The Best Thing that Ever Happened
A story from New Domangue
Suzzanna O’Mellerick stormed into her office and slammed the door shut behind her. She leaned against it and took a deep breath. It was only her third day in her new position at St. Jude Home, but Suzzanna was already beginning to suspect that she wasn’t right for the job. She had just managed to calm Olga down and keep her from a fight with another patient. It wasn’t anything out of the ordinary, not when it came to Olga, whose recent onset of dementia has manifested itself as a fixation on dolls, Big Macs, and wedding dresses.
It wasn’t Olga that bothered her, Suzzanna knew. From the first day that Olga had walked into St. Jude, the other AIDS patients had taken to her as a new member of their family. Sweet-tempered and childlike even before the onset of dementia, Olga was adored by every patient who lived in the home, and fights with Olga were usually resolved without incident.
But today Suzzanna ran into her office because the pressure of being in charge, of being the person everyone came to, finally got to her. The precipitating event came, unfortunately, in the guise of a simple question. As soon as one of the nurse aides moved Olga back to her room, another immediately asked if she should serve ice cream or Jell-O. Suzzanna couldn’t answer, and after a moment of staring blankly at the ice cream and Jell-O in the nurse aide’s hands, she ran upstairs to hide.
She sank into the plush leather office chair behind the mahogany desk that she had inherited from the recently dismissed Director, and she instinctively reached for the only photograph she had of her daughter, along with the envelope that had arrived without postage at St. Jude earlier that morning. Suzzanna carefully passed the tip of her nail-bitten thumb over the picture of a freckle-faced child of seven while she squeezed the fragrant envelope in her other hand. Her daughter would be twenty-one soon. The face in the picture was smiling, obviously responding to the camera. The girl’s jet-black hair blew in the wind as if it were just another wave in the lake that was visible beyond the child’s shoulders.
Suzzanna couldn’t remember when the picture had been taken. She didn’t remember much of that part of her life—the alcohol had taken most of her memories. Still, one memory stood out: Suzzanna could still see her daughter’s childish smile as she said goodbye the day Suzzanna had left New Domangue for an asylum up north. Fourteen years ago. She rested three fingers on the picture of the seven-year-old brow. Fourteen years ago now, and she still couldn’t talk to her daughter. But now her daughter had found her, according to a note dated yesterday.
Suzzanna absently caressed the photograph while she envisioned what her daughter might look like as a woman. Would she have her father’s heavy way of walking or would she flit and flutter like Suzzanna? She tried to relax, but instead she found herself wondering why the Board of Directors had chosen her over other the counselors who’d been at the home longer. It didn’t seem to her, at that moment, that she should be in charge of other people’s lives. She took a deep breath, rubbed her eyes, and had just begun to count backwards from twenty when someone knocked on the office door.
“It’s open,” she said, after taking a minute to regain her composure. “Come in.”
“Ms. O’Mellerick? Olga’s people are back,” Suzzanna’s assistant quickly told her.
Suzzanna groaned, thinking of the restraining order she had filed against Olga’s family. “What do they want?”
Over the last year, no one from Olga’s family had come to visit her. Her sister had come three times before, twice with her sons to try to remove Olga, and once—the first time—alone when she thought she could pick up Olga’s disability checks.
“I don’t know,” the assistant said, “but it looks like they’ve come to try something.”
“Like hell,” Suzzanna answered.
She bolted out of her chair and down the stairs, leaving the picture and the envelope on top of her desk. She ordered her assistant to get Olga to remain in her room if a commotion started, and, if that didn’t work, to hustle her out the back door and take her to McDonald’s. By the time Suzzanna reached the main entrance hallway, she could see that one of the nurse’s aides was already in the foyer, letting in a group of people. She felt an inclination to shout to the aide to close the door, but instead she ran toward the small group that seemed to almost fall into the home, as if the entire lot of them had been thrown in. Olga’s sister, Lavinia Thompson, was already eyeing Suzzanna as her two large sons flanked her. Behind them, Suzzanna could make out a fourth person, someone she hadn’t seen before. He was short, immensely round, and dressed in a secondhand suit that seemed several sizes too small.
