This is a work of fiction based on an actual event.
Dead Flowers, by Frank
So, one day a few years ago, my
daughter Lisa, my fourteen year old daughter, the apple of my eye, the one whose fingers and toes I counted over
and over when she was a newborn because I couldn’t believe how perfect she was, the one I used
to toss in the air and thrill at her giggling when I caught her, the beauty I
gave raspberries to when I was changing her diaper (and who was out of diapers
before she was a year old), the one who could read at a third grade level when she
started kindergarten, the girl who organized a fundraiser for homeless people
while in the sixth grade and collected almost two hundred dollars for the
cause, the honor role student with perfect attendance through the seventh
grade,and, unfortunately, the same one
who was just completing two weeks on restriction for getting two F’s in school
because she didn’t
turn in her assignments, assignments which she had done, but which she didn’t turn in
because a boy she liked hadn’t done his assignments, a boy who, of course,
she no longer cared about by the time report cards came out, well, that girl,
my daughter, asked me if she could go to her girlfriend Claudia’s house on
Friday night for pizza and a movie, now that she was off of restrictions. I did
not hesitate. I said, “I will have to speak to your mother.”.
Her mother, Carin, and I were
divorced and I had custody of Lisa, because Lisa and I wanted it that way, and
because her mother was busy “finding herself.”I
told her that she didn’t have to find herself because I knew right
where she was. But that’s probably why we were divorced, because, as Carin liked to say, "I was
an opinionated loud mouth asshole who was never in touch with my feelings,”whatever that
meant. I learned a lot about myself from Carin. I learned that I was never intimate, by which
mean sex. I had as much genuine human feelings as a can of Campbell’s Chicken
Noodle Soup. I played games, I was told, which was true. I was great
at chess and loved Bridge. But we still got along, Carin and I, and I knew she
needed to be in the loop on this one, if only because if anything went wrong,
even up until the end of time, it would be my fault. Carin said she would talk
mother to be sure everything was on the up and up but she was never able to
reach her, so I spoke to Claudia’s brother, Andrew, who had just graduated
college and who Carin and I thought was a fine young man. He said he would pick
up Lisa at 7 P.M. and bring her back safe and sound at 11 P.M.. So I told Lisa
she could go as long as she promised to adhere to the rules: no boys, no
drinking, no smoking, no drugs. She was to stay at Claudia’s the whole
time. She had to be home by 11:00 P.M., not 11:01. She agreed.
The four teenagers were jubilant driving down
the dirt road from the farmhouse. The two girls had hoodwinked their parents
into thinking they were going to Claudia’s house for Friday night pizza and a movie,
just girls. How lame! The boys, Greg and Brad, both honor students and both
lettered athletes, picked the girls up at Claudia’s house and the
foursome drove to John Santulli’s farmhouse for the real party. In a drinking
game, each of the four had downed a shot or two of moonshine (wow, was that
ever caustic!) and at least two beers. Now they were rushing back to Claudia’s house so that
Andrew, Claudia’s brother, could get Lisa home by curfew. The
yellow Toyota Land Cruiser had elevated off-road tires, glass pack mufflers,
and a killer stereo system with ghetto-blaster woofers in the back. Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick
in the Wall,”an anthem for them, was booming. The teens were
singing along, rollicking, and dancing in their seats. Their index fingers
poked the air in unison with each beat as they sang the refrain: ”Hey! Teacher!
Leave them kids alone!”What sheer joy!
Until the Land Cruiser left the dirt road, onto
the state highway, running the stop sign.
Friday night Carin came over to see Lisa off and to stay for dinner. We did
that often, enjoy a meal together. We even hit the sack occasionally, which was
better than when we were married because the pressure was off, the tension
gone. Now we just did it for the sex. We had been divorced for three years
after thirteen years of marriage. I guess we were opposites. I was a doctor, a
nephrologist to be exact. I took care of people with kidney failure and that
involved lots of hard science. She was more spiritual, more otherworldly, more
ethereal, a mystic seeking The Divine. I guess thirteen years of marriage might
be some kind of world record for that kind of pairing.
