A Coldwater Warm Hearts Wedding

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Trouble makes us stronger, they say. It brings out the best in us and shows what we’re really made of. But don’t you just hate it when blessings come in disguise? 
—Shirley Evans, after she got the news from her doctor about the Big C

            “This was so not the time to take a surgical rotation,” Heather Walker muttered as she scanned the lineup of procedures for the day. Not that she didn’t love assisting. She did. It was truly rewarding to be part of the surgical team at Coldwater Cove’s small hospital. She went home “good tired” every day. But it would be so much easier if she didn’t know her patients personally.
            And Heather knew everybody in town.
Today was worse than usual because the mother of her best friend, Lacy Evans, was on the schedule. Lacy pushed her way past one of the curtains that divided up the surgical waiting area and made a beeline toward Heather.
            “Mom was supposed to be in surgery an hour ago.” Lacy’s nose was red, a sure sign she’d been fighting back tears.
“I know and I’m sorry, but it can’t be helped. We had an emergency appendectomy this morning.” Heather always tried to be calmly professional, however frazzled she might feel on the inside. No one would be helped if she joined in barely suppressed panic. She strove to be detached enough to get the job done. That was the goal anyway. It was a hard line to walk when her friend was obviously holding herself together with spit and baling twine. “Your mom is next on the list.”
Lacy nodded. “OK. Maybe it’s just as well there was a delay. Michael’s not here yet.”
Lacy’s fiancé Jake had called in a favor with one of his Marine buddies who was in intelligence, and between them, they’d managed to track down the elusive Michael Evans. Lacy figured her brother deserved to know what was happening, even though he’d shown precious little interest in his family in the past few years. Lacy had confided in Heather that she was relieved—and a little surprised—to discover her brother wasn’t in jail somewhere.
“Are you expecting him to come?” Heather asked.
“No, but Mom is.”
Her friend’s black sheep brother hadn’t been home in ages. Hadn’t called. Hadn’t even sent a postcard. Mike Evans had been in Heather’s class in school, but he ran with a totally different crowd, so their paths had rarely crossed. Her only sharp memory of him was when he christened her “Stilts” in middle school. Through no fault of her own, Heather had shot up to five feet ten inches by her thirteenth birthday, and she hadn’t been finished growing yet.
The name stuck. She was “Stilts” Walker all through high school.
But even that indignity wasn’t enough to account for the resentment simmering in her chest. According to Lacy, Michael had shamed his family many times over the years. If there was a way to go wrong, Mike Evans found it. Still, the frustration rising in Heather’s chest was unproductive, so she tamped it down. Her relationship with her own parents wasn’t anything to brag about. It was aloof rather than estranged, but in a pinch, she was sure the Walkers would come together.
Any guy who couldn’t be bothered to show up when his mother was facing cancer surgery deserved a swift kick in the backside.
Lacy’s eyes went hazy for a moment. “She doesn’t know how to swim.”
“My mom. Every summer she took us kids to the pool for lessons five times a week, and I mean religiously. At six-holy-cow-thirty a.m., we’d be hopping around by the side of the pool trying to warm up before they let us into the water.” Lacy’s voice trailed away. “Mom swims like a rock, but she made sure we all learned how.”
“Maybe she can take lessons at the civic center as part of her physical therapy after surgery,” Heather suggested. It was important for her friend to think positively about her mom’s future.
“That’s not the point,” Lacy said with a sniff. “The fact is she’s a terrific mom and I never appreciated her like I should have.”
“She’s still a terrific mom. Appreciate her now.”
Lacy gave her a shaky nod. “But what if—”
“Hush now.” Forget being professional. Heather gave her friend a hug. “You’re borrowing trouble. Until after surgery, we won’t know if the cancer has spread. And until we know that, it’s hard to say what treatment Dr. Warner will recommend.”
Or if we caught the disease in time to make treatment worth the misery, Heather thought but didn’t say. No point in rehearsing the worst-case scenario.
But Lacy had evidently been imagining it.
“Come on. I need to get your mom prepped.” Pasting on what she hoped was an encouraging smile, Heather led Lacy to the surgical waiting room and drew back the first curtain. The scent of antiseptic cleansers and bleached linen was second nature to Heather, but hospital smells put most people on edge. Mrs. Evans wasn’t troubled by it, though. She was always awash in a personal cloud of Estée Lauder. She wouldn’t have smelled a skunk if it had built a nest under her bed.
Heather’s patient was sitting up on the gurney, trying to wrestle a pillow away from Lacy’s older sister, Crystal. Heather wasn’t sure what offense the pillow had committed, but Crystal was doing her best to pound it into submission.
Everyone deals with stress in their own way.  
“Good morning, Mrs. Evans,” Heather said as she edged past Crystal to reach her patient. “How are we doing today?”
“Fine, Heather. Ready to get this over with.” Mrs. Evans gave up and surrendered the pillow to her daughter. She was already festooned with electrodes monitoring her heart rate, and the pillow fight had sent her pulse racing. An IV pumped saline into her system. In a few minutes, Heather would add a drug cocktail to prepare her for the general anesthesia to come. Doc Warner called it the “don’t-give-a-darn” drug.
Only he didn’t say “darn.”
“I’ll see what I can do to move things along,” Heather promised.
            “Thank you, dear,” Mrs. Evans said. “Crystal, for heaven’s sake, stop worrying that pillow.”
