To love that transcends place and time and,
as always, to Steve, Kevin, and Brian who give everything meaning
Peter Hunter and family blew into his veterinary clinic scattering loose papers across the reception desk. In the dog days of Atlanta’s summer the temperature at seven am was already hot enough to make his blood boil. Why did the kids have to go back to school so early anyway?
“Lacie had to change her clothes three times. Three times,” Peter growled, scowling at his offending six-year old daughter. “It’s her own fault she didn’t get any breakfast.”
“Lacie, honey, why didn’t you lay out your clothes last night?” asked his office manager, Caroline, her face shining with dog kisses from Buddy the enthusiastic beagle
“I did,” Lacie replied, blissfully remorseless. “But last night I liked pink. Today I like red.”
Caroline bit her lower lip. “I completely understand.”
“I’m glad somebody does,” Peter snapped. He had returned from his morning run to find twelve-year-old Logan, dark brown hair still drying from a hasty shower, eating a mixing bowl of Cocoa Puffs. He was well on his way to being as tall and athletic as his father, and he had a voracious appetite to go with his constant growth spurts.
“Where’s your sister?” he asked, grabbing a bottle of water from the fridge.
Logan shrugged. “Haven’t seen her.”
Peter took the stairs two at a time and found Lacie standing in her underclothes with her hands on her hips surveying the catastrophe of clothing covering her bed.
“What are you doing?” he demanded with what he thought was admirable self control.
“I’m picking out my clothes,” she answered without regard for his frustration.
“Hurry up,” he blew out. “We’re leaving in fifteen minutes.” He had no time to hover over her and make her move faster. He was already running behind, but he knew he could shave, shower, and dress in fifteen minutes. He wasn’t so optimistic about his daughter.
After fifteen minutes to the second, he came out to find Lacie had only made it as far as committing to an outfit. He raised himself to his full height, trying futilely to menace her into submission, and uttered ridiculous, idle threats, until finally she had clothes on her body. He grabbed her backpack and chased her out the door. Logan was already sitting in the passenger seat of the van, face lit it the waning darkness by his cell phone screen.
Now in the office, Caroline winked at him and took the problem child off his hands. “Com’on sweetie,” she said to Lacie. “Let’s get you a bite to eat and get that bow in your hair. It’s almost time for the bus.”
“Dad can just take her,” Logan offered, following Caroline to the break room with the promise of more food. “That’s what Mom did when we missed the bus.” Peter spun on his heel and escaped into his office before saying something he would regret. Do what Mom had done? His wife had not worked specifically so that she could be the one handling situations like this. That was not a luxury he had.
He went into his office to find his computer already booted up and his calendar on the screen. He had a full day, not including walk-ins and emergencies, a guarantee that this was his last chance to breathe until five o’clock. He took a careful sip of the steaming cup of coffee sitting on his desk and returned to the waiting room where Lacie was ready to catch the bus.
She had magically transformed. There stood his little girl in her pretty red dress with her auburn hair so like her mother’s pulled back in a matching bow. She batted her brown eyes at him, the picture of innocence. He took her small hand in his. “Com’on, Little Bit,” he said. “Tell Caroline and Logan good-bye.”
“Bye,” she sang, skipping out the door, backpack filled with school supplies for the new school year, and a brand new princess lunch box bouncing against her leg.
Peter returned to find Logan texting on his phone. “Where is your ride?” he asked, his patience stretched to the limit.
Logan scowled. “Justin’s on his way. We’re going to be late for practice.” He lifted accusing eyes at his father. “You know, Dad, you could drive us before you come to the office, and we’d always be on time. Mrs. Lechlighter is always late.”
“Maybe,” Peter answered. That wasn’t happening.
A horn honked. “Gotta go.” Logan slammed out the door without looking back.
The storm had blown itself out. Having the children leave from the office instead of home was the only practical solution for getting them to school every day, but it made for a rough start in the morning.
