One of the children had an oxygen mask and moved a rolling cart around the room with ease. I tried to imagine being the parent of one of these small patients with long-term illnesses and lost childhoods, and found that maybe in the hierarchy of parental grief, I had actually been spared.
“We’re just finishing up with the short-stack set,” Tina said. “Come on in.”
A couple nurses in monkey scrubs appeared in the door. “Ready?” one of them asked the girl with the mask.
“I want to stay here with Tina,” she whined.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” Tina said. “And maybe we can use some clay.”
The girl clutched Tina’s leg, and I witnessed, just for a split second, how this affected her. I saw the same mental image, the figure of her own child, who would never perform such a simple act of attachment.
The volunteer rolled me up to the table. “Someone will be back for you,” she said. “Have a good time.”
Tina extricated herself from the girl, who was led away by the nurse. She began to pick up the various cups of gray water.
“They love you already,” I said.
She dumped the water in a little silver sink and rinsed out the cups. “The kid classes are okay. The grown-up ones are…interesting.”
“I didn’t realize you’d be doing kids too.”
“I knew. That’s where the art room is, anyway. Nothing like this on the other floors.” She pulled a handful of paper towels from the dispenser and began drying off the table.
The room had emptied. “Am I your only patient?”
“I doubt it. Yesterday I had Albert and Clementine. I’m pretty sure they aren’t getting out anytime soon.” She glanced at the clock. “They were about five minutes late yesterday too. I think it’s meds time, so they have to wait.”
I wanted to ask more about them, but figured she had some confidentiality clause anyway. “Are you liking it here?”
She tweaked her two pigtails, tightening them against her head. “The kids are fun, though messy. Their program is new. Sabrina hadn’t had time for them. There are lots of kids. They could easily fill my day.”
“Is it hard?”
She tugged an antibacterial wipe from a container and sat in a chair opposite me to scrub down the table. “A little. I swear I see Peanut in every one. I mean, I know he couldn’t have lived. He was way too small. But he would have had a lot of problems. He could have ended up someplace like this.”
“Finn too. Even if he had the heart surgery, it would have been an uphill battle. They have to do three increasingly difficult repairs as they grow.”
“Makes me realize how hard some parents have it.” She closed up the paint palettes and stacked them in the center of the table. “I’m not sure which is harder. Having them die right away, or having them for months or years and then having to let them go.”
“It’s all hard.”
I didn’t know how much more time we’d have alone, or if we’d get any time after, so I decided to plunge right in with my question. “So, have you learned your way around yet?”
She shrugged. “Somewhat. I get the overall lay of the land. There’s too many people to meet to know them all.”
“What department would handle doing a paternity test?”
Her hands stilled on the plastic paint boxes. “Who’s asking?”
“I am. For Gavin.”
Her pale eyebrows shot up. “What’s going on?”
I stood up from the wheelchair so I could walk over to the windows. “He says there’s this girl who claims her kid is his.” I turned back around and leaned on the counter that lined the wall. “He just wants to clear his name.”
“You don’t have to go to a hospital. I think there are outfits that do it anywhere.”
“But I’m here. And I can’t get out right now to be with him.”
“You mean, to see her. And the kid.”
I fingered a stack of art paper, straightening the corners. “I want to see her, yes.”
“And the kid. To torture yourself.”
She walked over next to me and picked up a piece of the paper. “Your first assignment in art therapy is to draw a picture of how you think this meeting will go.”
I frowned at the paper. “You realize I can’t draw.”
“Do what you can.”
“Will you find a way to do the test?”
“I will ask around. I’m sure someone here does it.”
I accepted the sheet of manila stock, heavy and textured. “Thank you.”
A man in pale blue scrubs, beefy and no-nonsense, led an elderly man and a middle-aged, slightly hunched woman into the room.
“Hello, Albert and Clementine,” Tina said. “Come in.”
Albert looked over the room, tall and lean, almost skeletal in gray flannel pants and a soft blue checked shirt. His face was grizzled, dotted with patchy bits of gray beard, and his eyes were sunken, pale, and bewildered, as if he had no idea how he had come to this place.
Albert moved to sit in one of the chairs, but Clementine punched him in the arm. “That’s mine.” She plunked into the chair, bending tight over the surface of the table. Her hair was long and wild, solid gray from her scalp to the line that marked her last dye job, a deep brown. I wondered what had happened to them both. They both seemed shadows of some other person, the brighter, healthier self they once were.