The night her parents did combat in the front yard, the police eventually showed up. Cara, standing just outside their front door, watched until she couldn’t, then retreated to her bedroom in the rear of the house. Her brother was away at school – far away. He occasionally returned on holidays, never staying long. He’d had enough.
Her father – Ronald – was handsome. He ran a successful construction business, worked long hours, drank, and provided the earned portion of their wealth. Cara’s mother – Diana – provided the inherited portion. Along with money, she inherited a disposition to intoxicants. She was beautiful – best viewed from across the room. Cara, herself, was a survivor. The night the police came she used a survival skill she’d picked up from her family: silence. Silence was a shield. Silence was a battering ram. In the mausoleum that was the Holmes’ residence, everyone lived with silent discontent and silent disappointment.
A senior in high school, Cara had acquaintances, not friends. She had the school she went to and the town she lived in. She had her own car and anything else she wanted. Like her father, she could be callous. Like her mother, she was intimidated and bewildered by things that appealed to her. The three of them – father, mother, daughter – occasionally dined together, but mostly her father worked late and her mother wasn’t feeling well. Cara ate in the kitchen, alone.
“Let’s go talk with your parents.”
That’s what the police officers said to her the night they found her driving her car around the softball diamond next to the railroad tracks at the north edge of town. The officers knew who she was; this happened only days after her parents’ battle. When they shined a flashlight in her eyes, when they recognized her, she covered her face with her hands and wept uncontrollably. She’d no idea why she’d done it. She’d been alone in her automobile, driving aimlessly through neighborhood after neighborhood, up and down Main Street, out by the shopping district, past all the fast food restaurants, all the while wishing there was someone in the car with her, to listen to the radio, to talk about school and the teachers, to talk about the town they lived in. The policemen asked her if she’d been drinking and she shook her head no; Cara Holmes would never drink. She looked at the officers, exhausted, and said, “I don’t know why I’ve done it.” She cried more after saying that. The tears were real, so why did she feel like they were part of an act? That is exactly how she felt. She felt that way because she saw every single person in her life as an actor – improvising – desperate to get through the scene.
The police took her home and explained to her parents what she’d done; that explanation was received quietly by both parents, who barely spoke to the officers. They had no questions, no comments. Cara’s father frowned, bit his lip, shook his head and looked away. Her mother steadied herself by touching her daughter’s shoulder, saying nothing. The air grew heavy and then the two officers left, baffled. Cara’s car wouldn’t be taken away. Her driving privileges wouldn’t be suspended. She went to her bedroom and listened to her heart beat.
After graduation Cara went off to college. There she accomplished the two things that changed her life. First, she discovered counseling. It was a thing on campus; other students were already there. What the counseling provided was a different perspective – one not threatening, not heavy with regret. She talked openly with her counselor and it felt good when she talked. She attended sessions with other students and was never embarrassed to say the things she said. She opened up about her life, all of it. She never cried like some did, but sometimes, when she talked, she felt her heart thumping in her chest and her lungs struggling to provide oxygen.
Second, she flunked out of school. Not immediately, although she was on academic probation almost immediately. From day one, from the day she moved into her dorm room, she knew her formal education was over at the end of that academic year; she was indifferent to academics. At the end of the year she moved out of the dormitory and into a small apartment where, absolved of duty – no interest in school, no real family connection, no requirements or restrictions on what choices she made – she let her life lapse. She simply floated … for months; it wasn’t difficult. There was money from home whenever she asked; she lived frugally. She focused on being frugal, spent months doing nothing, and in the stillness she created she came to realize that she existed because she did not not-exist, and she thought that realization was a giant step in her life.
Like her brother, she returned home for quick visits – over holidays – when she would attempt to reacquaint herself with her family. Her mother and father, her brother, they were acquaintances. Those visits were, for her, a reminder of something she’d learned in campus therapy. She’d learned that not all is well in the world, and that living in a world in which all is not well is how living is accomplished.
