Mercy Hospital, Saturday Morning
“You walk awfully fast for a short girl,” Alex whispered, puffing along beside Tina, “and what would a nice Christian girl call that trick you just pulled at the nurse’s station. I thought you weren’t supposed to lie.”
“I didn’t lie.” She felt winded, too, after a nine-hour drive on zero sleep, so she kept her comments brief.
“He’s our brother? Jake’s our brother?” Alex kept after her. “Somehow I would have thought Mom might have mentioned that little piece of information.”
Tina wasn’t in the mood for debate. Not about lying and certainly not about being a sister to the Garret men. She intended to use every iota of focus to remember Alex’s encouragement and Gloria’s pointed, prayerful admonition, and with every breath, she implored her Heavenly Father to forgive her for outrageously, selfishly impugning His grace and mercy.
Mercy Hospital’s well-equipped Intensive Care Unit consisted of about six rooms, as far as Tina could see, splayed in a semi-circle around the ICU nursing station, each room within easy eye contact of the nurses when the curtains were open. The privacy curtains, beige canvas on the bottom, open mesh on top, attached to a ceiling track by sliding hooks. Tina noticed most of them were closed today.
They had been told they would find Jake in 4-A. As they approached, Denny stood up from where he had been seated beside Jake and rushed out to greet them.
“You’re hurt, too!” Tina said, “You should have said something. Oh, look at your poor hands!”
Desperate to see Jake, since the radio announcement indicated he was the more severely hurt of the two men, she felt dismayed watching Denny who looked like a giant ad for a bandage manufacturer. He walked toward them with obvious difficulty, a pronounced limp in both legs generating an uncoordinated movement she wouldn’t have supposed possible. Only two fingers of one hand were visible, the rest of them presumably under the mounds of white gauze at the ends of both arms. He wore a hospital gown and scrub pants, both marginally adequate.
“Awww, don’t worry about me,” he said in the same hoarse, whispery voice she had heard on the phone. “Jake took the worst of it but I believe he’s gonna be okay, too, now that he’s awake. We didn’t know for a while there if he’d ever wake up.”
He shook his big head sorrowfully and Tina could see how worried he’d been.
“Here’s something else you oughta know,” Denny went on. “He can’t hardly hear, and can’t talk much better. Doc said that because he can hear some, he figures it’ll probably all come back. And the not talking is on account of smoke. Chemical smoke scrapes up a guy’s lungs to where he can’t hardly talk. I breathed in some of it, myself.”
“On the way up we heard a news report on the radio. Jake saved the lives of two children?” Tina whispered too; it seemed appropriate.
“He sure did. Your fella is a real hero, Christina, a real man. Go on in. I know he’ll feel better when he knows you’re here.”
“Alex,” Tina hesitated, her eyes pleading. She knew how worried he’d been—they had spoken of little else for hours.
“You go in first, without me. Remember everything we talked about,” Alex commanded. “My brother is a great guy, and he’ll understand. He and I can work out the details later. Now go on, sis.”
She started toward Jake’s room but turned back and threw her arms around Alex. “I love you, big brother.”
She stepped close to Denny, stood on her tiptoes, and careful not to bump anything bandaged, kissed him soundly. “You are my first and biggest big brother and I’ll love you forever.”
Denny and Alex looked at each other and shrugged.
“My room is 203, upstairs,” Denny said. “I’m not really s’posed to be down here anyhow. Why don’t you come up with me and give the young people a little time together.” He poked Alex with his elbow. “We old guys gotta stick together, right? C’mon. I’ll tell you all about the whole sorry mess I got us into.”
He lay on his side with his back to the door. A sheet, held up by a frame, concealed his body from the waist down. His bare shoulder, obviously seriously burned, shone with ointment. Another frame, attached to the side rail, elevated his bandaged hands.
She fought the urge to turn and flee from the suffering hanging in the air like the smell of antiseptic.
Her knees felt weak as she stood in the doorway. A deluge of intense emotion threatened to swamp her. Horror about the explosion, rage at bottom-feeders who would build a misery factory and then abandon it at its most dangerous, and grief for children so neglected they wandered into a death trap.
Far overshadowing that anger though, remorse for her own mean little heart rose up from the depths of her being and washed over her. It occurred to her that crawling to Jake’s bedside might be the appropriate way for her to approach him.
“Remember everything,” Alex had said. What had he reminded her? Oh, yes, Jesus paid the price. Crawling wouldn’t help—couldn’t add anything to what Jesus had already done. What’s more, now that she’d seen her own stupidity, who was she to pass judgment on anybody else—Jake, especially—for his failures?
Jake is alive. Hurt, but alive. Focus, Tina. Pray.
Thank you Lord that he’s alive! Please help him forgive me.
Not that she would ever forgive herself for the way she had turned away from him when with all her heart she had wanted to fly into his arms and never leave. She had hurt him, and for what? Because she couldn’t give in? Lose face?
During the last two restless nights her stubborn pride had proved itself a cruel and heartless companion.
She stepped around to the other side of his bed. His eyes were closed, tears on his lashes. She watched him grimace, obviously in pain, and move his lips as if praying. How could I have been so hard on him?
