When the Todd family was in a car accident, the women of Our Lady of the Lake sent around a sign-up for a dinner delivery schedule. This was always the first course of action for the community, who wanted to feel helpful and show their concern while still getting their sons to karate and their daughters to ballet on time.
The Todd family was one of those darling groupings of four: dad, mom, and two daughters only a year apart. The older girl, Charlie, was small for her age, so when the girls were young, their mother dressed them like twins. The family always sat in the same pew on the right side of the sanctuary, three rows from the front. The girls’ heads were a pair of matching ponytails or braids topped with bows of coordinating colors. When they reached middle school and stopped dressing alike, the girls still sat in the same places, their heads still the same color of hair.
The women of Our Lady of the Lake soon learned that the Todd family would be in the hospital for many days, many more than expected, so they set about reorganizing the dinner delivery schedule. Mrs. Todd was in back surgery; Mr. Todd’s leg was in traction; and Charlie Todd was in a coma. Only Mamie, the younger sister, walked away, and the women of Our Lady of the Lake held their breath wondering what to do with her. They were relieved to learn that Mamie had been taken in by Joyce Phillips, their neighbor. She was a Baptist, but very sweet, not like the other Baptist women in Nashville who wouldn’t invite the Catholics to be in their Bunko groups. Joyce was a nice woman. She lost her own son in a car wreck the year before. Drunk driving, they whispered, and agreed that taking care of Mamie was exactly what her mourning heart might need right now.
Sister Lawrence suggested putting together a visitation schedule for the hospital, but Mellie Lotts pointed out that when she was in the hospital for her kidney stones, she actually preferred not to have visitors at that time. Everyone agreed they didn’t want to be in the way, so only Sister Lawrence would go to the hospital and report back as to how the family was doing. The women of Our Lady of the Lake felt good about this. They wanted news of the family. They were very concerned.
That Sunday, the church took up a special collection for the Todd family. The women made sure their husbands put cash in the basket. They wanted to donate, but they weren’t sure what size of donation, and they didn’t want to appear cheap. The church raised a handsome sum for the family, whose medical expenses were growing and growing. The women of Our Lady of the Lake speculated about the cost of such a wreck while sipping their coffee in a huddle after Mass.
“I heard the wreck was Hugh’s fault,” Allison Scruggs said.
Someone asked if she suspected alcohol, but she said she didn’t think it was alcohol, though Hugh Todd was known to enjoy his beer. They shook their heads and wondered how Ruby Todd was going to feel when she realized her husband almost killed them.
“I would go crazy,” Mellie said.
They all nodded and hummed, Mm hm.
The next week, they took their sons to karate and their daughters to ballet. They went back-to-school shopping and checked out estate sales around the corner from their homes.
That Sunday at Mass, Father Arnold talked about the Todd family during his homily. The congregation grew still and solemn. Older women squinted at young women with squealing babies until those new mothers disappeared into the crying room. The women of Our Lady of the Lake were especially interested in news of Ruby Todd.
Father Arnold asked that everyone bow their heads as he uttered a special prayer for Charlie, who was still in a coma and struggling to survive. Had it not been for Sister Lawrence, Charlie may have died. When Sister Lawrence visited the hospital, she noticed that the comatose girl seemed uncomfortable. Charlie’s head was shaved with a halo of bandage across the front of her scalp, yet Sister Lawrence could sense something else. She asked the doctors if Charlie suffered any other injuries, and the doctors looked at her with blank, pale faces. They rushed Charlie to X-ray where they discovered her intestines were perforated. She had lain that way for a week.
The women of Our Lady of the Lake were relieved that they had decided to send Sister Lawrence to the hospital.
“Can you imagine what would have happened if we hadn’t sent her?” Allison Scruggs asked. The women shook their heads, refusing to think about it.
The next week, they took their sons to karate and their daughters to ballet. They paid water bills and reorganized the spice rack. They said a prayer for the Todd family at dinner each night.
That Sunday, the seventh and eighth graders held a bake sale for the family. The women of Our Lady of the Lake sliced pies and baked cookies. They set up a table with balloons and streamers and took pictures of their kids with chocolate smears on their lips. They had sweethearts, those kids. The women of Our Lady of the Lake were so proud. It was a mild August day, so kids played tag on the church grounds while the women stood in the shade and sipped their coffee in a huddle.
Someone mentioned that Ruby Todd went home from the hospital that week. Someone else mentioned that Mamie was still living with Joyce next door.
“How can she let someone else take care of her child?” Mellie asked.
