For your life has lived in me,
your laugh once lifted me,
your word was gift to me.
To remember this brings a painful joy.
“Vincent, I believe you can sit down now.” Peter’s said at half-power so as not to wake the sleeping baby.
A clawed hand eased high in a salute that said both, yes, and wait a few more minutes, and Vincent continued his pacing. The child seemed in a deeper sleep than he had reached all afternoon, but he had startled before. The large man weaved between the desk, chairs and coffee table of the small sitting room-office with a bobbing, rhythmic gait, not quite willing to abandon what was working for the sake of his own rest.
Peter remembered Vincent’s own early troubles. At the time, Peter had tried to help Jacob and Anna, but he had little to give then. Virginia had begun to exhibit how needy she was by that point, her true nature revealing itself like new peeling wallpaper over weeping walls. In a few years, he too would see that no matter how much training, how much skill, nothing immunized your heart against a wailing child in need of its mother.
The milk Cathy had left them, although from the foreign font of a bottle, had been drunk hours ago. The baby’s initial recoil at the strange taste and texture of the rubber was overcome by the familiar smell of her, despite the incongruous combination of food and father. The commercial formula they offered two hours later, however, had been less refused as soundly and angrily scorned. For the next hour and a half, the boy had shook with shrieking and hungry indignation. Even the special baby-milk recipe Jacob had created for Vincent—kept in reserve as the last, but relied upon end run—was rejected as insultingly inferior. No amount of cajoling or cuddling could persuade the child to drink the substitutes.
The baby only wanted his mother.
Peter would bet the anxious man wandering around the furniture for the eight-hundredth time knew the feeling.
“Vincent, can you try to relax?” Peter asked from his comfortable chair. “You’re going to make me nervous.” He joked, but not truly in jest. If Vincent felt the need to do something, soon enough Peter would as well. People didn’t come to a doctor for the doctor to sit on his hands.
Vincent made aware of his state, slowly walked over to chair opposite, and as gracefully as possible—which, for such an immense fame, was extremely graceful—eased down into the seat.
They both sat for a moment in silence to see if the change offended baby Jacob, but with only a tiny exhalation, the child settled into the new position.
“Can I offer you some tea?” Peter ventured. “Or possibly something stronger?” He thought he should at least offer, even if he had never seen Vincent drink a drop.
Vincent looked down at his sleeping son, and simply shook his head.
“I remember those days—the pacing, the rocking…” Peter heard the wistfulness in his own voice. “My mothers have all my sympathy.”
“Was Susan a difficult child?” the new father asked with a single jutting brow that said he wouldn’t believe it if Peter said she was.
“Oh no, she was a very good baby,” and a beautiful one, the reason he kept going when everything in him told him he couldn’t, “but she was still a baby. I remember praying she would just sleep. Getting her down became my second job.”
Peter pushed himself out of his chair. That was more the way these day, the armrests essential in his efforts to rise. The babies he had delivered were having children of their own, as Jo had pointed out. He was at the point he had seen his own mentors reach, at the edges of retirement. Somehow he’d become old on short notice.
He refilled his glass with a finger of Glenlivet, one of his few luxuries, and the rest soda and ice. He had some files to work on tonight, and a trip to the hospital wasn’t out of the realm of possibility, but two light drinks weren’t going end to the evening too soon, especially after the day they had.
How many minutes of the last eight hours had the baby been awake, but not crying? Twenty? Thirty, at the most?
Walking back, he took the opportunity to study the sleeping boy propped against Vincent’s chest. Sleeping was better than crying, at least. He turned, placed his drink on the table and eased into his seat again
“He looks like you—in the chin, and his eyes. I think they’ll be blue by year’s end.”
Vincent said nothing. It seemed to be a touchy subject, as Peter feared it might; he continued on, though, his years of plowing through uncomfortable bedside chats taking over. “You can see Catherine in him too. Oh, she was a beautiful baby.”
“It’s amazing to me that you should have known us both at this age,” Vincent offered, extending the conversation into safer territory, much to Peter’s relief.
“And I knew your parents—Catherine is the picture of her mother, maybe not in height—she always was a little thing—but sometimes she smiles and all I see is Caroline.”
