CHOICES

 

For the first time in recent memory, everyone was sitting down to dinner at the same time.  No soccer practice, no band practice, no sleepovers, just all five of the Bradfords gathered around the dinner table at once.  Three kids in junior and senior high made togetherness at mealtimes something to celebrate.  All of which only served to increase the aggravation Dave Bradford felt when the doorbell rang.

Glancing through the windows next to the door, Dave saw a neatly dressed man in a business suit.  As he opened the door, he wondered what the fellow was selling and mentally prepared his standard “not interested” reply.

“Mr. David Bradford?” asked the man.

Dave nodded and frowned.

“I’m Detective Jackson, Maricopa Sheriff’s Office.”  The man held out his identification for Dave’s inspection.  “We’re wondering if you can give us some help.  May I come in?”

Momentarily speechless, Dave nodded, stepped back and motioned the detective in.  He pointed to the living room and followed the man in.  He waved at the sofa.

“What’s this all about, Detective?”

“We aren’t quite sure what it’s all about, and we’re hoping you may be able to shed a little light on things for us, sir”, replied the detective.  He reached into an inside pocket of his suit jacket and pulled out a slim envelope.  He pulled a photograph from the envelope and handed the picture to Dave.

“Do you recognize the woman in this picture, Mr. Bradford?”

“Good Lord!  Was she in an accident?” asked Dave.

“We don’t know.  That’s why I’m here.  Do you recognize her?”

Dave shook his head.  “As battered as she is, it would be difficult to say for sure, but I’m reasonably certain I’ve never seen this woman before in my life.  What’s going on, Detective?  Who is she?  What happened to her?”

Detective Jackson leaned back against the sofa cushions and heaved a heavy sigh.  “As I said, we don’t know what happened to her.  We don’t even know who she is.  She was found unconscious last night, pretty much as you see her in the photo, and taken to an emergency room.  No identification, no wallet, no purse, nothing – except she was wearing a small cheap locket with a picture of a small boy inside, with the name David Bradford written on the back of the photo.  You are the sixth David Bradford I’ve talked to today, hoping someone would recognize her.”

Jackson reached for the photograph of the battered woman. “Thank you for your time, sir.”

Dave had a sudden sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.  “None of the others had any idea who she might be?”

“No, sir.  Like you, no one had ever seen her before.  I guess we just have to hope she recovers and can tell us her story”, the detective replied.  “I really hate having to leave a case as ‘Jane Doe’, even if no criminal activity is involved.”

Jackson stood and started toward the door.

Dave also stood, a bit slower.  “She may not recover?  Do you know how old she is, anything about her?”

“The doctor estimates her to be sixty to sixty-five.  Could be a little younger but she’s lived a hard life”, replied Jackson.  “Beyond that, she’s a complete mystery.”

At the door, Jackson turned back to Dave.  “Thank you for your help, Mr. Bradford, even if it was negative.”

“That’s all right, Detective.  Do you have a card?”

“Yes, sir.  Here you are, and thanks again.”   He turned and went out the door towards an unmarked car at the curb.

Dave closed the door slowly and returned to the dinner table.  The pleasant feeling about the whole family together for dinner was completely gone.

“What was that all about, Dave?” asked his wife, Shannon.

Dave shook his head, “Nothing.  We’ll talk about it later.”

*****

Later that night, as they prepared for bed, Shannon asked again, “What did that man want earlier?  Did I hear him say Maricopa Sheriff’s Office?”

“Yes, he was a detective.”  Dave was sitting on the edge of the bed, slumping a little.  “He wanted to know if I recognized the woman in the photo he showed me.”

“Did you?”

Dave stretched his head and neck back, hearing the pop of ligaments.  “Shannon, you remember I told you years ago my mother died when I was just a child?”

“Of course I remember.  What of it?”

“That wasn’t entirely true.  Actually, my mother ran out on us when I was very young, leaving my dad to take care of me and my baby sister.  We never heard from her again after she left, and it was easier for me to just say she died.  As far as I was concerned, she did.”

