"Oh, I wish he were."
"Well, if he were, her physical condition would be the same. But at least she wouldn't be trying to face things all by herself. There's just so much a doctor can do."
He rotated his coffee cup gently in his hand, watching the cream blend slowly into the coffee.
"Natalie, do you remember the time that infant was brought in here, the one that had died during its nap?"
Natalie nodded. "I'll never forget it."
"When I was a student, and then when I was just beginning in practice," her father said slowly, "the death of a child was the one thing I couldn't get used to. It seemed so cruel, so unnecessary, such a waste. For a while I thought I would become a pediatrician, just so that I could do my best to prevent such things."
"But you didn't. Why not?"
He looked at her and chuckled. "To be perfectly honest, I found that I hated dealing with chicken pox and diaper rash.
"But—" He sipped his coffee. "More than that. I began to be aware that when something devastating strikes a young person, a child, it is almost always mitigated by the fact that there is a family. People who care, who comfort, who grieve. That doesn't make illness, or pain—or death—any less cruel or frustrating, but it makes those things bearable. Like that baby. It was a tragic thing for those parents—who, incidentally, Nat, had another baby this past spring—but still, that infant, when he died, was in a warm and happy home. His life, short though it was, was filled with love. Do 1 sound sentimental?"
"Yes." She smiled. "I like it."
Dr. Armstrong frowned. "But it's the old people, the ones who have no one, who touch me now. I do what I can for them medically, and sometimes it isn't much. But more than that, I listen to them, care about them. I even sent Florence Pittman some flowers on her last birthday. She was eighty-seven." He looked a little sheepish.
"Dad, I love you so much."
"I know that, Natalie. But thank you for saying it."
"Dad. You know that I've spent the whole summer—well, looking for things, figuring things out?"
"You haven't ever asked what I've found."
"Natalie, your mother and I knew that if you wanted to tell us, you would. It's not a decision we can make for you. If you don't ever want to tell us, we'll understand. We'll accept that."
"I'm not sure I want to tell you all of it. But there's this one thing. I found a man, an old man. He was very sick when I saw him last month, and I'm not even sure if he's still alive. He has cancer. And he was just like you were saying, all alone. He had no family left, and he was in a hospital, dying, with a few plants and flowers friends had sent. And the green hospital walls."
Her father looked at his empty cup. "I know," he said. "I mean I know what's it's like. I've seen it again and again."
"But, Dad," said Natalie slowly. "I didn't know it then, but now I've found out that he's my grandfather.
"So I have to go back. Just one more trip, to see him. I'm a little afraid to; I'm afraid that he'll be gone, that I'll go back only to put flowers on a grave. But I have to do at least that."
"Natalie, if you'd like me to, I'll find out for you. If you call the hospital, they'll only give you the official information: his condition is poor, or satisfactory. But if I call, as a doctor, I can find out what's really going on. Do you want to tell me his name and the name of the hospital?"
She wrote it for him. Clarence Therrian, Simmons' Mills Community Hospital, and he looked at the piece of paper and smiled.
"I remember Simmons' Mills," he said. "We drove there, your mother and I, and you were waiting, wrapped in a yellow blanket, sound asleep."
"Dr. Armstrong," said his nurse crisply from the door to the lab, "there are patients waiting in every examining room."
Natalie and her father grinned at each other.
"Thank you, Dad," she said.
At the end of the long, busy day, Natalie was tidying up the waiting room before she went home. Dr. Armstrong finished making notes in a patient's folder, closed it, and said, "Natalie, tell your mother that I'll be late for dinner. I have to check on a patient in the hospital before I come home."
"All right," said Natalie.
"And I'm giving you the next two days off, Nat. I made that phone call. Clarence Therrian is still alive. But I think you'd better go tomorrow. Don't wait for the weekend."
She was saddened. She knew he was dying, had even expected that he might be dead. But suddenly she was more saddened by it than she had been before.
"Does he know, Natalie? That you're his granddaughter?"
He turned to leave, stopped, came back, and put his arms around her for a moment.
"Natalie," he said, sitting down on one of the waiting room chairs, "I have an apology to make to you. At the beginning of the summer, when you set off to make this search, I was disturbed by it. Hurt. So was your mother. You knew that, of course.
"But we were wrong, I think. I can't speak for Mom, but I suspect you'll find she's come to realize the same thing I have. That it was the right thing for you to do."
"Dad," said Natalie, puzzled, "I'm not even sure of that myself."
He was silent. "It's a fine line," he said finally, "and I've been thinking about it a lot—the line between the past and the present. And it's a line we have to feel our way along, so that we know what the connection is. For you, the connections were twisted and blurred. It was the right thing, to sort them out."
"Dad," said Natalie suddenly. "Do you remember the game we used to play at our birthday parties, when we were little? We called it Spiderweb."
