From the window of his bedroom, which faced the spacious front garden of his huge house, Merritt Werrner saw his wife, Jan park her green Jaguar in the circular driveway. She went around to the trunk of the car and removed a shopping bag from Macy's, closed the trunk and walked along flower beds blazing with color.
He called out a greeting to her and went down the stairs to meet her. Merritt marveled at himself that after ten years of marriage he still felt that sudden thrill on seeing her that he had felt the first time he had seen her arriving at the very elegant but very boring dinner party given by the Elliot-Kauzes.
Merritt was a realist and to his way of thinking, you either accepted your life as it was or changed it to fit your way according to your capabilities. But no light-winged angel came to help you to do it.
He had seen some of his friends' marriages start in a cascade of stardust, burst in the air and fall limply into a drab relationship where one or the other and sometimes both, sought extramarital affairs.
Once out of childhood Merritt had never asked God for anything, but when God willingly gave him something, he thanked Him warmly. Such had been the case with his wife Jan. Merritt often thanked God for his finding Jan and also for finding her in the turning point of his medical career.
Only one thing God had withheld from Merritt and Jannette Werrner, and that was a child. After ten years, hope for children had vanished. In the beginning years of their marriage, a paternal feeling taking a hold of him, he had longed for a son or daughter. But as the years went by and it was confirmed by several specialists that because of an abnormality, Jannette would never bear children, he had made a point of avoiding the subject, knowing how painfully she had taken this confirmation. Besides, he had become so comfortable with the idea of them being by themselves that he shied away from anything that would disturb their perfect happiness.
Jannette had rarely discussed it with him in the intervening years but Merritt could sense how much she longed for children. Her glance always strayed to other people's children on the street. They had discussed in vitro fertilization at one point and almost made the decision to go ahead with it. Then Jan seemed to have lost interest all of a sudden and the subject was dropped. Later on she had also asked Merritt if he would agree to adoption and he had said he was all for it, as long as the child was her choice alone. He had said he did not want a tug of war as to different choices. He assured Jannette he would be happy with any choice she made if it came to that. Then the weeks and months passed since that discussion and they had gone on with their busy lives without mentioning the subject again.
Merritt went quickly down the stairs, opened the door and cupping Jan's face with his hand, kissed her warmly.
"Oh," Jan whispered breathlessly.
"I missed you terribly, darling," he assured her.
Jan had been gone on a four-day trip to New York for her mother's opening in Broadway of "Darling Jenny" and to do some shopping.
"How was your Mom?"
"She's fine now, with the new reviews not slaughtering them," said Jan with a wide smile. "I went through the suspense, too. Even after witnessing her openings all these years I still feel butterflies in my stomach until the first review comes in. I don't know how Mom can stand it," she added, "I couldn't."
"Yes you could," said Merritt, kissing her cheek again, "there's steel under that beautiful porcelain."
"Well, I'm glad you think so," said Jan, falling onto a couch with a deep sigh. "I'm glad to be home. Mom sent you her love."
"Did you tell her I miss her, too?"
"Of course." Jan turned around and looked at the large and tasteful living-room and unbuttoned her jacket. "I'm so glad to be home. How was the convention?"
Merritt had been away too, in Chicago for a medical convention.
"Same as always," he said, "except that Doc Richter came up with some very startling research. I'll tell you about it later; you seem kind of bushed. You feeling alright?"
"Merritt," said Jan standing up suddenly, "Before I went to New York I went to an orphanage."
"An orphanage?" said Merritt slowly. He was unable to suppress the sudden unpleasant thrill that went through his body. The kind you feel when you are about to throw up.
"I want to adopt, Merritt," Janet said turning to him, "but I don't want to be in an adoption list for years just to have a baby that we can pretend is really ours, nor do I want a surrogate baby. I want to give a child a chance at a better life, to make a difference in this world if only in a small way."
Merritt looked at his wife and saw how anxiously he was waiting for his answer.
He was happy with his life as it was. In fact he was perfectly happy. He sensed a danger approaching to threaten the life he was so fond of and he hated the idea that it would vanish—that it would never be the same again: he and Jan, alone in their little paradise where no one was allowed but them.