Shannon, now sitting next to him, put a hand on his shoulder and ran it down his back.  “That kind of explains why your dad never remarried.  He didn’t know if his wife was dead or alive.  I wondered about that now and again.  But what does the Sheriff’s Office have to do with it?  Have they found her?”

Dave shook his head.  “No, they didn’t find my mother.  But they found a woman about the age she would be now, badly battered and unconscious, with no identification of any kind except a locket with the picture of a young boy inside it.  The name David Bradford was written on the back of the picture.  She is still unconscious and they’re trying to find out who she is.”

“Oh, Dave!”  Shannon held him for a minute or two, neither of them saying anything more.

*****

Dave stopped by the hospital the next day to inquire about the woman and could not get any information from anyone, even after explaining the situation.  He found Detective Jackson’s business card in his wallet and called the number listed.  Jackson said he would meet Dave at the hospital.

As Dave waited for Detective Jackson, he thought again of the last time he had sat in this same hospital waiting for someone to show up.  Four years ago, he sat and fidgeted, just as he was doing now.  That time, he waited for his sister, Marnie.

*****

“Dave, how is he?  Is he…”

“He’s going fast, Marnie.  He wants to see you.  See us. Together.  He wouldn’t tell me what, but kept asking where you were.  Can you handle this?”

“God, no!”  Marnie nearly sobbed her reply.  “Do I have a choice?”

“I know, Little Sis, I know.”  Dave pulled her into his chest and rubbed her back.  “You’ll make it.  We’ll make it.  Just like we always have.”

Marnie sniffed and bobbed her head into his shoulder.  She straightened herself and took a deep breath.

“OK, Davey.  Let’s do it.  One more time.”

Dave led her to their father’s room, an arm around her shoulders.

“Dad, Marnie’s here.  We’re both here.  Dad, do you hear me?”

“Daddy?  Daddy, I’m here.  It’s Marnie.  Dad?

The face looking up from the white pillow was gaunt and drawn in pain.  The oxygen feed in his nostrils accentuated the grayish pallor.  His eyes flickered open, closed, and opened again.

Marnie moved to the side of the bed, pushing the IV stand out of her way.  She took her father’s hand in hers, gently, and delicately stroked the tissue paper thin skin of the back of his hand.

“Daddy?  I’m here, Daddy.  How are you?  Can I get something for you?  You want some water?”  She knew she was babbling.

Dave moved to the other side of the bed and carefully rested his hand over the old man’s hand, trying not to disturb the IV needles protruding from the back of that hand.

“Dad, we’re both here.  You said you wanted to see us together.  Remember?”

The old man grunted and tried to lift his head.  The effort was too great and he relaxed and closed his eyes again.  A moment later they flickered open again.  A fierce light in his eyes burned through the illness and pain.

“Your mother was a wonderful woman and I will love her ‘til the day I die, and beyond!  Don’t ever forget that!  She is a fine and decent woman who loved me, and loved you.  I love her so much and I miss her so much.  Don’t ever forget that!”

The explosive outburst shocked Dave and Marnie, and exhausted the frail body in the bed.  Wracked by spasms of coughing, the old man closed his eyes again and winced in pain.  A nurse bustled in and checked this and that.

“He needs to rest a bit.  I’ve increased the pain-killer and it should take effect fairly quickly.”

Dave took a deep breath.  “How long?”

“I don’t know.  He’s a tough old bird, but he’s running out of resources.  I don’t think he’ll see the morning.”

“Thank you for being honest”, Dave replied.  “Marnie, let’s go outside for awhile.”

“He’ll last that long, won’t he?” he asked the nurse.

“Oh, yes.  I don’t think he’s ready to go just yet.” came the gentle response.

*****

In the family waiting room, Dave and Marnie were alone.  She clung to him.

“What was that about, Davey?”

“I honestly don’t know, Little Sis.  I’ve never heard him talk about her like that.  This is way out of left field.”

Marnie sat in one of the over-stuffed chairs and wiped mascara from her eyes.

“Do you think he knew we were there?  Did he know what he was saying?”

