by B. Ruth Rinehart

How did she die? Although pneumonia had put Claire into the hospital that weekend, pneumonia hadn't killed her.

Bonnie had been curled up on her couch reading two years prior, her long legs tucked beneath her and starting to go to sleep, when the first phone call came.

"Bonnie, Claire was hospitalized yesterday. It's pneumonia. She's feeling very bad, very depressed, and I thought you might send her a card. I think that would cheer her up."

Bonnie did send Claire a card. She wouldn't have thought of it without their mother's suggestion. Correspondence between the sisters was sporadic, and as she looked for the right card to send, she felt slightly guilty. She found the perfect one fairly quickly, though. It was black and white, and pictured on the front was a roughly-hewn clay figure leaning on crutches, saying "I heard you weren't feeling well." Inside: "At least you can feel." Bonnie sent the care up north with a brief note, forgot about it, and went to work. Later she would wonder how she could have forgotten the situation as easily as she closed the metal of the mailbox.

Up North. Bonnie equated north with older because her mother and older sister and brother lived up there. North, where the seasons changed and the whales glided near the harbor. Where hand-knit values were as comfortable as an old woolen scarf, and tradition reigned. Tradition meant stability and security. The Catholics and immigrants and rocky New England soil were unchanging. Stable. Secure. Bonnie didn't worry. She mailed the card.

Up north, Claire was scared. Her fragile, not-yet-thirty frame was barely breathing, broken and belabored. Two redheads, mother and daughter, sat on the hospital bed. Claire couldn't lie down, couldn't breathe. She had to sit up, swallowed by the shiney and glistening metal-framed bed, her modern sepulcher. She panted and didn't let go of her mother's thin hand.

"I'm afraid I'm going to die."

"She couldn't speak more than a few words at a time.

Another phone call south woke Bonnie up. The clock was at eye level when she opened her eyes. 4:53 a.m.

"Bonnie, Claire's gotten worse, much worse."

Mrs. Rogare's voice sounded tiny, out of balance. Bonnie writtled up from under the sheet to rest on her elbow and shake the dark sleep from her dark-haired head. Jonathan's fine blond hair shone even in the faint moonlight.

"What do you mean, what's happened?"

"The pneumonia - it's exploded into both her lungs. She stopped breathing."

"The long distance static crackled. "I don't think she's going to make it this time."

The first death in the family had come many years before when Mr. Rogare had been killed in a boating accident. Bonnie had been 11 years old, Claire 15, Ricky 13. They huddled for years. Mrs. Rogare, always a fiery and quick-tempered woman, lost her vivaciousness, and turned to Claire, the first-born, for comfort. Then, when Claire's illness set in so soon after the funeral and her young life chnaged so drastically, she clung to her mother with a desperation that had lessened only in recent years to become more of a friendhsip. Bonnie turned to no one, didn't know where to find the sense of belonging that had been torn so quickly from her.

There was Ricky, of course, but, well, Ricky was a sweet and gentle hulk of a boy, mentally retarded, and always off to the side in all of the family pictures, always looking happy. The photographs belied the fact that, of the four, Ricky grieved so visibly in those years that Bonnie envied him his easy release. Standing with his hands jammed into his ill-fitting pant pockets and his childish face perched atop his six-foot build, Ricky would, in the middle of the day or the middle of a conversation, tuck his chin into his chest while his shoulders shook with his silent tears. Bonnie never knew what to say to him; she would sometimes hug him while he cried, her arms stretching up high to reach his neck.

And as Ricky was continually situated on the outer edges of the family portraits, so Bonnie felt outside the essense of the family huddle, always isolated. The drifting apart was slow, but it began with the first death, and had come to the point now, 15 years later, that bonnie didn't even think to send Claire a card.

How did she die?

Back to that question. Bonnie was holding the hot, damp hair off her neck, taking advantage of a slight breeze blowing through the house, trying to answer the question. How did she die?

Of diabetes.

Nope, not that either. She didn't really die of diabetes. She had the disease when she died, but that wasn't what killed her.

When Claire contracted juvenile diabetes, her disease had seemed to take over the household. Bonnie and Ricky faded into the hallways in their small house. Their older sister came back from the hospital with a changed life, changed lifestyle. Adults talked about it in hushed voices. Mrs. Rogare had new purpose. Claire became much more private then, embarrassed by her diet and the syringes necessary for her daily doses of insulin. Her bedroom door was usually closed rather than open, and oftentimes Bonnie's knock would go unanswered. Claire's diabetes seemed to explain somewhat the yuong girl who never left home for long, who ventured out a few times, but scurried quickly back to the comfort of her mother's home. They had become content enough with each other, dependent and trusting.

How did she die?

