rose sprig

Two

"What's happening? Found Cathy yet?" Ruthe asked briskly.

Muriel locked arms with her and led her inside as she described how a few hours earlier her mother's pain had become unbearable. "Daddy got the doctor to come out, but he agreed with Mom. So he gave her morphine. However, it won't delay the end. He said there's nothing else he can do unless Mom changes her mind and wants to die in the hospital."

She stopped. "My Mom is dying!"

"I know." Ruthe moaned sympathetically. "What about Cathy?"

"She told me she was eloping with her boyfriend, Lloyd, tonight from a party they were both invited to."

"When was that?"

"About four. She was dressing. But I didn't know Mom was dying right now until just a bit later. I went to tell Cathy but she had slipped out the back way."

Muriel's voice once more leaped to a helpless crescendo. "Oh Ruthe! What are we going to do?"

In her hidden thoughts Ruthe was praying. Until an idea came, she would keep Muriel talking. "Have you told your Mom? Or Dad?"

"I told her that Cathy is out on a date. I haven't had the heart yet to tell her Cathy doesn't plan to be back. If only we could find her real quick. She'll kill herself if she comes back from a weekend honeymoon and finds it too late to say good bye to Mom!"

Ruthe wondered how she would persuade Cathy, if they did find her. They might miss them by minutes, and it would take even the police days to find Cathy. But Muriel was counting on her for some action. Brimming with reckless compassion, Ruthe hugged Muriel. "Okay, where's that party suppost to be?"

The rust-flecked olive green eyes shone with new hope. "She didn't say, but with her set, most likely at her friend Ida's, or, as it's a weekend night, at Harold's Club on Cumberland."

They had neared the top of the stairs.

A boy sat in the doorway of the bedroom, looking glum and mixed up. Like he was afraid to leave and uncomfortable staying. Must be Keith, Ruthe decided, and smiled at him as they stepped over his legs.

Ross had been pacing noisily up and down the carpeted stairs with a soft thud-thud, and in fierce circles in the living room and kitchen. Just then he was thud-thudding back up into the bedroom behind the girls. He stared hard at Ruthe, then marched down to pace and smoke some more, swearing under his breath and billowing clouds like an old locomotive.

The bedroom drapes were drawn though it was still quite light outside, and Mr. O'Brien was wandering aimlessly about the room, a tall, gaunt shadow in the pale pink and blue light of the lamps.

Ruthe hesitated near the door, watching.

He had just broken some petals from an enormous bouquet of deep pink long stemmed roses on the night table. He was shredding them as he begged plaintively, "I don't understand you, Pearl! Why? I know you liked Father Inglis a lot, but why won't another priest do while he is out of town?"

Struggling to answer, she saw Muriel and Ruthe entering. A relief broke out on the chalky white face.

Quickly now, Ruthe moved closer.

Mrs. O'Brien laid a cold, damp hand over Ruthe's and gasped between breaths of pain, "Ruthe dear!.. I'm so glad.. you've come. You know... I doubted... Him for a bit... yesterday. But I found.. in... the Testa-ment..." She paused to groan as a stab of pain deepened. As it lifted a smile of confidence crept over her. "You're right!" She nodded at Ruthe. "God does not... make mistakes!"

Ruthe blinked hard. Her throat constricted. She had said that so confidently to this woman a few days ago. Was it true now?

Muriel's arm over her shoulder helped Ruthe to kneel. She stroked the cold, clinging fingers through another extremely strong wave of pain. Gritting her teeth, Mrs. O'Brien said, "Ruthe, my husband... my family... they're so distraught!"

"Of course. Because they love you. They're going to miss you a lot." Tears were quivering on her own lids. Trying to regain her composure, Ruthe quipped weakly, "they can't take off their feelings like a coat and lay them in a trunk like souvenirs."

The woman, lying flat, gaunt white, smiled back.

"Don't worry about your family." Ruthe said with more assurance than she felt. Inwardly she suspected she would have a big job to comfort them. "Just trust them to God's love and care like you did with your own soul. He loves each of them as much as He loves you, and will draw them to Himself too."

"Isn't He... marv-el-ous?" she sighed. "I'm counting on you to help them learn to love... His voice. Like you did me. Soon I'll see... His face!" Her smile faded as she poked her white fingers around her unusually tousled hair. "Where is Cathy? Maybe we could... pray? All together?"

"Sure. Tell you what. You save your strength." Ruthe got to her feet. "Muriel and I will go find her."

