Thursday, September 29, 2022

BECOMING - Chapter 23

                       CHAPTER 23

There was no reason to put it off any longer. Jack’s letter had arrived Saturday, and still Cynthia had not managed a response. Why would she have? After all, the man was a complete stranger, little more than a name from her past. He might even be one of those online predators she had read about. Over and over she had recounted the reasons why encouraging him was a bad idea. 

And each time her thoughts trickled back to one undeniable fact. As far as she knew, Jack Benz was the only person in her world who cared enough to ask how she was doing, and certainly the only one who had offered to be her friend. For that reason alone, he at least deserved to be let down softly. Her message would be short. An email would suffice. 

She spent a few minutes Tuesday afternoon listing the points she wanted to make. By the time she logged onto her email site Wednesday morning, she was ready with her reply.


Pardon me for taking so long to answer your letter. At first I didn’t know what to say, or how to say it in a civil tone. I was surprised at how angry it made me to hear that you knew I had a secret. It felt like I was being spied on.

But when I took time to think about it I realized that my secret shouldn’t have been a secret in the first place. The people who see me every day know that I’ve had a stroke. It’s no secret to them. They can tell by looking at me, or hearing me talk.

My therapist tells me I shouldn’t be ashamed about what happened to me. It wasn’t my fault, nothing I chose to have happen. Still, even though my condition has improved with time and therapy, I’m not the person I was before. I never will be. That bothers me a lot. It bothered my husband so much that he could not bear to look at me. 

As for the feelings you wrote about, those fantasies of yours. I can assure you no one fantasizes about the person I’ve become. You wouldn’t if you saw me. I’m in no condition to make a good first impression on anyone.

I appreciate your interest, but I can’t be the person you think you knew, and I can’t do what you ask.

Cynthia Larson

She sent the email on its way, then paused.... struck by a surprising realization. For most of three days Jack’s unexpected interest, and thoughts of how she would respond, had pulled her beyond what had become the dominant theme of her post-stroke life....the painful, angry questions of why those trials had been visited on her. 

It had become a lifestyle, that self-pity of hers. In that case, how could she have guessed that, if only for a while, a blunt-talking old man could move her beyond those depressing thoughts?

Jack Benz’ talk of being a friend had an undeniable appeal. There was no friend like that in her life. But he had also written of reality, and its place in his dreams. What kind of reality would allow for a friend like her? 


There must have been something going on at the college that noon hour. There were no students anywhere in the place. Except for a couple guys across the room making a fuss about some televised ball game, it felt as though Jack and I had the Terrace all to ourselves. We took a booth at the end of the long window overlooking the creek and ordered a beer. For the first few minutes I must have been more quiet than usual, at least that was what Jack noticed.

“Is it Maria who has you thinking those deep thoughts?” He liked to pretend that be could read my mind. It was his way of kidding. At that moment it was hard to laugh off his probably accidental insight.

“I suppose so,” I answered. “At least she’s part of it. There are times I feel too damn old for this ‘relationship’ stuff. She’s a nice lady, but she has some very frustrating ideas. It’s hard to get my head around some of them.”

“As strange as a sixty-three year old drop out, who spends his days writing geriatric love stories?” That struck Jack as particularly funny. “That’s what you call them, isn’t it? Geriatric love stories.”

“Her ideas are even stranger than that.” For the next few minutes I offered him an in-depth review of ‘God’s Judgment 101,’ complete with a brief description of Maria’s depressing symptoms.

As I finished, Jack drained his beer and offered a sympathetic smile. “That is heavy stuff,” he nodded. “Heavy, and seriously strange. Are you sure you want to follow her through all that? There’s no telling where it could lead.”

“It’s not like I decided to go there. I didn’t sign up for that. It just happened. Anyway, it’s nothing I can turn off. I like the lady. I’d like her to be happy.”

“With you?”

“Yeah, I guess so. That’s what I’d like.” I looked up to find Jack grinning back at me. “What’s that silly smirk about?” I asked.

“I’m just wondering. That’s all.”

“Wondering what?”

“It was what, four years ago when you checked out of your you could tell your stories without having to deal with all that other stuff? That’s right, isn’t it?”

I could tell where Jack was leading me. He had heard me talk about those last months with Sandra ....the constant bickering and my own sharp-edged guilt. He knew how the unlikely promise of my writing had kept me going through those times.

“Yeah, that was it,” I nodded.

“So how is this different?," he asked. "Does Maria interfere with your story telling, like Sandra did? Or can you have it both ways now?”

I took a moment to finish my sandwich, while I composed the most honest response I could manage. I owed my best friend that much. 

“My writing has turned to crap," I began. "It gets about half my attention. And it shows. But right now I don’t seem to care. Maria is hurting and I want to help her.”

“So how is this different? How is Maria different than Sandra?” 

Whoa! That caught me by surprise. “Lots of ways,” I stammered. “The thing is, Maria makes no demands at all. Whatever I’ve done with her I’ve done because I wanted to, not because she was leaning on me. I guess that’s the biggest difference.”

“So maybe you can have it both ways. Is that what you’re saying?

“Look,” I was still scrambling to answer his last question. “The last year or so with Sandra was a real hassle. It was one battle after another....about what she wanted and what I wanted, and how the two were so different. She wanted things to stay the same. I knew they’d already changed. There was no way I could put that genie back in the bottle.”

While I was wishing he would talk about something else, Jack plowed ahead in his devil’s advocate role. 

“Sandra was your wife, Carl. Didn’t that give her the right to want things too? Are you saying you’re fine with Maria as long as she doesn’t want something you don’t want? Is that it? What if she comes up with some ‘wants’ of her own? What then?”