Claire had stopped breathing, and for two months received her oxygen from a respirator. Bonnie flew up to Boston the day her mother had called so early in the morning. She hurried all morning, arranging to be gone for she-didn't-know-how-long. She hurried through the airport, hurried through Logan Airport and into her mother's car, quickened by the blasts of wind shrieking through the vast, open-sided cement parking garage. They hurried to the hospital, hurried out of the car into the busy corridors that smelled like so much stale medicine. They hurried out of the elevator and around a corner, nearing the double swinging doors that led to the Intensive Care Unit. Just before they reached the double swinging doors that led to the Intensive Care Unit. Just before they reached the double swinging doors, Mrs. Rogare stopped Bonnie, one arm clutching her daughter's coat sleeve, her other hand clutching her own throat.

"I haven't said anything about how she looks."

Bonnie's seashell-grey eyes stared at her mother's sharp, bird-like face, didn't ask.

"She looks bad." Her mother could say only one sentence at a time, as if the weight of them together was too much to bear. "I just want you to be prepared." Her voice had a hollow sound to it, as though all her previous words had been directed somewhat to Claire, and now that Claire seemed gone, there was something actually missing in her voice.

How did she die? One might say that she died very slowly. She probably died the instant she stopped breathing, but Bonnie didn't know that yet. Bonnie thought her sister was still alive, in a way that didn't make sense.

They talked to Claire's swollen respirator-pumped body, stroked her cheeks, stroked the scar along her chin. They talked to her as if she could hear, and sounded falsely enthusiastic, with their discouragement thinly curtained.

"Claire, don't you remember that you and I promised each other a trip around the world when we were fifty? Let's move the date up and make that trip just as soon as you're feeling better."

Or, "Bob and Jan send their love. They called last night. Jan had a dream that you finished college. They're looking forward to seeing you when you get home."

Sometimes, it seened as though she did hear. Bonnie asked her, "Claire, can you hear me?" Her foot moved a little. At times she would chomp on the respirator tube, seeming impatient with the foreign object protruding from her throat. For a few days, her eyes opened a little, cloudy and vague. But Claire wasn't behind those eyes. She wasn't in that hospital room, and she couldn't hear the woman in the bed next to her, calling out constantly, moaning about the pain. Claire never came to know the British nurse who was so efficient and so pained by the Rogares' misery.

The Intensive Care Room was crowded and busy. Ten beds were occupied and the nurses, doctors and families kept the roomas cramped as a full elevator. No windows to the outside. All the grey, shining metal was reflected by the white walls. Bonnie could pull a curtain around Claire's bed, for only a tiny amount of privacy.

"Claire, where are you? ... You've got to knkow it's hard to talk to you for ten minutes, but that's what the nurses say to do. They say you might be there, but not able to talk or move at all, and that we have to act as if that's the truth and talk to you as if you were conscious. Claire, if you can hear me, surely you know that's terribly hard to do.

"Where are you? I just can't imagine. I'll be so glad if I can ever hear about it from you. ... Larry sent flowers today but they won't let us bring them into Intensive Care. Oh, Claire, Larry has loved you for years and you've never loved him and you've loved Chris all this time but Chris never loved you. God, what a life. And I've been married three years now and you've never even met Jonathan. Claire, you have to come back. Can you hear me? Can I pull you back? ... The reason Ricky hasn't been here today is that he just can't take it. He's not strong enough to come here and see you this way. He sobbed non-stop last night. I'm telling you that to show you how much he loves you and to tell you to do whatever you have to do to come back to us.

"He's praying for you a lot. You know how Ricky is. He goes in his room and prays, he prays for you before the meals, he prays in the middle of a television show. Ricky and Mom need you, Claire. Maybe I don't need you, but I love you and I don't know you well enough yet. You've got to give us more time."

Bonnie stroked her sister's swollen face, aching to see instead the chiseled, almost equine, fatures that Claire used to bear. She massaged her arms, wanting to hold forever to the warmth of the coursing blood, still flowing only because of the life given it by the respirator, pumping endlessly and sounding like a fireplace bellows - trying to breath the first of life into its patient. In. Out. In. Out. Force the air into the chest, let it out. Force it in, let it out.

The day after Bonnie arrived, at the two o'clock visit, one of the nurses brought the mail, and suggested that Bonnie read the cards to Claire. Two cards. Bonnie recognized one of them. She knew what was inside. "At least you can feel." Panic flooded her. "At least you can feel." Guilt and horror disabled Bonnie for the moment, and she stumbled off to the waiting room down the hall. She didn't think about disturbing the others with her racking sobs, the patient others waiting to see their relatives in the room with the double-swinging doors, the same room where Claire was breathing only with the help of a machine, where no one knew if she could feel anything.

Now it was two years later, and Bonnie was still engulfed in it. She still worked in the sam eshop, lived in the same house and was still married to the same man (although that had certainly changed - Jonathan traveled a lot now and Bonnie literally didn't miss him because when he was home she barely noticed him). She seemingly had the same life, but it felt as hollow as Mrs. Rogare's voice had been, as colorless as the Intsive Care Room.

How did she die?