Carin spent about an hour in Lisa’s room helping
her get ready. When Lisa came down the stairs I thought she was the most
beautiful thing I had ever seen. She had glitter on her face, lipstick, and
blue coloring on her eyelids. She wore her mother’s necklace and earrings, and her mother’s fragrance,
Ciara, which makes me melt. I took a whiff of that and remembered why I had
married Carin. I started to ask Lisa why she was getting so dressed up for a
night with the girls, but Carin shot me the evil eye so I said instead, “Why you look
my best Billy Crystal imitation. Lisa replied immediately, “It’s better to
look good than to feel good.”Why
I just learn to have a conversation like that on my own? First try?
Andrew arrived precisely at 7 P.M.
and whisked Lisa away. Carin and I looked at each other and sighed, you know
our baby girl was growing up. We caught each others eyes, hesitated a moment,
then ran up the stairs, tore our clothes off and jumped into bed. Sex with
Carin had always been good and this was especially wonderful because neither of
us had had sex since the last time we had sex together. The sex was just right for
two people who basically loathed each other but were still in love, lots of
passion with a touch of aggression. An hour later, well maybe five or ten
minutes later, but who’s keeping track, we came downstairs, made
dinner, and opened a bottle of German wine. After the dinner, after the wine,
and of course, after the sex, around 9 P.M., we were both slightly giddy but
also feeling a little anxious about Lisa being out, since we didn’t trust her as
much as we used to. I decided to call Claudia’s house to speak to Lisa. Andrew answered the
Andrew,”I said, “could
I please speak to Lisa?”
He hesitated just a fraction too
long but I didn’t
make too much of it.
girls are out playing volleyball.”
tell Lisa I called and that I’ll call back in fifteen minutes.”
Twenty minutes later Andrew told me
that all the girls went out to pick up the pizza. I told him I would call back
in fifteen minutes. Fifteen minutes later Andrew hesitated way too long. So I
the deal. If I don’t
get to speak to Lisa right now I’m going to drive to your place and I may bring a
policeman friend of mine with me.”It
sometimes helps to be an asshole. I didn’t have any friends in the police. He said to
wait a minute. Thirty seconds later Claudia was on the line.
“I’m sorry, Dr.
not here. She was here for a while but then two boys drove up and Lisa and
Andrea left with them.”
did they go?”I asked. “What boys?”I learned that
Lisa and Andrea had gone with the two boys, named Greg and Brad, neither of
whom I knew, to John Santulli’s farmhouse. Claudia did not know the phone
number for the farmhouse but promised to try to get it and to call me back with
I didn’t know if I was more worried about Lisa’s well being or
more fucking mad at her, the one I gave the raspberries to, the one…well never mind
that…but I was
focused enough to go into action. I found my address book and found the
home address and number. John Santulli, the son, was a nice enough kid, maybe
not quite as centered as most of Lisa’s friends, but given the circumstances he was
probably as centered as he was going to get. He spent hours at our house. His
father, Dr. John Santulli, a dentist, was recently arrested for selling a
prescription for one hundred OxyContins to an undercover cop in the Piggly
Wiggly parking lot. He had been under investigation for over a year, after a
pharmacist at CVS alerted the Bureau of Pharmacy about some unusual
prescriptions coming his way. Turns out Santulli was making more mullah
peddling drugs than drilling teeth.It
was also rumored Dr. Santulli made moonshine at the farmhouse, for his personal
use. If the kids had gone there, drinking and drugs would probably be involved.
Since I didn’t have the phone number
for the farmhouse, I called the Santulli home number. There was no answer but
an answering machine came on. I never knew what to do with these things, they
were so new, but I left a stuttering message and asked them to please call me
as soon as they could. We called
everyone we could think of who might know where the farmhouse was or what the
phone number was. No luck there. By now it was 10 P.M. and Carin and I were
getting frantic. So I got the idea that we should just sit and wait, outside,
near the curb, where Andrew would be bringing Lisa home. Surely, she wouldn’t miss her
curfew. I felt comfortable doing this because I had one of the new cordless
phones that would let me roam fifty feet and still be able to talk.
Well, 11 P.M. came and went and no
Lisa. Then 11:15 and 11:30. I got my flashlight and was prepared to do a
sobriety test on whoever was in the car, whether it was Andrew, or “the boys,”(what were
their names again?) and of course, Lisa.
