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"Oh, God, Tara." He brushed the comment aside. "It was so long ago. Another lifetime ago."
"I don't remember you getting angry. I think most men would have been furious."
"I was more worried about her than angry," he said. Then he shifted in his chair and smiled again. "Let's lighten up, okay. Let's not talk about Noelle or Sam or anything sad for the rest of the night."
"Perfect," I agreed.
"So-" he cut a plump scallop in half on his plate "-when's the last time you actually went out to a movie instead of watching a rental at home?"
I thought back through the recent months, then wrinkled my nose. "Not since Sam," I said.
He laughed. "Okay, let me try that again." He looked up at the ceiling as if searching there for a safe topic. His eyes suddenly brightened behind his glasses. "I'm thinking of getting a dog," he said.
"You're kidding!" I knew he loved our dog, Twitter, but I couldn't picture him with one of his own. "A puppy? Or an older rescue, or-"
"Puppy," he said. "I haven't had one since I was a kid. I'd have to do more of my work at home for a while, I guess."
"I think it's a great idea," I said. "Maybe you could get two so they could entertain each other while-"
"Tara?" I looked up to see an older woman walking toward our table. I was so caught up in the idea of Ian with a puppy that it took me a moment to recognize her.
"Barbara!" I rose to my feet and gave her a hug. "It's good to see you." I hadn't seen Barbara Read since her retirement party a couple of years ago. Ian was getting to his feet, as well. "Ian, this is Barbara Read," I said. "She used to teach math at Hunter."
"Sit down now, both of you." Barbara smiled. She looked great, her coppery hair cut very short and her skin satin-smooth. Retirement definitely agreed with her. "Oh, honey," she said to me once I took my seat again, "I'm glad to see you looking so well. I was just devastated to hear about Sam. And poor Grace. I know this must be a terrible time for both of you."
"Thank you." I nodded toward Ian. "Ian was Sam's law partner," I said. I felt the need to explain why I was sitting in a restaurant, sipping wine with another man a mere six months after Sam's death. I saw a smile play on Ian's lips. He was on to me and my guilt.
Barbara barely seemed to hear me, though. "And I just heard about Noelle Downie," she said. "Oh, my Lord, what a tragedy."
I nodded. "It's very sad," I said.
"I know you were close to her," Barbara said. "She had a big heart. I saw her and Sam at the South Beach Grill a couple of times last year and it's hard to believe they're both gone. Did he mention seeing me? I told him to tell you hello."
I thought I'd misunderstood her. "You saw Sam and Noelle at the South Beach Grill? In Wrightsville Beach?"
"I love that restaurant, don't you? I often go over there for lunch. Off season, of course. I don't go near the beach during the summer."
"When was this?" I didn't want to sound upset-or worse, jealous-but this was very strange. Noelle and Sam were friends, but certainly not the meet-for-lunch sort of friends.
"Oh, let me think." Barbara tapped her chin as she looked out the window toward the river. "Well, it must have been the spring. April, maybe?"
"Sam died in early March." I felt impatient with her. I glanced at Ian and saw the crease between his eyebrows.
"Hmm, then maybe late winter, or it might even have been last fall." Barbara laughed. "Retirement messes with the calendar in your head, just you wait and see! It was twice, I remember that. I talked to Sam both times. I didn't know Noelle personally, but everyone knows who she is. Was. I figured he was probably the lawyer for that baby program she ran."
"Probably right," Ian said. He was looking at me and his eyes told me to get rid of her.
"Barbara, it's been so good seeing you," I said, "but Ian and I'd better finish up here or we're going to miss our movie."
"Oh, same here." She looked over her shoulder in the direction she'd come from. "My husband probably thinks I got lost in the ladies' room." She leaned over to pat my wrist. "Wonderful seeing you, honey. And nice meeting you, Ian. Y'all have a good evening."
Ian and I stared at each other until we were sure she was out of earshot. "The babies program needs a lawyer?" I asked.
He shook his head. "I'm sure that's not it," he said, "but I just wanted her to leave. I could see she was upsetting you."
"I'm not upset. I'm confused."
"Look." Ian licked his lips and studied his plate for a moment. "I think it was probably the will." He raised his eyes to mine. "It was written in February, and I'm sure Sam and Noelle had to have a couple of meetings to talk about it. There were papers having to do with her mother's care that Sam had to draw up, and...he probably helped her think through how she wanted to divide her assets."
"Why at a restaurant and not his office?"
