In the midst of her daily schedule-- kids and work-- Faith Phoenix receives a devastating phone call that reveals the truth about her sister's illness.
Faith is busiest in August, juggling family, career, and social calendars, praying on the run, and still hoping for family fun (struggling for balance). Monday morning, she sat at her mahogany desk in the corner of her kitchen, emailing sponsors and avoiding personal calls. The phone rang, she forgot to look at Caller ID and picked up the handset.
“Faith Phoenix, how may I help you?”
“It’s your mother.”
“What’s up?” Faith looked at the laptop screen.
“I need you to check on your sister while I’m at the embroidery convention.”
“Why, would I do that?”
“Your sister has lost fifteen pounds in three days,” her mother said.
“Mom, that’s from the chemo.” She pressed ENTER sending an announcement about her fifth successful dot.com.
Faith asked her mother where is she. Her mother tells her she is sitting in her car, in the driveway waiting for Cola Cullivan, who is driving with her. Faith teases her mother, you’re probably staring at that cottage wondering if you should leave Lydia alone. “Mom, she’s a big girl and can take care of herself.”
“You don’t understand,” her mother said.
“She’s having nightly coughing spells. She’s losing weight too fast.”
“Mom she’s self-medicating with some homeopathic remedies.” Faith hit delete.
“She’ll be fine.”
“What did your sister tell you?”
“Cancer. Uterine.” Faith stopped fingering the keyboard. Her hazel eyes widened and heart thumped.
“Faith, she’s positive,” her mother muttered. “Please convince your sister to go to the doctor. She will listen to you.” Then her tone ascended. “I’ll be at Birmingham Sheraton Hotel.”
Faith hung up the phone, clicked off the computer and rose from her desk. The teakettle whistled. She stared out the kitchen window and raked the maple tree-lined street with her eyes. The children screamed, “Let’s go Mom!” The cell phone rang. Faith batted back tears. She told the kids to be quiet, answered the call, and silenced the kettle shrill.
“Can you bring me soup?” said Lydia, Faith’s sister. Lydia’s voice, squeaky and frail, comes over the phone. “I’m so hungry but don’t have the strength to get to the kitchen.”
Faith cleared her throat. “Come clean, Lydia. What’s really going on?” In her kitchen she filled the thermos with boiled water and sweetened her tea with honey.
“Seven years ago the doctor told me I had been infected but not contagious. I was afraid to tell you because I thought you would keep the kids away.” Lydia rattled on filling the silence. “Only Mom knows and I made her swear secrecy. She told me to tell you. But I couldn’t, I just wasn’t sure how you would react.”
“Faith are you there?” Lydia asked.
“Uh, huh,” Faith said. Nodding trance-like, stirring her tea, mouth agape.
“I’ve been treating myself, reading and researching,” Lydia continued. “I’ll tell you more when you come.” The dial tone droned in Faith’s ear.
Faith watched her two daughters and son bolt through the kitchen and down the stairs to see who would get the front seat of the truck. She slipped the cell onto her belt, picked up her thermos and an apple and walked through the back door toward the Explorer parked in the driveway. Inside the truck, her fifteen-year-old slid in a gospel tunes, cranked up the volume and crooned along with her siblings. Out of tune, Faith cried along.
Don’t upset the children.
She dropped off her brood and called her husband asking him to pick them up. She told Paul she had to visit her sister, who wasn’t well.
“Can you pick up my shirts from the cleaners?” he asked. “Did you get the plane tickets?”
“Yep,” she said.
“What’s for dinner?”
“Last night’s tuna casserole.”
“We’ll order pizza,” he groaned. “Do you know what time you’ll be home?”
Faith stopped at Resurrection Plaza, filled up her gas tank, and went to Sam’s Deli for pea soup, a turkey sandwich and strawberries. Her sister loved strawberries. On her journey to Wellspring, New York, fifty miles south of Methuselah, she babbled out loud.
“Oh, Lord, how could you do this? How could Mom and Lydia do this? Did they not trust me? How could I miss the signs?”
Don’t let the kids drink after your sister when she visits. Scrub your washing machine with disinfectant after your sister uses your washes her clothes.
Her nubuck sandal pressed harder against the pedal. The speedometer bounced to ninety. “What do I do?” Faith white-knuckled the steering wheel. “Jesus help me, help her, help us.”
Too much is given, much is expected.
She cranked up Alvin Slaughter gospels, “God Can,” and inhaled the fragrance from the car deodorizer hanging on the rear view mirror.
One hour later, she parked in front of the stone cottage, yards away from her mother’s three-story Victorian. Faith took the paper bag from the back seat and walked to the cottage. “I’m here.” Her voice rippled through the bungalow.
