Editor’s note: This story won second place in the “Write Your Own Lesson in Manners” contest. The challenge was to select from a list of prompts from the book A Lesson in Manners and write a story using those items.
Freedom within captivity. That is Tonya’s reality at the Portland Family Aquarium in Maine. Of all the sea turtles, Tonya seems the most content with her surroundings. Her blissful demeanor is what got her on the cover of PFA’s family handbook this year. Kate used to me why I gave so much attention to Tonya and the other sea turtles.
“I bet Ahly the Alahgetra feels bad,” she would say. At three years old, Kate was too young to pronounce alligator, but her heart was big enough to care. Watching Tonya and Ahly was a part of our daily routine before she was in school. Her day care bus would drop her off at the aquarium at the end of my shift. I would take her upstairs to the food court and we would share a blue raspberry slushie, her smiling face giggling at my blue lips, her eyes squinting when she got a brain freeze.
Years pass, and Daddy time with slushies has been replaced by movie time with friends, or God forbid, boys. Regardless of her schedule, she drops by the aquarium once a week, to visit Ahly’s daughter, Carrie Underwater. Kate named her. As far as teenagers go, Kate is the best one a dad could wish for. Everything is just great.
“Dad, I’m having really bad cramps and am really nauseous,” Kate says at about eleven p.m. one evening as I’m sitting on the couch watching a hockey game. My face flushes with red, assuming Kate’s having her period, until I notice Kate is in too much pain to be embarrassed. I grew up with an old-fashioned mom who insists hospitals are pointless, having instead an herbal remedy for every possible illness. I have adopted this philosophy myself, but one look at Kate’s face and I knew I needed to take her in.
When we get to the hospital, the nurses begin with a few simple blood tests, thinking I am just another overreacting dad. The nurses don’t seem to be working fast enough for my comfort level. Kate and I sit down on a scratchy couch where she lays her head in my lap, an action she hasn’t done since she was four. I flip through a dated copy of Sport’s Illustrated, my eyes flitting between Kate and the clock. At about two a.m, a doctor wearing a too-short tie walks through the waiting room doors.
“Mr. Volk?” the doctor asks as if the waiting room is full of patients, when really it has been just Kate and I since we got here. I try to straighten my rumpled T-shirt as I extend my hand toward the doctor,
“That’s me, sir. Is Kate alright?”
The doctor swallows before responding, “She will be, Mr. Volk, but her blood tests matched positive with a common kidney infection. Though it is a common infection, it will require surgical intervention.”
“Surgery? That’s a bit extensive, isn’t it?”
“I understand the word surgery is intimidating, Mr. Volk, but like I said, it’s a simple procedure requiring basic anesthesia. Seeing as Kate’s asleep, I recommend we do it now. It’s easier to administer anesthesia when the patient’s asleep.” Although I don’t remember doing so, I must have said yes, because the next thing I know, Kate is being wheeled off into the surgical ward. Kate, my precious thirteen-year-old daughter, about to be put under knife. God.
I’m taken to a surgical ward waiting room by the original nurse, who’s more sympathetic toward me now that Kate is in surgery. The magazines in this waiting room have even older dates on them, so I take to my phone instead, scrolling through my spam emails. When that gets old, I attempt to read the magazines a second time, eventually staring into space. I sit and I remember how Kate became my daughter.
“Emmy, I . . . I honestly don’t know.” Her eyes grow desperate as I respond to her. They certainly don’t teach you how to deal with these situations in Home Ec.
“I saw a flyer for an adoption agency. Would you consider that?” I ask this knowing she won’t be able to handle giving up her child to a random family. Emmy may have made some huge mistakes in her life, but she hasn’t lost her love of children.
“God, Patrick, you know I can’t do that. I just need to be alone. Leave!”
Emmy used to be such a carefree, lovely girl. That was before she met Dane. I warned her about him, but she was naive and “in love,” or so she claimed. It was almost a perfect textbook situation; they dated for a few months, hooked up, he dumped her, she became pregnant. Now she was so depressed and stressed, she was forcing me, her only companion, to get out of his own house.
I head to the only spot where I can truly think: Salt and Pepper Deli on Oakwood Ave. It’s a little deli hidden between a K-Mart and a Macy’s. The owner, an artist, can’t cook for the life of him, but he hired a gourmet chef from New York City to teach him. The inside is all different shades of green, from the ceiling tiles to the napkins. I order my usual, the SP Specialty, and take a seat at the back of the shop. I relay the situation in my head for the thousandth time, when, mid-bite, with lettuce hanging out of my mouth, I finally come to a solution.
