Now it was barely noon and she was already exhausted as she hit the intercom button and said, “Daisy, I’m going home for lunch. I’ll be back in an hour. Can you get the shed reports to Hector and remind Ed to get me that information on grapes?”
The door to her office opened. “I’m worried about you,” Daisy said, closing the door behind her.
Meredith was touched. “Thank you, Daisy, but I’m fine.”
“You’re working too hard. He wouldn’t like it.”
“I know, Daisy. Thanks.”
Meredith watched Daisy leave the office, then gathered up her purse and keys.
Outside, snow was falling again. The parking lot was a slushy, muddy mess, as were the roads.
She drove slowly out to her mom’s house, parked, and went inside. At the entryway, she took off her coat and hung it up, calling out, “Mom, I’m here.”
There was no answer.
She dug through the refrigerator, found the pierogies she’d defrosted last night and a Tupperware container full of lentil soup. She popped the pierogies in the microwave and warmed them up. She was just about to go upstairs when she caught a glimpse of a dark shape in the winter garden.
This was getting old. . . .
She got her coat and trudged through the falling snow to the garden. “Mom,” she said, hearing the exasperation in her voice and unable to temper it. “You’ve got to quit this. Come on inside. I’ll make some pierogies and soup for you.”
“From the belt?”
Meredith shook her head. Whatever the hell that meant. “Come on.” She helped her mother to her feet—bare again, and blue with cold—and led her into the kitchen, where she wrapped her up in a big blanket and sat her down at the table. “Are you okay?”
“I am not the one to be worrying about, Olga,” Mom said. “Check on our lion.”
“It’s me, Meredith.”
“Meredith,” she said, as if trying to make sense of the name.
Meredith frowned. Her mother seemed more confused than made sense. This wasn’t just ordinary grief. Something was wrong. “Come on, Mom. I think we need to see Dr. Burns.”
“What have we to trade?”
Meredith sighed again and took the plate of pierogies from the microwave. Placing the golden lamb-filled pastries on a cooler plate, she set them in front of her mother. “They’re hot. Be careful. I’m going to get your clothes and call the doctor. Stay here. Okay?”
She went upstairs for some clothes, and while she was there, she called Daisy and asked her to make an emergency appointment with Dr. Burns. Then she came down with the clothes and helped Mom to her feet.
“You ate all of them?” Meredith said, surprised. “Good.” She put a sweater on Mom, then helped her into socks and snow boots. “Put on your coat. I’ll go warm up the car.”
When she came back into the house, Mom was in the entryway, buttoning up her coat incorrectly.
“Here, Mom.” Meredith unbuttoned the coat and rebuttoned it. She had almost finished when she realized that the coat was warm.
She reached into the pockets and found the pierogies, still hot from the oven, wrapped in greasy paper towels. What the hell?
“They’re for Anya,” Mom said.
“I know they’re yours,” Meredith said, frowning. “I’ll leave them right here for you, okay?” she said, putting them in the ceramic bowl on the entry table. “Come on, Mom.”
She led her mother out of the house and into the SUV.
“Just lean back, Mom. Go to sleep. You must be exhausted.” She started up the car and drove to town, parking in one of the angled spots in front of the Cashmere Medical Group’s brick office.
Inside, Georgia Edwards was at the desk, looking as perky and beautiful as she had in her cheerleading days at Cashmere High. “Hey, Mere,” she said, smiling.
“Hi, Georgia. Did Daisy get an appointment for my mom?”
“You know Jim. He’d do anything for you Whitsons. Take her down to Exam A.”
As they approached the exam room, Mom seemed to realize suddenly where they were. “This is ridiculous,” she said, yanking her arm away.
“Disagree all you want,” Meredith said, “but we’re seeing the doctor.”
Her mother straightened, lifted her chin, and walked briskly to the first exam room. There, she took the only seat for herself.
Meredith followed her inside and closed the door.
A few moments later, Dr. James Burns walked into the room, smiling. Bald as a cue ball, with compassionate gray eyes, he made Meredith think of her father. They’d been golf partners for years; Jim’s father had been one of her father’s best friends. He hugged Meredith tightly; in the embrace was their shared grief and a silent I miss him, too.
“So,” he said when he stepped back. “How are you today, Anya?”
“I am fine, James. Thank you. Meredith is jumpy. You know this.”
“Do you mind if I examine you?” he asked.
“Of course it is fine,” Mom said. “But unnecessary.”
Jim conducted an ordinary flu-type examination. When he finished with that, he made a few notes on her chart and then said, “What day is it, Anya?”
“January thirty-first, 2001,” she said, her gaze steady and clear. “Wednesday. We have a new president. George Bush, the younger. And Olympia is the state capital.”
Jim paused. “How are you, Anya? Really?”
“My heart beats. I breathe. I go to sleep and I wake up.”
“Maybe you should see someone,” he said gently.