Damn, I wanted to wipe that smirk off his face. I drained my beer and waved to the bar girl for one more. To hell with a two drink limit. I did not have to go back to work like Jack. I was tired of his prying and ready for something different. Without a second thought, I took charge, changing the subject a full one hundred and eighty degrees.

"So tell me about Cynthia," I offered. "You said you got an answer from her. What did you find out?”

Jack acknowledged my retreat with a nod, and just as quickly turned somber. “It was a stroke,” he said. “I don’t know how bad it was. But she’s doing well enough to be in the assisted-living place, instead of a nursing home. She told me that.”

“A stroke. I guess that shouldn’t be so surprising. Not at our age. None of us comes with an extended warranty, do we?”

“I suppose that’s right. But I think it’s a good sign that she’s willing to talk about it. It took some nerve to do that, considering she doesn’t even know me.”

“So what are you going to do?”

“I want to see her," I said. "I need to go up to Tacoma.”

“Are you sure?” Perhaps it was time for a restraining tug on Jack’s leash. 

“Three weeks ago you were sure that you’d never find her," I continued. "Last week you were just as sure she wanted nothing to do with you. Now, all of a sudden, you’re ready to rush off to Tacoma. What’s changed? Besides, do you even know what kind of shape she’s in?”

I knew that Jack must have asked himself that same question. He was not the kind to act on impulse. Except, of course, concerning anything having to do with his irrational Cynthia Larson fantasy. Was he in that space again....allowing his heart to overrule the cold logic of her situation?

“I don’t know how she is,” he said. “I guess a stroke can mean lots of things. But what if she’s really messed up? Wouldn’t that mean she needs a friend even more? Near as I can tell she doesn’t have too many of those.”

“I expect she has one more than she knew about a few days ago.”

“Yeah. I think she does. I kind of like that feeling.”


Thursday night. Jack Benz was at his desk composing his response to Cynthia’s email. There were several things to address, each one needing to be said just right. As before, there was more than a single email’s worth.  He had spent half-an-hour assembling his notes on a yellow writing pad.... scratching out lines, adding words, using long curling arrows to connect ideas that went together. 

Finally, he paused to make sense of his scribbles, imagining how he would organize the diverse thoughts. No matter how he said what needed saying the resulting letter was bound to be long and hard to read. 

Jack had always considered himself a telephone and email kind of guy, preferring the informality and immediacy they provided. If ever a time called for the clarifying advantage of instant feedback, his current situation fit that description. It was time to take a chance.

Actually, Jack had never stopped to consider what he would hear if Cynthia Larson was speaking to him. He did not recall that she had ever talked to him in the course of his persistent daydreams. From the beginning the possibility of a telephone conversation had been too remote to even consider. That was about to change.

It took a few moments to locate the phone number from a web-search site, and another few seconds for the Forest Gardens front desk to transfer his call to Cynthia’s room. Finally he heard her single word greeting. “Yes?”

“Hello there.” Jack was trying for a casual, matter-of-fact greeting. She must have heard the anxious trembling in his words. “It’s Jack Benz, from Tanner. I thought it was time we talked.”

“Oh my. I thought it was the office. They’re the only ones who ever call me.” 

The words came at a labored pace, in a decided monotone. Vowels were formed slowly, drawn out. Sharp-edged consonant sounds were not entirely distinct. Some words arrived in ill-formed syllables, with an unfamiliar emphasis. Still from Cynthia's very first sentence Jack heard and understood every word. There was no doubt at all what she was saying.

“Well, it’s me,” he repeated. “It seemed like a good time for us to get past the emails and letters. I thought we needed to talk, and this seemed like the right time.”

“What do we have to talk about?” 

“Let’s start with your last email, where you tried to lecture me on who I shouldn’t fantasize about, and who can’t make a good impression. That’s a good place to start.” Was he treading too close to the edge, he wondered....offering his subtle touch of humor.

“Jack. Can’t you tell? Talking is hard for me. People can’t understand what I say. I’m not sure this will work.”

“Hey, you sound just fine to me. If there’s something I don’t understand, I’ll let you know. Okay?” 

Indeed, he was pleasantly surprised how easily they were communicating. The hardest part was forcing himself to wait, to listen at the pace of her speaking, without appearing to hurry her. That was becoming more difficult by the second, because at that moment his head was filling with things he wanted to say. But he waited, until she had finished.

“Look, Cindy. There’s so much ....”

“Cynthia,” she interrupted. “It’s Cynthia. Cindy was a little girl. I’m Cynthia.”

“Thank you. I’ll try to remember that.” Jack was not so sure he liked that change. Cindy Welton would probably be a hard habit to break. “Anyway,” he continued. “I have some things I hope I can say right. If you don’t want to talk, at least please listen.”

“I will. Except when I have to correct you.” He heard the teasing in her stumbling words.

“Feel free to correct,” he laughed. A moment later he had turned serious. “First of all, I’m no expert on strokes. But maybe I know some things that you don’t. Here’s one. The stroke may have changed you. I’m sure it did. But who you are....the person inside, the real you....that hasn’t changed at all. Okay?”

He paused, waiting for a reaction, but she did not respond. “You also said you’re not up to making a good first impression," he continued. "The thing is, you don’t have to do that, at least not for me. Cindy Welton made an impression on me in the sixth grade. I was a fan then. I’ve always been a fan, even when she moved on to bigger and better things and became Cynthia Larson. So please, don’t be finding fault with my good taste.”