“Yes,” Vincent said, looking past Peter to the enclosed garden outside, and then breathed, “I know…”
How would he know? She’d been gone almost twenty years before he and Cathy had even met.
Oh, yes, Charles’ pictures…
“Can you tell me of her, of Catherine’s mother?” Vincent asked in a voice so low he almost rumbled, startling the older man from his musings.
Taken off guard by the request—the young wanted so little of the past these days—Peter completely lost Caroline for a moment. Under Vincent’s scrutiny everything dissolved, a blank sheet of memory. There were more and more of them every year, as if the book of his life could only hold so many pages and some devil was erasing them when Peter wasn’t watching
“Oh, you don’t want to hear about all that,” he covered.
“Please Peter,” Vincent pleaded, interrupting the objection, “I know little of Catherine’s family, and…” A wince rippled across his brow and jaw, “I need the distraction.”
“Is Cathy…” Peter started, the doctor, anxious to know, to diagnose, getting the better of his intentions not to highlight Vincent’s differences. “How is she?”
Vincent’s clawed yet careful hand left the baby to squeeze his temples. “She was…struggling this morning, but she steadied. Now, the anxiety….” He sighed. “There seems no immediate danger. They have kept her too long.” Grinding iron anger spiked the last words.
Yes, the sun was still hot, but the changing angles through the windows heralded late afternoon. She should be back by now.
“You’re right, but Vincent,” Peter began, sitting forward, “she is very capable….”
“I know that,” he immediately agreed, certainty rushing the words. “But her fear and anger draw me. She has been trying to hide herself…unsuccessfully.”
Was it the absurdity of her trying, or the fact that she had to that washed her husband’s voice with an acerbic tinge?
Vincent shut his eyes to focus on his passion, or possible Passion. It seemed right to use the entirety of a word. Peter had his fair share of treating couples—the pregnant ones, the sickened ones—but had never seen a love between a man and woman almost holy in its power. He couldn’t quite decide if the Vincent wanted the power, and accepted the pain, or the other way around. According to Jacob’s accounts of the couple’s past near misses, stories of rescues and wounds, Vincent might not know either.
“Please, Peter,” Vincent begged, his eyes suddenly probing. The older man quickly looked away, afraid Vincent could read the thoughts on his face.
“Keep me here. Tell me what you can…of anything.” The man, desperate and reaching, looked down to the child on his chest—the slight weight, the anchor that moored him safe from the rush of an ignorant ocean of humanity. Peter feared it might be the only thing that could.
No, you can help.
Do your job, doctor.
Stop. Breathe. Do as he asks.
Remember Caroline. Remember her the first time you met. Who was she…
…a lovely woman in a wool suit and white gloves walking into a gated park.
Was it fall? Yes. Virginia left in October.
Caroline first encountered him sitting on the bench pushing the pram back and forth, trying to keep Susan asleep.
“She’s a beautiful baby.” Yes, Caroline had said that—a compliment, the way to a father’s heart—and it was true. Susan was the perfect mix of both her parents. The only thing they had done together that hadn’t gone wrong.
Caroline had smiled at him. Such a smile…He’d needed it. It’d been forever since he’d seen a woman smile.
“Do you come here often with her?” She surveyed the tiny playground first circled by benches, then by consecutive rings of metal fencing, trees, asphalt, concrete and glass. “I love this little park. It’s just a bit of green and some swings, but nothing makes a neighborhood more than children, don’t you think?”
A refined voice, genteel, worked on, all open consonants and vowels, that’s what she had. A woman from the top social strata, just like Virginia, but with none of the carelessness that Peter, until then, had equated with the upper-class.
What did this stranger see? A man on the edge, a person needing help.
She had reached out a white gloved hand. “I’m Caroline Chandler. My husband and I just moved into the neighborhood.”
Wonderfully forward, that’s what she’d been.
The next part was gone. Perhaps he offered his name. Yes, he must have, and she must have known of him. The rest of the conversation didn’t make sense if she hadn’t.
Did she know Virginia had left him? Did he tell her? He wouldn’t have said why, not until later, only that Susan’s mother was gone. He probably said something about not having help.