“Marnie, I don’t know a damned thing!  Yes, I think he knew we were there.  He said ‘your mother’ and ‘don’t you forget’.  He was talking to us.  Did he know what he was saying?  I don’t know, but I think so.  I haven’t seen fire in his eyes like that in a long time.”

“He’s never talked about her before that I can remember, Davey”.

“I can’t either.  I don’t know where that came from.”

*****

Dave and Marnie were at his bedside, one on each side, holding a bony hand, when the old man opened his eyes again.  He looked at each of them.  His voice gurgled and rasped.

“I love you kids.  Thank you, Eleanor.”

He closed his eyes again.  It was shortly after one in the morning.

*****

 

The reverie ended and Dave’s blank eyes snapped back into focus as he recognized Detective Jackson coming through the front doors of the hospital.  Standing, he advanced toward the oncoming figure.  As the two men shook hands, Jackson inquired, “Did you recognize her, Mr. Bradford?  Remember something?”

“No”, Dave replied.  “Let’s sit here for a minute, if you would.”

He waved at the small grouping of comfortable easy chairs set about a small coffee table.

“Thank you for coming down here, Detective.  I’m afraid I wasn’t entirely honest with you last night.”

“So you did recognize her?”

“No. No.  Not that”.  I’m afraid…it’s complicated.”

“It usually is”, chuckled the detective.  “Why don’t you start at the beginning?”

Dave took a deep breath and leaned forward, forearms on his knees.

“I didn’t recognize that poor woman”, said Dave, “and I have no idea who she might be.  That is, I don’t think I know who she is.  It’s like this.  My mother abandoned me – me, my little sister, my Dad – she walked out on all of us when I was about 10 years old.  We haven’t heard from her since.  Nothing.  No word, no mail, no calls, nothing.  I have no idea if she is dead or alive, where she might be, anything.  And, of course, I have no idea what she might look like thirty years later.”

Jackson nodded.  “Ah, I think I understand.  You think this might possibly be the woman who walked out so long ago?”

“Yes.  No.  I mean…I’m not sure what I mean.  We lived in Baltimore then.  Phoenix is a long way from Baltimore.  If she’s still alive…she wouldn’t be here.  I don’t think this is my mother.  I don’t want to find my mother.  I hated her for…”   Dave’s sudden outburst ran down.

Jackson leaned forward in his chair.  “Then why are you here?  If you don’t want to find her?”  His eyes looked piercingly into Dave’s face.

Dave leaned back into the cushion and sighed deeply.  His shoulders slumped.  He managed a wry smile.

“It’s complicated!”

The detective grinned back at him.  “Yeah, I guess it would be at that.”

“I have spent over 30 years hating my mother for running out on us.”  Dave leaned forward again.  “Four years ago, my father died here – in this hospital.  Just before he went, he said something to us.  To my sister and me.  It was strange.  About our mother.  I didn’t understand it then.  I don’t now.  But it has bothered me ever since.  Maybe I hate her just a little less today than I did four years ago.”

He was running down, not entirely able to follow his own confused thoughts and feelings.  Jackson said nothing, waiting for Dave to continue.

“I really don’t think this woman could be my mother.  I just wanted to see…see her, ask her…I don’t know what.”

Dave had been talking to the floor.  He looked up at Jackson, questioningly.

“I won’t claim to know what you are going through right now, Mr. Bradford”, said Jackson.  “But I may be able to help you out a little bit.  We ran Jane Doe’s prints through IAFIS – the FBI, you know – and got a hit.  Surprised me, as cases like this usually draw a blank with IAFIS.  They had a pretty good file on the lady.  Seems she was a government employee at one time.  Even held a security clearance at one point.”

The detective leaned back into the cushions again and looked Dave straight in the eyes.

“I haven’t run any checks on you, but I can tell you with certainty that Jane Doe is not your mother.”

“Who is she?”  Dave’s question was urgent.

“Her name is Maureen Johnson.  Lived most of her life on the West Coast.  Was married and had two sons.  Her husband died in a car wreck, one son died in Iraq a few years ago.  Special Forces operator.  The second son’s whereabouts are unknown.”