At twenty she decided to reclaim her life. She’d thought about that and talked about it with her therapist, an older man who hemmed and hawed when she asked him a direct question. “Kudos,” he would say when she asked him a question he thought insightful. He told her that her questions were astute, yet never actually answered them; she never told him that irritated her. After one year of therapy she’d had enough. She told him she was cured. He blinked, raised up halfway out of his chair when she said that, appearing confused. “I don’t know how you did it,” she told him. “I’m a completely different person, don’t you see?” She stood up and left his office while he hemmed and hawed, and soon after moved to a larger city, some hours away
“I think I could be a nanny,” she told a woman one day. That woman’s agency placed nannies. That woman asked questions, lots of questions, and although Cara Holmes had little practice doing anything, that woman was intrigued – that is the perfect word, intrigued – with the placid personality presented by Cara Holmes. That woman, who pegged herself as an expert in character assessment, pegged Cara as being perfect for the position of nanny.
Cara failed as a nanny. Several times. She was never embarrassed by those failures; she was relieved.
Then, through that same agency she found success as a companion.
A companion needn’t cook, needn’t clean. There were no hygiene or health-related responsibilities. Nothing domestic was required. She need only be available for sitting quietly, for walking alongside of, for being around, for accompanying.
She became a companion to an elderly woman, wealthy, even-tempered, lacking the physical resources to do much more than sit in a room, stand at a window, walk to the door and go out to the garden. She was a lovely woman who wanted someone around her who was not a domestic. She wanted someone who appeared to care. That was Cara.
Imagine Cara Holmes in the home of someone else – patiently combing her hair, slowly applying the little makeup she uses, listlessly choosing a blouse, a skirt, shoes, all this done working for an elderly woman of some standing who has lived a manicured life and now desires someone to sit with her, read to her, be in the same room with her in the afternoon. This elderly woman – Dolores Heffinger – she tells Cara “Call me Dolores. We’ll be close … I just know it.” And they do become close. It requires almost no effort from either of them.
Cara rises early and eats her breakfast alone, then reads in the dining room or in the sitting room, one ear alert for some sound that signals Mrs. Heffinger is awake. They talk quietly while Mrs. Heffinger stirs in bed, sits up in bed – this can take a while – then Cara leaves while the nurse makes Mrs. Heffinger ready for the day.
During the day they sit quietly. Sometimes Cara reads to Mrs. Heffinger or they watch television. They discuss things and comment on things and sometimes Mrs.Heffinger dozes off, and sometimes Cara does, too. They are comfortable with each other. Isn’t it enough just to be comfortable?
Cara’s mother called when her father died. “Your father has died,” she said, and Cara went home and spent three nights in the bedroom she’d grown up in. It was not uncomfortable. The rituals were brief. People said kind words. There were prayers in the church and prayers at the gravesite. There was a subdued stillness in the house that had never been there before. She left after three nights, early in the morning. Her mother wasn’t awake yet. Her brother had already gone.
Back in the home of Dolores Heffinger, Cara had a brief liaison with Mrs. Heffinger’s great nephew, Allan, who was similar in age to Cara. Allan was well-mannered and quiet and he’d been visiting every few months or so. On his visits he sat with his great aunt when she woke in the morning and sat with her while she fell asleep in the evening. He listened intently when his great aunt spoke to him and he spoke quietly to her and she enjoyed every second of his attention.
After he was gone, Mrs. Heffinger bragged about him. “Isn’t he a dear?” she said. “He’s always been my favorite.”
Their brief liaison – it had only been heavy petting – all the fumbling and panting and murmuring managed somehow to be devoid of intimacy. Neither Cara nor Allan felt any shame, any embarrassment, or any reason to try that again.