“I come for my own,” Lavinia said before Suzzanna could even offer the courteous welcome she had decided she would use.
The tone of Lavinia’s voice reminded Suzzanna of what Olga must have lived through her entire life. She imagined how that voice must have boomed from the other side of a locked door and remembered that they were capable of just about anything.
“Excuse me?” Suzzanna responded, feigning confusion.
“You heard me,” Lavinia said as she walked into the middle of the main entrance foyer, her two large sons keeping pace on either side of her. The man in the secondhand suit trailed behind.
“Mrs. Thompson,” the man in the suit said, his voice somewhat guarded and nervous. “Maybe you ought to let me handle this, as we agreed.”
Lavinia gave a resigned grunt and nodded.
The young man in the suit stepped in front of the group, revealing a large, bulky body that didn’t actually walk forward, as others did, but instead rocked slowly from side to side. When he reached Suzzanna, he stuck out a thick, sweaty hand.
“How do you do, ma’am?”
Suzzanna lightly touched his hand and responded as graciously as she could, aware that patients and employees alike were beginning to gather behind her. There would be a scene, undoubtedly, and she wondered if she could control it until she got someone to call the police and they arrived.
“My name’s Graham Johnson, I’m with the New Domangue Center for Family Law, and I’m representing the Thompsons, concerning the custody of Olga Williams.”
Judging by his youthful face, the lack of self-assurance that she’d seen in most other lawyers, and the secondhand suit, Suzzanna quickly surmised that he was probably serving community-service hours in return payment for debt forgiveness. Maybe he hadn’t even finished school yet. He wasn’t even as good as a secondhand lawyer, she thought. Otherwise, he would have been diligent enough to go downtown and look up the restraining order, which was right next to the settled custody papers. She could have said so right there and then, but for some reason she held out.
The lawyer offered Suzzanna a wide, apologetic smile and took out a handkerchief and wiped his hands with it before continuing. Behind him, Lavinia’s two sons watched Suzzanna as if ready to pounce on her the moment she did or said anything to upset their mother. Suzzanna had dealt with them before and knew that between the two of them they couldn’t put together a decent thought. She also knew that they followed their mother’s commands without so much as blinking an eyelid.
“Is there something wrong with Olga’s custody?” Suzzanna asked.
“Yes, ma’am. I believe the Thompsons have a rightful claim to custody.”
“Is that so?” Suzzanna replied, surprised at how she was able to respond with such a detached tone.
“Yes, ma’am. The Thompsons are Olga’s only kin, and she belongs with them.”
Suzzanna could hear mumbles and shuffling feet behind her. She guessed that there were at least ten to fifteen people standing around, and she realized that she would have to move this conversation to closed quarters and find a moment to get someone to call the police.
“Well, that may be so, Mr. Johnson,” Suzzanna said, letting the words fall slowly out of her mouth, as if each were as incontrovertible as breathing. “But I’m afraid Mrs. Thompson can’t just walk into St. Jude Home and take her sister as if Olga were some piece of property. Besides, Mrs. Thompson gave up that privilege the moment the state removed Olga from her sister’s home. Did she tell you about that? St. Jude Home is Olga’s family now. The AIDS-afflicted men and women you see behind me look upon her as their sister. They care for her, love her, and do nothing at all to remind her of her dejection.”
The mumbling behind Suzzanna grew, and Suzzanna noticed that Lavinia’s two boys were now looking past her.
“Wait one goddamned minute,” Lavinia started, pushing the lawyer’s large body aside. “Ain’t nobody going to tell me what I can and can’t do with my own, and who is and ain’t my family.”
“Mrs. Thompson, please calm down,” the lawyer pleaded.
“No, you tell her,” Lavinia said, her small frame turned toward the lawyer, her index finger almost on the lawyer’s nose, and her face wound tight around her eyes. “Can’t nobody stop me from taking my sister home. Where’s Olga? Olga! Olga!”
“Please, Mrs. Thompson,” the lawyer begged, his sweaty hands out in front of everyone, making motions to his client, her two boys, and Suzzanna, waving in the air that they should all calm down as his handkerchief dangled beneath the pinky on his right hand. “We agreed that I would handle this. Calm down.”