Peter sought a few quiet moments to finish his coffee, but it was not to be. A large mailing envelope had appeared on his desk, his name on the front written in all-too-familiar hand writing. “Caroline, what is this?” he asked carrying it like it was filled with nitroglycerin.
“It’s a package,” she answered, eyes riveted to her computer screen.
“I can see that,” he replied suspiciously. “It’s from Maisie.”
“Really?” Her voice was carefully emotionless.
“Maisie is dead.”
“I know that.”
“Where did it come from? Did you put it there?” This package was a crack in the wall he had erected to protect himself from his grief.
Her composure gave way. “I did,” Caroline said softly. “She gave it to me with instructions to give it to you when I thought you were ready.”
“Ready for what?”
“She said I would know. I think she meant I would know when you were ready to get on with your life.”
“Who the hell are you to decide that?” he growled. He would get on with his life when he was damn good and ready.
Caroline shrugged, not the least bit intimidated by his anger. “It’s been over a year. It seems like the right time for you to read what she had to say.”
He stormed into his office and slammed the door he never closed. He dropped into his desk chair, pressing the heels of his hands into his eyes. He could see Maisie sitting at the kitchen table writing out the grocery list, wearing her favorite gray sweat shirt and blue jeans, stray strands of auburn hair so like Lacie’s falling loose around her face. Had she been sitting there when she did this?
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. On the one hand he thought he could not stand to pull the scab off the wound that was the absence of his wife. On the other hand, she had physically handled this envelope and its contents. He could touch the page that she had touched and the writing that she had written. Buddy lay down with his head on Peter’s feet, compassionate dog eyes fixed on his master’s face. Peter looked down at him and said aloud, “I guess there’s only one thing to do.”
He dumped the contents out on his desk. A letter and four sealed envelopes. He began reading the letter where it had fallen, face up on the desk.
My dearest love,
How I miss you! I know you miss me too.
Miss her? Yes he missed her. So much that he could hardly bear to hear her voice in his head as he read. He avoided touching the paper as though it would scald his fingers but continued reading.
I am so sorry to leave you with all the responsibilities for the children and the house when work keeps you busy enough. It’s not what we wanted, but here it is.
Yes, here it is. He knew it wasn’t her fault. She didn’t ask for cancer, and she fought as hard as she could to beat it. But part of him was still angry with her for leaving
I gave this to Caroline with instructions to give it to you when she thought you were ready. I guess she has decided now is the time, though I didn’t give her much guidance. She cares so much about you and the kids. She’s been a good friend to us, a member of the family, and I trust her judgment.
I’m sure you are not ready to date again. If I had to live without you I would never want anyone else. There is the little problem, however, that you have the clinic to run and two children to raise. I’m sure you’ve given it your best effort, my love, but let’s be honest. Raising the children was supposed to be my end of the bargain. Logan is easy. All you have to do is feed him and get him to practice. Lacie, on the other hand, is going to give you a run for your money. You need a woman’s help, someone who will love her but be unintimidated by her precious, precocious personality.
I fell in love with you on sight, so there was no wooing involved. This time it has to be different. You’ve got baggage, and any woman our age will have baggage, too, so I have selected a few whom I think you will like. I know them from your practice, from the kids’ schools, and from the gym. They each have something different to offer, but they are all good for you in one way or another. Make sure you open them in order, and don’t open number “4” until you have tried the others. If one of them works out, you may not get that far, and that’s okay.
Love you in this life and beyond. Kiss our babies for me.
Peter closed his eyes. He wished his heart would stop beating.
That morning he had reached for her only to find the cool, untouched pillow and neatly tucked sheets where she used to lay. Before he showered, he squirted a little of her body spray in the bathroom like a room freshener. He had given her a lifetime supply of her favorite fragrance two Christmases ago because it was on sale. She had laughed and kissed him and said she hoped he never got tired of it because she would be wearing it for the rest of her life. Which she did.