The doctors killed her

That was the closest to the truth, but Bonnie hadn't said it very often. Claire's doctor had stood with Bonnie and Mrs. Rogare in the waiting room. He was an extremely handsome man, perfectly groomed and attired, perfect teeth and perfect sandy hair, perfect hands, and in perfect control of himself and his physician's manner.

"We don't know why she's still in the coma," he said. "When she stopped breathing, she was without breath for only two minutes, and that shouldn't have been too long. There's the possibility of brain damage, of course, but there's also a good chance that she won't have any damage at all. We are baffled, though, at the fact that she hasn't responded. We just have to keep waiting."

He was reassuring in his uncertainty. He didn't seem nervous about the fact that he didn't understand everything. They believed him.

Until the letter came.

It was postmarked locally, with no return address. An innocuous #10 envelope holding a letter that changed their lives. It was from a nurse who had cared for Claire. She didn't give her name, and she said she would have to remain anonymous, but that Claire's mother must start an investigation, that Claire should not be in the coma she was in, that something inexcusable had happened, and that it would all come out in an investigation, it was all in the medical records. She signed herself as someone who "Cared about Claire."

Bonnie wa sin the kitchen with her mother when the letter came. She watched her mother's already-pale skin turn even whiter, watched Mrs. Rogare's white hands fly up, hold her throat tightly. When Bonnie read the letter, horror washed over her. As she read, the small room and its bright decor faded, greyed, blurred. The room became a vacuum, rushing around Bonnie's flushed face, a grey rushing vacuum that made the black typed letters stand out on the white paper with a fireceness that battered her retinas.

The initial trips to the lawyers were squeezed into the long days scattered with ten minute tormenting visits to the hospital. Bonnie's disbelief continued even after Claire's records had been seized and studied, even after it came to light that Claire had been without breath for fifteen minutes, rather than the two minutse her doctors had told them about. The disbelief was insidious. The facts than were: Claire's condition had been getting worse, the pneumonia was growing, and Claire was getting scared. The nurses knew she needed more attention, and started calling her doctor. Well, he had been on vacation that weekend, and his associate just couldn't seem to get down to the hospital. The nurses kept calling. They called the resident doctors, the head of nurses. They called her doctor's associate back. The nurses were getting frantic because Claire's condition was worsening quickly.

"The doctors never came," Bonnie said aloud, to herself, alone in her living room. "That's how they killed her. They left her alone for thirty siz hours and didn't come until she had already stopped breathing. Then, they forced that tube down her throat, and it breathed for her. It breathed for her and bought the doctors some time and bought us some hope. But she was already dead and they knew it."

The cicadas trilled and rattled in the steamy afternoon. Bonnie sat up abruptly.

The ocean was vast and blue as lapis. A rocky jetty stretched several hundred yards from where Bonnie was sitting, across the sane, and far out into the water. The rocks cut across blue and white, creating even harsher waves and farflung spray. Ricky was standing next to the water. He had been motionless for close to half an hour. He and Bonnie, not moving, separated by a stretch of sand, years and abilities, rested, thinking different thoughts. She was thinking back to their ride to the beach.

Mrs. Rogare's car was a roomy, maroon Le Sabre, old but still running well. Driving it was a welcome change to Bonnie's sub-compact, but still she felt claustrophobic. She and Ricky alone filled the car completely. She didn't know how to respond to what he said, and usually merely repeated bits of it to keep him talking.

"My new job sure keeps me busy, you know. Mr. Fitzrandolph sure wants his garden kept nice." Ricky's words slurred continually, and even to a practiced ear, were often hard to understand.

"You like to work for him?"

"Yes. He pays me every day I work. Two dollars a day. I sure do need that money. I've only worked two days so far, but I think there's be more to do next week."


Bonnie loved the small New England towns, with their downtown squares, and the Colonial architecture. Spring lushness was still lingering and the sharp, early summer day was a welcome contrast to the thick, humid Texas summer. Bonnie was barely listening to Ricky.

"...but, you know, she loved them, too."

"Who loved what, Ricky?"

"Claire. Claire loved the garden, and the flowers we planted."

"Oh, you planted flowers?"

"Yes, blue ones and pink ones and white ones. They had colors in the middle, and we pulled all the weeds. I talked to her last night."

"You talked to who last night?"

"Claire. Claire."

"You talked to Claire last night? What did she say?"

That she was happy. To stop worrying about her."

Ricky looked as sincere and tender as any child could. He had beautiful grey eyes that most people forgot to look into once they realized he was retarded. Bonnie had looked sharply into them. He wasn't laughing, wasn't kidding.

"She said to let her be. I pray a lot. I pray for her to be happy. She says she is."

The waves continued, rushing, climbing a little further into the sand each minute. They were nearing Ricky's shoes. He stood stock still. Bonnie twisted her gold band, studying the slightly whiter skin that had borne the ring for five years. Bonnie walked over to her brother and put her arm up into his. Thus they walked back to the car. Perhaps she needed to ask a different question. Indeed. How would she start living again?

Copyright 1985, B. Ruth Rinehart

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