“Jack, will you be serious.” Cynthia had found her voice again. “You don’t know me at all. I’m not a sixth grader. You have no idea what impression you’d have if you saw me now.”

Jack tracked back to the first hearing of her words, just minutes before, and his worries about comprehending her speech. He was amazed at how easy it was. He understood everything she was saying. The initial awareness of how different she sounded had been pushed aside.

“Cynthia, you’re making an impression right now. It tells me that you’re being honest about what you’re dealing with. Honest and brave.”

Was he moving too fast, being too bold? Perhaps. Then he reminded himself he might never have another chance to speak so directly. It was a time for boldness. 

“That honesty impresses me a lot," Jack added. "It’s what I like in a friend. It makes me want to know you better. It even has me thinking about a trip to Tacoma. I hear it’s really nice there this time of year.”

“What are you saying?” He heard the startled anxiety in her halting words.

“I’m saying that I’d like to come see you, in Tacoma. If I’m invited, that is.”

Her answer was a long time coming. When it arrived Jack was straining to hear her soft whisper. “Are you sure that’s a good idea”

“Cynthia.” There was a new firmness in his voice. “It is a good idea, a very good idea. It would help us get past all the email and letter stuff. We could actually talk, face to face.”

“You’d come all this way, just to see me?”

“You bet I would.” Jack drew a deep breath, telling himself to slow down. “Just for a visit. That’s all. To get acquainted. Maybe it would help you feel better about having a new friend. After that we could play it by ear.”

“You’re sure?”

“Of course I’m sure. You just say when and I can be there in four hours. Three if I hurry.”

“I don’t want you getting a speeding ticket.” For the first time he heard her laugh. It was strained, as though it might hurt. But she did not hold back.

“I’d be careful.”

“And we could talk?”

“For as long as you wanted.”

“There’s one more thing.” This time her awkward laugh was more subdued. “You’d have to give me a couple of days notice, so I could have my hair done. I look a fright.”

“I’d do that.”

For another few minutes they exchanged timid small talk, neither of them sure how far to take their first conversation. Finally Cynthia stepped forward to make her point. “I don’t want to be impolite, but I’m rather tired. I think I should be going.”

“I understand,” he said. “When you have time, please think about my idea. It’s a good one. I hope you’ll think so too.”

With a promise to stay in touch, Jack said his goodbyes and set the phone back on its charging stand. He closed his eyes and replayed the instant when he first heard Cynthia on the line. He had welcomed her emails. Each one had made his day. But a real telephone conversation? That was off the charts.

There was no controlling the stream of returning impressions, each one revisiting some part of the tortuous path that had led to those moments on the phone. 

Each step had been an important part of the whole....his calls to the law school alumni office and San Francisco law firm....talking with Eric Larson, hoping against hope that he would relay his message to Cynthia....waiting for her response, hoping to keep her interested enough to answer his emails. 

There were so many ways the process could have failed. Yet there he was, recounting its success. 

He walked to the computer. Fifteen seconds later the message, perhaps his shortest email ever, was on its way.


Thanks for a wonderful surprise. 



Tuesday, September 27, 2022

BECOMING - Chapter 22


          CHAPTER 22

Carl had left, leaving Maria alone in the darkness of her room. For an hour or more she sat watching blurry car lights come and go on the rain-soaked street outside her window. In that shadowy quiet her thoughts drifted from here to there....always returning to Carl Postell’s parting words about a shared “Becoming” and “Their new reasons to keep going.”

The traumatic highs and lows of their Coos Bay venture....the affirming night together and the shock of its crushing conclusion....had sent her into hiding, wallowing in self pity, mourning the loss of the daughter she had never known. The burden of that hurt, heaped on the remains of her earlier losses, had threatened to bury her until Carl offered his welcome hint of “something more.”

For as long as Maria could remember the God she had known was One to be feared. She had learned those lessons as a dutiful, obedient, and fearing. In all that time, even when dutiful and obedient seemed out of reach, she had never stopped fearing.

From her jaded perspective a lifetime of events had aligned to to reinforce the awful truth. Any love she might find was destined to be lost. Anything that might be labeled “good” was destined to turn “bad.” 

It had been that way with Arturo, whose love had been lost before she realized what it was. And then Luis, whose love had sustained her in ways only a child’s love could, until it too was lost. And finally there was Valerie. Without once setting eyes on the girl Maria had found, then lost, her daughter’s love.

In the course of those terrible trials there had never been anyone to offer a more productive answer, a better way of comprehending her history of unending misfortune. 

Even as a young girl Maria had known that the God her mother spoke of, the One El Padre Pablo preached about, was somehow different than the One her friends were being introduced to in the big churches downtown, where most of the town’s Hispanic population worshipped. 

Though she had secretly envied the others for the caring God they were taught to know, there had been no escaping the narrow path she followed. Her mother’s dramatic cautions had been sown early and never challenged. How could they have been, with El Padre lurking in the shadows?

Yet, from the first time he had heard Maria’s depressing “God talk,” Carl Postell had insisted that she consider a radically different understanding. The God he spoke of sounded very much like the One her childhood friends had known....the One who offered a love that would not be taken away. Could that possibly be true?

Beyond that, what was she to make of Carl himself? In her limited experience with men he was the first she had known who was willing to make her well-being an obvious priority. His concern was undeniably real. The proof was in his manner. 

He had never shown the slightest hesitation at being seen in the company of a mere caregiver, even a Latina caregiver. Not once in all their time together had he raised his voice, let alone threatened more physical behavior. In her experience it had not always been that way.