“He’s after her money,” the cook told Cara after he’d gone. Cara was eating toast she’d made herself. The cook was much older than Cara. She’d seen companions come and go. She’d seen nurses come and go. She considered herself a Christian woman and said a prayer after she told Cara the great nephew was after his great aunt’s money; that had not been a Christian thing to say. A few days later she told Cara that Allan was a dear. “I know I said he was after her money.” She bowed her head when she said that. “That’s not true. It was unkind. Allan comes regularly, every few months or so. He’s a good boy, not like his sister … I only met her the one time.”
The cook, whose name was Trina, never spoke of Allan again.
There were two nurses. Evelyn came in the morning, early, then Gloria in the afternoons.
Evelyn was spry and lighthearted. She told Cara her story: “I was a nun for almost thirty-five years,” she said. “I belonged to the Sisters of Mercy.” When she said that a droll smile appeared on her face, then faded under raised eyebrows. “I left the order,” she said, “because I got tired of it.” She snickered and waved one hand, shooing something away. “I prayed and talked with God and we hashed it out.” She smiled and pushed thin hair back from her forehead. “I didn’t hear voices or anything like that … I just talked and God listened. I know He did. The day I walked away from the convent I felt like a teenager.” She put a hand to her neck and rubbed. “I tell you, I feel like a teenager every day now, and I thank God for that. We talk all the time.” She held that hand on her neck, rocking slightly, side-to-side. “I do all the talking,” she said. She looked at Cara and it was contentment that Cara was seeing. Deep contentment.
Gloria came in the late afternoons. She put Mrs. Heffinger to bed. She was, according to Dolores Heffinger, a stuffy person, although she was cordial to Cara, often staying after Mrs. Heffinger was asleep, to talk with Cara. “Tell me about yourself,” she would say to Cara. It wasn’t prying, it was formal. Gloria was very formal in every aspect of her life. By being formal she was holding at bay some unhappiness she carried with her. That unhappiness would have startled Cara had she ever heard about it, which she did not. “I tell you,” Gloria said some weeks after Cara arrived, “Mrs. Heffinger has taken a shine to you.” Gloria liked being positive. It was sensible, she felt, to always look for the good. Cara was a bit embarrassed and didn’t respond.
“Mrs. Heffinger needs to know she matters,” Gloria said, continuing. Cara remained silent and watched Gloria’s eyebrows raise. “She’s old. So what? She just needs to know she’s alive and living in the same world as the rest of us.” Gloria was watching Cara from the corner of her eyes. “I don’t mean to be insensitive, but Mrs. Heffinger is no more important to this world than you or I. She can be aloof, you know. I tell her that, too, when she gets up on her heels with me.” Cara had no idea what that meant. “Then she’ll apologize,” Gloria said. “She will. She’s apologized to me more than once. That’s the kind of woman Mrs. Heffinger is. She’s thoughtful, really … very much so. She’s lonely, you see.”
Cara liked Evelyn and Gloria. They both tended to Mrs. Heffinger with genuine concern. In conversation, Evelyn spoke quietly, deliberately, unhurriedly, as did Gloria, as did Trina. Cara decided to talk like that.
* * *
Time went by … time goes by and people don’t notice. During the time that went by, Cara shopped for herself, went to the movies and sometimes to the symphony. She bought a car for herself and went to see Lake Michigan and to Lake Superior, by herself. She went to Minneapolis and Milwaukee and one time over to Omaha. She bought a bicycle and went for bicycle rides. She found a therapist – never telling Mrs. Heffinger or the nurses or the cook – and went every other week. She did all the things that people do and if it sounds like she had a tiny little life – and if it was true that she had a tiny life – she wasn’t aware of that. She shared details of her outings with Mrs. Heffinger, with the nurses if they asked, and with the cook. She talked with the men who came to maintain the lawn. She had conversations with them, like people do. She felt at home in the house owned by Dolores Heffinger. She had a large room with a connecting bath, and in her room she had a television and a bookcase, a desk she rarely sat at, two chests of drawers where she put the things she bought for herself, and a queen-sized bed. There were two large windows looking out over the front lawn. There was a floor lamp and a table lamp and a telephone. Almost everything a person would ever need was in that room.