The woman drew a deep breath. "So sweet..." She bit her lip apologetically. "You're... all dressed up. Grad night?"

"Don't worry about that," Ruthe said expansively. "I was hoping to get out of my speech somehow."

Impatiently Muriel took her arm and said, "Mom, we will be back as quick as we can. You rest."

"Ken I go?" Keith muttered as he got up to let them exit.

"Sure," Ruthe whispered as she and Muriel began tripping down the soft stairs. "But let's hurry or she may be in Banff soon."

First they drove past Ida's home. All they saw was a woman in a lawn chair sipping a tall drink, and a man in Bermuda shorts, practicing golf swings. No party, Muriel decided.

However, there certainly was a party at Harold's Club. It wasn't seven yet and the parking lot was full. The building looked large and fairly new. It obviously catered to a more formal society, judging by the elegantly dressed people arriving and leaving. The band music swirled in the air around the building. It was not quite as primitive as that at the party Muriel had been at two weeks earlier, Ruthe thought. This has a lively, gracious swing to it.

She drove slowly around to the back of the club restaurant as they tried to pool ideas for finding Cathy with the least attention to themselves.

Both Keith and Muriel screamed at the same time, "There she is!"

Ruthe looked up at the balcony and the natural-rock stairs coming down the back of the building. Sure enough, there was a lovely blonde in a red raw silk gown and stole. The belt and borders of the stole were encrusted with tiny diamond-like stones. She was followed closely by a handsome escort, wielding a wrapped bottle over his head.

A stray dog had been barking insults and demands around the corner at the service door. He became aware of the two, and came bounding to the foot of the stairs, barking even more furiously.

It was clear that Cathy was afraid of strange dogs and just now, this one.

"Run for my car, Cath!" they heard the gallant Lloyd shout. "I ain't scart of no dog. I'll kill 'im!"

"Quick," said Ruthe, pulling closer to the bottom step. "You and Keith pull her in as soon-" Cathy was so terrified she didn't think about whose car she had jumped into until Ruthe was glancing past her face, left and right at the street.

Keith crowded the rear window. "Hey, Lloyd kicked the dog! He's going to have to pay for that Tux now! The dog's taking off with one leg of the pants!"

Cathy began to squirm and scream in her tight space between Ruthe and Muriel on the front seat. This upset Muriel.

"Whoa-there, Cathy." Ruthe said sharply, though still a bit bug-eyed at how she had clambered right over her sister. "Your mother wants to see you before she dies."

"I know she's got cancer," Cathy retorted. "This your new friend, Mur? Anyway. She's still dragging around the house; I want Lloyd!"

"Listen, Cath! Please!" Muriel begged. "Mom told the doctor she wanted to die at home. With us. He was over after you left. Cathy, Mom is really truly dying! Tonight!"

The teen in the sparkling evening wear stared at her younger sister as if trying to discern a trick.

"She's right," helped Ruthe. "Could be in hours, or minutes."

Cathy fumed and pouted the rest of the drive home, but showed signs of fearing the truth, and not having the resources to cope.

Muriel explained that she had not told their mother about Cathy's elopement. She only promised to bring her home as quickly as possible.

Once she sighted her mother's heaving form in the softly lit bedroom, Cathy flung herself across her mother's body and burst into the loudest, most frightened sobs Ruthe had ever heard in her life. "No! No-o-o! Mom-m-my! You can't die! You can't! I need you-ouh-h-eo!"

Mrs. O'Brien tired to lift her face from underneath Cathy, but she had grown too weak to speak. Her eyes searched the air until they met Ruthe's. With them she pled for Cathy's sake.

Gently, Ruthe took hold of Cathy's shoulders and tugged and lifted, until she turned around and clung to her, weeping uncontrollably. Next thing she knew, Ruthe was crying, Muriel and her Dad were sobbing on the other side of the bed, and even Ross and Keith were hiccupping helplessly somewhere in the room.

Ruthe ached. This family's wife and mother was fading from this life and there was nothing any one of them could do to keep her. She couldn't think of anything appropriate to say, so she just stroked Cathy's back over and over and let her own tears drip into the red silk. A half-glance away she saw Mr. O'Brien making the sign of the cross over and over.

Mrs. O'Brien tried once more to speak to her family, but when she found she could not, she gave up and simply looked wistfully from one to another in a circle. Her eyes stopped. Her smile shortened ever so slightly as the muscles in her face relaxed, and with a tiny sigh, the spirit of Mrs. Pearl O'Brien slipped away to heaven.

