled a sigh of relief. “Is that what has you all stressed out?” The hint of a southern drawl was evident in how she turned stressed into a two-syllable word: stray-essed. She also couldn’t hide a small, yet perceptible smirk at my ignorance. I tried to manage a conciliatory smile as my breathing came into a more regular pace, quieting the second alarm. She placed a diamond laden hand on my arm, probably the promise of an overworked doctor. “Don’t you worry about that alarm sweetie; nothing bad is going to happen to you because of a silly old bell.”
The next time it happened a different nurse took her leisure to check in on me, as it was only one alarm and obviously not an urgent matter. I had no choice but to wait. Of course, I’m sure she had more than her fair share of patients. They do seem vastly outnumbered, a nurse/patient ratio designed to make sure employees do not have a moment to waste corporate healthcare dividends. The diagnosis the second time: “Oops, a little snag in the line. Nothing to worry about.” After that: “Battery’s low. Someone forgot to plug it back in.”
So it was that my life had become a series of bells and beeps.
Betsy (bless her heart) came in to switch out my drip. “How are you doing, Miss Connie?”
It surprised me she would really ask that question. As if the answer would ever be different, more positive or hopeful. Still, I suppose they have to keep tabs on changes, good or bad.
In truth, I was tired, cold, in pain, struggling for air. The prongs of the cannula were annoying me. I tried wriggling my nose to make it better only to feel a trickle of mucus make its way down the chute. My arm, like lead, barely budged when I tried to adjust it. I resigned myself to live with a soggy nose for the time being. “Couldn’t be better.”
There must be some innate trait in good nurses deep in their DNA that allows them instinctively to know their patients’ needs. Betsy’s diamond studded hand reached for a tissue, wiped my runny nose as gently as she would a newborn’s, then reset the oxygen tube back in place. She patted the y-joint for good measure. “There.”
I was not a child being tucked into bed, I was a grown woman; yet that was how her actions made me feel – placated, dealt with. I’m certain she meant only to comfort me. That knowledge did little to appease my spirit. I closed my eyes and tensed, opened them again. “Thank you.” The breathy exasperated word moved off my tongue and dissolved into thin air like cotton candy.
“Anything I can do, even little things like that, you just let me know.” She approached the bed and tilted her head toward me as if in confidence. “I know a lot of women relate to Ellen Steele or Kelly Loggins, maybe some even prefer Jodi. But I have to be honest, I really liked Jack Priestly; he was my favorite. I hope you don’t mind my saying, but I see a lot of him in you.” She thought about that for a moment. “In a good way, that is. A woman needs to be a little sassy from time to time, don’t you think? Where I’m from most folks appreciate the Melanies rather than the Scarletts. So I say, you go girl.”
My lips formed a weary smile. It would have been hypocritical to take offense. There was a lot of me in the character of Jack Priestly. It’s like bits of me flecked off and landed on the page comingling with his personality. I didn’t plan it that way, it just sort of happened. Nevertheless, it worked. Jack came to life sharing a small part of my soul.
Betsy pulled the blanket up to my chin. “You rest now, Connie.”
As if there was another option.
After she left the room I took her advice and sank my head deeper into the pillow. Bill came to mind. I think about him often, of the years together and the years missed. There was so much we looked forward to in growing old. Traveling. Experiencing new things. Enjoying grandchildren as they came along and grew. Even just sitting in rocking chairs on the front porch like a couple of fuddy-duddies. It’s funny, sometimes I have a hard time conjuring up a clear image of him in my mind, but I can still hear the sound of his voice, mellow and reassuring. I loved that voice. When he sat at the piano and sang a ballad just for me, peering into my heart with his song, there was no question we were meant to be together through all time. But alas, dreamy reflections have no bearing on life. And now I’m on the edge of that same deep dark river he crossed without me, long before my personal schedule called for it. If I could, I’d employ the old deus ex machina and add several more chapters giving myself the opportunity to do some of those things, for Bill’s sake. But this book is already bound with no possibility to add any pages.
I watched the sun move quickly across the autumn afternoon painting long bands of faded light that crept up the wall, barely cheering its sedated neutral color. Greenish gray. Maybe a pale shade of blueish green. The debate kept me occupied until my eyelids failed me and I lay in darkness of the temporary kind, not yet ready to give in to a more permanent one.
William walked in right behind the kitchen worker who was carrying a dinner tray. Still in his suit, he hadn’t even taken the time to remove his tie after leaving the office. He looked so much like his father, reaching 6’2”, with a lean build. Blonde and fair, there was no mistaking his Andersen heritage. William. He always did go in for the formal rather than colloquial Bill or Billy, even when he was a boy. We knew we had an accountant on our hands when, as a child, he’d squirrel away most monetary gifts he’d received, saying, “Someday I’ll have enough money to buy whatever I want. Until then it stays in my pig.” The pig account ultimately grew into his first car – an old wood-paneled minivan with more miles than a Greyhound bus that earned him the nickname, Soccer Mom. He wore the title with grace and good humor.
