“You can get dressed,” Dr. Henry Lindholm said as he removed the stethoscope’s earpieces from his ears and wrote a paragraph of abbreviations in the open chart using his ancient fountain pen. Dr. Lindholm was a thin old man of 70-some years with thick white hair and a crease in his face for every phone call he’d ever received in the night. His face was that of a man perpetually squinting in bright sunlight, or perhaps cringing at the things his job forced him to tell people. He was quick to smile and laugh and seemed to enjoy being alive.
Dr. Lindholm had seen many things and he’d come to believe that there was a balance to the world that his job had allowed him the privilege of bearing witness to on a regular basis. That balance was easier to appreciate when he was younger, for every birth, a death was owed. He understood that his viewpoint was restricted and he had to trust the universe for the rest. Sometimes one side of the ledger got ahead of the other, but in the end they had to balance. It was the burden or lesson to human beings to feel the meaning of that balance so personally. It wasn’t fair, it wasn’t kind, but it was the way things worked.
The doctor had seen more than his share of death and the ways that people dealt with it, or didn’t. Those ways didn’t always make sense to him, but he was convinced that people did the best they could.
It was a paradox to Dr. Lindholm that he pictured effects of death as a weight, a burden. But he’d seen that weight lowered onto people time and time again. Sometimes the death was a weight lifted, especially after a long illness, but most of the time it was like some cruel measure of iron or lead bars heaped onto the next of kin. He felt it was his job to ease that load onto people. Sometimes that was all he could hope for.
But sometimes, sometimes for some people, the loss was too large no matter how slowly it was applied. Instead of breaking their backs, it broke their hearts and souls. Some people were forever trapped at the graveside, as if their hearts lacked a specific enzyme that allowed them to digest and incorporate the grief, to make them stronger or at least carry on. In other people, the loss was so large, so unbearable that they simply could not hear it. It was beyond their ability to understand or accept. This was the sad case of his current patient.
Dr. Lindholm took his time writing his note because he had no desire to turn around and tell this man that he was going to die very soon, just like he’d told him last visit. The doctor wasn’t anxious to discuss pain control methods and end of life issues. He’d known Curtis Whitbeck for over 10 years, and understood that the terminal diagnosis was the least of this man’s problems. Dr. Lindholm once again shook his head and said a silent prayer that Curtis Whitbeck stop his suffering and get on with dying.
“Well, Curt, nothing’s changed except to get worse. Like we talked about.” Dr. Lindholm said sitting down on a stool at the side of the examination table. The doctor’s shoulders slumped as he felt another little blow to his humanity.
Curtis Whitbeck was finishing buttoning the top buttons of his shirt. He held his chin up and his fingers shook with a fine tremor and moved slowly as they worked to slip a small button through the slit in the cotton.
Curtis Whitbeck was 46 years old and looked 90. He was thin to the point that his wrists moved inside his shirt cuffs like a clapper in a bell. The muscles and blood vessels in his thin neck stood out like an anatomy illustration. There was mound of tumor in the angle of his neck and collarbone on the left side. He struggled to force his weak left hand to help his right finish the job of buttoning his shirt.
Curtis nodded his head in response to the doctor’s pronouncement.
“I understand, Henry. It makes it all the more important that I keep looking for her. I’ll be seeing Virginia soon and I need to be able to tell her that her baby’s all right.” Curtis spoke slowly, stopping twice for breath while saying this. He spoke with great conviction, as if what he was saying was possible.
Dr. Lindholm’s face only winced a little as he heard this. It was what he’d expected to hear but, still he’d hoped that somehow this time Curtis would face the reality of, not his own approaching death, but that of his child, Claire, years before.
Curtis’ wife Virginia and their soon-to-be four-year-old daughter Claire had gone to Bogalusa Louisiana in August of 2005 to celebrate Claire’s fourth birthday on the 22nd of that month with Virginia’s invalid mother, Alice and sisters. Virginia, the little girl Claire and Alice had been trapped as Virginia tried to drive them out of the flood waters of Hurricane Katrina. All three had drowned in the car on August 29th, seven days after Claire’s birthday. The bodies of Virginia and her mother had been found in Virginia’s rental car, but Claire’s body had never been recovered.