Kraus was driving home from work. He worked four ten-hour shifts at a plant
that manufactured thermocouples in Aiken, South Carolina. His life had been
going well since he stopped having breakfast, lunch, and supper, on the rocks.
He had just earned his three-year chip at AA and was now married to a woman,
too good for him he thought, with a daughter from her first marriage. His job
at the plant was the first that had lasted more than a few weeks since he
dropped out of high school. He was on SC Highway 78, a monotonous country road,
a few minutes from his home. It was dark, with no streetlights this far into
the countryside. The road did not have a white line painted on the edges and a
slight mist made visibility even more difficult. Suddenly he caught something
in his peripheral vision. In a split second it was in the road only a few feet
in front of him. His headlights caught two teenage boys in the yellow car, front and
rear, who seemed oblivious to his headlights. He did not apply the brakes, it
happened so fast. The screech of breaking glass and metal on metal was
cinematic. He saw the other car flip over at least twice. The force of the
impact snapped him forward.
11:55 P.M. my cordless phone rang. It was John Santulli, the son.
been an car accident. Lisa was in the car with Andrea, Greg and Brad.”
of the girls was taken by helicopter to the Medical College, but I don’t know who.”
The worst of our fears, the one we
refused to talk about or even consider, was
happening. We found out as much as we could from John, which wasn’t very much.
John often went to school drunk so I doubted that abstinence was in his
repertoire. He didn’t see the accident, didn’t even know it
happened until he heard the sirens and then heard the helicopter. We called the
Aiken city police who had not heard about an accident. They said to call the
office but all they could tell us was that “an unknown female victim”was flown to
Augusta. They didn’t
know if the others were injured but said there were no fatalities. After I hung
up, I didn’t
know what to do. I, the one who always has to think on my feet when someone
life was on the line, the one who can walk into other people’s horror and
maintain pure focus and objectivity, I was frozen.
Carin said I should call the
hospital emergency room. I was about to tell her what a stupid idea that was
when I realized that it was a great idea. That’s what a bad marriage does to you.
Joyce, the nurse I spoke to, with
whom I had worked dozens of times, told me that they had been trying to get me,
that my daughter Lisa was there and that she was banged up quite a bit but was
alright. I was so relieved and overjoyed. I turned and told Carin the news and
we gave each other a kiss and a hug.
Carin and I jumped into my car and headed to the hospital.
On the way we passed a tow truck, with its yellow emergency lights flashing,
towing a badly crushed yellow Toyota Land Cruiser.
We just knew that that was the car Lisa had been in. Carin and I were amazed that anyone could have
survived the accident. Luckily we were very close to the entrance to the
hospital so we didn’t have to think very long about our daughter
being in that car and surviving.
Carin and I buttressed each other,
holding hands like boyfriend and girlfriend, as we entered Lisa’s room. Lisa
was lying in the bed, disheveled, immobilized so that she wouldn’t compound any
fractures until the x-ray results were back. She was wearing a cervical collar.
She was covered with scrapes, abrasions, and at least one laceration on her arm.
There was clotted blood on her face and
arms and on as much of her legs as we could see. She started to cry as soon as
she saw us. I could tell, call it intuition or just my superior insight into
the psyche, that Lisa was elated to see us, and that this crying was not some
scheme to avoid punishment, even though I am a skeptic by nature. I gave my
daughter as much of an embrace as I could, she being strapped to a plastic body
board to immobilize her. She could not put her arms around me. I thought I
would be strong at this moment but I completely broke down, sobbing
uncontrollably for seeing my daughter alive. I kissed her dirty, bloodied face.
I tasted her blood and tears but I didn’t mind it a bit. I never wanted to let her go
or to stop kissing her face but Carin tugged at my shirt and I knew that Carin
and Lisa needed each other at that moment so I moved back. Carin and Lisa
embraced for four or five minutes, neither of them saying a word.
After all the hugging and kissing
was over, I was the first one to say anything.
you really messed up this time, kiddo,”I
said. Lisa started crying again.
know I did, Dad. I’m
so sorry.”I believed her.