In the kitchenette Faith placed soup, sandwich and strawberries on a serving tray and trotted towards her sister’s room. She was scared at what she might see. It had been three weeks since she last saw her plump and giddy sister, when they watched Lion King on Broadway.
“You look great,” Lydia said in a wispy voice. She pressed her dry cracked lips together.
“It’s hot.” Faith put the tray beside the bed. Her dazed gaze passed her emaciated, bulging eyed sister and landed out the window onto the rose garden.
“I look bad huh,” Lydia said. “I’ll bounce back in no time, I just need some food, few days rest.” Lydia pushed herself up on the bed and pulled her robe closed to hide the chicken pox scars. “I feel a burden lifted now that I’ve told you.”
“I’ll take you to the doctor,” Faith said, eyes roving along the paint-peeled porch and lopsided swing. “Give me his number. I’ll call.”
“Look, I’m a single black woman and that doctor just wants to kill me not treat me.” Lydia’s tone grew fierce. “I don’t need you trying to take control of my life, now, or feeling sorry for me. I’ve been doing well for years!”
Faith glanced at her sister spooning soup into her partially pursed lips.
Lydia wiped her crackled lips. “You should have seen cousin Judas. Delusional, drugged and bloated. He didn’t even know I was there.” She leaned back on the head post and coughed twice. “Those cocktails are brutal. I’m not going out like that.” She hacked again. “But I tell you Sis, that hospital in New York City was awesome, not like Wellspring Hospital.”
Faith looked away from her sister and stared at her mirrored reflection. Auburn bob. Ripped biceps. Lydia’s graduation photo -- plump face and gleaming smile—stared back at her.
Lydia noticed Faith’s agitation. She changed the subject. They talked about the ordinary, Faith’s children, her newly launched dot.com, Lydia’s café, La Mocha, and their mother’s obsession with sewing. Faith invited Lydia to stay with her for a few days and then see the doctor. Faith said, if she were closer it would be easier for her to care for the children, the house, her spouse, her business and Lydia. At first Lydia protested. She said, she had a café to manage and staying with Faith would be awkward since her brother-in-law was still holding a seven-year grudge. Faith sat next to Lydia with wet eyes. She said, “It has taken us years to mend our relationship, please, let me do this. You can stay at Methuselah Residency Inn until Mom gets back. It’s five miles from the house.” Faith hugged Lydia. “Let me help you. I’ll pack.”
At dawn Faith rose and genuflected beside her bed. Then she loped a three-mile circuit, returning home to stretch, shower, and change. During daylight hours she fed the family, ran errands, managed her dot.com, dashed to the Inn, room 403, to bring Lydia lunch and rub her chest, back and legs with a concoction of Aspercreme, aloe and cat claw. At night, Faith and her laptop sat with Lydia in the hotel room. They watched and laughed at childhood TV shows, now reruns, Gilligan’s Island, The Brady Bunch and I Love Lucy. Over the next few days Lydia seemed to grow stronger. She began to tag along with Faith and the kid trio to Boy Scouts, drama club and VBS.
Monday evening, Faith, exhausted, fell asleep on the settee in the hotel room. Heady hacking coughs woke her. She sat up to see Lydia, eating strawberries and reading the Bible. That night, well into daylight hours, Lydia filled Faith’s ears with her past illicit licentious life.
“When the nurse told me I was infected, I was disgusted and scared.” Lydia shook her head. “I was terrified of death, frightened of family and friends shunning me, and pissed off at God.”
“You have that right,” Faith said, unsure of what to say.
“Girl, for me sex is like sinking your teeth into red fleshy strawberries.”
Faith’s face reddened. She narrowed her eyes to the floor.
“You just can’t eat one, and its good for you.” Lydia swung her feet to the floor and jumped up and down. “My breath is coming back.”
“I see.” Faith said, tears leaking.
“Several days after the news, I spent days in that cottage trying to kill myself with drugs and alcohol,” Lydia continued. “When that didn’t work I decided to destroy the men that came in my path. I didn’t even tell them I was infected.” She looked at Faith’s wide eyes. “No, worries, I don’t play that game, anymore. One night I was high on my reds.” Lydia licked her glossy lips. “Soaring alone, I heard God call my name. It frightened me,” Lydia said with tremble in her tone. “Obedience is what I heard. Sis, I bowed down and boohooed. I asked him to let me live long enough to get my degree and reconnect with my sister.”
“Have you told those men?” Faith said.
“Not yet,” Lydia said. “Thanks for keeping me in your prayers.”
Tuesday morning, Faith convinced Lydia to visit the doctor. “The doctor is not your enemy,” Faith said. “Research and quality medicine have come along way for this virus.”
“You really think I should go?” Lydia asked.
