We left the P- 2 level of the parking lot at Belltown Terrace ten minutes later than we should have. With Mel Soames at the wheel of her Cayman and with me belted into the passenger seat, we roared out of the garage, down the alley between John and Cedar, and then up Cedar to Second Avenue.Second is one of those rare Seattle thoroughfares where, if you drive just at or even slightly below the speed limit, you can sail through one green light after another, from the Denny Regrade all the way to the International District. I love Mel dearly, but the problem with her is that she doesn’t believe in driving “just under” any speed limit, ever. That’s not her style, and certainly not on this cool September morning as we headed for the Swedish Orthopedic Institute, one of the many medical facilities located in a neighborhood Seattle natives routinely call Pill Hill.
Mel was uncharacteristically silent as she drove hell- bent for election through downtown Seattle, zipping through intersections just as the lights changed from yellow to red. I checked to be sure my seat belt was securely fastened and kept my backseat- driving tendencies securely in check. Mel does not respond well to backseat driving.
“Are you okay?” she asked when the red light at Cherry finally brought her to a stop.
The truth is, I wasn’t okay. I’ve been a cop all my adult life. I’ve been in gunfights and knife fights and even the occasional fistfight. There have been numerous times over the years when I’ve had my butt hauled off to an ER to be stitched up or worse. What all those inadvertent, spur- of- the- moment ER trips had in common, however, was a total lack of anticipation. Whatever happened happened, and I was on the gurney and on my way. Since I had no way of knowing what was coming, I didn’t have any time to be scared to death and filled with dread before the fact. After, maybe, but not before.
This time was different, because this time I had a very good idea of what was coming. Mel was driving me to a scheduled check- in appointment at the Swedish Orthopedic Institute surgical unit Mel and I have come to refer to as the “bone squad.” This morning at eight a.m. I was due to meet up with my orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Merritt Auld, and undergo dual knee- replacement surgery. Yes, dual— as in two knees at the same time.
I had been assured over and over that this so- called elective surgery was “no big deal,” but the truth is, I had seen the videos. Mel and I had watched them together. I had the distinct impression that Dr. Auld would be more or less amputating both my legs and then bolting them back together with some spare metal parts in between. Let’s just say I was petrified.
“I’m fine,” I said.
“You are not fine,” Mel muttered, “and neither am I.” Then she slammed her foot on the gas, swung us into a whiplash left turn, and we charged up Cherry. Given her mood, I didn’t comment on her speed or the layer of rubber she had left on the pavement behind us.
I had gimped along for a very long time without admitting to anyone, most of all myself, that my knees were giving me hell. And once I had finally confessed the reality of the situation, Mel had set about moving heaven and earth to see that I did something about it. This morning we were both faced with a heaping helping of “watch out what you ask for.”
“You could opt to just do one, you know,” she said.
But I knew better, and so did she. When the doctor had asked me which knee was my good knee, I had told him truthfully that they were both bad. The videos had stressed that the success of the surgery was entirely dependent on doing the required post-surgery physical therapy. Since neither of my knees would stand up to doing the necessary PT for the other, Dr. Auld had reluctantly agreed to give me a twofer.
“We’ll get through this,” I said.
She looked at me and bit her lip.
“Do you want me to drop you at the front door?”
That was a strategy we had used a lot of late. She would drop me off or pick me up from front doors while she hoofed it to and from parking garages.
“No,” I said. “I’d rather walk.”
I didn’t add “with you,” because I didn’t have to. She knew it. She also knew that by the time we made it from the parking garage to the building, we would have had to stop to rest three times and my forehead would be beaded with sweat.
“Thank you,” she said.
While I eased my body out of the passenger seat and straightened into an upright position, she hopped out and grabbed the athletic bag with my stuff in it out of the trunk. Then she came toward me, looking up at me, smiling.
And the thought of losing that smile was what scared me the most. What if I didn’t wake back up? Those kinds of things weren’t supposed to happen during routine surgeries, but they did. Occasionally there were unexpected complications and the patient died. What if this was one of those times, and this was the last time I would see Mel or hold her hand? What if this was the end of all of it? There were so many things I wanted to say about how much I loved her and how much she meant to me and how, if I didn’t make it, I wanted her to be happy for the rest of her life. But did any of those words come out of my mouth? No. Not one.
“It’s going to be okay,” she said calmly, as though she had heard the storm of misgivings that was circling around in my head. She squeezed my hand and away we went, limping along, the hare patiently keeping pace with the lumbering tortoise.
I don’t remember a lot about the check- in process. I do remember there was a line, and my knees made waiting in line a peculiar kind of hell. Mel offered to stand in line for me, but of course I turned her down. She started to argue, but thought better of it. Instead, she took my gym bag and sat in one of the chairs banked against the wall while I answered all the smiling clerk’s inane questions and signed the countless forms. Then, after Mel and I waited another ten minutes, a scrubs- clad nurse came to summon us and take us “back.”