I give Emmy a few hours and then head back to my modest home on Sixth Street. When I open the door, I see Emmy sitting on my futon, no longer angry, but rather staring at the wall with a distant look in her eyes, her eyes red from crying.
“No talking until I’m finished, okay?” I say this while gently sitting down on the opposite side of the futon. She nods, still not facing me.
“You really messed up, Emmy. I feel miserable for you, but misery and pity aren’t going to find a home for your baby. Honestly, I think you owe me an apology, because I’m the only one who has stayed by you through it all. Even your parents aren’t talking to you.” At the mention of her parents, Emmy shifts in her seat so she’s facing me, her eyes softer now, looking more like the vulnerable 22-year-old she is. I continue,
“Em, I’m 28 years old, and I have a solid career. I grew up taking care of my younger siblings and, well . . . Emmy, I want to adopt your baby.” After the words are spoken, they seem to hang in mid-air, waiting to be pulled in to Emmy’s ears.
“Emmy,” I start, breaking the silence. “Emmy, I get it’d be hard, but—”
“Patrick,” Emmy interrupts, “you can have her.”
“It’s, it’s a her?” I manage to choke out, startled by Emmy’s conviction.
“Yeah,” Emmy whispers. “I scraped together some cash for an ultrasound. I just have one request, Patrick. Please name her Kate. That was my grandmother’s name.” With that she picks herself up and shuts the front door quietly as she leaves.
“She’ll only be in the ICU a little while,” the nurse explains, seeing my widened eyes at the door card. “After six hours, if she is doing well, we’ll move her to the general recovery ward, where she’ll have to stay for about four days.” With that, the nurse leaves, leaving me in front Kate’s door.
Inside the room, Kate is lying weakly on a huge hospital bed that seems to envelop her. Blinking wires and tubes form a web connecting to one central monitor. Her captivity reminds me of her comments about Tonya Turtle’s situation. I want nothing more than to reach out and touch Kate’s hand, but I don’t want to wake her. Instead I sit down on a chair by her bed. I pull out my phone and call my parents, siblings, and best friend, explaining to them what is happening. Within minutes, I get a response from my mom, saying she is on her way. There’s no doubt in my mind that she is going to bring an herbal remedy along with her.
I hear my mom’s voice even before I can see her walking toward me.
“And then Patty said that she’s trying some new diet, you know, like cutting any home-cooked loving, and I was thinking she won’t last a day. It’s been two weeks and Patty’s still watching her carbohydrates and insulin intake. The woman speaks those words as if she has a clue to their meaning. Then of course there was last week’s catastrophe at gardening club, don’t even get me started, I mean what did Shauna think was going to happen when she—”
“Mary,” interjects my dad. “Mary, we’re here for Kate, remember?” I know that Mom remembers; she always gets like this when she’s worried. The more difficult the situation, the faster her jaw functions.
“Right, I was just filling Patrick in, and, well . . .” Mom’s sentence falls away as we arrive at Kate’s room. Through the square window, Kate’s deflated form is visible. Gently, with a quietness I’ve never known my mom to possess, she opens the door and shrinks to Kate’s side. My dad and mom spend the next hour like this, my dad pretending to read the paper when he’s really just staring at Kate’s frail face, my mom drawing infinite circles on Kate’s palm. Suddenly Kate begins to stir, and, ever so slowly, begins to open her eyelids.
“Kate! You’re awake. How are you feeling?” I go to Kate’s side as her eyes search the room, confused.
“Dad, my throat . . . it’s dry.” The nurse had warned me that dry mouth would be a side effect of the drugs.
“I’ll feed her these ice cubes. Patrick, why don’t you take a walk? You look a little rough.” My dad picks up the ice container as my mom stands to accompany me.
Mom and I walk down a hallway with windows facing the courtyard by the entrance.
“I ordered Kate a bonsai plant. I was going to pick it up, but I wanted to get here as fast as I could, so it’ll be delivered. The local nursery didn’t have the one I wanted, so I ordered one from Harpswell instead.”
“Aww, thanks, Mom. I know Kate will really appreciate it.”
“Well, ancient Chinese civilizations used bonsai plants as natural air fresheners and purifiers. They were also revered for their ability to survive in harsh conditions.” A smile crept onto my face despite the serious situation. Of course Mom bought a plant that was connected to an herbal remedy.
“We should probably head back now and give Dad a break.” As we turn the corner, I see the delivery woman has arrived with Mom’s plant.
“Hi,” I start as the lady turns around, allowing me to catch sight of her face.
“Patrick? Patrick is that—is that Kate?” Emmy asks, her finger pointing through the window at my . . . well, her daughter.
To be continued . . .