“God is not done with you yet. Just have faith.” She pinched her thumb and index fingers together and said, “Like a mustard seed.”
“Okay, but you have to take me home after the visit and call my pastor.” Lydia began to pack her clothes. “This hotel bill is too expensive and I need my own bed.”
Three hours later, they ventured to the doctor’s office. The doctor examined Lydia and prescribed her medicine. He wrote things on her chart. He said he could monitor her better as an in-patient, but she’d be fine as an outpatient. His face was pale and smile sullen.
Faith, begrudgingly, drove Lydia back to the suburbs of Wellspring. She took the prescription to the pharmacy, hoping they didn’t think she was the patient, stopped at Mr. Green’s Grocer for milk, water, salad, sliced turkey, salsa, chips and strawberries. Then she took Lydia home.
“This is a tough week, Becky and Brian have robotics camp,” Faith said.
“Skip coming tomorrow, I’ll see you Thursday.” Lydia said. “I’m fine.”
Later that evening, Faith peeled potatoes and called her mother’s hotel room.
“Mom she has pneumonia,” Faith whispered into the phone.
“I knew it,” her mother said. “I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you. Please don’t be upset…” The words stuck in her throat.
“Her T-cell count is nineteen. The doctor can’t understand why she’s still walking around,” Faith said. “A hundred and ten pounds.”
“Try to convince her to get to a hospital,” Mom murmured. “I’m sorry I had to leave but I’ll be home Friday.”
Faith leaned against the refrigerator and slid to the floor. “Getting her to the doctor was hard.”
“She needs fluids, an IV,” Mom sputtered. “Try to get her to the hospital. No matter what we do, we cannot hydrate her like an IV.”
“She so thin,” Faith sniffled and wiped the moisture from her irises onto her sleeve of the black and white striped birthday sweater Lydia gave her when she turned forty, last year. Faith, petite and pear-shaped, wrapped her left arm around her bent knees. “Mom, Lydia knows so much about this virus that she doesn’t trust anyone to care for her.”
“But, mentally she’s breaking down,” Mom said. “It was seeing your cousin in the hospital that scared her. I told her not to go.”
“Mom are you prepared?”
“I love her, she knows I love her, she knows you love her and at least we know her soul will not perish.”
“That’s what keeping her alive her faith and prayer.”
“She’s tells more people about the love of Jesus than I do,” Mom said.
“I’m so glad she went back to church.”
“Mom you did the best you could raising us alone. Remember, God doesn’t punish us through our children.”
“We’ll talk when I return,” her mother said. “Just get her to the hospital.”
Friday at six o’clock, Lydia rang Faith gasping. “I need you to take me to hospital. I can’t breathe.”
“I’m coming.” Faith woke her husband and told him she had to take Lydia to the hospital and she would explain later. Faith called her mother. Her mother said she was four hours away, and would meet Faith at the hospital.
Faith hurriedly parked, front tire on the curb and scurried into the cottage. Lydia sat on winged chair covered in a quilt. Faith grabbed Lydia’s cocktails, lotion potions, wallet and Bible and tossed them in her black rucksack. She donned Lydia in a denim dress and slide thongs on her petite feet. Lydia on one arm and backpack on the other they ambled to the car.
“All I could remember was that scripture that read, everything that have breath must praise the Lord,” Lydia whispered. She stopped holding her chest.
“One step at a time.”
“And I couldn’t breathe,” she gasped for air after two steps. “I couldn’t praise Him.”
“Let’s pray.” Faith said. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters.”
“He restores my soul,” Lydia whispered.
Faith sped through waning yellow lights, dodged turning cars and wheeled her husband’s BMW through bumper traffic. She came to a screeching halt in the front of the emergency entrance and rushed inside to get a wheelchair. Faith gripped the bars and wheeled Lydia inside. She went to the receptionist desk, asked for a mask, placed it over Lydia’s mouth and gave the receptionist Lydia’s personal information. Twenty minutes later, Lydia lay in room with clear tubes lodged in her nostrils, IVs in her both burnt umber arms.
“Faith, I’m famished.”
“Nurse can she eat?”
“Yes,” the nurse said.
Faith scurried through hygienic corridors, fruity and ammonia-like smells mixed with food and drugs wafting in the air. She confiscated a ham sandwich and milk from a food tray in the hallway. Went back to the isolated room, 403, and placed sandwich pieces into her sister’s mouth.
“I don’t want to die,” Lydia said between small swallows. Her wide doe eyes stayed focused on Faith.
Faith put the straw to Lydia’s mouth. Lydia slowly sipped the pink liquid and smiled. Faith placed the pint-size carton on the tray and raked her hand across Lydia’s hair smoothing strands in place. She shut her eyes, bent forward and kissed her sister’s forehead. “God’s not through with you yet.”