What followed was the change into the dreaded backless gown; the weigh- in; the blood draw; the blood pressure, temperature, and pulse checks. Mel hung around for all of that. And she was still there when they stuck me on a bed to await the arrival of my anesthesiologist, who came waltzing into the bustling room with a phony smile plastered on his beaming face. He seemed to be having the time of his life. After introducing himself, he asked my name and my date of birth, and then he delivered an incredibly lame stand- up comic routine about sending me off to never- never land.
Gee, thanks, and how would you like a punch in the nose?
After a second wait of who knows how long, they rolled me into another room. This time Dr. Auld was there, and so were a lot of other people. Again they wanted my name and date of birth. It occurred to me that my name and date of birth hadn’t changed in the hour and a half during which I had told four other people the same, but that’s evidently part of the program now. Or maybe they do it just for the annoyance factor.
At that point, however, Dr. Auld hauled out a Sharpie and drew a bright blue letter on each of my knees— R and L.
“That’s just so we’ll keep them straight,” he assured me with a jovial smile.
Maybe he expected me to laugh. I didn’t. The quip reminded me too much of the kinds of stale toasts delivered by hungover best men at countless wedding receptions, and it was about that funny, too. I guess I just wasn’t up to seeing any humor in the situation.
Neither was Mel. I glanced in her direction and saw the icy blue- eyed stare my lovely wife had leveled in the good doctor’s direction. Fortunately, Dr. Auld didn’t notice.
“Well,” he said. “Shall we do this?”
As they started to roll me away, Mel leaned down and kissed me good- bye. “Good luck,” she whispered in my ear. “Don’t be long. I’ll be right here waiting.”
I looked into Mel’s eyes and was surprised to see two tears well up and then make matching tracks down her surprisingly pale cheeks. Melissa Soames is not the crybaby type. I wanted to reach up and comfort her and tell her not to worry, but the anesthesiologist had given me something to “take the edge off,” and it was certainly working. Before I could say anything at all, Mel was gone, disappearing from view behind my merry band of scrubs- attired escorts as they wheeled me into a waiting elevator.
I closed my eyes then and tried to remember exactly how Mel looked in that moment before the doors slid shut between us. All I could think of as the elevator sank into what felt like the bowels of the earth was how very much I loved her and how much I wanted to believe that when I woke up, she really would be there, waiting.
Except she wasn’t. When I opened my eyes again, that was the first thing I noticed. The second one was that I was “feeling no pain,” as they say, so the drugs were evidently doing what they were supposed to do.I was apparently in the recovery room. Nurses in flowery scrubs hovered in the background. I could hear their voices, but they were strangely muted, as if somebody had turned the volume way down. As far as my own ability to speak? Forget it. Someone had pushed my mute button; I couldn’t say a single word.
In the foreground, a youngish woman sat on a tall rolling stool at the side of the bed. My initial assumption was that my daughter, Kelly, had arrived from her home in southern Oregon. I had told her not to bother coming all the way from Ashland to Seattle on the occasion of my knee- replacement surgery. In fact, I had issued a fatherly decree to that effect, insisting that Mel and I would be fine on our own. Unfortunately, Kelly is her mother’s daughter, which is to say she is also headstrong as hell. Since when did she ever listen to a word I said?
So there Kelly sat as big as life, whether I had wanted her at the hospital or not. She wore a crimson-and- g ray WSU sweatshirt. A curtain of long blond hair shielded her face from my view while she studiously filed her nails— nails that were covered with bright red polish.
Having just been through several hours of major surgery, I think I could be forgiven for being a little slow on the uptake, but eventually I realized that none of this added up. Even to my drug- befuddled brain, it didn’t make sense.
Kelly and I have had our share of issues over the years. The most serious of those involved her getting pregnant while she was still a senior in high school and running off to Ashland to meet up with and eventually marry her boyfriend, a wannabe actor named Jeff. Of course, the two of them have been a couple for years, and my son- in- law is now one of the well- established members of the acting company at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon.
The OSF offers a dozen or so plays a year, playing in repertory for months at a time, and Jeff Cartwright has certainly paid his dues. After years of learning his trade by playing minor roles as a sword- wielding soldier in one Shakespearian production after another or singing and occasionally tap dancing as a member of the chorus, he finally graduated to speaking roles. This year he was cast as Laertes in Hamlet in the Elizabethan theater and, for the first time ever in a leading role, he played Brick in the Festival’s retrospective production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in the Bowmer Theatre. (I thought he did an excellent job, but I may be slightly prejudiced. The visiting theater critic for the Seattle Times had a somewhat different opinion.)