Allan kept returning. He never mentioned that evening, nor did she. Cara thought of him as lonely and Allan thought the same of her. She met Allan’s sister – Deidre – who was distant and ill at ease and who spent very little time with her great aunt during her visits. One time Allan stayed an entire week and joked with the nurses and the cook and one evening he insisted his great aunt stay up later than usual to play cards with him and the night nurse and Cara. Mrs. Heffinger talked about that card game for days after.
* * *
Some weeks before Dolores Heffinger died …
* * *
Wait … no … before we get to that …. it’s important to understand that Evelyn, the morning nurse, felt it important for everyone to pass from life on a happy note. She never said it in those words, but she always spoke to happiness and to contentment and to accepting the joy which was everywhere around us at all times, and she also spoke to preparing for the joy that was to come. Mrs. Heffinger liked that about her. “Evelyn is no longer a nun,” she told Cara one day, “but she still thinks like one.”
As well, it’s important to know that Gloria, the night nurse, the nurse Mrs. Heffinger saw as stuffy, she, too, had a positive impact on Mrs. Heffinger’s life. Gloria genuinely cared for Mrs. Heffinger. She could be rigid; that was just her way, but inside her was concern and compassion. She’d never learned to exhibit those emotions; she’d learned to hide them. Gloria clucked over Mrs. Heffinger, and while Mrs. Heffinger could huff and puff when she felt her night nurse was being bossy, she knew Gloria was doing what was best.
And then Trina, the cook, who loved cooking above all else, she insisted – all her years employed by Mrs. Heffinger – she insisted that Mrs. Heffinger and anyone who sat at the table in the Heffinger home must eat healthy because eating healthy was (one) physically ordained by our biology and (two) the surest way to thrive. It kept her busy, the cooking did. It kept her hands busy and her mind busy … she would think two, three, four days out … what kind of meals are needed? She was proud of herself and proud of the way she ran the kitchen. People saw that and Dolores Heffinger saw it, too. “That Trina,” Mrs. Heffinger said, “she is a wonder.” She said that to Cara and Allan and Gloria the night Allan insisted she stay up and play Rummy 500. Trina had baked little treats that were lovely to look at. “Did you taste this one?” Mrs. Heffinger asked after each bite. She would nibble and ask the others “did you taste this one?” It was her way of bragging to her help about her help.
These things are mentioned to show that during Mrs. Heffinger’s last year her life was not diminished. Those around her – they were employees, yes – but they genuinely cared for her and they insisted she be alive and engaged. She knew that. On the bad days when she was not feeling well, when she was tired or confused or a spot cranky, she would rally herself by thinking about them all.
* * *
Some weeks before Dolores Heffinger died there was a hubbub in the yard. The lawn service discovered a baby bird had either fallen out of, or willfully departed from its nest, and appeared unable to take flight. It was squawking, running around the yard, stopping, pecking at the ground, looking up, looking around … appearing helpless. The entire Heffinger household became obsessed that the fledgling survive.
It was mid-morning, a Tuesday, when it happened. Cara took the message from the lawn service – they had finished mowing – she thanked them, had them show her the bird, then returned to the house. She informed the cook, went back outdoors and watched the bird scramble behind bushes, toddle along the side of the house, stop, squat, rise, toddle on again and then disappear below the hedge that ran on the west side of the gardens in the rear of the home. It was there the bird went silent. It was there – and then – that Cara decided she would take charge.
Mrs. Heffinger, only just fully dressed for the day, heard the story from Evelyn, who’d heard it from the cook, and she insisted everything be done to save that baby bird. The group of them would be a team. Mrs. Heffinger’s nerves fluttered and her hands and her fingers fluttered and she could feel her heart beating. At the same time she was worrying about that baby bird she also felt joyous … euphoric, even. Why would she feel that way? Well, that little baby bird was something to care about, wasn’t it? It was on her property, wasn’t it?