Curtis drove down to Louisiana and began looking for his missing daughter immediately. He never went back to Lee’s Summit, Missouri and the large Victorian house he’d purchased for his family. He never went back to his profession as an optometrist. He had the flood damage to the house in Bogalusa that Virginia’s mother owned repaired and he lived there alongside a box containing Virginia’s ashes, while searching full-time for Claire.
During the fall of 2011 he got sick with a cold that didn’t get better. In January 2012, he went to Dr. Lindholm who found that Curtis had an advanced lung cancer. When he asked, the doctor told him that there was no surgical cure but that radiation and chemotherapy could slow its progression. Curtis went through courses of radiation and chemo but he never slowed the search for his daughter and he never, ever gave up hope that he would find her, alive.
The court had issued a death certificate for Claire, but Curtis had torn it up. The insurance company had sent a check for $1000 in settlement of her little life insurance policy but Curtis had torn it up as well. He refused to believe that Claire was dead. Any admission of the possibility of her death represented a betrayal of her too great to fit into his mind.
He had abandoned what had been his life and had spent every waking moment of the last 11 years looking for Claire and being available to be found by her. Even during his fitful sleep he listened to her tiny voice calling him for help. He was tortured by the thought that she was alone and afraid and lost and he was not with her to help her, to calm her, to take care of her.
It had been 11 years ago and every day that had passed Curtis felt the pain and panic of the parent with the lost child, not less but more.
Dr. Lindholm had years ago, referred Curtis to psychologists and psychiatrists but he had never gone. He didn’t need help to deal with his loss, he said, he needed help finding his child. He didn’t want a prescription for something to relieve his anxiety, he wanted to hold his little girl in his arms and smell her hair.
Curtis couldn’t imagine a greater betrayal of his daughter than to sooth himself with drugs and role playing platitudes while she remained lost and alone. The doctors wanted him to believe that a lost child had a price in suffering and worry and effort, beyond which a parent was no longer obligated by nature to feel responsible. After that, you were permitted to write it off as a total loss. Curtis saw no limit to the price, finding his daughter was worth so much more than his own life that his death meant only that he’d failed do the one thing he had to do. No more, no less.
Dr. Lindholm opened his mouth once again to try to reason with Curtis but stopped and accepted his defeat. There was nothing he could do to help this man and he knew that he’d carry that with him as another lesson he was meant to learn.
He stood up and helped Curtis Whitbeck down off the examining table. Holding Curtis’ upper arm that way, the doctor felt as if he might accidentally snap the bone with his fingers.
It took a moment for Curtis to stand as upright as he could. Then he held out his right hand to the doctor. “Goodbye, Henry. I suspect this is the last I shall see of you. I want to thank you for all your help over the years. We’ve both got our work cut out for us. If you would do me one more favor I would greatly appreciate it.”
Curtis reached down and picked up the suit jacket that was folded over the back of the chair sitting next to the table. He removed a sealed envelope from the inside pocket that said, Curtis Whitbeck re Claire Whitbeck, on its face and handed it to the old doctor.
“If you would put this with my chart in case I die before I find my daughter Claire. I’m hoping to leave enough clues for her to find, well, at least find out that I never gave up on her and always loved her,” Whitbeck said with a rattle in his throat.
“Curt, I know you must be suffering terribly. Please. You don’t have to go through this. I can admit you to the hospital or at least let me give you something or call hospice to help you with the pain and shortness of breath.” Dr. Lindholm almost pleaded.
Curtis looked blankly at the doctor and remained silent.
“Fine. I’ll put it into your chart,” the doctor said and took the envelope.