In her lowest moments she had said that he would have been better off with someone else because she was socially awkward and a fashion train wreck, but he meant it when he told her that she was being stupid. What had he done to make her think he cared about any of that? Fifteen months since they had lost their battle against her cancer, and he still paused every night before he flipped on the light when he got home. It was a flicker of hope that miraculously she would be there, standing at the stove, and somehow it had all been a horrible mistake. Then Logan and Lacie would push past him, hit the switch to light up the chaos that was their kitchen without her, and shove him into the activities of the night.
Actually the kids helped. He was so overwhelmed with their care and feeding, not to mention their activities, that he had very little time to wallow in his sorrows. All of the other parents knew to call Caroline if they needed anything on his calendar. He had gotten better about checking backpacks and supervising homework, but he was grateful that Caroline made sure they had most of it done at the office before they got home.
Another woman in Maisie’s place? “No way,” he said out loud to Buddy. “I’m not going to do it. Caroline is wrong.” He shoved the smaller envelopes back in the larger one and threw it in the bottom drawer over his lunch bag. To the ether he said, “Do you hear that, Maisie? Forget it.” If she had actually been standing there, he would have turned his back on her without a word and marched out. What was he supposed to do when she said such stupid crap?
He forced it out of his mind and went to work.
The Cantrell’s schnauzer, Louise, revved up her nerve-wracking yammer as soon as he walked into the kennel. “Louise, give it a rest!” he barked back. She ignored him and cranked up the volume. As much as he liked dogs better than most people he knew, Louise stretched his patience to the breaking point. Unfortunately, the Cantrells were retired and travelled a lot, so she was a frequent boarder.
The MacDougall’s old golden retriever, Cinnamon, welcomed him with her ever-present smile and lifted her head to be scratched between the ears. He sat on the floor and rubbed her belly so that she would turn over and he could check her incision. He would get the lab results back today, and he hoped they would reveal that the tumor he removed was benign. She was old for a golden, but she still had some good time left.
Georgette, cat-child to interior decorator Suzanne Marie, cowered in the back of her cage, her usual condescension completely undone by Louise’s incessant barking. She hissed and stabbed at Peter’s hand when he pulled her out of the cage to check that her spaying incision was clean and infection-free. Animals usually went home from that surgery the same day, but Suzanne was squeamish about anything bloody or oozy, and so she paid for Georgette to spend the night.
Eight o’clock. Next stop, the waiting room. The air vibrated with the stress of people concerned about their pets but anxious to get to work. One of his two vet techs, Lynn, had arrived for the early shift, and they were off to the races. He clocked patients off, one right after the other, in record time.
The routine slowed considerably after nine o’clock, but, oddly enough, that was when staying on schedule became a struggle. Mothers with preschool children extended what should be quick exams as they tried to control their pets and keep up with active toddlers. Relaxed retirees told fascinating and elaborate stories, and Peter’s proper southern upbringing kept him from rushing them along. His schedule was relieved somewhat by the stay-at-home moms with school age children who were all business, trying to get through a lengthy list of chores before their kids got home from school, but they were not the norm. Even with Lisa Park, his part-time vet, and her tech, Samantha, coming in at ten, they still had a hard time staying ahead of the walk-ins, and they never turned anyone away.
Although the office closed for lunch from 1-2, he always had patients overflow into his “break” time. When he came out from his 12:45 at 1:15—a ten minute exam that took half an hour because of Mrs. Swann’s pet hypochondria—Caroline was finishing with the elegant older woman at check-out.
“I’m sorry we were late, Mrs. Swann,” he apologized, even though it was her demand for attention that made them run over.
“That’s alright, Dr. Hunter,” she said looking up at him with a smile and a classically genteel Southern accent. She gave no indication that she recognized her complicity in the situation. “You are nearly always running a little late so I plan on it when I come.” She hastened to add, “You are the best veterinarian in town so you are worth the wait.”