Then, just hours before, Carl’s surprising talk of them living together had raised their connection to a new level. She understood the concept of commitment, but beyond the most superficial level it had never been a part of her normally-brief relationships. For the first time ever, Carl’s surprising suggestion had her thinking of that possibility in personal terms.

His interest could not be ignored. It was more than just his words, or his hopeful notion of a God she did not recognize. It was his unembarrassed caring, his willingness to help, his eagerness to please. 

He had arrived at her doorstep just in time.... pulling her to safety when it felt like she was going down for the third time. Now he was asking to make the sanctuary he represented a permanent thing....a part of their becoming. No man had ever offered her that. Why would she not accept his unexpected invitation?


Cynthia Larson passed the long row of mailboxes twice a day....on her way to the dining room, then back to her apartment. However, she rarely stopped to see if there was any mail for her.

She and Eric had been childless. From the beginning their plan had been to avoid the disruptive distractions of parenthood. That in turn meant that at her present stage of life there were no children or grandchildren sending her cards or letters. Her old friends from the Bay area never wrote. And given her new lifestyle there were no bills or advertisements coming in the mail. So after lunch on Saturday she sailed right past the mailboxes, just like always, until she heard her name called out. 

“Mrs. Larson.” It was Sally, one of the housekeeping girls. “Did you see that you had a letter today?”

“Me? Why no, I didn’t bother to check.”

“Well you do. I remember, because you don’t get much mail. Let me get it for you.”

A moment later Sally handed Cynthia the long envelope. It was postmarked TANNER, OR. The hand-written return address read “J. Benz.” What was Jack Benz up to now? She slipped the letter under her shawl and continued on down the hall.

Back in her room, in front of the long window that overlooked the reflecting pools, she opened Jack’s letter and took a minute to scan each of the two pages. Soon she was frowning at his talk of secrets and mysteries, and his boldly stated offer of friendship.

Cynthia’s initial impulse was to crumple his presumptuous message and throw it as far as she could. What gave him the right to say those things? Someone like him, of all people. He was a stranger, prying into the most personal corners of her life. 

Seconds later, as those first angry emotions faded, she unfolded the pages and read his words once more, this time more carefully. How did he know about the assisted-living facility and her troubles? 

And his silly talk of feelings for her. That made no sense at all. He did not know her any more than she knew him. She had read of women falling prey to internet predators. What else could explain Mr. Benz’ inexplicable interest?

A moment later Cynthia slipped the letter under the thin blanket that covered her lap. Pushing the control lever forward, she steered her motorized power chair across the room to the full-length mirror next to the bedroom door. There she stopped to look at her own reflection, wondering what Jack Benz would think of the image that looked back at her.

As always her gimpy right arm rested in her lap. The still-weakened right leg was hidden discretely under the ever-present blanket. Beyond that, of course, were the signs she could not conceal....the lingering stiffness that gripped the right side of her face....the drooping eyelid and sagging jowl. Even her most sincere smile had become crooked and unconvincing. 

As strokes go, hers had been no more than moderate. Still, after twenty-three months of natural healing and continued therapy the evidence of its impact remained. What people saw now was a chair-bound Cynthia, but obviously infirmed.

In the privacy of her apartment, where her struggles were out of sight, she shuffled around with the help of her walker, caring for herself in every way. It was a hard way to live, physically and mentally, but necessary to qualify for an Assisted Living facility. Having spent the early months of her recuperation in a nursing home, she was determined never to return there.

So, in Forest Garden’s long hallways and dining room Cynthia relied on the speed and comfort of her power chair. On her occasional trips outside the facility a collapsible wheelchair offered the same advantages. 

But in her room, beyond the prying eyes of all but the aides and housekeeping staff, she set those helps aside. Relying on her walker and other aids she carried on with the always frustrating task of living an independent life.

It was, however, what people heard when she spoke that caused Cynthia the greatest distress. Months of therapy had softened the initial symptoms....though the slurred, distorted speech remained and always would. 

Extended conversation remained an act of tiring frustration, not to mention embarrassment. She had learned to avoid those trials whenever possible. She preferred to eat alone in the corner of the dining room, away from talkative neighbors, retreating quickly after each meal to the solitary quiet of her room. 

Worst of all were the dark spells, sometimes lasting for weeks. In those times, waves of depression washed over her....threatening to overwhelm her carefully constructed defenses, leaving her exposed and vulnerable, especially when she confronted the still-painful loss of Eric’s companionship. 

After thirty-eight years of marriage he had been unable to accept a seriously-altered Cynthia as the woman he had loved and married. His defection, in the hours of her greatest need, had hurt in ways she could never have imagined.

On leaving, Eric had reluctantly agreed to finance Cynthia’s ongoing care, treatment, and living expenses. Their settlement, she thought of it as his exit fee, had assured her financial security. In return for his economic largess, Eric was free to turn elsewhere for the companionship he craved. 

Once more Cynthia took Jack's letter from her lap and studied it. He said he wanted to know her. He wanted to be her friend. Looking back at the mirror, she took in the sight of the worn and unappealing woman who stared back at her. 

Jack had written of reality, probably remembering Cindy Welton....the cheerleader and Prom Queen. Even if he meant what he said, even if his intentions were above board, what would that impulsive old man say if he saw the reality of her latest incarnation? She was certainly nothing at all like the girl he remembered.

Sunday, September 25, 2022

BECOMNG - Chaper 21


           CHAPTER 21

A visit is out of the question.” 