“The locket?  What about the locket and the picture?  MY name?”

“Your name and at least five others.  And that’s just here in the Valley.  How many David Bradfords are running around the country I wouldn’t want to hazard a guess.”

Sheriff’s Detective Jackson heaved a mighty sigh.

“The locket itself is a little cheapy thing, could have been picked up anywhere.  Why the name I have no idea.  Likely I never will.  The Sheriff’s budget only goes so far and there isn’t much for pursuing non-criminal matters.”

Dave suddenly sat straight up in the chair.

“Non-criminal?  What about what happened to her?  Somebody beat her half to death!  Isn’t that criminal?”  The outrage in Dave’s voice surprised him even more than it did the detective.

“That’s why I’m still spending Sheriff Joe’s money.”  Jackson grinned.  “We’re still not sure what happened to her.  However, the docs tell us the injuries are consistent with a fall from a moderate height.  She was found laying in an alley at the foot of a two story building downtown.  I’m heading there next to check out the scene.”

Dave’s response was quick and urgent.  “Will she be OK?”

“Don’t know yet.  She’s comatose.  Possible serious head injury.”  The grin on Jackson’s face returned and broadened.  “By the way, you are not entitled to know this stuff.  HIPAA regulations and all that.  Hospitals especially get pretty sticky about that.  I could be shot at sunrise for telling you what I have, so if you repeat it, I’ll have to kill you.”  He winked and chuckled.

“So why are you telling me all this?”

“You seem a pretty decent guy.  I trust my instincts.  And I understand where you’re coming from better than you might suppose.”

With that parting shot, Jackson stood and stepped toward the hospital entrance.  He stopped after the first step and turned back to Dave.

“If you’re of a mind, I think you’ll find the nurse on the third floor will let you take a look in on Jane Doe, aka Maureen Johnson.”

He turned back to the door and walked briskly to the entrance.

Dave stared after him.

Several minutes later, Dave shook himself, turned to the elevators, walked over, and punched the button.  Stepping out on the third floor, he walked over to the floor desk.

“My name is Dave Bradford.  May I see Maureen Johnson?”

The nurse, seated in front of a computer screen, looked up and arched her eyebrows.

“Detective Jackson said I might be allowed to look in on her.”

“Oh.  Yes.  You can look in, but you can’t stay.  She won’t know you’re there.”

“I understand.  I just want to see her for a minute.”

“OK.  She’s in 318.”

Dave gingerly pushed open the heavy door.  The woman had more tubes sticking out of her than his father had that last day.  Her face was pale, but rather serene.  No pain marred the lines of age.  Though she had an oxygen tube in her nostrils, her breathing was not labored.  Dave silently watched for a few minutes – wondering, not knowing what he wondered or why.  He carefully pulled the door after him as he returned to the hall.

*****

He stopped by the desk on his way out.

“Thank you”

The nurse smiled.  “You’re quite welcome.”

*****

 

Dinner at the Bradford residence that evening was more typical.  No family gathering, it was just Dave and Shannon.

“What did you find out, honey?” asked Shannon.

“Nothing and everything.  She is definitely not my mother.  She is someone’s mother though.  Somewhere she has a son.  I wonder…”

“Hmmm?  Wonder what?”

“I don’t know.  Just wonder.  Right now, my mind is all messed up.  I don’t know quite what I’m thinking.”  Dave shook his head.  “It was a very strange day.  That detective – he got me in to look at her.  And I am grateful.”

“Why did he do that?”

“I don’t know.  I don’t know much of anything right now.”

Again, he shook his head and pushed back his chair.  “That was good, sweetheart.  Thank you.”

“Don’t say thank you.  Clean up the dishes!”  Shannon grinned and pushed her chair away from the table.

Dave complied.

*****

Much later, in the wee hours of the morning, Shannon quietly opened the sliding glass door to the deck and slipped outside.

“Dave?  Are you all right, honey?” she asked.

Dave grunted.  “You should be asleep.  Go on back to bed.  I’m fine.  I just need to try and straighten out my head.”