Ruthe burrowed her face in Cathy's bejeweled shoulder. For some time they all remained as they were and went on with their weeping. Lord, she prayed, thanks for helping us find her in time.

Cathy's sobs were the most wrenching, and after a while Ruthe motioned Muriel to help her take Cathy out of the room. They steered her into her own bedroom across the hall.

Though Ruthe knew in her mind, she need not sorrow for their mother, her goneness now left her with a cold, amputated feeling. As if one of her own arms or legs had been abruptly cut off.

Cathy, the socialite, now shrunken and childlike, clung to Ruthe's arm as if she were the last ray of warmth from her mother. Even while all three applied gobs of tissues to their faces, Cathy wouldn't ease her grip on Ruthe.

"Y'know- both Muriel and Mom tried to t-tell me about the x-citing things that happened when they met you. Sounded like religious talk, S-so I...."

"That's okay," Ruthe soothed.

"No-but, but now it's different. Here you- you cry with me-" She began to hic with fresh sniffles. "Af-after seeing how much you c-care about us, about me- I want to love you back!" "Oh Cath!" exclaimed Muriel.

"@#$%@!" Cathy grabbed Ruthe tighter. "God must think I'm a terrible phoney. Spoilt, selfish! I hate myself too! Listen; can you get God to forgive me?"

Suddenly Ruthe knew what was happening. A tiny giggle burped out, and she hugged Cathy's head, rubbing her nose in the silky blonde hair. "Cathy-O-Cathy! God loves you already! He knows exactly how you feel. He can tell you are truly sorry, and He knows just how bad you are. Better than you do. The important thing is to admit it, and ask Him to forgive you. Then you just let Him do whatever He thinks best to change you, and, of course, obey His Word."

"Does He ever!" added Muriel encouragingly. "I find something new about Him, and me, almost every day now."

"What I want is the kind of quietness He gave you and Mom about dying. I was scared out'a my tree! I still am. It's so for-ev-er!"

Cathy was about to start crying again, so Ruthe and Muriel encircled her with their arms and led the talk to prayer. It would make Jesus become real; they urged her to listen, and then try it.

Ruthe and Muriel found words to express their grief, however, confidence in God flowed in once they got started.

Cathy was hesitant, then broken, then touched in a holy way too.

After that, they had ever so much more to talk about.

Abruptly, Muriel remembered. "O-no! The Chief Operator said this was your grad night when I persuaded her to put my call through!"

"Ruthe," she moaned contritely, "I'm sorry we ruined it for you!"Cathy wanted to know why a May grad instead of June or September, so Ruthe told the story of the class decision to beat the pressures of finals and grad preparations at the same time, and some were leaving the province the day after the last exam.

Suddenly Cathy stood up and took charge. "It's 8:20," she said as Ruthe and Muriel picked themselves up from the candy pink fake fur carpet. "When were the ceremonies to begin? Eight? How long a drive?"

Ruthe said lightly, "I might make it for the scroll presentations and the candlelight march if I hurried." She honestly wasn't in a mood for a graduation after all this, but the girls insisted. They were so sincere, even when she added, "the diplomas are only blank sheets that another girl and I had to antique with tea and tie with ribbons. It's all just symbolic."

"Wait a sec." Cathy cried, dashing out into the hall. She rushed into the room where her mother lay motionless and straight, and her father knelt just as still, his head buried under his arms. She paused an instant. She tiptoed to the bedside stand and broke out three roses and two rosebuds from the pink bouquet.

As she returned to the hall, Muriel seemed to see what Cathy wanted to do, and ran off ahead down the stairs to fetch a roll of green floral tape and a few short wires from the sun room. With quick, efficient twists of her fingers and wrists, Cathy wired the roses and their leaves, while Muriel was off for ribbon and a corsage pin. In another minute the sisters had put it all together and Cathy was deftly attaching the large fragrant corsage to Ruthe's shoulder. "Something Mom would probably have thought to do for you. She wore flowers to everything. Myself, I prefer lights."

"B-ut-t!" Ruthe stuttered with admiration. "How did you learn to do that? It's beautiful! The one thing I thought was missing!"

"Watching Mom, I guess." Cathy's calm smile was amazingly sunny.

At the car, Ruthe promised to stop in the next day to ask about funeral arrangements, then exchanging assurances that God loved them for their profuse expressions of gratitude, she left.

"What an evening!" she sighed. "Not just a vicarious adventure in a book; I lived this!"

Almost immediately she ransacked her mind for a good explanation of her disappearance. She could never tell an outright lie. How could she skirt all the questions that would be asked? Horror of horrors, what if the principal asked her publicly?