For days Jack had been stymied by the insistence of Cynthia’s blunt declaration. His hopes of meeting the woman who had inexplicably become his obsession had seemed within reach, until she turned him away with a single short sentence. Since Friday he had been mired in dark thoughts, certain that his last chance was slipping away. 

During the months he had searched for her Jack had come to accept each new clue, each step closer, as something that was intended to though the stars were aligning, guiding him over and around the obstacles that threatened to end his chances. 

Each time some likely failure turned to success his confidence was reinforced. Finding Cynthia Larson was meant to happen. Having relied on that certainty for so long, her unequivocal denial was all the more difficult to accept.

Reviewing those same clues once more, he returned to one new and unsettling piece of information. Cynthia Larson’s home was apparently an Assisted Living facility. It seemed that she had problems of her own. What did that mean? 

Finally, having stalled as long as he dared, Jack sat down after dinner on Wednesday to compose a response to her blunt rejection. There was so much he wanted to say....too much for a casual email. It would take a letter. He had her address. Why not let the US Mail deliver his message? His first draft filled nearly three handwritten pages. Half an hour later he had condensed it to a page and a half, and entered it on the computer to be printed out.

Dear Cynthia,

I’m pretty sure you didn’t expect to hear from me again. I suppose you were hoping you wouldn’t. But I’m a sucker for mysteries, especially ones that include secrets. So here I am.

As near as I can tell the mystery is about us.... both of us, and our secrets. I don’t know what your secret is, but I’m pretty sure you have one. And I’ll admit I have one too. So it seems to me that we’re even on that score. Does that sound mysterious enough so far?

I’ll start with what I know about your secret. It won’t take long, because I don’t know very much. I’ve done some cyber snooping lately. It appears the address you gave me is an Assisted Living place. Am I right? If so, I haven’t any idea why you’re there, and it really doesn’t matter.

Now for my secret. I hope you’re sitting down, because this is going to sound seriously strange.... though perhaps you’ve already guessed what it is. I haven’t seen you since high school, and I didn’t know you then. As I remember our heyday together was in the sixth grade. 

Anyway, for reasons I can’t explain, the thought of you has got stuck in my head. It’s been there a while. I have thoughts and feelings about you that won’t go away. 

I say that I can’t explain them, but in fact I probably can. I’m sure they have something to do with how I thought about you way back then. Near as I can tell, those feelings haven’t changed. They’re what sent me chasing all over the place trying to find you. Crazy, eh? 

I realize how bizarre this sounds. When I stop to read what I just wrote it sounds that way to me too. I can almost see you laughing. But I’m not joking. I am absolutely sober and serious. I know there are guys on the internet who talk that way to take advantage of ladies. That’s not me. So please, don’t run for the door yet.

I know there’s a chance I’ll scare you off for good. But I owe you the truth. If I chicken out now I’ll probably never find the nerve again. The worst that can happen is that I’ll look stupid. That’s okay. I’ve been there before. In any case, I’m glad my secret is out in the open.

When I think about it, my secret is probably the easiest of the two to live with. It’s a fantasy, of course. I’ve known that all along. That means I don’t have to pay attention to the reality of it. In fact, reality is usually the worst thing that can happen to a fantasy.

There could be lots of reasons why you’re where you are. Whatever it is, it must involve some serious reality of your own. If you think a new friend could help you deal with that, I’d like to volunteer.

Now I guess you have a choice to make. You can have a laugh, then throw this in the trash. Or you can take some time, and I hope you will, to think about having a new friend. I can only speak for myself. I need a friend right now, a good friend. If you have an opening for someone like that in your life, it would be great to hear from you.

Have a good day,   Jack Benz


In the days following our return from Coos Bay Maria could not bring herself to look life in the eye. The loss of someone she had known only as a growing life in her belly, and more recently as a soft feminine name, had completely devastated her, sending her into motivational though she had literally run out of reasons to go on. When I called she had little to say beyond, “I really want to be alone right now.” 

On Wednesday the staffing agency sent someone else to Dad’s. By Friday evening I was both frustrated and worried. I could not put it off any longer. It was time to face Maria’s withdrawal head on. I stopped by her apartment after work, prepared to do whatever it took to get through to her. 

I had knocked on her door at least three times, the third time loudly enough to have the next door neighbor checking me out. Finally Maria cracked the door enough to see me standing there. It was nearly six o’clock and she was still in her housecoat. Without a word I pushed the door open, stepped inside, and wrapped her in a smothering hug, a comfort she seemed willing to accept. 

 “I don’t think you’ll find me very good company,” she said, leaning back from my embrace. “I’m not doing real well with people right now.”

“That’s okay. This isn’t a social call. I’m here to help, if I can. You can’t keep hiding out like this.” 

I straightened up to look around the single space that served as living room, dining room, and kitchen. A second later I realized the obvious. There were no dishes in the sink and no sign that Maria had eaten anything all day, and perhaps the day before.

“I’m doing just fine,” she finally replied,

“No, you’re not. I’ll bet you haven’t had a decent meal in days. Let’s go out and get some dinner?”

She held out the folds of her house dress for me to see. “I can’t very well go like this, can I? And my’s a fright. Besides, I’m not hungry.”

“Maria, you have to eat. What if I brought something back here? Would that work?”

That did the trick. Her dour resistance seemed to melt before my eyes. “Why don’t you get us a sandwich,” she nodded. “Something light, not too filling.”

Twenty minutes later we were seated at her kitchen table. Watching her attack the BLT sandwich I brought for her it was obvious that she had indeed been very hungry. It was half gone before she paused to look up and ask, “How’s your father doing? I know I should have been there Wednesday, but I just wasn’t ready for that.”