Suzzanna turned around and saw over twenty people gathered nearby. She beckoned to one of the nurses while Lavinia and the lawyer argued.
“Excuse me a minute,” she said to them, not waiting for a response as she walked quickly toward the advancing nurse. While the lawyer spoke in hushed tones to Lavinia, Suzzanna ordered the nurse to call the police and to keep Olga away from the commotion.
“Please forgive Mrs. Thompson,” the lawyer continued. “What with the holidays three days away and all, and her husband recently passing away—well, she’s under a lot of stress.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, truly,” Suzzanna answered calmly. “But you’ll have to ask Mrs. Thompson to control herself or I will have to ask all of you to leave.”
“I understand.” The lawyer smiled nervously. “Could we sit down somewhere and discuss this situation in detail?”
“If Mrs. Thompson wishes to visit with Olga, we’ll be more than happy to arrange a supervised visit.”
“Please,” the lawyer urged, his handkerchief making its way back between his two sweaty palms. “A minute of your time, in private.”
Suzzanna looked at the family that stood huddled together behind the lawyer. They looked pitiful, in her opinion, like country bumpkins who had just unloaded from a thirty-mile mule-cart ride. She’d had run-ins with them before and wasn’t at all fooled by any attempt they made to look helpless. And yet, something about them reminded her of the envelope she had just been holding in her hand. Being family certainly didn’t give them legal custody, but they were family all the same.
“All right,” she said. “Follow me, please.”
Suzzanna led them upstairs into the conference room. As they settled into chairs around the table, Suzzanna stepped next door into her office in search of Olga’s file. After rummaging in her file cabinets for a short spell, she spotted the file on her desk. She didn’t need the file to remind her about Olga, because she knew Olga’s life as well as she knew her own. She knew Olga’s family history, from birth to the time she was discovered in a crack house. She knew more than the sister would ever admit, to herself or anyone else. But it would serve her well to place it on the conference table, at arm’s length from them, and remove from it the custody papers and the restraining order and let the lawyer see it.
The file was next to her daughter’s photograph and envelope. She grabbed all three and walked back into the conference room, where she sat across from the four expectant figures.
“Ms. O’Mellerick,” the lawyer said, “let me get to the point quickly. Mrs. Thompson feels that it’s time Olga returned home.”
Suzzanna looked at the lawyer as if he were a curiosity that had just been placed in front of her. Obviously, the family hadn’t let him know about the court ruling. Suzzanna wondered if Lavinia had told the young lawyer about how she had treated Olga before the state intervened. She wondered if Lavinia had mentioned the abuse and neglect that Olga had suffered while under her sister’s care. Did she mention how Olga had lived penned like an animal inside a small, dark room? Did she let him know about the times that Olga had run away? Suzzanna remembered the first time she had met Olga, and she remembered thinking how childlike Olga was, despite her forty-year-old body. Retardation and full-blown AIDS, Suzzanna reflected, meant nothing to Olga’s family.
“I’m afraid Olga won’t be leaving St. Jude, Mr. Johnson.”
“You,” Lavinia began, her finger pointing toward Suzzanna.
“Mrs. Thompson, please,” the young lawyer intervened. He raised his sweaty palms in the air. “Please, let me handle this.”
Lavinia turned toward the young lawyer, her jaws tight and her lips thinned across her teeth. “Then handle it! If you can’t, I’m going to do it my own way.”
“Don’t you agree,” the young lawyer stuttered, pausing to clear his throat and wipe his sweaty hands once more before continuing, “that, as family, Mrs. Thompson has the right to take her sister home.”
Suzzanna glanced down at the file beneath her hands. She pulled out her daughter’s picture and envelope and placed them on her lap, and then she removed the custody papers and the restraining order from Olga’s file and passed them toward the young lawyer.
“Mr. Johnson,” she said calmly, “please read these documents.”