He saw that Jan was waiting tensely for his answer and that her face had changed somewhat as he hesitated.
He stood up and held her by the shoulders and injecting enthusiasm in his voice that he did not feel he said to her, "If it means so much too you…"
"Yes, Merritt, it means a lot to me but I won't do it if you are against it. It has to be both of us."
Merritt kissed her forehead and with a heavy heart that did not reflect in his eyes said the words Jan longed to hear:
"What do you want, sweetheart, boy or girl?"
"Whatever—either one, I don't care, I just want a child." Jan's voice was a joyful burst.
"Alright—go ahead, sweetie, I'm all for it."
"We're so lucky," said Jan three months later," bursting into the house. Merritt, absorbed in paperwork had not heard her car.
"It's a little girl, Merritt, a beautiful little girl of four. You'll love her when you see her. We can go pick her up tomorrow. It's all settled." Two weeks before Merritt had accompanied Jan to the adoption agency to fill out all the paperwork and to be interviewed but he had left the choice to Jan. "We'll have her on trial for six months, after which she will belong to us forever, if both she and we adjust to her."
"Sounds good," said Merritt, wondering why it was so hard for him to sound enthusiastic about the adoption and feeling guilty because each time the subject came up he had to inject an enthusiasm he just didn't feel.
"We can pick her up on Saturday, sweetie." Jan said, crossing her arms and embracing herself and sighing deeply as if she had just been told she had won the Pulitzer. Jan was a writer and worked at home. She had already published two historical works of fiction and was relatively successful in her field. She could also speak French and Spanish.
Merry Crest Children's Home was a large rambling building surrounded by tall eucalyptus trees with peeling trunks. It looked cozy and friendly. On one side there was a large fenced playground from where children's voices floated toward them.
She was sitting quietly on a large black office chair in the director's office as Jan and Merritt walked in.
She recognized Jan from the day before and stood up; a smile lighting up her heart-shaped face. "You must smile when your new mommy and daddy walk in," Merritt could almost hear the director of the orphanage say to the child.
The girl had an olive complexion and dark wavy hair. Her eyes were large, dark and heavily lashed. She looked Hispanic and a bit overweight.
"Hello," she said, finally, in an almost inaudible voice.
Jan knelt down to the little girl's level and took her hand in hers.
"She learned to speak English only recently but she manages very well at an elementary level," Jan said, and spoke to her in Spanish.
The little girl's smile widened and she said, "Hello, Mommy." Apparently, Jan had asked her to say the greeting in English. Jan would have her speaking fluent English very soon, thought Merritt, and somehow knew that he would contribute very little to it.
Merritt glanced down and saw that Jan was holding the small, dimpled hand in hers and her face radiated with affection.
"How are you, sweetie? Jan asked.
"Okay," the little girl and asked, "Is that my daddy?"
Merritt wondered why those few accented words grated on his nerves. After all, she was only a child and he had always liked the Spanish accent.
Little Cynthia Lopez, potentially Cynthia Werner, sat on her booster seat in the back seat of the car and Jan sat beside her on the way back to the house. Her mother had been a drug-addict and had dumped her at the Greyhound bus station on her fourth birthday. Her mother had later died in a car accident. Merry Crest Children's Home had contacted her grandmother in Puebla, Mexico. The old lady was very ill and had only a few days to live. The grandmother told the orphanage people that the child's mother was a citizen, having obtained her citizenship through marriage and had sent them the paperwork. She also gave her permission for her grandchild to be placed in adoption, assuring them that the girl's aunt and uncle had many children of their own and lived in poverty and that little Cynthia would be better off staying in the United States. She also told them that her daughter had once been a good girl, until she had fallen in with the wrong crowd.
* * *
Six months had passed and after the paperwork had been finalized little Cynthia Lopez became Cynthia Werrner.
Cindy was a lively child, given to imagination and curiosity. She had been told that she would now stay with her mommy and daddy "forever" and was saying the word the orphanage director or Janette had told her over and over.
