By Cheryl Whitten
The old biddy, Ada Jenkins, was staring again, this time through the slit in the drapes she held partially open. She was always staring. I lifted my hand and waved to her and she disappeared quickly behind them. She was still there, I knew. She was always there with her beady eyes, always peering in on everyone’s business, but never speaking to anyone.
She was the reason my son had been taken from me, I was sure, and the reason the neighbours had been arrested for domestic abuse. She didn’t understand the situation, mine or the neighbours, and had jumped in to intervene when it wasn’t her place. Stranded in the city without gas or a cell phone and an aunt who’d gotten the days mixed up made for a bad situation, I knew, but I’d trusted that everything was okay. It would have been except she’d called the police and Social Services before she’d called his aunt. Jonathon had been seven. That was ten years ago and I hadn’t seen him since.
“I wish she’d drop dead,” I muttered to myself. “Ignorant old fool.”
I looked back at the flower beds I was weeding and sighed. I had pulled out the beautiful red geranium instead of the ugly, nasty weed beside it. Yanking the offending weed from its place, I tossed it in the bucket and gently lifted out the gorgeous red flower and carried it and my gardening tools inside.
Placing it quickly in a vase on the table, I admired it momentarily and shook my head at such a silly mistake. Checking the time, I gasped slightly and bolted off to the room to change. Jim Jenkins, Ada’s cousin ironically, didn’t like to be kept waiting. As the only lawyer in town, Jim had a busy schedule. I was almost always late and he was almost always cross with me about it.
I snagged the geranium off the table on my way out, hoping it would placate him. He had been my lawyer from the start of Jonathon’s case, and since I was still fighting to see him, to have my rights as a mother reinstated, I needed to keep him happy. “Trying to get your rights back is a waste of time. He’s going to be eighteen soon and if he doesn’t want to see you, he doesn’t have to,” he’d told me, but I didn’t care. I had to fight. I had to see him. I was his mother.
“You’re late, Donna!” Jim crowed from his back office when I bustled in.
“I know, I know. I’m so sorry, Jim.” I thrust the flower at him. “I got side-tracked by your pest of a cousin, Ada. Poking her nose in again.”
Jim set the flower on his desk and looked at me. His brown eyes peered over top of the glasses on the end of his nose. “You know, she’s not as bad as you think.”
I sighed and plopped down in the chair in front of his cluttered desk. “You’re family. You’re supposed to say that, but even after all these years I thought you might think differently.”
He shrugged his shoulders and sat back in his chair, chewing on the end of his pen. I watched him and smiled. He had become a dear friend of mine after all these years. Maybe it was the mind of a lawyer that made him the way he was, but for some reason he was able to see all sides of a situation, of people even. He had believed me when I told him that I’d made arrangements for Jonathon that night, and that it had all just been bad luck and mistakes. He had held me when I saw Jonathon in court but hadn’t been able to touch him, or talk to him, or bring him home. He had encouraged me to keep on going, to keep holding on, to keep fighting even long after we’d lost our case. I knew I could trust him fully.
“Donna, we need to talk,” Jim started.
“Yes, I know. That’s why I came here. You haven’t filed the motion. What’s the problem? Did I forget some paperwork again?”
There was a long pause of awkward silence and then I suddenly understood what he wanted to talk about. I stood up, knocking the chair over behind me. Maybe I couldn’t trust him as I thought.
“Come on, Jim. You’ve got to be kidding me,” I whispered hoarsely. The pain in my chest was squeezing my lungs so tightly that I could barely pass air through my lips. I stumbled backwards and reached for the back of the chair, holding on so tightly that my fingers dug into the leather.
“Just wait.” He held up his hand. “Hear me out.”
I waited, my breath heaving my chest as I struggled to breathe around the pain.
“It’s been ten years. We’ve exhausted every single option we have. We can’t keep doing this. I think you need to let it go.” He looked at his feet, obviously ashamed of what he was saying.
I stood quietly for a moment, staring at him. It felt like my mouth was hanging open, but I couldn’t be sure. The shock was muddling my brain. I wasn’t exactly sure what I should say next, but I knew for sure that this was not what I wanted. I had been hoping for good news not this.
“Uh, have you lost your mind?” I asked incredulously. ‘There is nothing in this world that will make me let go of Jonathon. He is my son and I will do whatever I have to in order to see him again.”
“I understand that, Donna. I do, but it’s been ten years. What else can we do?”
“No, actually you don’t understand it,” I bellowed. “I don’t care if it’s been ten years or fifty. I will not stop fighting for him until I die. So if you won’t help me anymore then I’ll find someone else.”
I turned on my heel and stormed from the office, slamming the door behind me. I stomped on the gas the entire way home. Curses flew from my mouth as I honked at pedestrians and slow drivers in my way. Fury had overcome me. Desperation had overcome me. I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do now, or who I was going to turn to for help. The thought of letting go was just too painful to even think about.
I just couldn’t.
The few minutes of the drive were a blur, until suddenly I was skidding around the corner of my street. I saw nothing, unsure of how I even came to be at my street and yet, there I was.