“Hard to sleep when my foot warmer is missing” she replied with a smile.

He laughed.  “Eighty-five degrees at two in the morning!  You don’t need a foot warmer.”

“No, I don’t”, she agreed, “but I do miss my sweetie.”

“I love you, too, honey.  I just need to do some thinking.”

“Anything I can help you with?”

“Thanks, love, but I need to chew this out myself.”

“Don’t stay up too late.  You know how you get when you don’t get enough sleep.”

“I won’t.  Good night, sweetheart.  Thank you.”

“For what?”

“For being here.  For your love.  Now go back to bed.”

 

Dave was still sitting out on the deck, watching, but not really seeing, the sunrise a few hours later.  Shannon again slipped out through the door, this time bringing two cups of coffee with her – his, hot and black, hers with French Vanilla flavored creamer.

“So, did you solve the problems of the world sitting out here all night?”

“Hi, hon.  Thank you.”  He took a quick sip, then another.  “No, I didn’t solve the world’s problems.  The world will just have to save itself.  In fact, I didn’t even solve my problem.”

“So what kept you out here all night?”

“Mother.  Mothers.  Motherhood.  A son who hates his mother, and wonders where she is and if she is all right and doesn’t know why he even cares.”

Shannon came around the table and stood beside her husband.  She massaged his shoulders.

“I wish I could help with this, Dave, but I think you have to work this out yourself.  As much as I want to, I don’t have any magic words for you.”

“I know, babe.  It’s just that I have hated so much, for so long, and now…  When I looked at that woman laying in that hospital bed, I found it hard to keep on hating.  I knew she wasn’t my mother.  But somehow, seeing her there, so bruised, so frail, so helpless…  It became very hard to keep on hating my own mother.”

Shannon leaned over his shoulder and kissed his cheek.

“Sounds like you may have solved a few problems in the night after all.”

“I don’t know about solving anything, but I am thinking a little differently this morning.  Not sure what I’m thinking, but it’s a little different.”  He squeezed her hand on his shoulder and took another sip of his coffee.

*****

To call his day unproductive would be a gross understatement.  Dave looked at the tax return on the desk in front of him, then looked at his timesheet.  He couldn’t honestly bill a fraction of those hours.  Moreover, someone would have to go over the return again carefully.  His mind really hadn’t been on taxes today.

The ringing of his phone jarred him.  The receptionist said, “A Detective Jackson for you, Mr. Bradford.  He said you would want to take the call.”

“I do, Jill.  Thank you.”

He punched the lit button.

“Dave Bradford.”

“Mr. Bradford, it’s Detective Jackson of the Maricopa Sheriff’s office.”

“Please call me Dave.  Thank you very much for getting me in to see Maureen Johnson.”

“You’re quite welcome, Dave.  And it’s Alan.”

“How is she doing?”

“That is why I called.  I thought you would want to know.  She left us just after noon.  Skull fracture.  She never regained consciousness.”

Dave was very quiet for a moment.

“Damn!”

“Yeah, me, too, Dave.”

“What happens to her now?” Dave asked.

“I’ve got a couple of days to see if I can track down her surviving son.  If not, then…”  His voiced trailed off.

“Detective Jackson.  Alan.  Will you keep me posted?  I want to know.  I want to make sure…”

“Yes, sir.  I will.  Dave, I understand what you’re saying.  This one got to me, too.”

“Thank you, Alan.”

“You’re very welcome, Dave.”

The line went dead.  Dave hung up the phone slowly.  He leaned back in his chair and stared at the ceiling.

*****

A clear, sunny day in July in Phoenix is brutal – the temperature was 108 degrees.  Dave stared down at the headstone.

MAUREEN JOHNSON

5/27/1952 – 7/14/2014

SOMEONE’S MOTHER

 

He looked up into the distance at the White Tank Mountains, sighed heavily, and turned toward his car.  He saw Sheriff’s Detective Jackson standing in the road.  The two men nodded to each other.

He hoped someone would do as much for his own mother.

Where was she?  How was she?  Why?

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