“I’m fine Henry. Really I am. I would not like Claire to find me unable to speak with her. There’s so much I need to tell her, so much she never heard from me. I also put a copy of my will in there. There’s little left of my life but I leave it all to her,” Whitbeck said as he put on his suit jacket.
“All right, Curtis. I know. I’ve heard that for 11 years from you. You have —” Lindholm started to say but Whitbeck interrupted him.
“Goodbye Henry. You’re a good doctor. Just a little stubborn, but that’s normal, I guess,” Whitbeck said and he picked up his cane hanging on the back of the chair and tried to raise his left hand to wave but quickly gave up.
Curtis Whitbeck lowered his chin in determination and walked out of the examining room.
Over the next four weeks Curtis made the rounds of all the agencies once again and re-placed his advertisements and notices in papers and websites dealing with missing persons. He’d had the picture that had been taken of Claire just before her fourth birthday at the Sears portrait studio computer-aged so many times that he had trouble remembering that he hadn’t actually seen her getting older. But he had every computer-adjusted picture tacked to the bulletin board near his kitchen table and every August 22nd he had a birthday party for her.
This year was no different. It was Claire’s 14th birthday and he celebrated quietly, alone in his little kitchen and surrounded by pictures of Virginia and Claire. Once again, he said to himself, this would be the day on which Claire would be found, and like all the days before this, he meant it. He took a last sip of his instant coffee and washed his single cup as well as he could with one hand. Then he picked up his cane and left his house. He took the bus downtown to visit the Red Cross office.
It was a hot and humid morning on August 22nd 2016 in Bogalusa as Curtis got off the bus on Montgomery Street and walked along the narrow sidewalk to the Red Cross office. The office was staffed mostly by volunteers who knew Curtis well from his regular rounds. He was one of the dwindling number of sad people still looking for answers about their missing loved ones. The people in the office felt sad they had no information to give him that might end his lonely watch and bring some kind of closure to him. They’d closed the case files on many missing people over the years yet they were maybe the last ones left that hoped, as he did, that one day they might have real news for him. It hurt them to see him disintegrate before their eyes from his disease. It seemed to some of the volunteers that Curtis’ cancer had become a physical manifestation of the spiritual illness that went with losing a loved without having the certainty of a body.
As he reached for the front door of the Red Cross office, his vision left him and he fell to the sidewalk. They rushed to help him and called the paramedics who took him to Our Lady of the Angels hospital there in Bogalusa. Dr. Lindholm’s card was found in his wallet and he was called and explained Curtis’ situation. He arranged for a private room there but not in ICU due to the seriousness of his diagnosis. Dr. Lindholm made a couple phone calls and drove from his office to the hospital to see if there was anything he could do for his patient.
Curtis woke up in a haze in the cool, quiet and darkened hospital room and remembered becoming dizzy at the Red Cross door. He saw the IV in his right hand and Dr. Lindholm at the foot of his bed looking at his chart.
“Hello Henry,” Curtis Whitbeck said in a hoarse whisper. The effort cost him dearly and he coughed and tasted the metallic tang of blood on his tongue.
“Hello Curtis. I wasn’t sure we’d be talking again. I had to allow the IV because you never signed the Advance Healthcare Directive I gave you. I want to tell you that I also gave you some pain medicine in the IV since it was there. How are you feeling?” the doctor said to him.
“A little rough Henry. I can’t seem to catch my breath.” Curtis spoke very slowly.
“I’m sorry Curtis. I’m afraid it won’t get any better. I’ll turn up your oxygen though.” The doctor went to the head of the bed and adjusted something and then picked up the phone and said. “Excuse me for a moment.”
Curtis closed his eyes and drifted in the fog of pain medicine for a bit as he heard Dr. Lindholm in the distance speaking indistinctly.