“ How’s Andrea?”she asked. “No one will
tell me how she is or where she is. Is she okay?”
flew her in a helicopter to the Medical College. That’s bad. It means
she probably had a head injury.”
thought I was dreaming that part. I saw a helicopter taking off. So loud! But
it seemed like a dream.”
The next morning, Lisa woke up, at
home, stiff and aching. But at least she woke up. Carin spent the night at my
place, in the guest bedroom, and was at the kitchen table having coffee with me
as Lisa entered. Lisa gave us a curious look but Carin
and I convinced our faces to reveal nothing.
Over the next hour Lisa told us the
whole story: the four days of planning, the drinking, all the other kids were
there, that neither Claudia nor Andrew were in on it and that Andrew actually
tried to stop them from going. We believed that she was telling the truth and
even now, years later, I can say that everything we heard that morning still
holds up. She held back one thing until the very end and when she told us my
drove his father’s
car. I kind of liked Brad and Andrea liked Greg. And we were together that way,
me and Brad, and Andrea and Greg until we were leaving. I said to Andrea when
we were alone that we should switch boyfriendsjust for fun,
just for the ride home. Just a gag. So Greg was surprised when I sat next to
him in the back seat and Brad too when Andrea sat next to him.”
Lisa paused, blew her nose and wiped
some tears from her eyes.
should have been me in the front seat. It should have been me that they took to
Augusta, not Andrea.”She
hold yourself responsible for that,”I
It took Lisa several minutes to
regain her composure.
and Mom, I need to go to the Medical College to see Andrea today.”
Lisa, Carin and I went to the Medical College that day and every day for the
next three days. We never got to see Andrea, who had had brain surgery and was
in a coma, but we did meet her mother, Jill Cauthen. Lisa was amazed how kind Jill was to her, not
criticizing her, nor implying in any way that it was her fault, or that it
should have been Lisa in the coma and not her daughter. Lisa didn't sense that
Jill was in any way blaming her. I felt that underneath Jill’s calm exterior
was a ticking bomb waiting to explode.
During those days in the Medical College ICU
Lisa spent hours at a time with Jill Cauthen. They cried often and laughed
occasionally as Lisa told her stories about her and Andrea.
was the one who came up with the idea of going to John’s
farmhouse,” Lisa said.
Andrea object to that in any way?” Jill asked.
she liked the idea.”
As I watched her having extended adult
conversations in a situation that most people would be so uncomfortable, I was
proud of her maturity and poise. She was beautiful from top to bottom.
Cauthen, Andrea was my best friend. I was so happy when she won Junior Miss
Aiken County. She was so good in school. She helped me a lot in Geometry. I don’t
think she ever did anything like this before. I feel so bad. It was my fault
she’s where she is right now.”
was her own person and had to make her own decisions. I doubt that you forced
her to go to that party or to drink those drinks.”
Jill asked the doctors and the
nursing staff to include me in their discussions so that I could help explain
things to her. Basically Andrea had exhibited almost no brain function since
coming out of the surgery to remove a blood clot from under her skull. They
were now only waiting for all of the criteria for “brain dead”to be met.
On the third of our daily visits Jill showed us
a bouquet of white lillies, white roses and baby’s breath that came with a note from Peter
Kraus, the hapless driver of the other car.
I am so sorry
about your daughter Andrea. I was the driver of the other car. I wish I could have stopped the car but it all
happened so fast. I have been sore but not really injured. After the accident I
was able to help the kids until the EMS arrived. I stayed there until the
helicopter took Andrea away. I am praying for her recovery and for your well
being as well. Yours, Peter Kraus
That same day they began talking to
Jill about organ donation. I stayed out of that discussion and did not advise
Jill about it, telling her that that was her personal decision, while secretly
hoping that if Andrea
was pronounced brain dead and that if her mother consented to organ
donation, that one of my kidney failure patients would get her kidney.
I had a sweet elderly black woman who had been on dialysis for four years and
was now at the top of the transplant waiting list. She had been called twice in
the last month to come in for a possible transplant but neither kidney was a
good enough match and she was sent home. I hoped that she would get this kidney
if it became available. There was a certain rightness to that, a certain
symmetry. But ethically I had to stay out of any of those decisions.