"Because they were friends, so they decided to be comfortable while they worked. I do it, and Sam took his clients out all the time." He reached across the table and rested his hand on mine. "Hey," he said, "you're not thinking...?"
I shook my head. "Noelle and Sam? No way. Sam always liked her but he also thought she was wacky. It's just weird to hear something like that out of the blue, when I had no idea..." My voice trailed off.
"You had no idea about it because Sam was ethical," Ian said. "He didn't tell you about her will for the same reason I didn't tell you about it when I came across it in his files. Until she died, it was frankly none of your business."
"Right." I nodded. It wasn't the first time I'd discovered that Sam had handled the legal affairs of someone I knew without telling me. I'd learned early in our married life not to ask questions.
Our waiter delivered our bill and Ian leaned back in his chair to pull out his wallet. "Well-" he laughed as he set his credit card on the table "-we didn't have much success not talking about Noelle or Sam, did we?"
"Not much." I set my napkin on the table. "Let's go lose ourselves in a movie."
"Deal," he said, and it wasn't until we were walking from his car into the theater that I realized I'd let him pay for my dinner.
I guessed it was a date, after all.
Emerson The human race lost something when digital photography was invented. I sat cross-legged on the floor of Noelle's small living room, my back against the sofa, as I paged through one of her old photo albums. Like my own albums, hers had few recent pictures. They were all on her computer. Generations to come-my grandkids, for example-would never get to look through my photo album and wonder, Who is this guy and why was he important to Grandma? Honestly, it made me sad. The handful of recent pictures in Noelle's album were Jenny's and Grace's not-very-flattering school pictures and some photographs taken at fundraising events, like the big baby shower Noelle held each year on the grounds of our church.
I wasn't sure what I was looking for in the album, anyway. A picture of her with a stranger, maybe? A grown son or daughter whom she'd hidden away from us? Someone who had the answers we needed? As I dug through the pages, it was the pictures of Noelle herself that I lingered over, each one giving me a bittersweet twist of pain in my chest. I was mad at her for leaving the way she did with no explanation and mad at her for the lies, but I hated being angry with her. The only way to get rid of the anger was to make sense of what she'd done.
"I love this picture of her," I said to Ted, who was pulling books from the shelves on either side of the fireplace and stacking them in boxes. He was working like a dog while I played detective. I knew he thought I was merely brooding and he felt sorry for me. He hadn't gotten on my case at all. Yet.
"Uh-huh," he said as he dropped another couple of books into the box. I'd mentioned to him my need to find answers to Noelle's mystery life, but he thought I should just let it go, so now I was keeping my sleuthing to myself. I'd never had the sort of close-quite honestly, passionate-relationship with Ted that Tara had with Sam, but he was a good provider, a faithful husband and a caring dad. They were my three main requirements and he met them handily, so I was keeping him.
In the photograph, Noelle stood in front of a decorative wall hanging. The picture was overexposed with far too much light on her face. It made her fair skin look like alabaster. Simple silver hoops hung from her ears. The intense light brightened the already neon-blue of her eyes and nearly erased her eyebrows. She was very slender and always had been, even before her Spartan vegan diet. I envied her skinniness, but I loved food too much-my TV was always set to the food channel. I'd carry a few extra pounds around with me for the rest of my life and that was just the way it was going to be. She and I both had thick and annoying hair. In the picture, Noelle's wild, unruly hair was pulled back from her face, which was the way she always wore it. The unruliness was there, but under control. That's how I would have described her to someone who didn't know her: unruly, but under control. I guessed the description still fit. She'd played her cards exactly the way she'd wanted, right down to the bitter end.
Ted straightened up from the box he was filling, his hands on the small of his back. "Em," he said, "we're never going to get out of here if you pore over everything you find."
I laughed. "I know," I said. Enough. I closed the album and leaned forward to add it to the box of stuff we were keeping. I'd sort through her personal things later. Right now, we needed to get everything out of the house. Ted and I had decided we'd renovate before putting it up for rent. We'd redo the kitchen and the scratched hardwood floors and paint inside and out. And we'd tend the garden, as Noelle had asked. Tara was more into gardening than I was, so she said she'd be responsible for it. It wouldn't take much work until the spring and by then the house would have a tenant. Suzanne Johnson was interested. She'd been renting ever since her divorce years ago, and with Cleve at college in Chapel Hill, she was ready to downsize. Plus she loved Sunset Park. I'd need to make sure she also loved gardening. My anger at Noelle didn't erase even a molecule of the love I felt for her. She wanted her special little garden cared for, so I'd make sure that happened.