“That’s okay,” I said. “He understands. But he’s worried about you. He hopes you’ll be able to make it tomorrow. And he still worries that I’m pestering you too much.”

Maria laughed an unconvincing little laugh. “I’ll have to talk to him about that. I want him to know that his son is the one person who is helping me get through all this.”

“I just wish I could do more, something to make you feel better.

“I’m feeling better, honest.”

I was tempted to debate her suspect logic. But on second thought, why? What good would that do? Instead I did the dishes....if stuffing a sack of sandwich wrappers and cardboard soda cups into the waste basket counted as that. 

With that chore done we moved to the sagging, well-worn couch in the far corner of the room. There, with her head snuggled against my shoulder, I handed Maria the television remote. She handed it right back.

“There’s nothing on that I want to watch,” she said. “I just want to be here. To feel like this.... warm and not afraid.”

“Afraid? Of what?”

“Of feeling the way I feel.” She tilted her head back, looked up at me and gently pressed her hand over my mouth. “Just hold me, please. And be quiet.” 

That worked for me, for at least a minute or two. Perhaps our strained quiet was putting Maria’s mind at ease. It did not work that way for me. Instead it only created a space for new and insistent questions to gather, until they finally spilled out into the silence.

“What is it you’re afraid of?” I asked again. There was no answer, just the warmth of her face against my shoulder. “Whatever it is, I want to make it go away.”

Without looking up she nodded. “That would be nice.”

“Would it help if I was here all the time?” 

For long seconds there was only the in and out of our breathing, and the stirring of a very unexpected idea that seemed to have arrived out of thin idea I was not ready to let go of. 

“We could do that, you know," I added. "We could be together all the time. Here or at my place, either one. You wouldn’t have to be alone. Not ever.”

Maria pushed herself off my shoulder and leaned back to look up at me. Was she scowling because I had disturbed her quiet or because I had suggested such a bold, perhaps uncalled for, living arrangement?

“What is that look for?” I wondered out loud. “Do you think that’s a bad idea? Or maybe that I don’t care that much about you? Is that it? Or are you afraid that I might run off and leave you alone?”

I was not sure which of those possibilities she was reacting to....but the sudden energy of her response was enough to startle me. She bolted from my shoulder and pushed herself to the other end of the couch. There, curled up in a tight, knee-hugging ball, it seemed she was trying to shut out everything but her own dark thoughts.

“Maria, is this about that God of yours?”  I was not prepared to tiptoe around what there was no hiding from. “The One who takes away good things, and makes bad things happen to you? Is that what this is about?”

She had no answer. I did not expect one. I was once again challenging the elemental core of her faith. This time, however, I had a better understanding of why she believed what she did. 

I knew what she accepted as truth....those dour beliefs that had sprung from seeds planted in her childhood by a renegade priest who preached the threat of God’s cruel judgment. Growing up, those dark seeds had been nurtured by a mother who saw terrible perils lurking everywhere. 

Even though I had a better idea of why Maria believed what she did, I was not constrained by her rigid convictions. There were things I needed to say, even if she did not want to hear them.

“Maria, I’m not going to leave you alone. And your God won’t either. That’s not the way He is.”  My hand on her shoulder was meant to comfort. She pushed it away in a most uncomfortable manner.

“Come on,” I complained. “The God I’ve heard people talk about is supposed to be about love. Isn’t that right?”

 Her head raised from her knees, just enough to peek up at me. “That’s right, isn’t it?” I asked again. “People say that God is love.” 

I reached out and tilted her chin up until I could see her eyes. “Maria, I don’t know that much about God. But I do know that in this world there are givers and there are takers. You are one of God’s givers. I know that. And I can’t believe that He turns His back on the givers. Not the way you think He does.”

I paused for a moment, rather pleased with my spontaneous theological observation. It struck me as true. Even more surprising, I had actually found the words to say it out loud. Maria’s sad look, however, reminded me that it pleased me more than it did her. 

I slid across the couch and pulled her back to my shoulder. “You know how I feel about you. I think you feel that way too. We have to keep hold of those feelings....and lean on each other when things are hard, like now.”

“I want to do that.

“Then do it. Think of those feelings that we have as your God’s way of helping us get past our hurt.

"We have new reasons to keep going....both of us. As long as we don’t forget that, we can turn those feelings into something special. They can be part of that ‘becoming’ I told you about before.”

Friday, September 23, 2022

BECOMING - Chapter 20

              CHAPTER 20

The next morning, even before I opened my eyes, I sensed the slow rhythm of Maria’s breathing and the warmth of her leg against mine. A moment later I was aware of something more, though I could not name the unfamiliar intuition. I rolled to my side and opened my eyes. There she was, leaning on her elbow, looking straight into my face, smiling her smile. My God! I was tempted to go back to sleep, just so I could wake up again to that incredible surprise.

Buenos dias,” she whispered. “I wasn’t sure you’d ever wake up.”

“I wasn’t sure I wanted to.” I rubbed my eyes, blinking to bring her face into focus. “My dreams were too good to leave behind.” 

I sat up to look at the clock on the night stand. Seven-fifteen, a thoroughly civil hour that offered plenty of time for conversation and other diversions.

Maria, however, was signaling an interest in other possibilities. Sitting up to hug her knees, she asked, “What time do veterinary clinics open? I can’t wait to get started.” 

I will admit to a momentary reluctance. Why the big hurry? Yet when she climbed out of bed and started for the bathroom I realized it was time to accept her new priorities. 

