She and Roy (not a husband) are on their way to Dr. Fliegel’s workshop and she has a new wig on. She always wanted curly hair. Now she has it. Curly red hair framing her small heart-shaped face. Roy has been buying her a lot of gifts lately. Today it’s another CD of early baroque music. She never liked early music. But she’s used to getting presents from men she doesn’t want; presents they wanted. Since Roy, she’s accumulated a collection of early music she never listens to. “It’s better than Hummels or something,” she told her friend Esther.
“Thanks, Roy,” she says, putting it on her bedside table.
Roy was married once and had a child too. When he divorced, he never saw the child again. “Some wounds never heal,” he said. His words drifted off into space and hung there between them. Roy is a blessing and a reminder—of loss. She takes his hand. They are going to the Extraordinary Cancer Patient group where they met over a year ago.
At the group, bright, cheery people, some with bald heads or turbans, sit in a circle on a beige rug. Throw pillows line the room. Dr. Fliegel—Dr. Extraordinary, as Roy wryly calls him—is talking about resilience. “Resilience is what we must have if we are to be extraordinary,” he says. At the end of the meeting, each person in the group puts something in The Loss Box. “This is a way of letting go of losses,” Dr. Fliegel explains. “You can’t really live if you’re wallowing in your losses.” She has put Amanda in there. At home she makes her own loss box of cardboard. “To make sure I bury them all,” she tells Roy. She paints it fuchsia and makes a tiny baby out of clay. She places her there as if in a manger. But at night she thinks she hears her crying.
After Amanda was born, the nurse patted her hand and said, “One day you’ll get married; make sure never to let your husband find out.”
Dr. Fliegel has a bald head like many of his patients. It makes her feel calm looking at it. It shines beneath the fluorescent light. “What is your story?” he asks, taking loping strides from one end of the room to the other. “Look around…,” he waves. “Look across the room. However terrible it is, there’s someone whose story is worse than yours right in this room.” She blinks at the woman in a wheelchair across from her.
Decades after Amanda was gone, she went to the child welfare office. She thought maybe, like her friend Esther, she could adopt an older child. Esther had taken in a sullen girl with a pierced tongue who wore leather pants.
She didn’t keep the girl. “She was doing drug deals from my apartment,” Esther explained.
She had shrugged when Esther told her this.
“Well, you didn’t keep yours,” Esther said defensively.
The sullen girl didn’t want to leave. “A real family doesn’t give up on you,” she screamed when Esther called the Department of Social Services to come get her.
Roy holds her hand. His hands are dry and flaky. They are brown and splotched and remind her of a chameleon. His eyes seem to focus in two slightly different directions.
People walk to the center of the room for a healing ritual. When it’s her turn, she lies down on the beige carpet; everyone’s hands gently touch her.
“You can use bad things in your life as a crutch or a stepping stone,” says Dr. Fliegel. “What will you do?”
The group breaks for snacks—jerk chicken, melon balls, and soupy cottage cheese. They show a movie called Healing Journeys.
She used to look through phone books imagining what Amanda’s new name was. She knew they had erased the name she gave her, just like they erased hers when she was sent away. She had never gotten it back, she thought. Not really. She saw herself become fainter and fainter until she was the barest of chalk outlines.
For a long time afterwards, she avoided playgrounds and schoolyards. She nervously scurried around those colorful clots of children on the street, in movie theaters. The sight of a pregnant woman left an empty chill beneath her breastbone, like a fist of ice that wouldn’t melt. After she said goodbye to her, things kept falling apart. She’d see that feverish little face everywhere and those arms reaching out to her.
“How could you do this to us?” her mother said when she found out. “Pretend you have amnesia,” her father said with the same tone he used to sell his customers aluminum siding. “It will become invisible,” he added.
Roy is trying to escape his own ghost—a boy eight years old with a basketball under his arm. She imagines his ghost child and hers meeting. “Every time I’d try to call him, my ex would answer and hang up the phone. Didn’t even bother to swear or anything. Just click. After a while I gave up,” he said.
She left the letter at the adoption agency. “My therapist suggested I write it — even if no one ever read it,” she told Roy. “It sounded futile to me. Like a message in a bottle.”
“Some things you need to do,” Roy said. Suddenly both his eyes seem to be focusing on one point.
She sealed the envelope before leaving it at the agency. Until recently she couldn’t remember anything in it. Now fragments return: I love you. I will never forget you. I will tell your brothers and sisters about you when they grow up and can understand. But there had been no brothers and sisters. Only Amanda.
At home she wrote the remembered words on a piece of paper; placed it in The Loss Box.
“You know some of you are extraordinary and you don’t even know it. I mean people survive cancer. Can you believe that? Sometimes the hardest thing is to live,” Dr. Fliegel gesticulates and paces back and forth.
She sees Roy’s face across the room. During the healing circle, like Lazarus, she feels herself rise.
Lee Varon is a writer and clinical social worker. Her poetry and short stories have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and published in A & U AIDS Magazine, Artful Dodge, Black River Review, Blue Mesa Review, Common Journeys, Fox Cry Review, Hawaii Review, High Plains Literary Review, Lumina, The Maverick Press Journal, Milkweed Chronicle, The New Renaissance, Owen Wister Review, Oyez Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Permafrost, Pleiades, The Puckerbush Review, RE:AL, River City, The Rockford Review, Sibyl-Child, Sojourner, So To Speak, Soundings East, Southern Poetry Review, andWriters Forum.