I felt the bump before I realized I had hit something. The brakes squealed as I screeched to a stop. The domestic abuse neighbour whipped open the door and was down the steps before I managed to open my car door. It seemed as though time had ceased to exist, as though the world had come to a grinding stop. Nothing made sense. I moved slowly as though I was doing tai chi beneath water. My brain was fuddled and a fog had set around me. First Jim, now this.
As I walked towards the victim on the ground, I realized that the still lump was actually an old woman, but the severity of what I had done still hadn’t sunk in. She laid on the street, her arm twisted behind her back at a horrendous angle, with blood gushing from a wound on her chest and head. Not far from her other hand laid a beautiful red geranium, its petals stripped in places, and a small gardening spade.
“Why the heck were you driving so fast, Donna?” the neighbour demanded. I couldn’t remember his name. I wondered briefly if I had ever known his name. “Didn’t you see Ada in front of you? You just barrelled across her like you were purposely running her over. For Pete’s sake, she’s an old woman!”
His fingers were flying across the keys on his phone and as he lifted to his ear I realize he was calling 9-1-1—something I hadn’t even thought to do.
“Geranium. She was planting a geranium,” I said aloud. “Why?”
The neighbour was busy tending to Ada. His hands were stroking her hair and her arm and checking the pulse on her wrist every few seconds. Quiet encouraging murmurs slipped through his lips as he told her to hang on, that help was coming. It wasn’t until I said it again that he looked up at me. Amazement and pure, unadulterated disgust tinted his eyes.
“What?” he ground out.
“She was planting a geranium,” I said again, this time pointing at the flower on the road. “Why was Ada crossing the street to plant a geranium? She never leaves her house.”
‘Oh, for God’s sake. How would I know? Don’t you think the fact that she’s laying her without much of a pulse is a little more important here?” he spat out.
But I didn’t hear him.
Instead, I traced that steps that Ada would have taken across the street and stopped in front of my own house. Sitting on my lawn in front of the vacant spot that had housed my own red geranium earlier this morning was a small bag of potting soil and a pair of green floral gardening gloves.
Neither of them were mine.
Ada Jenkins’s funeral was a small but tasteful gathering. Only the few remaining family members and a select few of her neighbours were the ones to show. Everybody had given me the what-the-heck-is-she-doing-here glare the moment I had stepped into the church. They were justified. Realistically, the woman who had killed her probably shouldn’t come to the funeral, but I had to. In its own way, it was an apology. I hoped that if she was looking down on us that she would understand how sorry I was. Probably, she was putting in a bad word up there for me, the terrible woman, neighbour and mother that she knew I was.
The service began as the preacher announced a hymn. I didn’t know it. I had never been to church before. If the recent events were any indication, I could benefit from a little church time and I decided then that I would meet with the preacher after and ask about God. I wasn’t sure if I believed there was one after all that had happened to me in past years, but maybe it was time to find out.
The side door banged shut suddenly, announcing the end of the hymn. A distinguished middle aged, black-haired man dressed in a slick gray suit with a white shirt and a crimson tie slid on to the bench beside me as the preacher commenced a prayer.
“I’m late, aren’t I?” he asked in a stage whisper.
I looked around surprised that he was speaking to so loudly and so nonchalantly during a funeral, and to me, no less. Weren’t parishioners supposed to be quiet in church? I settled for the best option and nodded my head.
“I’m Chris Jenkins,” he whispered to me again.
I looked out of the side of my eyes and smiled uneasily. The name tugged at my mind briefly, but the connection wouldn’t come. “Donna James,” I whispered back. He nodded in return, bowed his head in prayer and then jerked it back up towards me.
“Donna James. As in the Donna James that killed my mother?” His voice wasn’t so much of a whisper anymore.
My eyes widened and then my face turned the shade of his crimson tie. Yep, I knew there was a connection. And just my luck to be sitting right beside it. I nodded again and murmured some apologies as I started to slide across the pew for an exit.
“It’s okay,” he whispered again. “I heard it was an accident.”
I nodded my head, somewhat relieved.
“This is for you from my mother.” He handed me a thick manila envelope. “I found this in her things. She wanted you to have it.”
Incredulous that this was all happening now, I took it cautiously, nearly expecting it to contain an explosive. Quietly opening the package, I pulled out a stack of papers thicker than my thigh. On top of the stack was a picture of my little boy at age seven not long before he had been taken from me. Tears welled in my eyes. I turned page after page of articles about Jonathon and his trial, notes scribbled on leads on his case, the phone number of his social worker, the names of every foster parent he had even been with—each engraved in my memory. On the very last page, I found a newspaper article of an older Jonathon receiving an award from his teacher.
The teacher was the man sitting beside me.
The tears flowed freely down my face as soft sobs escaped my lips. Spotting the picture, Chris leaned over and touched it.
“Do you know Jonathon?” he asked quietly.
“Yes, I do,” I answered softly. “I’m his mother and I’ve been looking for him for ten years.”
He stared disbelievingly and then wrapped an arm around me as I cried. I settled into the strength and warmth of his embrace. People around me stared, but I didn’t care because at that moment Ada’s casket was passing by and I knew that I had done more than just kill her. I had completely misjudged her humanity and that was far worse.
A wave of fresh guilt mixed with relief blossomed within me. Guilt because I suddenly realized that she had attempted to extend an olive branch with her red geranium that day, and relief because, after all these years, I could finally forgive her.