Cara stationed herself outside, sitting quietly in the garden, waiting to hear the chirp of that fledgling. Periodically, Mrs. Heffinger asked Evelyn to run outside, get a status report from Cara, then come back in and give her an update, so Evelyn would go out, consult with Cara, return and tell Mrs. Heffinger the fledgling was here or there, silent or squawking, sitting, pecking at the ground, or cowering somewhere. Mrs. Heffinger wondered where the bird’s parents might be and sent Evelyn out to tell Cara to watch for the parents. The parents would be keeping an eye on their offspring, wouldn’t they?
In and out. In and out. That’s what Evelyn did. One time she went out and came back and told Mrs. Heffinger and Trina “she’s lost it, but she thinks it’s still in the garden somewhere – it’s quiet out there.” Evelyn spoke those words as if they were an apology. Mrs. Heffinger blinked and searched for something to say and couldn’t think of a blasted thing. The cook was thinking about lunch … what should lunch be with all this going on?
“Have her watch for cats,” Mrs. Heffinger said. “Those cats …” she said, as if the yard were crawling with felines. No one had ever seen a cat in the yard.
Evelyn moved Mrs. Heffinger into the kitchen, where she sat at the kitchen table, worrying herself, rolling her head around trying to see past the curtains on the bay window that looked out into the garden. Cara came indoors, went straight to Mrs. Heffinger, took the chair next to her, craned her head as if looking out into the garden, and heaved a sigh. “I hear it peeping,” she said. “It’s behind the hedge … between the hedge and the Massindale’s fence.”
The Massindales were neighbors. Who talked to the Massindales? Nobody, that’s who. Nobody really knew them as far as Mrs. Heffinger and Cara and Evelyn and Gloria and Trina were concerned. Their fence was a big, solid grey thing. Who would need such a fence?
Mrs. Heffinger raised a hand and touched Cara’s arm. “Protect that little bird,” she said. She wore a blank expression and behind that expression she was wondering and worrying. What could Cara do if cats came?
Cara was in and out, nighttime as well as daytime. Evelyn, or Gloria, or Trina would come out and ask for a status report. Sometimes these were good reports … Cara had seen the baby bird and it seemed to be doing well. Sometimes Cara lost sight … this was not good. Whoever went out would return and immediately pass that information onto Mrs. Heffinger in this manner: “Cara did this or that and saw this or that and is thinking this or that,” or in some instances, something like “Cara has lost it,” or “it’s in the front yard … again.”
On the second night, Mrs. Heffinger stayed awake – nearly to eleven p.m. – and asked for reports from bed. She slept fitfully. On the third day, late morning, Evelyn delivered the news that the fledgling had taken flight and was gone.
“But how do you know?” Mrs. Heffinger responded. She was still in bed, and breathless. “Tell me what you saw, Evelyn. Tell me exactly what you saw.”
“It was Cara that saw it all,” Evelyn said. “Cara saw it … I don’t know … just a few minutes ago. She came right in and told Trina what she’d seen, and Trina told me.”
“And what was it? What did she see?”
“She saw it hop,” Evelyn said. “She said it was full of life and chirping and seemed much more … robust. It hopped and then flew up to sit on the Massindale’s fence. And then it flew right back down and hopped around a bit – who knows why – and then it just flew off. Over the fence. Quick as lightning. Gone!”
“Did she touch it?” Dolores Heffinger asked. “Did she touch the bird?”
“No, I don’t think so,” Evelyn said. “No, I don’t think she did that.”
Mrs. Heffinger was pleased. It was pleasing, this story she’d had a part in, a story about a baby bird falling out of its nest and struggling to survive and then going on and flying away. It had happened right where she lived, in her yard.
“Do you think she ever fed that little bird? You know, worms?” Mrs. Heffinger knew that was a silly question, but she felt silly and she just wanted to keep talking about the bird. She felt giddy.
Evelyn shook her head. “No, I don’t think so,” she said.
“So what did she do out there, the last two nights? Did she stay out there all night?”