Four days after the accident Andrea
was pronounced dead.
days after Andrea died, Brad, the driver of the Land Cruiser, heard the doorbell
ring. He was still very shaky and upset about the accident. He was constantly ill, vomiting, not eating, and had slept only
briefly since the accident. Two days ago Lisa called him to let him know that
Andrea had died, which doubled his devastation. He wanted to go to the funeral
service, wanted to apologize to everyone, but was too frightened and too
embarrassed to do anything.
At the door was a delivery woman. Her ID badge
said “Mary, Ivy Cottage Florists”He could see
the van at the curb with its FTD logo on the door. She
said she had flowers for Mr. Bradley Spann.
“That’s me,”he said.
“Have a nice
day,”she said, handing Brad the box of flowers. The
delivery label said it was from Jill Cauthen, Andrea’s mother. “Why would she
be sending me any flowers?”he wondered.He opened the box and found a dozen long stem black roses, full of
thorns, dead and wilted. There was a card inside the box. He opened it and
“Rot in Hell. Really, Jill.”
years after the accident,I walked into an
examination room to see one of my patients,Lula Bell Coleman, a
delightful 63 year old mother, grandmother, and community volunteer. She was
also the recipient of one of Andrea’s kidneys. I thought of Andrea and Jill every
time I saw Lula Bell. When I learned that she had received Andrea’s kidney I felt
that there was honor, justice, wholesomeness, propriety, wonder, virtue,
purity, and perfection in the world. Lula Bell told me that she had tracked down
the mother of the girl who gave her the kidney. She went to the newspaper and
read all of the papers for the weeks before and after her transplant. She
learned about the Highway 78 accident, the girl having to go to the Medical
College by helicopter, and then read her obituary, saw that she died the same
day she got her kidney, and put two and two together.
“I went and
visited her mom,”she said.
“I knew who she
was, Miss Lula, but I wasn’t allowed to tell you.”I said.
“Well, she a
very fine woman. So happy to see me. She cried when she hug me. She told me
that your daughter was in the same accident as her daughter. I didn’t know that.”
“That’s the other
reason I didn’t
want to talk to you about where the kidney came from.”
“Well, she told
me how much you, your wife, and specially your daughter helped her when she was
at the hospital with her girl and then at the wake and at the funeral. She said
she done some pretty awful things after her daughter died. Spiteful things.
Things she regrets doing now. She sorry about all that now. But I don’t know, Dr.
Riggio. Seems like to me she still holding back some powerful bitterness.”
“It was a hard
thing for any parent to go through.” I doubted that I would have been very
even-tempered, unruffled, or unflappable if it had been Lisa who died and not
Andrea. I would have been a real asshole. By comparison, Jill had been a saint.
“She said that
she spoke to Jesus, and He helped her forgive that boy what drived the car. He
was just doing what teenage boys and girls all do. She said she wrote that boy
a year after the accident and apologized for what she did. She said that that
boy wrote her back. He never had another drop of liquor since the accident. He said
that if God blesses him someday with a daughter, he gonna name that child Andrea.”
She reached into her purse and started going
through her wallet.
“I asked her if
I could see a picture of her daughter. She perked up bright as sunshine and
brought out this picture, which she said I could keep. What a pretty girl,”she said
handing me the picture.“She was on the
honor roll and was Junior Miss Aiken County one year. I told her mom that I was
blessed to carry the kidney of such a good child, beautiful inside and out. She told me that five people’s lives were
saved by her organs. And two people could see what couldn’t see before. I
told her I wanted to take her to my church one Sunday so all my people could
meet her and see what good can come from pure foolishness. I think she will do
that but it might take some time. I would love to help that poor lady some.”
I started to cry. Talking to Lula Bell had
conjured up all of those tragic feelings once again. I went to the sink to get
a tissue to blot my eyes and blow my nose.
would it be okay with you if I told my daughter, Lisa, about you, about you
kidney, and your visit with her mother? She is still so emotional about what
happened. I think Lisa would feel so much better knowing that.”
“Sure you can
and I would like to talk to her also. Maybe I can helps just a little.”
every time you say something, the whole world smiles.”