He dreamt of being at home in the big house in Lee’s Summit with Virginia and Claire at her third birthday party. Claire was sitting in her highchair with a colorful yellow cardboard birthday crown on with a big orange 3 on the front. She was the most gorgeous thing Curtis had ever seen with her blond hair, wide blue eyes and a smile that shone like the sun. She was opening presents before having the cake. Her excitement seemed to be causing the whole room to vibrate and sparkle with static electricity. The little table in front of her was getting crowded with toys and dolls and every new package caused more excitement than the last no matter its size. He saw her tear open a small box he had gotten for her, her breath caught when she unwrapped a sturdy necklace with a medallion with her name engraved on it.
He saw Virginia’s face change in mock disapproval as she looked him and wagged her finger. “Oh no, not yet. That’s a chokable.” She pronounced her Mom judgment and he looked hopefully back at her, his face begging her. But soon, though.
“Soon enough,” Virginia said. “But for now it goes on the shelf. Maybe for next birthday.” Curtis let his shoulder slump in exaggerated dejection. “OK.”
Claire moved right on to the next package and laughed once again with limitless joy.
Curtis slowly returned to the present and opened his eyes slowly, unsure of how long he’d spent at the party and wishing he could go back. His left arm was completely numb and immovable now but nothing hurt and he suspected that his doctor had slipped him a little more pain medicine.
He could feel the closeness of the edge of what was coming. He could slip quietly across any time he wanted. He was not at all afraid of dying, but it would mean that he had failed in the only important thing in his life. What would he tell Virginia? He could not give up yet.
Curtis saw the doctor sitting in the chair next to the right side of his bed.
“Thank you, Henry. How long do you think I’ll have to stay here Henry?” He said very slowly with several pauses between his words.
“The rest of your life, Curtis,” he said without humor. “I’m a little surprised you woke back up.” Lindholm said getting out of the chair and looking down at him.
The doctor took a deep breath and cleared his throat. “On the other hand, I have some good news for you, Curtis.”
“You’re going to write off part of my bill?” Curtis tried to smile but abandoned the effort.
“They found her, Curtis. The Red Cross found Claire. She’s here.” The doctor said moving his eyes from the pillow to Curtis’ face.
“What? What did you say?”
“The Red Cross found Claire. She was in Texas.”
“How did she... It doesn’t matter.” Curtis slurred the words trying to say them quickly. “Can I see her?” He slowed to make himself understood.
“Curtis, she doesn’t know you. She doesn’t remember Virginia or the flooding. She was an orphan taken by the Red Cross and when they couldn’t find her parents she was turned over to Social Services and eventually adopted by a good family in Colorado.”
“Is she here now? Is Claire here?”
“She has a good life, Curtis. Her parents love her, she has a brother and two sisters. I didn’t tell her who you were Curtis. She doesn’t need to know.” The doctor said looking pointedly into Curtis’ eyes.
Curtis swallowed and took as deep a breath as he could. He seemed to gather himself up for what he had to say. When he spoke, he spoke as clearly as he could so there would be no question of his meaning.
“I understand. You’ll see that she gets the envelope when she’s older? Won’t you? It’s important and there’s a small inheritance. She needs to know about her mother. How much she was loved by her mother and myself. There are pictures too. The lawyer has everything, some of Virginia’s things. It’s all in the letter.” Curtis looked up into the doctor’s eyes begging him to understand and accept the charge.
“I will Curtis. I will make sure she gets it when she’s older. I’m sure she’ll want to know. You did the right thing, Curtis. You were right. I’ll make sure that she knows about you and how you never gave up on her. I’ll tell her, Curtis. When she’s older. I promise you.”
“Can I see her now, Henry. I need to see her.” Curtis said lifting his right hand a little.
“Remember she doesn’t know you, Curt.” Dr. Lindholm said once again with tears in his eyes.
“It doesn’t matter. I just want to see her.” He was so weak now he couldn’t raise his head from the pillow.
“I’ll get her.” The doctor left the bedside and returned a few moments later with a slender, graceful looking young woman with pale skin and honey blonde hair and glasses.
The young woman stayed back a little behind the doctor and glanced briefly with concern at the man in the bed. She was almost as tall as the doctor and looked like she was at the awkward age when her body was changing. She looked uncomfortable, shy and uncertain of why she was there. Curtis could see her. She was straight and tall and strong and his heart hurt with love.