The word "forever" had a different effect on Merritt as little Cindy said it in a sing-song way.
"Settle down, darling," Jan said, with a quick glance at Merritt as she turned to the back seat and gave Cindy the small toy she had been playing with.
* * *
It was Sunday afternoon and Merritt was sitting in the backyard reading the Sunday papers on an lawn chair under an umbrella. Jannette was making breakfast and Cindy was playing on the grass.
Cindy came running to Merritt suddenly, crashing over his open newspaper pages.
"Daddy, look!" she said, "I found a grasshopper!"
Merritt looked at her dimpled outstretched hand and saw that she was holding something tightly in its grip.
"Let me see, Cindy," Merritt said, putting the paper aside.
Cindy opened her hand and Merritt saw that there was a long green grasshopper squashed in Cindy's hand. He had never seen a little girl grab an insect like that. Boys did that all the time, but seldom did girls do that. He had, as a child. Well, he thought, at least she wasn't the squeamish overly girly type.
"Let's put it where it was and wash your hands, Cindy," he said, vaguely annoyed that he could never read a complete paragraph of anything when Cindy was around.
Cindy did as he told her and returned the grasshopper to where she had taken it, but part of its legs stuck to her little palm.
"It's not jumping anymore, Daddy," she said and her dark brown eyes widened and large tears welled in them.
"It's dead, isn't it?"
Merritt noted that although Cindy was only almost five, she appeared to know the concept of death, already.
"Just don't grab them so tightly next time, Cindy," he said as he washed her hand with the hose. He realized his voice sounded disinterested and that he was anxious to get back to his paper.
"Daddy do you love me?"
"Why do you ask, Cindy?" said Merritt, realizing he was stalling.
"Because you don't look at me like Mommy does."
When Merritt said nothing, Cindy, in the manner of children, who flit from subject to subject with the greatest of ease said,
"Will you tell me a story, Daddy? Will you tell me the story of Cinderella? That's the one I like most."
"Once upon a time," Merritt started with a guilty feeling, thinking that he could be cast as the wicked step-mother in the story, and wondering if he could shorten the story as much as possible, when Jannette's voice interrupted them.
"Alright, you two, breakfast is ready."
Jannette was beaming. Probably misinterpreting the "closeness" she had witnessed as Cindy had leaned eagerly toward Merritt, her head almost touching his, thought Merritt with a slight frown.
"I was thinking that maybe we could take Cindy to Balboa Park," said Jan as they cleared the table. "Would you like that?"
"You do that," said Merritt quickly, "I promised Jed I'd come over and look at the new RV he and Stella bought."
"Oh? Alright," Jannette said, apparently unhappy he wouldn't be going to the park with them.
Merritt felt like a heel later on when he drove off.
"Daddy was mad at me, Mommy," Cindy said sadly as she and Jan saw Merritt leave.
"Mad at you? Why would Daddy be mad at you, honey?"
"Because I wanted him to tell me the story of Cindrella."
"How many years have I been here?"
"One year. Next week is your birthday, sweetie. We're going to make you a birthday party. I already mailed the invitations. You're getting to be a big girl now."
"Will Daddy come to my birthday party?"
"Of course he will, Cindy," said Jan, "he wouldn't miss it!"
"I thought he wouldn't."
"Why would you think that?"
Because I don't think he loves me like you do, Mommy," Cindy said sadly.
"Nonsense, sweetheart; Daddy loves you as much as I do. It's just that he's a doctor, and he always has many things in his mind that worry him," Jan said, as much to herself as to her. Was she really trying to convince herself that Merritt cared for Cindy as much as she did herself?
"Can I play in the sidewalk with my bike? Kelsey is here." Kelsey was her friend, a six-year-old girl who lived next door.
"Yes sweetie, but stay in front of the house. I'm going to put the cake in the oven and then I'll sit out in the front porch and watch you. The residential area where they lived was a pleasant community of high-end realty and children often played with their bikes and skates outside after school.
As far as Jan could remember afterwards, the next few hours were a nightmare in which the blinking red light of the ambulance played a predominant part.