Patches was now part of my household and she didn't seem thrilled at finding herself living with two dogs. She'd adjust. It struck me as strange that Noelle had asked us to take care of the garden in her note, but not her cat. Maybe she'd figured her neighbors would keep Patches once they found out what happened, but Noelle had loved that cat and I didn't want her with strangers.
I opened a fresh packing carton and started in on the bookcase to the left of the fireplace while Ted continued with the shelves on the right. Tara and I had taken care of the kitchen and bedroom that morning, but the living room and Noelle's office were the bigger challenge. The office closet and file cabinets still needed to be emptied out and I'd put them off because they were overflowing with papers and who knew what. I was itching to get at those papers, though. I knew Ted would want to toss them all, but I planned to scrutinize every receipt, every bill, everything, looking for answers. I also wanted to check out her computer. I didn't think it was password protected and if I could get into her email, maybe I'd find The Answer. And maybe not.
I looked at the title of one of the books in my hands. The Midwife's Challenge, it was called. I opened it and glanced at the copyright date: 1992. Old. I sighed. I kept looking for a clue that she'd left midwifery only a couple of years ago. I was still in denial even after calling the certification board and learning that Noelle had let her certification lapse eleven years earlier. Eleven years! "I still don't get it," I said to Ted now. "Why would she lie to us?"
Ted let out a sigh. He was tired of the whole subject. "Did she actually lie or did she just leave out information?" he asked. "She lied. Up until a couple of years ago, she was always telling me she had a delivery scheduled or she'd mention something going on with a patient." I couldn't think of any specific examples, but I was sure she'd talked to me about her patients. "Then there were those trips she was always making to the country or the backwoods or...wherever. You know, her so-called 'rural work.' She'd stay there for months, delivering babies. That's what she always told us."
"Could she have been practicing under the radar?" Ted asked.
"I can't imagine it." As unorthodox as Noelle could be, she wasn't the sort to skirt the law. She'd been professional and cautious. She'd always dissuade her high-risk patients from considering a home birth. I knew, because I'd been one of them. Tara and I had been due three weeks apart, and we'd both wanted home births. But I'd had two miscarriages before getting pregnant with Jenny as well as some complications during my pregnancy with her, so Noelle vetoed a home birth for me and referred me to her favorite obstetrician. She'd wanted to assist at the hospital delivery, but nothing went according to plan. Ted was out of town when I went into labor three weeks early-the same night as Tara-and I ended up with a C-section. So Noelle was with Tara when Jenny made her happy, healthy way into the world, and I don't think I'd ever felt quite so alone. "I can't picture her practicing without her certification," I said now to Ted. Yet, I couldn't picture her killing herself, either. "We should have known what was going on with her." I reached for another book on the shelf.
"Hon, please stop blaming yourself." Ted sat down on the sagging sofa, rubbing his lower back. "Look," he said, "Noelle was great, but she wasn't the most stable person in the world. You know that."
"She was perfectly stable. Different? For sure. Unstable? No."
"What stable person keeps a secret life from the people who love her? What stable person happens to have...what was it? Twelve? Twelve bottles of drugs lying around, stockpiled for the day she killed herself? What stable person kills herself, for that matter?"
"I think she had those pills from after the car accident, when she hurt her back." Noelle had been driving back from a middle-of-the-night delivery when she was rearended at a stoplight, and I remembered that dark period long ago when she'd been so often in pain. Then she organized the babies program and came back to life.
"What are these?" Ted was back on his feet, leaning over to lift one of several fat, leather-bound books from the bottom shelf of the bookcase. He blew the dust off the cover and leafed through the pages. "Handwriting," he said. "Is this a journal or something?" He handed the book to me.
"No." I recognized it as I took it from his hand. "They're her logs." I opened the book and looked at the first entry: January 22, 1991. The patient's name was Patty Robinson and Noelle had detailed her labor and delivery over four and a half pages. I smiled as I read her words. "She was such a strange mix, Ted," I said. "She has all these really technical notes and then she says, 'I left Patty and her new little angel at 10:00 a.m., when birdsong poured through the open window and the scent of coffee filled the air.'" I looked at the other leather-bound logs lined up on the bottom shelf of the bookcase. "Oh, give me the one with Gracie in it!" I said. "This one ends in 1992, so Grace is probably in the third one, maybe."
