Snow crunched angrily under my tires, and my car's headlights made only feeble streaks through the driving snow. My eyes ached from trying to find my way through an unfamiliar neighborhood.
As a certified medical assistant, I was making a house call to administer a flu shot to an elderly, bedridden patient. When the request had come into the doctor's office, there had been so much red tape concerning the vaccination that I finally volunteered to do it myself. I was frustrated then at all the fuss and bother; now I was angry at myself for getting involved.
I know all about frustration. One week earlier, the trial of my sixteen-year-old daughter's attacker finally ended. She had been kidnapped and raped by a stranger. He had been sentenced to five and a half years. Not long enough, I thought bitterly.
Later that day, as I relayed the judge's ruling to my mother, she asked what I thought would have been fair. I didn't know. I only knew I wanted to sleep through the night without nightmares. I wanted the tension between my husband Joe and me to be over. I didn't want to be afraid to let my children walk to school.
I glanced at the clock on the dashboard. Seven p.m. Usually by this time, I would be in pajamas and on my second glass of wine. Without the alcohol to deaden my senses, scenes from the courtroom would come, unbidden, to mind. Erica's lawyer questioning the rapist, "Which part of 'No!' didn't you understand?" And then Erica on the witness stand being asked to "describe in detail what he did to you." The windshield wipers reminded me of Erica swiping at tears as she recalled the atrocities.
I pulled up in front of the house and took a deep breath to release my tension and anger. Would I ever feel normal again? Just then, the house's front door opened and a little girl in the doorway yelled back over her shoulder. "She's here!"
Dogs barked in the background. I didn't feel like dealing with yowling dogs and a little girl in addition to an elderly patient. I wanted to give the shot and go home. A woman appeared and pushed the two dogs back so I could enter.
"Hi, Marilyn," she greeted me. "I'm Judy, and this is my granddaughter, Gwynney. Thanks for coming! Can I get you something to eat or drink?"
"No, thanks. I've got to get home and make dinner for my family," I lied. I knew Joe would have fed the children by now.
Then Gwynney peeked from behind her grandmother's legs. She was a chubby little thing with a mop of blond hair. When I looked at her closely, I shivered. Gwynney was almost my daughter's double when Erica was the same age.
"We just made macaroni and cheese," the child volunteered. "You can take it home to your 'fambly' if you want."
The telephone rang. "Gwynney," Judy instructed, "show Marilyn to Great-Grandma's room while I get the phone."
Gwynney nodded, taking her responsibility seriously. "I'm five years old," she informed me.
"No, you're not!" Judy called from the kitchen. "She's only three, Marilyn."
Gwynney smiled sheepishly then pointed to the bigger dog, a dignified yellow Labrador with a graying muzzle. "This is Barney," she said. Barney thumped his tail politely. Pointing to the other dog, a mixed German shepherd with intelligent eyes, she said, "And this is Susie." Susie woofed. "Okay," Gwynney concluded, "now I will take you to Great-Grandma's room."
I put my coat on the living room couch and fell in behind Gwynney and the dogs. Judy reappeared just as we entered the old woman's bedroom. "Mom," she yelled in her mother's ear, "the nurse is going to give you a shot!" When there was no response, Judy pushed back her mother's hair and kissed her gently on the forehead.
"I'll be in the other room if you need me," she said and quietly left the room.
I loaded the syringe and was about to give the injection when I looked over my shoulder. Gwynney, Barney and Susie were lined up in order of size against the wall. Each was watching my every move.
I stopped and explained what I was doing. "Don't worry," I reassured them, "this won't hurt your great-grandma."
Gwynney nodded. As I turned, I heard her reassuring the dogs, "This won't hurt Great-Grandma, so don't worry."
Six months before, I would have smiled. Now I just swabbed the woman's arm with alcohol and administered the shot.
The moment I withdrew the needle, Gwynney was at my side with a wastebasket to collect my disposable gloves. "Boy, you really have the program down, don't you?" I said, laughing in spite of myself.
Gwynney looked at me seriously. "Are you sad?" she asked.
"What makes you ask?" I stammered, taken aback.
"Well, your laugh sounds kind of sad."
I knelt and gave her a hug. "You sure are smart for a three-year-old," I said, tousling her fine golden hair. "You could pass for a five-year-old any day."
Gwynney bolted for the kitchen. There, I heard her telling her grandmother, "She says I could pass for a five-year-old!"
After Judy thanked me profusely for coming, Gwynney and the dogs walked me to the door. "I hope you feel happy soon," she said and squeezed my hand.
"Thank you," I answered. "Me, too."
Gwynney waved, and the dogs wagged their tails as I left. Outside, the storm had passed. It had turned colder, and snow squeaked under my feet as I made my way to the car. The dark sky was full of stars. I started the car but didn't go half a block before I had to pull over to the curb.
Tears flooded out of me, as I cried out, "God, why didn't you protect Erica?" All the feelings I had squelched over the past six months poured out. I let God have it with both barrels.
First, tears of bitterness. And then sadness, the sadness that was so obvious to Gwynney. I grieved for my daughter's stolen innocence. I was sad that with all Joe and I were able to provide, we weren't able to keep her safe.
Then a stillness enveloped my car, and I fell silent. I thought of all the things that had happened to us in the past six months. I remembered the faces of the homeless that we passed each day driving to court, and the battered women and children who lined the corridors as we made our way into the courtroom. Until six months before, I had known only the safe haven that had been our world. Our family had been so richly blessed.
Suddenly, I was thanking God for all the goodness in our lives. "Lord," I said, "I need to move beyond this and start living again. You've given me so much. Help me to focus on those who really need your help."
Tomorrow, I vowed, I would not retreat into pajamas and wine. Instead, I would go home and make my "fambly" macaroni and cheese. I would smile more and offer words of encouragement. I would brighten the world around me.
Peace washed over me. I forgave myself for not being there to shield Erica from harm.
I looked back at Gwynney's house, where the porch light still glowed warmly into the night. I smiled.
"Lord, thank you for Gwynney," I prayed. "Her resemblance to Erica and her wise words melted my heart."