Lavinia and the lawyer scrutinized the documents while Suzzanna watched them. She wondered why in the world she had let this go so far. As she watched Lavinia and her two sons peer over the lawyer’s hunched shoulders, she smiled. God certainly had an interesting way of crossing people’s lives. Olga’s family could care less about her, but here they were trying to take her out of St. Jude. And even after reading the hand-scribbled I forgive you on her daughter’s note, Suzzanna couldn’t call the phone number on the paper.
“Mrs. Thompson,” the young lawyer said, his round face turning slowly toward his client, “we’re wasting our time.”
Lavinia shot out of her chair, her two sons following. “What the hell you talking about?” she screamed. She stood over the lawyer, bearing down on him as if she were prepared to strike him. “That’s our money.”
Suzzanna felt a desire to laugh, the urge almost jumping out of her, but she didn’t. She remembered that Lavinia only wanted the money. For a second, she felt foolish for forgetting.
“It don’t matter, Mrs. Thompson,” the young lawyer said. His head was down as if to say that he had finished talking, that he had finished working. He addressed Lavinia without looking up at her. “You can’t take Olga.”
“Like hell!” Lavinia shouted.
“Mrs. Thompson,” Suzzanna interjected. “You know as well as I do that the courts placed Olga under the home’s custody.”
“Don’t talk to me about no courts, lady,” Lavinia snarled, her finger pointed at Suzzanna as she nudged her sons around the conference table. “I just about had it with you. You, John, you, Sonny—let’s go find your aunt.”
“I’ve already called the police!” Suzzanna yelled as the three of them reached the door. Without realizing it, she crushed her daughter’s picture and envelope in her fist. “If you or your children so much as touch one of the patients’ doorknobs, I’ll press trespassing charges against you that’ll put all of you in jail.”
“Mrs. Thompson!” the young lawyer bellowed, his voice booming into the hallway through the half-opened door. “I suggest you stop!”
“No! Nobody tells me when to stop. That money belongs to us. Olga? Olga?”
Lavinia ran out the door, her two sons behind her, and started down the stairs. Suzzanna followed, but stopped short when she saw the large crowd of patients, visitors, and employees at the base of the stairs. Lavinia and her sons had stopped in front of them.
“You people get out of the way,” she threatened. “Olga? Olga?”
Everyone at the base of the stairs looked anxiously between Lavinia and her two sons at the bottom of the stairs and Suzzanna at the top of the stairs. No one moved. Some patients held on to their wheelchairs, while others leaned on their portable IV pumps. The group was a mixture of visitors in street clothes, patients in robes and pajamas, and nurses in uniforms, and all of them waited to see what would happen next. Their eyes turned toward the young lawyer, whose hands moved within his handkerchief as he reached the top of the stairs, and then toward Olga, whose voice came softly from behind the crowd.
“I’m right here,” Olga said. Suzzanna’s assistant stood behind her, shaking his head and shrugging, letting Suzzanna know that it had been impossible to move her. He mouthed the word “TV,” and Suzzanna remembered that not even a bribe of Big Macs could move Olga when one of her favorite TV shows was on the air. Suzzanna knew that if the assistant had so much as tried to force her out, Olga would have screamed uncontrollably. From the look on his face, Suzzanna could tell that he had tried everything to get her out and that the moment Olga had heard Lavinia shouting her name, he hadn’t had a chance of stopping her.
“Mrs. Thompson, the police are outside,” the lawyer shouted from the top of the stairs.
The crowd stirred, and a hushed mumble spread at the base of the stairs.
Suzzanna saw two officers make their way through the back of the crowd as Olga made her way toward her sister, with the assistant at her side.
“Olga, Olga,” Lavinia cried, her voice sweet and breaking. She began to move toward her sister, but the police officers, taking their cue from Suzzanna, ordered Lavinia and her sons to stay in place. The gathered crowd stepped back and watched as Olga walked into the open space between the crowd and the base of the stairs.
Olga’s face didn’t seem to register any of the commotion around her as anything out of the ordinary. She had the same expression she always wore when she wasn’t angry, a placid, serene look that always reminded Suzzanna of a sleeping baby with its eyes wide open. Her face didn’t indicate that she missed her sister. It was the same face that she had when she first arrived at St. Jude, the same face that she had when Suzzanna first met her.