The attendant nodded a greeting and placed the tray on the wheeled bedside table then left without uttering a word.
“Hi. Where are…” I didn’t have to finish my sentence, airy as it was; he knew exactly what I wanted to ask and chimed right in. Thank goodness for small blessings.
“James is running a slight temp, so Molly thought it best for her and the kids to sit this one out.”
My head bobbed, I see.
He leaned in to give me a peck on the forehead then pulled the lid off the dinner tray. “Let’s check out the du jour. Shall we? Mmm. Something brown and squishy over tiny white pellets. A little green pile. Something in the corner that wiggles, presumably Jell-O. And tepid water pretending to be coffee. A meal fit for a queen.”
He certainly inherited my sardonic sense of humor. I suppose there’s still time for him to outgrow it. I made a face to match the food.
“Come on, Ma. Just a little?” He spooned a glob of the brown stuff and held it, pausing in reverence before delivery. “Father, bless this food to Mom’s body to make her strong.
“Now, open wide.”
I assumed he was no longer talking to the Lord at that point; heaven help him if he was. I stuck my tongue out and he couldn’t help but laugh. He was supposed to. I meant for him to do just that, while also letting him know I was not interested in the pabulum. He tried again, despite my best effort to the contrary, so I sneered.
“You’re not making this easy for me.” His frustration at my noncompliance resounded in his voice. We both stopped and met in each other’s eyes. No, I wasn’t making it easy on him. It was no picnic for me either, but he remembered that a little too late and looked away, ashamed at losing his patience. I suppose I should have been more careful not to inflict guilt for which I may not have the opportunity to ask forgiveness. Life gives us a finite set of days, hours, minutes, seconds in which to accomplish all the things we are meant to do and there are no leftover days beyond those necessary to achieve them. Moments left to random chance cannot be retrieved. Hitting restart, not an option. The Creator gives us one chance to get it right.
I have failed at this. There is too much left undone, unsaid. My story remains unfinished. The clock ticks marking my time, and I want more.
The spoon still hung in mid-air, so I opened my mouth and ate what I could.
I awoke with a start.
“Frannie, no.” Molly reached out to thwart the leap that was already in progress, without success. Five-year-old Frannie landed on the foot of the mattress sending tremulous waves across the bed. Her unruly blonde curls bounced right along with her, falling where they would. Chubby little hands pushed the long golden strands out of her eyes. Only then did she offer her beautiful gap-toothed smile to me.
I melt every time she does that.
I worked at drawing in enough air to give my reply strong and clear. The last thing I want is for the kids to be afraid of me. As it was, tiny James stood partially behind his mother clinging to her leg, still unsure if I really was his Gama.
“Hi, Frannie. Hi, James. I missed you guys yesterday.” It came out better than I’d hoped, but James didn’t buy it. He stuck his thumb in his mouth and moved even further behind Molly. Frannie on the other hand crawled up the bed and cuddled next to me. I leaned in and kissed her. The tender skin, still unmarred by sun and age, tasted sweet against my lips, reminding me of younger days when I still believed tomorrow was a promise.
“Hi, Mom. I guess William told you James was running a slight fever yesterday. That’s why we couldn’t be here.”
“He’s all better now,” Frannie piped in with her two cents worth.
Molly bent over and placed a kiss on my forehead just as her husband had done the night before. So many women have nothing but complaints about their daughters-in-law, but I am blessed. Our common love makes us friends not combatants. She picked up James and tried to lean him in to me. He wanted nothing to do with it; instead, he turned away and drew himself into his mother’s embrace. Molly knew it was hopeless to try convincing him otherwise, so she just rolled her eyes in acceptance and hoisted him up into a more comfortable position on her hip. “You look good today.”
It was an observation, I noted, not a question. She tactfully avoided the how are you feeling today? inquisition in favor of small talk with a positive twist. Molly knew what she was doing. I bobbed my head in confirmation. And it was true. My spirit buoyed when I was with the kids, even if my body didn’t. I guess today it was obvious.
“Tell me a story, Grandma.”
Frannie cuddled in a little closer waiting for story time to begin. It was not an unusual request. Many were the times I would sit her on my knee or tuck her into bed with a story. Even James had been starting to show interest in hearing the stories, although his attention span waned quickly. When that happened, he would slide off my knee and toddle nearby with a raised hand to support the inevitable bottle in his mouth. But Frannie listened intently, soaking in every word. Speedy and Slowpoke, the mischievous chipmunks, were by far her favorite. Somehow those critters always seemed to be having grand adventures right in her own backyard.