The paper Caroline handed him with Josephine’s name and number written on it, Peter remembered that. It had been pinned to the kitchen cabinet for years before finally disintegrating off, but, by then, known by heart.
“I was going to bring her on.” She had said, pointing to the name, “I hear she’s wonderful. Her former employers just moved to Chicago and tried to take her with them, but she has family here.”
It had been the best present Peter had ever been given, that phone number. How could he and Susan have survived without Jo? She nearly lived with them those next years. A warm house to come home to at the end of the day, a happy child, and every meal a home cooked one. Yes, Caroline’s memory was inextricably tied with Josephine finishing the dinner dishes in their kitchen while dancing to Diana Ross on the radio, and Susan dancing right along in her high chair.
“We gotta shake it or lose it, right baby?” Jo asked so many times. Susan always laughed and gently shook her little hips in imitation.
Caroline had pressed, touching the paper with a white glove. “When you contact Josephine, please tell her I told you to call, and make sure you convince her to work for you, Dr. Alcott. You need her to watch the baby next Saturday. My husband and I are giving a party. I want you to meet him.”
Had he protested? He must have, because he specifically remembered her words just before she left.
“You must come, Dr. Alcott. You owe me.” She said smiling, tapping the paper again. A formal invitation arrived the next day, delivered to his house. With everything else going on he would have forgotten if she hadn’t pursued the friendship. She remembered him and all his particulars after one exchange of names in the park.
“Catherine’s mother was a remarkable woman, Vincent. I never thought about it before, but she and I met at St. Catherine’s park, just a few blocks from here.” He pointed his gaze south and nodded in the direction. “They had Cathy less than a year later. I wonder if that’s where they got the name.”
What could he tell the man who needed the telling? That she was beautiful? Of course she was…until the cancer took it all away. Gone so young… Cathy must have shown him pictures of Caroline. Charles had them everywhere in the house, a constant, surrounding memorial to the woman he had lost. The many shrines in the Chandler home became an uncomfortable reminder there were no portraits of Virginia hanging at the Alcott’s.
Was that why he and Charles grew apart?
Or was it because you fell short, doctor, and what they pounded into you in medical school can never be pounded out of you—you learn from your mistakes and move on. Is it because you lost his wife, yet gained the knowledge, the files created to be called on later? “Symptoms – Skin irritation, swelling of the breast, enlarged lymph nodes, negative pregnancy test, positive x-ray, Diagnosis – Invasive lobular carcinoma”; and the more personal files, “My youngest patient to die of cancer”; “My first delivered mother to die of cancer”; “My first friend to die of cancer”.
What could he tell Vincent that Cathy didn’t know? He owed him, them—for taking Cathy’s blood without thinking of the consequences. If he’d been more circumspect about the changes in her perhaps Vincent wouldn’t have left before the birth, and maybe she wouldn’t have attacked William. If he had pushed harder, stayed in touch more, perhaps Vincent wouldn’t have gotten sick, or Catherine might have told him—a doctor, for God’s sake—of her pregnancy. He could have convinced her to stay Below for a while, to stop working. He owed all of them, for not being there too many times when they needed him.
“You owe me.”
Vincent waited for him to truly begin like a force barely held in check. The strength that had tackled formidable John at Winterfest, the power that destroyed Cathy’s balcony doors, the anger that had slammed into Jacob’s table—no illusions you could combat that. If Vincent’s love drove him into Manhattan in the middle of rush hour, what could be done to stop him? Nothing, except try to keep him here with stories about the exceptional woman that made that love possible.
“I went to a party Caroline and Charles threw when they moved into the neighborhood. Cathy grew up not far from here. Caroline was kind to invite me. I had…just lost my wife.”
Lost to another continent…lost to our carelessness.
“I met Charles there. He’d just started his own firm. He had a fire in him, Vincent. I wish you could have known him.”
“I wish that too,” the man across from him replied in a murmur.
Peter smiled. “Charles was a blonde, skinny steamroller back then. You knew he was either going to succeed or kill himself trying. Of course, he had her connections,” he added, “which helped.”
Vincent tensed in disapproval, either indignant for Charles, or in disbelief that any man could use a wife in such a way.