Please forgive me.
He didn’t seem aware of her presence. She remembered his damaged hearing and, pulling a chair near the bed, moved in close.
“Tina, Tina,” she heard him murmur.
“I’m here, Jake.”
His eyes popped open. “Is it really you?” With a raspy whisper he told her, “In my dream I smelled your perfume. Oh! It wasn’t a dream.” He looked around, his eyes wild. “I can’t hold you. I want to touch your face. I need you close to me.”
He had been dreaming about her. He needed her!
“Here I am,” she said soothingly as she might have spoken to a child frightened by a nightmare. Leaning in again she laid her face against his and spoke near his ear.
“I’m here, dear one. I don’t ever want to be away from you again.” She felt him relax and turn his head until their lips met.
After a time—actually, quite a long time—she drew back a little bit. She ran her fingers over his face, lingering her touch on his lips and again brushed his lips with hers. His warm breath on her face felt like a benediction. “Can you read my lips, beloved?”
“I can read your lips, Kitten. I can hear your heart when I read your lips.”
“I am so sorry, Jake. Can you ever forgive me for being so mean?”
“My memory isn’t so good since the explosion.”
“You forgive me?”
“Are you over being mad?”
“I sure am. I’m sorry about being mad, too.”
“You’re forgiven.” He lifted his head enough to kiss her eyelids. “Anything else you want to tell me?”
“Sure you’re ready?”
“I am ready.”
“I want to have a baby.”
He tried to sit up. “Now?”
She pushed him back down, careful of his shoulder. “I can wait until after the wedding.” She laughed at his bewilderment.
“Yes, wedding. Will you marry me, Jake? I want us to have a wedding, you and me, a big wedding—candles and flowers and music and… I want to walk down the aisle in a white satin dress and you’ll be waiting for me—you’ll be so handsome in a tux—just as soon as you’re well enough. Will you please marry me, Jake?”
“I’m feeling better already. Yes! I’m fine! Call the preacher.”
They both laughed and of course kissed again. It seemed to be going better than she had dared to hope.
“I’m ready, too, Jake. More than ready. The minute those bandages are off I want your arms around me. I can hardly wait until we can…be together.” She buried her head in his neck, her cheeks burning.
“It will be sooo good, my beautiful kitten,” he sighed with pleasure.
“But what happened? What’s with the change of heart? And what brought on the baby idea? I mean right now? This trucker comes factory equipped with two children, you know; we’re a package deal, have you forgotten?”
“No, no, of course I haven’t forgotten.”
Where to start. She took a deep breath.
“It’s a long story. Your brother reminded me that I’m a Christian, for one thing, and that as a Christian I can trust God with my future.”
“Al reminded you? My brother?” He sounded as astonished about that as she felt.
“Yes. I hope you don’t mind, but I love him.”
“Okay by me as long as it’s I’m the groom in this big wedding you’re planning.”
“It’s you all right.” He still wants me. He needs me. She kissed her fingertips and touched his lips. “I’m so sorry I wasted even two minutes away from you, my love. I guess I tried to protect myself from being hurt, but I can’t do that; no one can.”
“I promise to do my best to make a good life for us, Tina, but neither of us can guarantee how it will turn out. We’re both a bit damaged.”
“I know. But the Lord reminded me that He’s in the future—in our future. He’s the one holding me together now, and He will keep me safe in His care, always.”
She swallowed, fighting tears, and went on, pulling words up from deep inside, hoping, praying she could articulate all the changes she had gone through.
“I don’t have to be in control anymore.”
The moment she heard herself say it she felt released, as if an enormous weight dropped off.
“I love you!” Almost giddy with relief, she suddenly wanted to tell him everything, all she had left behind, all her dreams for their future and most of all, she wanted to dance for joy. She felt as if she could fly.
“I know now how much I love you and want you in my life, Jake. I’ve grown up a whole lot in the last two days, but I still have so much to learn and I want to learn it with you.” She laid her forehead against his until she could speak again.
Finally she pulled back and looked him directly in the eye, speaking clearly so he wouldn’t miss a word. “You can learn a thing or two from me, too, Mister, but I’ll have years to work on you.” She had to stop and kiss him on his nose for the funny way he was grinning at her.
“First of all, I need your promise, before God, that you will never ever ever again leave me out of the most important things in your life.”
“I do hereby so promise, so help me God,” Jake said solemnly, his eyes damp.
Tina acknowledged his promise with a nod.
“Now, here’s how I think it ought to be—if it’s all right with you, that is: First we’ll have that big wedding, and then we’ll raise your children together, with Alex’s help—“
Jake raised his eyebrows at that one.
“Alex, uh, Albert will explain. It’s a family thing,” she said with a wink. “I still want to have a baby, though, okay? We’ll have a great family—you, me, Alex, Annie, Joey, and our baby. What do you say?”
“That’s it? That’s your final offer?”
“Well, I suppose I could consider having more than one baby.”
“You drive a hard bargain, woman, but it’s a deal.” Jake said.
And, of course, because they couldn’t shake hands on it, they sealed it with a kiss.