Molly pulled Frannie’s hair out of her face letting it drop over her shoulder. “Oh, honey, I don’t think Grandma is up to telling you a story today.”
“Is that because you’re sick?” A pudgy hand stroked my face, no doubt a learned response. Molly was the mother to Frannie and James I always pretended to be to William, although I’m sure he knew the truth. Molly offered a charitable suggestion before I had the chance to reply.
“Frannie, since Grandma can’t tell you a story, why don’t you tell her one?”
She bolted upright, her face radiant. “Really? This time I get to tell the story?”
Her mother smiled. “Don’t you think that would be fun?”
There was no doubt she thought it was the next best thing to getting extra dessert after Sunday dinner, which rarely, if ever, happened. A change overcame her expression, as if she was trying to wipe away all traces of the little girl she was. She sat straighter, held her head up high, even pursed her lips. No doubt she felt she was being granted honorary membership into the grownup world. She was just about to begin when her eyes suddenly grew wide. “I almost forgot,” she half whispered. Then she got up and tucked the blankets snug all around me like I always did for her on those nights I’d put her to bed. Molly put a hand to her mouth either to cover her smile or in admiration of her daughter’s loving actions.
Frannie sat back down again on the bed and placed her index finger aside of her chin, pushing it in so that two mounds of soft cheek puffed up on either side of it. “Now where was I?” Molly nearly lost it. I could see her body tremble trying to hold in the laughter. “Well…” There was a long pause. “A long time ago there lived a person named Derla Duck. Of course, she wasn’t really a person if she was a duck, but we’ll just pretend for the story. Anyway, one day while…”
She regaled me with the tale of Derla Duck—the animation in her voice so much like my own it was almost eerie. I was impressed that she was able to do this on a moment’s notice. I wondered if it was a story she had already concocted in her mind long ago or if it was fresh and off the cuff. Either way, I was proud, glad the torch was being passed, not extinguished.
The fairytale took me away, out of the hospital and into her world of make-believe where there was no sickness and the worst that happened was someone losing a webbed flipper then finding it again at the bottom of her messy closet.
I guess that is why I like stories and books so much. They let us step outside ourselves for a short time, to forget our own longing and live vicariously through others’ hopes and dreams. A different Opium for the Masses, so to speak. I doubt if the Wheatfield Bridge series in all its incarnations of books and short stories even vaguely amounted to anyone’s drug of choice, but it did allow me to walk where this world could never take me. I guess it did for others as well.
Soon Frannie’s voice faded like an echo traveling in the distance, and I found myself forming words in my head, words belonging to a world that has no form, where life is as I want it to be. To Wheatfield Bridge. It was as familiar to me as my own small three-dimensional universe, filled with people living mundane lives who touch us in ways we long to be touched. It is a cozy hamlet that exists somewhere between western Connecticut and my imagination, filled with woods and wild animals, a temperamental river, winding roads where you ‘can’t get there from here’ but nonetheless get where you want to be; hardy New Englanders who take life as it comes and are stronger for it; more good people than bad, though none non-redeemable; homes that have withstood more than a century of storm and sun; a place you would want to call home. It is a place where good overcomes evil. At least it always had.
And that was the problem. Jack Priestly’s fictional cancer came into being before my illness struck and now suddenly I was faced with two diagnoses needing outcomes. In other circumstances, it would not have fazed me one bit to write him off. Characters are dispensable; I cause them into being and can cause their demise. But Jack and I are too closely related. How could I do to him what I did not want to happen to me? I wanted Jack to survive. The words had churned in my head seeking release to a page, the story tumbling and circling in all directions never finding conclusion. It felt as if any movement in Jack’s life would have a profound effect on mine, the two being inexorably joined. If he died, my own story, I feared, would end. Yet making him well would not bring me hope, only sorrow, as our lives broke apart. I realized this made no sense. Fiction has no bearing on reality and certainly a woman of faith should not be thinking this way. God is in charge, not fate. A pleasant sentiment to be sure, yet one which is sometimes hard to hold onto.
Faith. My pastor always said that we should never use feelings to verify our faith. Feelings are fleeting, faith is constant, based in knowledge and wisdom. So if I couldn’t break from the idea that Jack and I are somehow entwined, then where is my faith, my assurance of God? Was my reality in Him? I never wanted to stop long enough to dwell on the questions. I didn’t think I’d like the results. Sometimes I just wished He would prop up a big billboard in front of me with a giant arrow. Here you go, Connie. Here I am, this way. Well, it never happened, so I could not let the feeling of my entanglement with Jack go. It ruled every plot decision. The story went nowhere.
I thought back to the first time I met Jack Priestly. Ellen Steele briefly introduced us in The Road to Emmaus. I never really thought about her even having a father before then. It all started with that radio preacher…
Remembering Wheatfield Bridge is available on Amazon.
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