“Okay,” I yelled behind her. “We’ll get some breakfast, then be on our way.” I suppose she heard the lack of enthusiasm in my grumbling suggestion.

I thought that was the end of it, until she poked her head back through the bathroom door. “Don’t you go pouting,” she teased. “Any day that starts this good is bound to get even better.”

That was enough to stop me cold. I stood there in my boxers, in the middle of the room, certain that my most extravagant vision of being affirmed had just been affirmed.

At the next-door restaurant I had a hard time understanding why Maria even bothered to order. Except for the coffee, she scarcely touched a thing. My own hopes for a leisurely meal with the morning newspaper were quickly sabotaged by her nervous fidgeting. Before I had finished the sports section I realized she could not sit still much longer.

“Are you ready?” I asked.

“Finish your breakfast,” she insisted. “You’re not half done.”

“I’ve had enough. We need to get on the road before you explode. A quiet lunch with Valerie will work better for both of us. Let’s go see some veterinarians.”


It takes only a few visits to realize that veterinary clinics cater primarily to pets, most of whom happen to arrive in the company of a human attendant. About half of those creatures, especially  the neurotic cats (which would be most of them), are wrapped in towels or cowering behind their human’s legs. The other half, usually ill-trained canines, are turned loose to sniff and paw at every person in the room. If you happen to arrive without the prerequisite pet in tow, like we did that morning, you are fair game for every inquisitive animal in the place.

Fortunately, at our first stop as petless visitors Maria was able to gain the attention of the young attendant before the waiting puppies created a problem. Unfortunately, the girl was new on the job. She knew there was no Valerie working there at the moment, but was not sure if there ever had been.

“The doctor will be in about ten,” she explained. “He’d know if she ever worked here.”

We thanked her and walked back to the car. “One down. Four to go,” I said. “If we don’t find her anywhere else we can come back here. But I don’t think we’ll have to do that. We’re about due to get lucky. I can feel the good vibrations. Can’t you?”

Maria was too keyed up to share in my fun. From the first moment she heard of Valerie coming to Coos Bay she was convinced her search would end here. She had invested a great deal of emotional energy in that outcome. Now her investment was on the line.

If my feeble encouragement was not enough to lift her spirits, the smiling gray-haired assistant at our next stop certainly knew how to do that. 

“Of course,” she exclaimed. “I know Val. We took classes together at the community college. She’s such a sweetheart. She works for Dr. Bryant, just over the bridge towards Reedsport. I haven’t seen her for a while, but that’s where I expect you’ll find her.” 

As we turned to leave the lady called out to Maria. “She’s your daughter? You should be so proud of her. She’s such a lovely girl. Smart, and so good with animals.”

Dr. Bryant’s....over the bridge.” I half expected to see Maria walking on air as she repeated those words to herself. Her long search was over. She had made a promise to herself and she was about to keep it.

“Dr. Bryant is in Portland this week.” The middle-aged woman greeted us from behind the counter as she hung her smock on a wall hook. “Perhaps I can help you.”

“It’s Valerie,” Maria said. “We’ve come to see Valerie. Or Val.”

Maria paused, tight-lipped with expectant emotion. I stepped up to explain. “This is Valerie’s mother. She’s come to see her.”

Have you ever had that feeling....the knowing that something was terribly wrong....even before there was any reason to know that? Perhaps there was something in the woman’s expression, or maybe the way she turned away from my words.

“You are Val’s mother?” She studied Maria for a moment, tilting her head to the side as she asked her next, most remarkable question. “Her ‘real’ mother? Or ‘the other one?’”

Maria tried to force a smile. “Her real mother.” Then, as the hurt registered on the woman’s face, Maria too seemed to sense that awful premonition. “Is she here? Is she okay?”

The attendant was biting her lip. Without a word she hurried around the counter to Maria's side. An instant later they came together as if drawn by a magnet.... their arms around each other, their head on each other’s shoulder. Without a word they seemed to be offering silent comfort for unspoken pain. A moment later I heard their restrained sobbing and turned away, letting them have their grief to themselves.

The woman, her name was Carrie Rissen, took Maria’s arm and led her to a chair. When Maria’s red, tear-filled eyes finally looked up to her, Carrie began her quiet explanation. 

“She knew that you’d come. She always knew that. We talked about it. She told me that from the time she was in grade school, when she first knew she was adopted, she’d waited for you to come get her. With all the problems she had at home, the thought of being with you was the one thing she looked forward to.”

“She talked about that?” Maria asked. “About how it had been at home?”

“Oh yes. Parts of that were enough to make her cry. She made her step-mother sound like a monster. To make matters worse, her father apparently didn’t know how to stand up to his wife ....or how to look out for Val.”

Carrie paused, eyes closed, lost in thought, or more likely in sad memories. “She’d lived a hard life as a youngster," she finally added. "She couldn’t wait to get away from there. Even after she got here, there were times when that past weighed her down. That’s when I’d find her out in the kennels, with a kitten or puppy on her lap, petting it and talking baby talk.”

For a few seconds the two of them sat there in silence. I suppose Maria was processing Carrie’s sad word picture. Then, through her red, moist eyes she glanced up with her tearful questions. “What happened? Why didn’t she wait for me?”

“It was last spring. Val and Jeffrey, he was her boy friend, went off to Crescent City for the weekend.” From where I stood across the room I watched as Carrie struggled to say what must be said. “It had been a hard time for Val. The two of them were fighting a lot. Always arguing. I finally had to tell Jeffery to stop calling her at work.”

“How did....” Maria could not bring herself to say the words.