He forced a smile, torn between irritation and appreciation. He hated when things didn’t go according to plan, but it was hard to be angry with someone as kind as Mrs. Swann and her dachshund, Heidi. He patted Heidi on the head, exchanging a knowing glance with Caroline, and simply said, “Thanks for understanding.”
He went back to his office to swallow his sandwich whole and update chart notes before round two began. There in the drawer where he had thrown it over his lunch bag was the package from Maisie. He pulled it out and carried it out to the reception desk. “Are you sure you don’t know what this is?” he asked Caroline suspiciously.
“I swear to you I have no idea what is in that envelope,” she replied, opening her hands palm up to prove that she wasn’t hiding anything. “What is it, if you don’t mind me asking?”
He debated briefly whether or not to tell her, but if anybody would understand, it would be Caroline. She was good that way, in spite of being so young. At twenty-six she had not only witnessed the implosion of her own family, but she had also filled in all the holes that opened in his family as Maisie’s illness took its toll. He decided her counsel on the matter was worth the risk of humiliation. “She made a list of people I should date,” he said blankly.
“Really?” Caroline replied, cocking an eyebrow. “And who is on that list?”
“I don’t know. She left four envelopes, and I am supposed to open them one at a time.” He handed her the letter to read for herself. When she looked up a single tear escaped and trailed down her cheek. “She loved you so much.”
“I know.” He looked out the window. “I can’t do it.”
Caroline’s voice was choked with emotion. “I understand. Sometimes I feel like she is still here. Do you know what I mean?”
He nodded. He knew.
She cleared the grief out of her throat. “You can’t look at it emotionally. You have to shift into doctor mode and look at it logically. She knew you would have a hard time, and so she tried to make it easy for you. What she says is true, isn’t it? It is very hard to do everything you have to do for your family and run the practice. Almost impossible.”
“That’s no real argument, and you know it. Dating a woman just so she can take on some of my chores? Who would sign up for that? I can hire a housekeeper or a nanny to do the same thing.”
“That’s a good point,” she agreed, “but it’s not just about sharing chores. There is also having someone to talk to about things, and someone to distract you when you need to ease your mind for a bit. I think that was what she had in mind when she planned this.” She smiled and handed the letter back to him. “Why don’t you see who she suggested? Maybe you’ll like the idea better when you know who it is.”
He frowned but conceded the point. “All right, I’ll look at the first one.” He gathered the package off her desk and returned to his office. He shut the door and stepped over Buddy to get to his chair. Taking a deep breath, he opened the first envelope.
You have got to get past “What the hell was she thinking?” and move on to “Why the hell not?” I think you’ll be surprised at how much fun you’ll have. Remember fun?
First up is Suzanne Marie, our interior decorator. I got sick before she was able to implement her design plan, but I liked it a lot. Now would be a good time to do it, and you can get to know her while she works.
I know you think art and fashion are frivolous degrees, but she studied interior decorating at Pennsylvania College of Art and Design, and she has an art history degree from Bryn Mawr, so she’s no intellectual light-weight. She moved down here with her husband, who promptly began a series of affairs with his sales reps, clients, and pretty much anything with a skirt he could lift. She got a hefty settlement with alimony and lots of child support for their son. She is also very much in demand as a decorator and has plenty of her own money, so she won’t set her sights on you as a source of income. Her son can be a handful and needs a better role model than his philandering father. You are the best role model I know. She could be helpful to you dealing with our fashion-conscious daughter. Let’s face it, sweetie, someone who thinks orange is a good color for golf pants is never going to meet Lacie’s high standards.
Love you in this life and beyond. Kiss our babies for me.
Suzanne Marie. Mother of Georgette the cat. She was probably out in the waiting room right this very minute.
Fine, he huffed to Maisie. Have it your way. But I’m not making any promises.
Don’t want promises, said Maisie’s voice in his head. I just want you to be happy.
Then you shouldn’t have left, he replied and stepped out into the waiting room.