They shook their heads as if they wouldn’t waste a second getting their own children back.
“Where’s Hugh?” Mellie asked.
“He left the hospital even before Ruby,” Allison said. “I think he’s been home for a week.”
They sipped their coffee, their lips tight when they swallowed.
The next week, they took their sons to karate and their daughters to ballet. They hosted dinner clubs and bought tickets to the back-to-school carnival at the high school. Allison Scruggs took dinner to the Todd family on Wednesday night, a casserole made from chicken and condensed soup.
That Sunday, Father Arnold said Charlie was coming out of her coma, though she was paralyzed on the left side of her body. The congregation bowed their heads and sent up silent prayers, then crossed themselves in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It was a blessing she was not dead, he said. It was a tragedy she was not whole, they thought. They crossed themselves again.
After Mass, the kids tugged on their mothers’ shirts wanting to know when they would go home.
“Don’t interrupt,” the mothers said. They sipped their coffee in a huddle.
“Did you see the family?” Mellie Lotts asked.
“Only Hugh and Ruby,” Allison said. “Mamie is still next door.” Someone asked why she didn’t come over for dinner.
“I don’t think she visits often,” Allison said. She waited out a long pause as everyone looked at her, then she added in a whisper, “She didn’t look good.” She meant Ruby Todd.
“Well, of course not,” someone said. “She’s been through hell.”
“I mean, she’s not well,” Allison said. She said “well” with emphasis. She widened her eyes.
“Well, of course not,” Mellie Lotts said. “She’s been through hell.”
They nodded and sipped their coffee. The kids came and tugged on their shirts. The mothers brushed them away.
They took another sip and looked into the distance over their cups.
The next week, they took their sons to karate and their daughters to ballet. They checked over math homework and went to hot yoga on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. They complained to their husbands when the bug guy or gardener or electrician didn’t show. The husbands promised to give the bug guy or mower or electrician a call. Mellie Lotts took dinner to the Todd family on Wednesday night: two containers of Italian meatball soup, enough to freeze some for later.
That Sunday, a visiting priest performed Mass. He was from India and difficult to understand, but no one wanted to say so for fear of looking insensitive. He talked about a dove and a rose, and how the dove loved the rose, but the rose did not love the dove. The dove bloodied itself on the rose’s thorns, trying to be close to it. No one could understand him.
After Mass, someone mentioned that Father Arnold had taken the collected donation to the Todd family. The women of Our Lady of the Lake were very proud of this, but they didn’t want to discuss money, so they talked about the Todd family instead.
“I didn’t get to see her,” Mellie said, meaning Ruby Todd. “Her mother met me at the door and took the soup.”
“It’s good she has her mother to help her,” someone said. They all nodded.
“My son said Mamie is back at school,” Allison Scruggs said.
There were many oh-goods and wonderfuls until they realized Mamie was still living with Joyce. No one mentioned this. They couldn’t help but wonder about Mamie. About Hugh. About what they would do in Ruby’s place. They took sips of coffee and looked into the distance over their cups. Their husbands waved, ready to go.
That week, it rained. They did not take their sons to karate. They let their daughters skip ballet. They noticed that the bug guy or the mower or the electrician did not show up again. Their husbands forgot to call. The women got the numbers and called the bug guy or the mower or the electrician themselves. One of the women ordered pizza to be delivered to the Todd family on Wednesday night.
That Sunday, Hugh showed up at Mass. The women of Our Lady of the Lake trained their eyes on him from their seats. He sat in the usual Todd family spot, the three seats next to him, a hole. After Mass, he shook Father Arnold’s hand. He patted the backs of their husbands and laughed.
The women sipped their coffee and wondered how he could laugh. No one said this, though.
“Where’s Ruby,” Allison said.
They all nodded and watched their husbands pat Hugh’s back, too, and laugh. They wondered if their husbands would go to Mass without them. They wondered what was so funny.
The next week, they took their sons to karate and their daughters to ballet. They missed yoga. The bug guy and the mower and the electrician came and raised the prices. The women of Our Lady of the Lake didn’t tell their husbands. They just wanted it done. No one took dinner to the Todd family that week. No one noticed the empty space on the dinner delivery schedule.
That Sunday, Ruby came to Mass with Hugh. They arrived late, and Ruby shuffled in using a walker. The women of Our Lady of the Lake sat up straighter, hoping to make eye contact. Everyone watched as Hugh helped his wife to her seat. Only once did a new family sit in the Todd family’s usual spot, but most Sundays, the seats remained empty. Ruby moved slowly, her back stiff. She eased into her place, and Hugh put his arm on the back of the pew behind her. The women stared at the back of her head, trying to see inside of it. They wondered if she was happy to see them.