Suzzanna could remember how she first warmed to that face, how the nurses who took care of Olga each time she ended up in the hospital also took to her as if she were their long-lost daughter, how Olga became everyone’s favorite patient at St. Jude almost overnight, and how there wasn’t a person in St. Jude who didn’t go out of his or her way to help Olga. And, as she watched Olga talk to her sister, Suzzanna realized that she had made it possible, that she had found a way to bring a shred of happiness into Olga’s life.
Suzzanna remembered the first time that Olga had somehow managed to escape the closet where she was kept. She jumped out of her sister’s house through a window and disappeared until she was found by police a week later, a Jane Doe in a crack house. The police suspected she’d been raped and possibly drugged with a dirty needle. When it happened the second time, Suzzanna fought to make her a ward of the state, and two years after Olga tested positive for AIDS, she won. Suzzanna brought her to St. Jude, where, she knew, Olga would be until AIDS would take her life.
When Olga reached her sister, Lavinia took Olga’s hand and pleaded with her. “Lavinia has come to take you home, darling. What do you say? Do you want to go with your sister?”
Olga kissed her on the cheek, smiled at her two nephews, and shook her head. “No, thank you,” she said. “I’m fine where I’m at. I got Big Macs and baby dolls, and I’m going to marry Franklin tomorrow.”
The crowd laughed. Suzzanna took that as a good cue to end everything. The officers, who had slowly crept to the front of the crowd, reached out for Lavinia. Suzzanna gave a friendly nod to the officers, whom she knew by name.
“Come on, lady.”
“I just want to take my sister home, officers. I just want to take my sister home,” Lavinia cried. “They got no right taking her. They got no right.”
Olga said goodbye to her sister and walked off with Suzzanna’s assistant. Lavinia moved as if to follow her, but she was held back by one of the officers, who placed his hand in front of her.
“Ma’am, just stay put, please.”
“But you don’t understand,” Lavinia pleaded.
The officers ordered her and her sons to walk ahead. The small group moved toward the front entrance as the crowd dispersed.
Suzzanna watched as the space at the bottom of the stairs below her emptied of people. The lawyer walked up to her and apologized.
“Here,” he said, handing Suzzanna her daughter’s picture and envelope. “You dropped these up there.”
“Thank you,” Suzzanna answered, and she said goodbye to the young lawyer.
She sat at the base of the stairs for a minute and watched as St. Jude returned to normal. She could hear the police officers saying goodbye to the people they knew as the Thompson family slowly walked ahead of them. Letting out a deep sigh of relief, she looked at the young face in the picture once more and wondered when she would get the nerve to call the woman who used to own that face.
“Who that be?” Olga asked after silently strolling up to Suzzanna.
“It’s my daughter.”
“She’s pretty,” Olga remarked.
“Yes, Olga, she is,” Suzzanna said. She suddenly felt compelled to run after the Thompsons. She asked Olga to wait for her and ran to the front door.
“Officers, one moment please!” she called as she hurried up to Lavinia.
“Whether you realize it or not,” she said, “your sister’s about to die. She could be gone in a few months—or less, we don’t know. But for whatever it’s worth, I think you should know that she’s the best thing that ever happened to St. Jude. She’s very happy. And if you would like to come back and visit with her, I’d be willing to let you see her.”
Lavinia’s face remained tight, her teeth showing slightly as she stared back at Suzzanna. “Lady,” she said, “she don’t belong to you.”
“Come on, lady,” one of the police officers said, “get in your car with your sons before somebody presses charges against you. And next time get permission before you drop by.”
They left the home as Suzzanna watched. She closed the front entrance and immersed herself in seeing to the order of the home for the remainder of the evening. Later that night, as she cleaned up her desk, she thought about calling the number her daughter had left on the card, but she didn’t. She recalled Lavinia’s words: “Lady, she don’t belong to you.” She placed the envelope and the picture inside her desk drawer and turned off the lights.
About the Creator
I'm a Dominican immigrant living in the New Orleans area since the 70s. A father of two, I've been a service worker, war medic, ER tech, pro fundraiser, nonprofit leader, city bureaucrat, and now a PhD'd person, but always a writer.
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