He nodded and laughed, remembering. "Sure. Your mother and I spent hours, running threads all around the house, over furniture, behind and under things, and at the end of each thread there was a prize for each child."
"How I loved that. Scrambling around, following that thread. It seemed as if there would be something miraculous at the end of it."
"And was there?"
She laughed. "A pack of gum. Or a comic book. I don't remember the prizes as much as I remember the excitement of looking for them."
"Does this summer seem like a Spiderweb?" her father asked.
"A little, maybe. The challenge of looking. The fear that the thread might break. Expecting the miracle."
"And finding it?"
Natalie shrugged. "Finding the ordinary."
"Very often, you know," her father told her, "after those birthday parties, your mother and I would end up throwing away the packs of gum, the comic books. The kids would forget to take them home. As you said, the prizes weren't as exciting as the searching."
"I did find my mother—my natural mother, Dad," Natalie said suddenly. "I won't forget that."
"Of course you won't. How will you fit it into your life, Natalie?"
"I already have, I guess. I said hello to her, and I said goodbye to her. I won't forget her. But she's not part of my life anymore."
Dr. Armstrong lit his pipe, and the thin blue streak of smoke lifted itself toward the ceiling of the waiting room. "Natalie, you've done a very healthy thing. People like Florence Pittman don't ever say goodbye to the past. Saying goodbye is the hardest part, and some people never learn how."
"She loved her husband so much, Dad."
"I know. And your mother and I love you. But we'll have to say goodbye to you, in a way, when you go off to college. You have to let go when the time comes. If you don't, you live with ghosts, the way Florence Pittman does."
"And Tallie," said Natalie suddenly, stabbed with a sharp pain of disloyalty.
Her father chewed on the stem of his pipe, and nodded. "And Tallie. She still lives surrounded by memories of Stefan. But Tallie's ghosts are happy ones, Nat. Not the confused and painful ones that make Florence Pittman's life difficult. And not the same kinds as yours."
"It's been a strange summer, Dad. And now there's just Dr. Therrian. There are others, I guess, but he's the one I want to make the connection to, the one I want to say goodbye to."
"Is it because he has no one else?"
"Partly that, I guess," she said. She thought for a moment. "But mostly—I didn't realize this till now, Dad—mostly it's because he loved me so much that he said goodbye, and let me go."
NANCY WENT with Natalie to Simmons' Mills. It was Natalie's idea.
"What the heck," said Nancy when her sister suggested it. "Steve's mad at me, as usual. I'm sick of babysitting for the Kimballs every minute. That kid of theirs always wants twelve bedtime stories and fourteen glasses of water, and then when he wets the bed, guess who has to change the sheets. Sure, I'd love to take a couple days off from my life."
The trip seemed shorter with company in the car. Nancy chattered endlessly about everything, about nothing.
"You should have said yes, Nat, when she asked you if you wanted to be a model. Wow. Think of all the money. Think of all the men, lusting after your face on the cover of Vogue."
Natalie grimaced. "Look there to the left, Nance, at the mountains."
Nancy glanced at the jagged, desolate peaks against the thin haze of the August sky. "Wow," she said.
"It's about your vocabulary." Natalie laughed. "Do you think you could come up with a better expletive than 'Wow' occasionally? Maybe Horrible Aunt Helen will give you a thesaurus for Christmas and you could investigate some other possibilities of language?"
Nancy giggled. They rounded a sharp curve in the road and the mountains disappeared behind a thick barrier of spruce trees.
"Hey, I wasn't kidding, Nat. You could make a fortune, being a model. I'll be back in Branford, being a nursery school teacher or something, probably married to Steve and having kids that wet the bed every night, and I could pick up glamorous magazines and say, 'That's my sister on the cover.' I'd tell my kids, 'Look at Aunt Natalie, there in the centerfold of Playboy. Isn't she gorgeous? She's the one who sends you those expensive toys from New York every Christmas.'"
"Not me, Nance. You can say, 'Look there, kids, on the cover of Time. That's your brilliant Aunt Natalie with the thick glasses. She's just discovered a cure for Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and they've awarded her the annual Lady Doctor prize. She's the one who sends you all those yucky vitamin pills at Christmas.'"
Nancy groaned. "You have no sense of adventure, Natalie."
"Come on, that's adventurous, being a doctor."
"You could have Paul Newman on your doorstep. Robert Redford. Elton John."
"Maybe I will anyway. They can come when they have hernias to be repaired."
"Gross. Well, maybe you can write a book and make your fortune that way. Probing the Innards of the World's Most Gorgeous Men. That would really sell, Nat. What is Redford's appendix really like? Buy this book for $12.95 and find out."
"Scars of the Stars, Ell call it."
"And the Reader's Digest will present the condensed version. The minor operations."