No, Lord! she groaned with a lightened sensation as if in a falling dream. Is this going to force my secrets out into the open after all? What will Mom say? She might draw the line and consider letting us go on welfare after all rather than let me work in the city!

She fell silent, utterly deflated.

In a moment more Ruthe laughed aloud. She knew the answer to all this frightened drivel. If You're as loving and great as I told Cathy tonight, You won't be any different when I reach Kleinstadt, will You? You never make a mistake!

Ruthe was breathless and more than nervous as she reached the school auditorium. It was too late for her toast to the teachers. By now the banquet was over and the ceremonies, to be held here, almost done. Good. It's almost over, Lord. In one sweeping motion she glided through the side entrance behind the piano, through the swinging door to the backstage area, and up a few dark steps.

She recognized the familiar drone of the principal, Mr. Logan's voice on the platform and glanced at the darkened auditorium with its sea of shadowy faces and figures. Pausing behind the curtain to catch her breath, she saw that the grads on the platform were rising. Now the gap at her chair was a little less obvious; she would be able to pull it back to step into her place.

Melinda walked to the centre of the platform to accept her scroll and shake the principal's hand, just as they had been coached. Ruthe stood breathing heavily in her spot. Well. I missed the guest speaker even.

While Melinda rustled her chiffon skirts back to her chair, Mr. Logan read from his list, "Ruth Veer-." He stopped to look up, remembering her absence. Surprise and relief flooded his face as he saw her coming for the scroll in his hand. Right on cue. He beamed as he pumped her hand. He sounded as if he truly meant the congratulatory bit he parroted to each of them. Other than that, he carried on as if nothing had gone amiss all evening.

Ruthe appreciated that. At the same time she was overcome with a profound feeling that this pomp and ceremony was quite insignificant in the light of the real life she had just tasted.

Fuss and formality out in this sleepy village, she thought to herself as she fell in line with the others to light their candles, while out there in the world are exciting things to do, like rescuing Muriels and Cathys, comforting dying people. Probably lots more that naive little me, I've never heard about yet.

Oh God,
she prayed, hardly noticing anyone as she stepped into the rehearsed marching line with her candle flickering gingerly. Some would call this youthful idealism, but I don't want to just exist. I want to do important, meaningful things in my life, for others, together with You!

In this cloud of her own, it took time for Ruthe to notice that people were turning to stare after her, whispering. When she did, Ruthe began to scheme her escape. Next time near that door....

But she miscounted while marching. The lights came up and there they stood in their prearranged reception line. The crowd was thickest at her end as people milled around, asking both sincere and snide questions all at once.

"-A matter of life and death, your parents said."

"Yes, a matter of life and death." She repeated it another time or two, as she realized it was a dramatic but evasive answer.

"Sorry, I can't break a confidence," nonplussed a few inquiries.

"Why can't you tell?"

"What kind of emergency would....?"

"That stupid telephone company! I would've told them off!"

However, there were so many others talking at Ruthe that she only shook her head and laughed helplessly. Then she saw a fresh wave of people coming. Seconds later she saw a small rift in the human mass. Ducking and veering sharply, Ruthe disappeared.

Without waiting for the rest of her family at the car, she drove the four odd blocks home and didn't relax until she was in the drive. No sign of the kids, she sighed. She was glad Brandt and her sisters had gone to the ceremonies, though only parents were invited to the banquet at six.

Ruthe was also glad she had got away before her classmates tried to wheedle her to come along to the all night grad party and breakfast a few miles up the river. They would have had fun tormenting her to tell all they wanted to know, or wanted to believe.

She opened the car doors on both sides and stretched out her full five feet and seven inches (1.5m) on the front seat. She looked up at the deepening blue way up in the sky and for several minutes simply breathed her lungs full of the delicious evening air. The only sounds, a cricket chorus in a muddy dugout a diagonal block away over a vacant lot of willow bushes, and the hum of the highway traffic shuttling past the little town. Closing her eyes, Ruthe yawned contentedly. A cooling breeze visited and went on.

Her mind cleared so she could see her life in perspective again. As she replayed the evening in her mind, she noticed things she had been too absorbed to see before, and saw questions to ask and consider. She was eager to work them all out with her most intimate Friend.

Hearing the shrill voices of her sisters up the street, she shifted herself and sat up. More urgent now was to pray for calm and wisdom in talking with her own family members in the next few minutes. Ruthe drew in spiritual strength with a deep breath.






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