It was September, and the season was starting to wind down, but there was no way for Jeff to get away long enough to come up to Seattle for a visit, no matter how brief, and with Kayla and Kyle, my grandkids, back in school, in fourth and first grade, respectively, it didn’t seem like a good time for Kelly to come gallivant ing to Seattle with or without them in tow just to hover at my sickbed.
In other words, I was both surprised and not surprised to see Kelly there; but then, gradually, a few other details began to sink into my drug- stupefied consciousness. Kelly would never in a million years show up wearing a WSU shirt. No way! She is a University of Oregon Duck, green and yellow all the way. Woe betide anyone who tries to tell her differently, and she has every right to insist on that!
To my everlasting amazement and with only the barest of financial aid from yours truly, this once marginal student got her BA in psychology from Southern Oregon University, and she’s now finishing up with a distance- learning master’s in business administration from the U of O in Eugene. She’s done all this, on her own and without any parental prompting, while running an at- home day care center and looking after her own two kids. When Kelly turned into a rabid Ducks fan along the way, she got no complaints from me, even though I’m a University of Washington Husky from the get- go.
But the very idea of Kelly Beaumont Cartwright wearing a Cougars sweatshirt? Nope. Believe me, it’s not gonna happen.
Then there was the puzzling matter of the very long hair. Kelly’s hair used to be about that same length— which is to say more than shoulder length—but it isn’t anymore. A year or so ago, she cut it off and donated her shorn locks to a charity that makes wigs for cancer patients. (Karen, Kelly’s mother and my ex- wife, died after a long battle with breast cancer, and Kelly remains a dedicated part of the cancer- fighting community. In addition to donating her hair, she sponsors a Relay for Life team and makes certain that both her father and stepfather step up to the plate with cash donations to the cause on a yearly basis.)
As my visitor continued to file her nails with single- minded focus, the polish struck me as odd. In my experience, mothers of young children in general— and my daughter in particular— don’t wear nail polish of any kind. Nail enamel and motherhood don’t seem to go together, and on the rare occasions when Kelly had indulged in a manicure she had opted for something in the pale pink realm, not this amazingly vivid scarlet, the kind of color Mel seems to favor.
Between the cascade of long blond hair and the bright red nail polish, I was pretty sure my silent visitor wasn’t Kelly. If not her, then, I asked myself, who else was likely to show up at my hospital bedside to visit?
Cherisse is my daughter-in-law. She has long hair and she does wear nail polish. She and my son, Scott, don’t have kids so far, but Cherisse is not a blonde—at least she wasn’t the last time I saw her. Besides, if anyone was going to show up unannounced at my hospital bedside, it would be my son, not his wife.
I finally managed to find a semblance of my voice, but what came out of my mouth sounded croaky, like the throaty grumblings of an overage frog.
“Who are you?” I asked.
In answer, she simply shook her head, causing the cascade of silvery blond hair to ripple across her shoulder. I was starting to feel tired— sleepy. I must have blinked. In that moment, the shimmering blond hair and crimson sweatshirt vanished. In their place I saw a woman who was clearly a nurse.
“Mr. Beaumont. Mr. Beaumont,” she said, in a concerned voice that was far too loud. “How are you doing, Mr. Beaumont? It’s time to wake up now.”
“I’ve already been awake,” I wanted to say, but I didn’t. Instead, looking up into a worried face topping a set of colorful scrubs, I wondered when it was that nurses stopped wearing white uniforms and white caps and started doing their jobs wearing clothes that looked more like crazed flower gardens than anything else.
“Okay,” I managed, only now my voice was more of a whisper than a croak. “My wife?”
“Right here,” Mel answered, appearing in the background, just over the nurse’s shoulder. “I’m right here.”
She looked haggard and weary. I had spent a long time sleeping; she had spent the same amount of time worrying. Unfortunately, it showed.
“Where did she go?” I asked the nurse, who was busy taking my blood pressure reading.
“Where did who go?” she asked.
“The girl in the sweatshirt.”
“What girl?” she asked. “What sweatshirt?”
Taking a cue from me, Mel looked around the recovery room, which consisted of a perimeter of several curtained- off patient cubicles surrounding a central nurses’ station. The whole place was a beehive of activity.
“I see nurses and patients,” Mel said. “I don’t see anyone in a sweatshirt.”
“But she was right here,” I argued. “A blonde with bright red nail polish a lot like yours. She was wearing a WSU sweatshirt, and she was filing her nails with one of those pointy little nail files.”
“A metal one?” Mel asked, frowning. “Those are bad for your nails. I haven’t used one of those in years. Do they even still sell them?”
That question was directed at the nurse, who, busy taking my temperature, simply shrugged.