“Oh, don’t get the wrong impression, it wasn’t a marriage of convenience. Charles thought the sun rose and set on Caroline, and he did until the day he died. I think that’s why Cathy couldn’t settle until she found you. She wanted that sort of love.”
Vincent eased, and mutely took the observation as a compliment.
“Caroline could open doors for Charles, of course, but Charles had to prove he belonged in the room. She understood his vision, his ambition, and loved him for it. If I’m remembering correctly, she met him through her father’s business dealings. He worked for the law firm they were using. He wasn’t big money himself, but that wasn’t what she wanted. I think…she’d seen what having money could do to people. It can numb them, Vincent, while making them frail at the same time. They can’t handle real life so they chase a false life in any way they can—drugs, trips around the world, parties. Money, large amounts of it at least, twists people, they lose perspective. They create their own sicknesses that no amount of medicine can cure.”
Virginia had ended up that way. Susan could have, but no…thank God for Josephine, thank God for the Tunnels. Real problems make real people.
“Caroline took the girls up to her mother’s estate on the Hudson once. It was enormous. You could spend days at it and never quite see it all—the river views, the gorgeous rooms, the antiques. I met them all for dinner—sometime during the summer of ’60, I believe. Cathy and Susan must have been five or six at the time. I can remember them playing tag in a garden the size of a city block. I wondered why Caroline asked Susan and me, but I think she knew her mother.”
Vincent continued to sit quietly with the baby in his arms, his expression inquiring as to what Peter could mean.
“Susan was a distraction for Cathy, and I was a distraction for her mother. Mrs…Alder…I think that was her name. She liked to show off. Everything she owned was impeccable, old and expensive, and I was a new audience for her. It was the least I could do. Even then, their feud continued over dinner. According to her mother, Caroline had thrown her life away on Charles. He came from “bad stock”, as if they were breeding roses, or something as nonsensical. Can you imagine saying something like that in front of a man’s child?.”
Peter took a sip of his drink and laughed. “Caroline would have loved you, my friend, I mean that.” He pointed. “Not only are you the man that worships her daughter, you would have been perfect at getting back at the ‘posh and pomp’ set.”
Vincent could only shrug and slightly nod.
Peter put his glass down, instantly repentant.
Drinking always loosens your tongue in the wrong way.
“I’m sorry. I should think before I speak.”
“No need to apologize.” Vincent forgave, the smallest smile hinted on his face. “Please, continue,”
Continue your story. Fill up the time.
“Well, to tell you what kind of woman the grandmother was, Cathy was only allowed visit at a few prescribed times of year, because the woman’s nerves ‘couldn’t bear it’. Cathy’s grandfather was dead already—I don’t know how—but he left the family a great deal of money. The grandmother lived all alone up there. She never made space in her house for a child to visit her, I don’t know why.”
Vincent looked quizzical, as if couldn’t begin to understand why someone wouldn’t love Cathy.
“Maybe if Charles wasn’t good enough, then neither was his daughter,” Peter offered, “or maybe, the woman just couldn’t be bothered. When the grandmother passed, Caroline sold the house, nearly lock, stock and barrel. She said there were enough museums in New York, Cathy didn’t have to grow up in one.”
Vincent still seemed puzzled. It must have been an alien concept to a man who devoted his life to nurturing little ones, that someone could leave so little room for family, for children. He…and Cathy, seemed to have infinite patience with them. Just like Caroline…
“I wish Cathy had Caroline longer. I could see her grandmother’s hardness in her after her mother died. Charles Chandler fought it tooth and nail, but I can’t say he didn’t lose her for a few years.”
Peter laughed at the absurdity. “I had Susan with no mother, and Charles had Cathy, and Jacob with you…there were times when all of you were rebellious and angry, and we had no idea what to do with any of you.”
“What did you do?” Vincent asked, but he probably wanted to know what Charles did, and that’s where Peter’s memories betrayed him again.
“Anything and everything we could.” Peter replied, attempting to camouflage the shortfall. He picked up his drink again. “When you’re at war, you make the best out of a bad situation. Your father got me through those years.”
“Was it a war?” Vincent challenged.
Peter shrugged. “We thought so then. He sent me that as a ‘thank-you’ gift.” Peter motioned with his eyes to the framed poster on the wall above the desk. Vincent twisted with new interest for the picture.