Carrie looked over at me. I could only shake my head, offering no help at all. It looked as though she was saying her own prayer. Then, with a deep breath, she continued. “I suppose it was an accident,” she whispered. “An overdose, or maybe some bad drugs. Jeffrey had left her at the motel while he went looking for a card game. He gambled way too much. No one knows for sure what happened. It just did.” Again she pulled Maria into a tight embrace.

I hope that I never again see the torment that spread over Maria’s face when she backed away from Carrie to glance in my direction. I could not imagine what she must be feeling, or how much it hurt.

Carrie too read her anguish. There was, of course, only so much that nice lady could do. But ever since that day I have been thankful for her comforting words. 

“Please, Ma’am,” she whispered. “You mustn’t feel bad. Believe me, she’s in a much better place.... a place where she’s wanted, where no one hurts her. She’s with people who love her, like you do.

“I know she’s happier,” Carrie continued. “And I know she’s grateful that you never stopped looking for her. What better way is there to show how much you love her? Now she knows that too.”

Carrie returned to the counter for a box of tissues while I sat down beside Maria. She tried to look up into my face, until the tears returned and she turned away. Seconds later Carrie was back beside her to complete her explanation. 

“It happened in Crescent City, down the coast in California. “We got a call from the Del Norte County Coroner’s Office. They’d found Val in a city park, late at night. There was no purse or other identification, only our clinic’s business card in her pocket. By then Jeffery was apparently long gone. We never heard what happened to him.”

Maria seemed to have checked out, showing few signs that she was even listening. Carrie, however, plowed ahead, wanting to put her sad report behind her.

“Of course, the County authorities wanted to know about Val’s family, who they should contact. At that point Dr. Bryant and I talked about what to tell them. We knew she’d come from Portland, or some place around there. We talked about trying to find her folks. I suppose we might have been able to track them down. But by then they weren’t a part of her life anymore. She’d made it very clear she wanted nothing to do with them.

"So when Dr. Bryant went to Crescent City to claim her ashes, he told them he didn’t know about a family. And they didn’t bother to ask a lot of questions. Apparently unidentified drug cases are kind of business as usual....nothing to get too concerned about. Anyway, they gave him the ashes and we spread them on the beach up here. I think that’s what she would have wanted. 

“So far as the people here in town, not many of them even know about it. It wasn’t reported in the local paper and we decided not to advertise it. Dr. Bryant thought that was best.” 

With that Carrie squeezed Maria’s hand one last time, then looked up at the client coming through the front door with an armful of dog. “You should be very proud of her, Ma'am. She was a lovely girl. Everyone said so.”

I stopped at the front counter on our way outside to pick up one of Carrie’s business cards, in case there were other questions later. Once back in the car, Maria sat stoically upright, staring straight ahead. I was just as quiet, mainly because I had no idea what to say.

“Would you like to go down to the beach?” I finally asked. “You could have some time to yourself?” She shook her head. “Shall we start back home then?” I wondered. This time she nodded. Finally I reached for her hand. “Maria, I’m so sorry. I don’t know what to say.”

Without looking up, she said, “Please, let’s just go home.”

We were half an hour from Coos Bay, climbing into the Coast Range, before it struck me. I replayed Maria’s brief exchange with Carrie Risen ....and came again to the same unsettling realization. Never once had either of them said “Valerie’s dead,” or “She’s gone,” or “She’s passed.” Without those words ever being spoken Carrie had sent, and Maria had received, that terrible message.

About then my own wondering produced a companion question. How could a mother feel such pain at the loss of a child she had never even seen, not once?

By the time we reached the interstate and turned north toward Tanner I was engrossed in what I feared would be Maria’s next test. Long ago she had convinced herself that Arturo’s leaving and Luis’ dying were undeniable signs of Divine judgment turned against her. In the face of that, how would she cope with her latest loss?

We drove straight through to Tanner without stopping to eat. Coming off the interstate into town, I asked, “Do you want to stop for a sandwich?”

“I don’t think so. I just want to go home.”

It was only mid-afternoon. I did not like the idea of leaving her alone with her hurtful thoughts, so I offered, “Would you like to stop at my place for a while? It would be quiet there.”

She shook her head. “I’d rather go home. I don’t feel very sociable right now.”

In front of Maria’s apartment I turned off the engine and looked over at her. “Are you okay?” It was not an inspired question, just the best I could manage.

“I guess so,” Maria nodded.

I was in over my head, wondering what came next. Would my company be welcome? Or should I leave her alone? Finally I turned to her for those answers.

“Look,” I said. “I don’t know what I can do, or what I can say. But I want to help in any way I can. I want to be here for you.”

“I know. And I appreciate that. I need a strong friend like that. But right now I need to be alone. I hope you can understand.”

What could I say? It had nothing to do with what I understood. It was about what she wanted. “That’s fine,” I nodded. “Just know that I’m here. Give me a call anytime you want.”

It was nothing more than a light kiss on my cheek, but it felt like something special, something she wanted me to have. “Thank you.” 

“I’ll call you later, just to be sure you’re okay.” 

I watched the apartment door close behind her and for a minute or two leaned quietly against the steering wheel sorting out my own feelings. In only a few unscripted seconds, there at Dr. Bryant’s clinic, the amazing affirmation of our night together and the expectant hope of meeting Valerie for the first time had been overwhelmed by a loss so unexpected it was hard to accept as real.

Maria’s world had been turned in its orbit, sending us both in search of something to lean on, some reference point from which to carry on. In the wake of that shocking turn of events I could not shake my own nagging apprehension....about Maria and her reaction to the God who judged her so harshly. How could I help her face that dilemma?