Evelyn didn’t know. Trina didn’t know. Gloria had witnessed Cara going out and coming in several times before she left each night.
What they didn’t know was that Cara had slept fitfully in a chair, in the little sewing room that was off the dining room which was off the kitchen. She’d spent two nights in and out, and never questioned doing it. It was duty, that’s all. That’s what she would say when asked. When Dolores Heffinger asked her, she said, “I felt it my duty. I don’t know why, really. I just felt bound to that little bird.”
Evelyn got Mrs. Heffinger ready for the day, got her downstairs and into the kitchen, and the moment Cara came in after the fledging had flown off, Mrs. Heffinger grabbed Cara’s hand and held it, shaking her head. “Tell me what you did for that bird,” Mrs. Heffinger said. “I want to know.” She laughed and raised her head and shook it around. She felt glorious. “Tell me exactly what you did.”
Cara extracted her hand from between Dolores Heffinger’s hands, then took one of Dolores’ hands in her own, leaned forward to her and blushed. “Oh, I kept an eye on it, that’s all I did.” She laughed. “And I sang to it, too.”
Mrs. Heffinger laughed and patted Cara’s hand. Could life … would life ever get any better than this? “Tell me, what did you sing?”
“Oh,” Cara said, “it’s silly.” She felt happy, too. It was a happy ending. She blinked, leaned toward Mrs. Heffinger, looked away, and sang: “Little bird – little bird – where are you, little bird?” The song was child-like.
Mrs. Heffinger hooted. “I tell you, she said, “this is a day, all right. This is a day. I want something special. Something special for us all!” She laughed, full-throated.
Trina heard. She knew exactly what Mrs. Heffinger needed. Trina made tiny little meat loaves with roasted red potatoes and green beans, and a pudding for after, and that meal was served mid-afternoon. Dolores Heffinger finished that meal and, exhausted, went straight to bed and stayed there, straight into and through the night. Cara sat beside her and read to her for awhile, but Mrs. Heffinger couldn’t follow. She could only think of the little bird that flew away.
“Tell me,” she would say to Cara, “did it fly up into a tree?” Cara told her several times the bird wobbled, flew up and landed on the Massindale’s fence, jumped back down, wobbled around and then took to wing and disappeared over the fence and that was that. “And do you think it landed in a tree?” Mrs. Heffinger asked. She asked it several times, once before nodding off and once the minute she woke up an hour or so later. “I am so happy,” she told Cara. “I am so happy, Cara. I can picture that little bird sitting in a tree and …” and then she ran out of words.
* * *
Cara’s mother surprised her by attending Mrs. Heffinger’s funeral. She patted her daughter’s hands, misted up a bit, then told her how sorry she was. She sat in the back of the church, went to the cemetery and stood alone.
Cara moved home and stayed almost a month. Her mother was attending meetings to fight her alcoholism. They never talked about that. They were pleasant to one another. Their time together wasn’t uncomfortable, nor was it strained. It was much more comfortable than it had ever been, and neither of them thought about it or wondered about it. It was just more comfortable, that’s all. Time did that.
Then Cara received a phone call from the agency concerning an elderly woman seeking a companion. The husband was bed-ridden and the wife would like someone in the home, someone who would provide some sort of moral support … for her.
“Her husband … he’s unresponsive,” the woman from the agency said. “It’s a matter of time, you see. So, it’s the wife. The wife needs someone for herself – someone to just care for her – I think you know what I mean. There’s a nurse, twenty-four hours. And kitchen help.” The woman paused. “You probably would like to meet them before you make a decision, wouldn’t you?”
Cara said, “Yes, yes, I would,” and an appointment was made and travel arrangements were finalized and she met the wife and she decided she could be this woman’s companion and she went back home, where she packed her things, and when she left her mother’s home again, she and her mother hugged for a very long time without a word passing between them.
Victor Kreuiter lives and writes in the Midwest.
© 2022, Victor Kreuiter