Ted handed the third book to me and I sat down on the floor and flipped through the musty-smelling pages until I reached Grace's delivery in September. I scanned Noelle's notes. I knew that Tara's labor had been long and harrowing compared to mine, which had been cut short by the C-section.
I skimmed Noelle's notes until I came to this one: "'Baby girl came into the world at 1:34 a.m., nineteen inches long, six pounds two ounces,'" I read aloud to Ted. "'She's a beauty! They're naming her Grace.'"
Ted bent over to plant a kiss on the top of my head, though I didn't think he'd heard a word I'd read. "You want to finish up the shelves while I tackle the closet in Noelle's office?" he asked. "Can't put it off any longer."
"Okay," I said, but I held on to the book as if I were holding on to Grace. "I'll come help you in a sec. Don't throw anything away."
I was sitting at the small desk in Noelle's office a couple of hours later, looking through months of email on her monitor. There were some exchanges with Tara, myself, Jenny and Grace, but most of them were with Suzanne and other volunteers. There was nothing out of the ordinary. There was just plain nothing.
Ted dragged a huge cardboard box from the closet into the middle of the room. "Can we just toss this stuff?" he asked.
He'd opened the top of the box and I could see envelopes, cards, handwritten letters, photographs. "What is it?" I asked, reaching in for a handful. I set them on the desk and opened one of the cards.
Dear Noelle, It's hard to put into words what you've meant to us over the past nine months. I only wish that I'd had a home birth with all my kids now. It was extraordinary. Your warmth and gentleness and the way you were always there for me was incredible. (Even that night I called you at 3:00 a.m. and you came right over even though you guessed correctly it was just Braxton Hicks. Thank you!) Gina is nursing well and growing like crazy. We are so grateful to you, Noelle, and hope you will always be a part of our lives.
Fondly, Zoe "They're thank-you cards and letters from patients," I said. I plucked a picture of a baby from the box. "And pictures of babies she delivered." And clues, I thought, although by now I was doubtful. I'd gone through stacks and stacks of memos and receipts and all sorts of junk and had to admit that most of it could be trashed.
"Toss them?" Ted asked hopefully.
I opened another card and read the words inside.
I couldn't belive it when the lady brung the cute baby clothes to the shelter for me and my baby. Thank you, Miss Noelle!
I looked at Ted. "I can't," I said. "Not yet. I'll take the box home with me. I'd like to look through it when I have time."
Ted laughed. "When do you ever have time? You've got Hot! to manage and you're trying to visit your grandfather a couple of times a week. And are you still planning to have Suzanne's party at our house?"
I nearly choked on my breath. Suzanne's party. I put my hands on my head. "I forgot all about it," I said to Ted. I'd agreed to have the party at our house, since Noelle wanted to invite half the world and we had the space.
"Cancel it," Ted said.
I shook my head. "We can't. The invitations have all gone out and-"
"I'm sure Suzanne would understand, given the circumstances."
Suzanne hadn't said a word to me about it, probably not knowing how to bring it up. She was a single mother who'd fought cancer twice and never expected to see fifty. Noelle would want the party to go on. "No," I said. "We're having the party. It's three weeks away and Tara's going to help." If there was anything that needed to be planned or managed or organized, Tara was the person to do it.
"Are you sure?" Ted asked. "I think you're taking on too much."
He was probably right and I wanted more time, not less, with my dying grandfather. I could hardly think about him without crying. Jenny and I'd visited him in Jacksonville the day before and he'd looked so emaciated in that big bed at the hospice that I'd barely recognized him. He'd been alert and happy to see us, though. My childhood was filled with memories of him. My father was always traveling and it was Grandpa who taught me to ride a bike and fish and even to cook. Making time to visit him was a priority.
Nevertheless, I wasn't giving up this box.
"I want to keep the box for now," I said to Ted. "I just want to see what all these women had to say to her."
"I wish you'd dump it," he said. "We don't have room for all her stuff."
"I'm taking it," I said, feeling stubborn as I folded the top of the carton into place. Maybe, just maybe, something in the box would lead me to her son or her daughter and, in that small way, I could help Noelle live on.
Noelle UNC Wilmington
She sat in the lounge of the Galloway dormitory with the other Resident Assistants on the last day of their training. The freshmen would arrive the following day and then the lazy calm that had enveloped the Wilmington campus would give way to mayhem. Noelle was looking forward to it. She loved this school.