“It was a good joke, and goodness knows we needed them then.” He motioned to the sleeping child with the hand that held the glass. “I’ll be interested to see how you fair in about fifteen years.” He took a quick sip of the scotch and soda that now seemed to only punctuate his sudden sobriety. “It’s too bad Charles couldn’t have joined our little ‘support group’.”
Vincent turned back and smiled. “That truly would have been something,” he said in hushed tones, still conscientious of the baby’s sleep.
What if he and Cathy had met then? Would they have bonded as closely? Would Cathy have been ready?
“After Caroline, Charles never married again,” Vincent said, interrupting Peter’s wool-gathering. It wasn’t a question.
For Charles, for all of them, for all different reasons, one marriage had been enough.
“It would have been hard filling Caroline’s shoes, and he had a daughter and the practice to focus on.”
Vincent could understand, Peter was certain of that, but he had to elaborate. Caroline deserved it.
“Vincent, Caroline was the smartest, most capable woman I ever met. I don’t say that lightly. She found people fascinating, from the President of the United States, and she met more than one, to the…garbage man.”
Yes, that’s it. That was her.
“She would ask you questions, do her homework, and the next time you met, pick up where you left off, bringing up points you never even thought of, and still make you look like the smartest person in the room. She brought out the best in people.”
He took another small sip of scotch-water before he continued his praise.
“She could charm the stingiest misers out of thousands. She was the New York Public Library’s greatest asset until a few months before she died. Every charitable and cultural institution in this city wanted her for their cause, but she learned to say no in her last few years. She wanted to be there for Cathy, especially with Charles working so hard to build the firm. Her family was her priority.”
And her faults? Peter questioned his memory. They were few, and nothing to tell the man holding her grandchild.
He was biased, of course. Virginia’s faults had been legion. By comparison, every other woman appeared saintly, especially Caroline Chandler. Then again, the sitting room-office reminded him, Virginia had given him and Susan a house. It was the bribe her family offered to keep quiet, to stay married. Now, in this modern age, the shame of divorce had all but disappeared, but the house and the daughter remained.
Virginia had given him a home without knowing it, introduced him to people he never would have met without meaning to. She was a blessing in his life, even if mostly by her absence. She had escaped when she had to. Was that a fault or survival mechanism? The older he got, the more he thought the latter. She couldn’t accept her role, or people, or even herself—most importantly herself. That was the difference between Caroline and her.
“Yes, Caroline and Charles knew people, understood them, especially how to get what they wanted from them. Not in a bad way, mind you—just…charming. Truthfully, I’m amazed Cathy broke away from Charles. He could steer you to the other end of the argument and make you think you got there on your own.” He chuckled. “Cathy is just about the perfect mix of both of them.”
And then, it was quiet again. There was nothing else he could say.
Peter wanted to reassure Vincent somehow. That Cathy’s lineage was a strong one. That Cathy had weathered her mother’s death, learned from her own mistakes, but even more important, learned from the mistakes of others. Peter wanted to claim that this child too would be the perfect mix of his parents…and yet, how could he deny that wasn’t always the case? Hidden flaws lurked. Would he be forced to concede that, as a doctor, he’d seen the heartache caused by children carrying the hidden imperfections passed on by unwitting parents—as if Vincent didn’t know of Nature’s cruelty already? The baby’s grandfather hadn’t mentioned any problems or differences in the child of the extraordinunion, but that didn’t mean much, given the less than state-of-the-art equipment they had to study him. And, in the end, perhaps that was the point.
Nature had yet to explain herself when it came to Vincent. What did cold science have to do with his child?
Peter focused on the baby tucked prone on his father’s chest, and on the reassuring in and out motion of the boy’s breathing. Alive against every odd, protected by a mythic father and a loving, brave mother—back to beginnings, more true than even the usual miracles Peter was used to—this was a child of love and magic…
As if he knew of Peter’s attention, the baby let out an unexpected, cutting wail. It pierced the quiet afternoon, and sent both men into instant alert.
Is it Cathy?
Vincent stood, and Peter recognized the faraway expression Jacob had described as Vincent’s extraordinary perception leapt across a city.
“She’s coming back.”