“Beats me,” she said. “I’m not big on manicures. Never have been.”
That’s when I got the message. I was under the influence of powerful drugs. The girl in the sweatshirt didn’t exist. I had made her up.
“How’re you doing, Mr. B.?” Mel asked. Sidling up to the other side of the bed, she called me by her currently favored pet name and planted a kiss on my cheek. “I talked to the doctor. He said you did great. They’ll keep you here in the recovery room for an hour or two, until they’re sure you’re stable, and then they’ll transfer you to your room. I called the kids, by the way, and let everybody know that you came through surgery like a champ.”
This was all good news, but I didn’t feel like a champ. I felt more like a chump.
“Can I get you something to drink?” the nurse asked. “Some water? Some juice?”
I didn’t want anything to drink right then because part of me was still looking for the girl. Part of me was still convinced she had been there, but I couldn’t imagine who else she might have been. One of Ron Peters’s girls, maybe? Heather and Tracy had both gone to WSU. Of the two, I’d always had a special connection with the younger one, Heather. As a kid she was a cute little blond- haired beauty whose blue- eyed grin had kept me in my place, properly wrapped around her little finger. At fifteen, a barely recognizable Heather, one with hennaed hair and numerous piercings, had gone into full-fledged off-the-rails teenage rebellion, complete with your basic bad- to- the-bone boyfriend.
In the aftermath of said boyfriend’s death, unlamented by anyone but Heather, her father and stepmother had managed to get the grieving girl on track. She had reenrolled in school, graduated from high school, and gone on to a successful college experience. One thing I did know clearly— this was September. That meant that, as far as I knew, Heather was off at school, too, working on a Ph.D. somewhere in the wilds of New Mexico. So, no, my mysterious visitor couldn’t very well be Heather Peters, either.
Not taking my disinterested answer about wanting something to drink for a real no, the nurse handed me a glass with water and a straw bent in my direction. “Drink,” she said. I took a reluctant sip, but I was still looking around the room; still searching.
Mel is nothing if not observant. “Beau,” she said. “Believe me, there’s nobody here in a WSU sweatshirt. And on my way here from the lobby, I didn’t meet anybody in the elevator or the hallway who was wearing one, either.”
“Probably just dreaming,” the nurse suggested. “The stuff they use in the OR puts ’em out pretty good, and I’ve been told that the dreams that go along with the drugs can be pretty convincing.”
“It wasn’t a dream,” I insisted to the nurse. “She was right here just a few minutes ago—right where you’re standing now. She was sitting on a stool.”
The nurse turned around and made a show of looking over her shoulder. “Sorry,” she said. “Was there a stool here? I must have missed it.”
But of course there was no stool visible anywhere in the recovery room complex, and no crimson sweatshirt, either.
The nurse turned to Mel. “He’s going to be here for an hour or so, and probably drifting in and out of it for most of that time. Why don’t you go get yourself a bite to eat? If you leave me your cell phone number, I can let you know when we’re moving him to his room.”
Allowing herself to be convinced, Mel kissed me again. “I am going to go get something,” she said.
“You do that,” I managed. “I think I’ll just nap for a while.”
My eyelids were growing heavy. I could feel myself drifting. The din of recovery room noise retreated, and just that quickly, the blonde was back at my bedside, sitting on a rolling stool that seemed to appear and disappear like magic at the same time she did. The cascade of swinging hair still shielded her face, and she was still filing her nails.
I’ve had recurring dreams on occasion, but not very often. Most of the time it’s the kind of thing where something in the dream, usually something bad, jars me awake. When I go back to sleep, the dream picks up again, sometimes in exactly the same place, but a slightly different starting point can lead to a slightly different outcome.
This dream was just like that. I was still in the bed in the recovery room, but Mel was gone and so was my nurse. Everyone else in the room was faded and fuzzy, like from the days before high- def appeared. Only the blonde on the stool stood out in clear relief against everything else.
“Who are you?” I asked. “What are you doing here? What do you want?”
She didn’t look up. “You said you’d never forget me,” she said accusingly, “but you have, haven’t you?”
I was more than a little impatient with all the phony game playing. “How can I tell?” I demanded. “You won’t even tell me your name.”
“My name is Monica,” she answered quietly. “Monica Wellington.”
Then she lifted her head and turned to face me. Once the hair was swept away, however, I was appalled to see that there was no face at all. Instead, what peered at me over the neck of the crimson sweatshirt was nothing but a skull, topped by a headful of gorgeous long blond hair, parted in the middle.
“You promised my mother that you’d find out who did it,” she said. “You never did.”
With that she was gone, plunging me into a strange existence where the boundaries between memory and dream blurred somehow, leaving me to relive that long- ago time in every jarring detail.