“A doctor who will help you talk about your loss.”
“Death is not something to talk about. You Americans believe words change a thing. They do not.”
“My daughter needs help, perhaps.”
“Okay,” he said, making a few more notes on the chart. “Why don’t you go to the waiting room while I speak to her?”
Mom left the room immediately.
“There’s something wrong with her,” Meredith said as soon as they were alone. “She’s confused a lot. She’s hardly sleeping. Today she put her lunch in her pockets and talked about herself in the third person. She’s constantly worried about a lion, and she called me Olga. I think she’s confusing the fairy tales with real life. Last night I heard her reciting one of them to herself . . . as if Dad were listening. You know she’s always been depressed in the winter, but this is something else. Something’s wrong. Could she have Alzheimer’s?”
“Her mind seems to be fine, Meredith.”
“She’s grieving. Give her some time.”
“There’s no normal way to handle a thing like this. They were married for five decades and now she’s alone. Just listen to her, if you can; talk to her. And don’t let her be alone too much.”
“Believe me, Jim, my mom is alone whether I am in the room or not.”
“So be alone together.”
“Yeah,” Meredith said. “Right. Thanks, Jim, for seeing us. Now I need to get her home and get back to work. I have a two-fifteen meeting.”
“Maybe you should try slowing down. I can give you a sleeping pill prescription if you’d like.”
Meredith wished she had ten bucks for every time someone—especially her husband—had given her that advice. She’d be on a Mexican beach with the money. “Sure, Jim,” she said. “I’ll stop and smell the roses.”
On a blistering hot day, more than one month after she’d left Washington State, Nina stood amid a sea of desperate, starving refugees. As far as she could see, there were people huddled in front of dirty, sagging tents. Their situation was critical; many of them had come in bleeding or shot or raped, but their stoicism was remarkable. Heat and dust beat down on them; they walked miles for a bucket of water, waited hours for a measure of rice from the Red Cross, but still there were children playing in the dirt; every now and then the sound of laughter rose above the crying.
Nina was as filthy and tired and hungry as those around her. She’d lived in this camp for two weeks now. Before that, she’d been in Sierra Leone, ducking and hiding to avoid being shot or raped herself.
She squatted down in the dry, dirty red soil. The humming sound of the camp was overwhelming, a combination of bugs and voices and distant machinery. Off to the left, a tattered medical flag fluttered above an army-issue tent. Hundreds of injured people stood patiently in line for help.
In front of her, sprawled half in and half out of a tent, an old, wizened black man lay in his wife’s arms. He’d recently lost a leg, and the bloody stump seeped red beneath the blanket that was wrapped around him. His wife had been with him for hours, propping him up, although her own emaciated body had to be aching. She tipped precious drops of water into his mouth.
Nina capped her lens and stood up. Staring out over the camp, she felt an exhaustion that was new for her. For the first time in her career, the tragedy of it all was nearly unbearable. It wasn’t worse here than where she’d been before. That wasn’t it. The situation hadn’t changed. She had. She carried grief with her everywhere, and the burden of it made compartmentalization impossible.
People usually thought her work was about being there, as if anyone could just point and shoot, but the truth was that her photographs were an extension of who she was, what she thought, how she felt. It took perfect concentration to capture the exquisite pain of personal tragedy on film. You had to be there one hundred percent, in the moment—but it had to be their moment.
She opened her pack and pulled out her satellite phone. Walking as far east as she dared, she set up the equipment, positioned the satellite, and called Danny.
At the sound of his voice, she felt something in her chest relax. “Danny,” she said, yelling to be heard over the static.
“Nina, love. I thought you’d forgotten me. Where are you?”
She winced at that. “Guinea. You?”
“I’m tired,” she said, surprising herself. She couldn’t remember ever saying that before, not while she was working.
“I can be at Mnemba Island by Wednesday.”
Blue water. White sand. Ice. Sex. “I’m in.”
She disconnected the call and packed her phone back up. Slinging the strap over her shoulder, she headed back to the camp. A line of new Red Cross trucks had arrived and the pandemonium of food distribution was going on. She sidestepped a pair of women carrying a box of supplies and went past the tent where she’d been taking pictures.
The man in the bloody bandages had died. The woman still sat behind him, rocking him in her arms, singing to him.
Nina stopped and took a picture, but this time the lens was no protection, and when she eased the camera from her eye, she realized she was crying.
From her comfortable, air-conditioned seat in the back of an SUV, Nina stared through the window at the scenery of Zanzibar. The narrow, twisting streets were teeming with people: women draped in the traditional Muslim veils and robes, schoolchildren in blue and white uniforms, men standing in groups. On the side of the road, vendors tried to sell anything they could, from fruits and vegetables to tennis shoes to barely used T-shirts. In the jungle behind the road, women—most with babies on their backs or in their arms—picked cloves; the spices lay in cinnamon-colored swatches on the sides of the road, drying in the hot sun.