After Mass, they waited for Ruby to join the huddle, but they couldn’t find her.
“Where is she?” Mellie asked, looking around, until they saw Sister Lawrence, helping Ruby out of the bathroom. They couldn’t believe how slowly she moved. She leaned on her walker with a grimace.
They saw their husbands laughing with Hugh, the men patting each other on the backs. Allison Scruggs took hold of Mellie Lotts’s arm. They moved the huddle to the chair where Ruby was sitting.
“Thank you,” Ruby said, out of breath. “Thank you for everything you have done for my family.”’
The women beamed and nodded and said they wouldn’t have it any other way.
“How are you?” Allison Scruggs asked.
“I’ve been better,” Ruby said.
The women nodded and sipped their coffee.
Again, the huddle of men laughed and patted each other’s backs. Again, the women wondered what was so funny.
“Have you heard about my Charlie,” Ruby said—she didn’t ask. The women held their breath. “She’s paralyzed,” Ruby said.
“We heard,” Mellie Lotts said. “It’s a terrible thing.”
The women nodded and sipped their coffee.
“I can’t take care of her,” Ruby said. “She’s still in the hospital, but if she gets out, I don’t know.”
Someone asked about her mother.
“She had to go back to Ohio,” Ruby said. “She’ll come back, though.”
“Is Hugh taking care of you, then?” Allison Scruggs asked.
Ruby smoothed her hair and licked her lips in that way of moving while thinking. She put her hands on her thighs and spread her fingers over them.
“He tries,” Ruby said.
The women nodded and sipped their coffee.
“Well, it’s wonderful that Mamie can stay with Joyce Phillips,” Mellie Lotts said. “We were all going to offer, but when we learned of the situation, we heard she was already there.”
“Joyce is a saint,” Ruby said. And right next door, someone said. They all nodded.
“I’ve only seen Mamie once,” Ruby said. “In the hospital.” She looked up at the cups in the women’s hands. “Can I have some coffee?” she asked.
“Oh my god, I meant to offer,” Mellie said and ran off toward the coffeepot.
“Why doesn’t Mamie come to see you?” Allison asked.
“I’m not sure,” Ruby said.
“You said she came to the house,” Allison said. “You told me when I brought you dinner.”
“Who? Mamie?” Ruby asked.
“Yes,” Allison said. “You said it was nice to visit with her.”
Ruby looked off into a distance past Allison’s hip.
“I don’t remember that,” she said.
Mellie came back with the coffee. The women heard the loud talking of the husbands who stood over by the double doors to the parking lot.
“Are you angry?” Mellie blurted. “Are you angry at Hugh?” She handed Ruby her coffee as the women held their breath.
Ruby put both hands on her coffee cup, brought it to her mouth, and blew.
“All I feel is pain,” she said and took a sip.
The women nodded. The coffee burned in their stomachs. They glanced at their husbands who were waving, ready to leave.
“Thanks, ladies,” Hugh said, coming over. “I’m sure she’s tired of just me all the time.”
There were many no-nos and of-course-nots until they realized he was taking her away. As Ruby grunted, trying to stand, Allison reached toward her but Hugh said to let Ruby do it herself.
“It’s the only way she’s going to get stronger,” Hugh said. And the women cringed as they watched Ruby rise from her seat. They imagined her pain, but they couldn’t feel it.
Ruby jerked the walker toward Hugh.
“He’s right,” Ruby said. “It’s the only way.”
As she shuffled off, the women of Our Lady of the Lake saw their husbands waving. They felt their children pulling on their arms, but they watched Ruby hobble along.
“Ow,” they said finally, and wanted to shake free, but they didn’t. They watched Ruby shuffle up the sidewalk toward the parking lot, trying to imagine what she was feeling, but they couldn’t; of course, they couldn’t. As the children pulled and the coffee burned and their husbands waved with aggressive sighs, the women of Our Lady of the Lake turned from Ruby’s image there, at the top of the hill near the parking lot. She stood hunched over her walker, stiff and alone. The women moved away from the window and put their hands on their children’s heads. They waved back at their husbands with the promise that they would come, so everyone could get ready for the week ahead. They would take their sons to karate and their daughters to ballet. They would put pot roasts in slow cookers and share the recipes. No one would mention Ruby. It was the only way to keep going as if everything would be OK. They needed to believe this was the worst it could get.