She was coming out of the kitchen and heading to the front door when she heard a crash outside and a little girl screaming…
A car had jumped the curb and hit Cindy in her bike, with the training wheels. Cindy's friend Kelsy couldn't stop crying, as the car had almost hit her, too. Cindy was unconscious and her body was splattered with blood.
The paramedics did not allow Jan in the ambulance as they had worked to do on Cindy on the way to the hospital so Jan followed in her car. She had tried to call Merritt on his cell phone but he had it turned off. Her hands on the steering wheel trembled all the way to the hospital and the tears streamed down her face unabated.
After looking over Jed's new RV, Merritt went to a bar in the shopping center near his house—something he never did—rather than head home. He needed to sort his thoughts and the darkened place almost empty of customers seemed like a good place to do it. He had just taken a sip of his dry martini when the television flashed a news bulletin: an accident…they were unable to locate the father, a surgeon by the name of Merritt Werner…
Merritt located his cell phone in his back pocket, turned it on and in the same instant left the bar and ran to his car. The bulletin had mentioned the hospital where the accident victims had been taken. The same hospital where he himself worked. There were two: the drunk driver who had gone over the curb and the little five-year old girl he had hit.
"Daddy, do you love me?" Cindy's words ran over and over in his mind as he finally reached the driveway of the hospital and parked his car.
"Doctor Werner?" Someone met him at the door and led him to the operating room.
Jan was under a sedative. Dr. Michaels, Merritt's friend from school and his neighbor a few blocks from his house led him to a reception area. He was wearing green scrubs.
"It's bad, Merritt, very bad. Only a miracle can save her." He explained the seriousness of the wounds and asked Merritt if he wanted to perform the operation, which had to be started in the next five minutes. Cindy was being prepared.
"I—I don't think I can trust myself, Jed. My hands are trembling," he said as he looked down at his hands. You are more familiar with that type of wounds. Please do everything you can—if she dies, I don't know what would become of us!"
Jan now came up to him and he pressed her tear-stained face against his.
They sat side by side and Merritt put his arm around Jan's shoulders. She was shaking and sobbing quietly.
"God—please don't take her away from us," he heard himself say in his mind over and over. He then began to pray, something which he hadn't done in years.
"I do love her, Jan. I really do. But I'm such an idiot I had to find out this way."
"Pray that God will let us have her again, Merritt," said Jan, looking at him with her tear-filled eyes, "just pray."
Dr. Michaels came out of the operating room; a haggard tired look in his eyes. "Merritt, Jan…"
The awful moment had come! Jan and Merritt held the question in their eyes as they stood up at the same time, unable to utter a word.
"She's over the worst," said Dr. Michaels. "She made it through but we won't know for certain until she regains consciousness. And I can't guarantee that she will. A head injury such as hers…
"After that it will be up to you two," he said to the stunned silence that had followed his words.
Jan embraced Merrit. Merritt closed his eyes and prayed again. But for the first time he thanked God for something he had asked him for and begged him for yet another: let Cindy regain consciousness.
Cindy was unconscious for six weeks. Six harrowing weeks.
Merritt and Jan took turns sitting by her bedside.
Then one day she woke up to find her father by her bed.
"What happened, Daddy?" she asked in a frail voice as she looked around the room.
"You had an accident, sweetheart." He took her little hand in his and kissed it.
"Happy birthday, Cindy," he said, his eyes welling up in tears. He then kissed his daughter for the first time. He gave her her present and she asked him to open it for her.
It was a Cinderella doll. Cindy reached out to the doll and embraced it, feebly.
"It's beautiful. Where did you find her, Daddy?"
"I went to six different stores," Merritt said. "I had to find the best Cinderella doll for the best little girl in the world."
"Daddy, do you love me as much as Mommy loves me?"
"Yes, darling, I love you with all my heart," whispered Merritt and watched his daughter fall asleep with the doll in her arms and a smile on her lips.
Merrit wiped the tears from his eyes and sat back on his chair, a smile on his lips.
Copyright 2008: Gloria Gay