“Curtis. This is Claire. Claire, this is Mr. Whitbeck.” Dr. Lindholm said in formal introduction.
“Hello,” the girl said as she stepped up next to the bedside and gave Curtis a quick smile that, to Curtis, seemed to be sunlight breaking through the clouds. There was instantly something so very familiar in the smile. It was Virginia’s smile. Tears came into his eyes as he looked at her face. It was his Claire standing before him. He had endless questions that he realized were all answered simply by her presence. As her gray eyes met his, he looked for and found an end to 11 years of torment and suffering. He didn’t see a frightened, lost panicked little girl. He saw an intelligent, poised, normal, untraumatized strong young woman at the beginning of an entire life filled with promise. He saw everything he had wished and prayed for.
Curtis smiled and opened his mouth to speak and felt peace and warmth rush over him. For the first time since he could remember he felt complete and finished and — happy.
The doctor stepped forward and briefly felt Curtis’ neck on the right side, then with his fingers, closed Curtis’ eyes.
“Is he — gone?” The girl asked with a trembling voice.
“Yes,” the doctor said. “He’s gone.”
The young woman began to weep and an older woman who was standing by the door moved forward and wrapped an arm around the young woman’s shoulders and led her away from the bedside. “It’s OK honey. You were very kind to come here and help Grandpa out. You did wonderfully.”
“Yes, Milly. I hope someday you will understand what that moment meant to this man. I really appreciate you doing this for me. You too, Sandra. Thank you.” Dr. Lindholm smiled at the women.
“Sure, Dad. I could see why you asked us to do this. Come on, honey. I promised we’d go do some back-to-school shopping after this.” Sandra said to the old doctor.
“It was so sad, wasn’t it? Did you see him smile at me?” The girl asked her mother. She was pulling herself together.
“Yes, honey. I saw it. He loved his daughter very much. You could see that,” The mother said and looked at her father. “Are you sure this was the best thing to do, Dad?”
“I don’t know if it was or not. I deceived him, but I’ve watched him suffer for 11 years and was unable to do anything for him. I couldn’t stand to watch the torment any longer. If I was wrong, then I’ll accept the blame.” Lindholm said. “Thank you both again. I owe you one. I’ll see you this weekend, right?”
“Right, Dad. You know, you’re a nice guy and I love you.” The woman hugged the doctor.
“Bye, Grandpa. I love you.” The young woman walked over and gave him a kiss on the cheek.
As the door closed behind the pair the doctor turned toward the bedside.
“Curtis. I hope that you forgive my lie. I thought you deserved a little peace at the end of your work. I promise I will keep all of the promises I made to you if I can. I’m glad it’s over.” The doctor looked down at the face and saw that the smile was still there. He reached down and closed the mouth. He pulled out his stethoscope and listened to his chest for about 30 seconds. He lifted his eyelids and shone a penlight first in one eye and then the other. Finally, he rubbed Curtis’ breastbone vigorously with his knuckles. Satisfied, he pulled the blanket up to cover his face then went to make his note in the chart.
It was hot and humid on August 22, 2016, so the construction workers didn’t mind having to stop work almost immediately after starting that morning. Some of them sat in the shade while others stood by the backhoe which had been shut down. They were supposed to be excavating the embankment of a creek in order to replace the small bridge where Montgomery Street crosses over Coburn Creek in Bogalusa, Louisiana. Two men were kneeling in the bottom of a muddy hole about three feet in depth. One was the manager of the job site and the other was from the coroner’s office. Some of the idle construction workers stood along the hole’s edge watching as the two men examined the skeleton of a small child that had been uncovered by the backhoe. The man from the coroner’s office held up a necklace covered with mud and washed it off with the bottle of water he was carrying with him on this hot August Louisiana day. He wiped the small medallion with his thumb as he poured the water and he could just make out the first three letters, CLA.