“I’m not worrying it. I’m trying to give it a little shape. It won’t do you any good if it’s flat.”
“Flat or fluffy, it’s not doing me a speck of good if it’s not under my head.”
            “You heard your mother,” Mr. Evans chimed in from the only chair on the other side of the bed.
            With a sigh, Crystal stuffed the pillow behind her mother’s shoulders. Heather suspected Lacy’s sister didn’t fluff and plump for her mom’s comfort. She might not even be doing it out of nervous energy. Crystal had always been the sort who arranged things to suit herself.
Of course, everyone was entitled to their own opinion, but if they wanted to be right, they had better agree with Crystal.
Looking gray and stretched thin, Mr. Evans retreated behind the Coldwater Gazette, rattling the paper noisily.
A prime example of the “ostrich with his head in the sand” way to deal with stress.
Then he began to quote snippets from the Gazette whether anyone was listening to him or not.
“Labor Day is fast approaching,” he read, “the traditional time for all graduates of Coldwater High to gather for their class reunions. Like lemmings rushing to the sea, we expect a number of Fighting Marmots will make their way home for the festivities.”
“I did not write that,” Lacy was quick to point out, though she did work for the local paper. “That’s my boss all the way. It’s not enough that our high school mascot is an oversized rodent, Wanda has to lump us with suicidal ones, too.”
Heather had been a Lady Marmot once, a star power forward on the girls’ basketball team back in the day. But she’d often wondered who had first decided it would be a good thing for the Coldwater Cove teams to be named after a glorified ground squirrel.
            “Looks like our class is hosting a supper at the country club on Saturday as one of the reunion events, Shirley.” Mr. Evans glanced up from the paper long enough to make eye contact with his wife before focusing back on the Gazette. “Think we’ll be able to make it?”    
            Classic denial, Heather thought. If George Evans acknowledged that his wife was about to undergo surgery, it would make the breast cancer real.
            “Well,” Shirley Evans said as Heather wrapped the blood pressure cuff around her upper arm and pumped it up. “I—”
            “How can you ask that, Dad?” Crystal interrupted. “Mom will still be recovering this weekend. She might not even be out of the hospital by—”
            “She might also like to answer for herself, if you don’t mind,” Mrs. Evans said, with an arched brow at her oldest daughter. “I’d like to go, George, but we’ll just have to see. Buy a pair of tickets anyway. The class always gives any excess to a local charity, so whatever happens, you know the money will go to a good cause.”
            Whatever happens . . .
Heather had to either lighten the mood or get things moving, preferably both. When she opened Mrs. Evans’s chart, her heart fluttered a bit. No one had gone through the pre-op documents with the patient. Of all the aspects of her job, Heather rebelled against this part most. She was a healer. She hadn’t studied nursing to push papers. Especially not these papers that dealt with some of life’s toughest decisions. “There are a few things for you to sign.”
“What sort of things?” Mr. Evans rose. Since he was a retired lawyer, papers were his life.
“First, there’s consent for treatment.” Heather explained the procedure Mrs. Evans was about to undergo, the possible risks, and the expected outcome. They’d heard it all before, but Heather was required to repeat it now. When Mr. Evans nodded, his wife signed. Heather drew a deep breath. She hated this next part, but it was absolutely necessary. “Then there are advance directives to consider. Have you made out a living will or durable power of attorney?”
Mr. Evans snorted. “I wouldn’t be worth my salt as a lawyer if she hadn’t, would I?”
“Dear George made sure we took care of all that a few years ago when we were both healthy.” Mrs. Evans patted her husband’s forearm. “It’s always easier to deal with the hard things when they seem a long way off, don’t you think?”
Mrs. Evans gave Heather a tremulous smile. She was bearing up well for her family’s sake, but it was hard to head into surgery not knowing if your worst fears were about to be confirmed.
“Lacy,” Mrs. Evans said, “why don’t you show Heather your wedding palette? I bet she hasn’t seen it yet.”
Heather had seen Lacy’s colors. She’d even helped her pick them out one evening over a nice merlot. Heather was Lacy’s maid of honor, after all. But to change the subject, she asked to see the swatches again. Lacy pulled out her cell phone and brought up the navy blue, pale pink, and ivory palette.
“You’ll be in ivory, of course, Lacy, and Jake and the male attendants in navy,” Mrs. Evans said with a wistful smile, her gaze fixed on a distant point as if imagining the wedding party in their finery. “And the bridesmaids’ gowns will be bright pink.”
“No, Mom,” Lacy said gently. “We discussed this, remember? Jake will be in his dress blues. He deserves to wear the uniform.”
Since Jake had lost a leg from the knee down in Afghanistan, Heather agreed. He’d more than earned the right to wear the blues. Besides, nothing looked better in wedding pictures than a groom in uniform.
Of course, in my case, any groom would look good. Not to mention surprise the heck out of my mother.
Heather quashed that thought. Having no guy in her life was better than having the wrong guy. She was single by choice, she told herself. But her mother argued she was “single by choosy.”
While Heather prided herself on being particular, it didn’t put an extra place setting at her table. Or an extra head on her pillow.   
“The bridesmaids’ dresses will be navy, too,” Lacy went on. “Pink is just the accent color.”
Heather silently blessed her friend. A navy dress would help her blend into the background. As gangly as she was, a pink one—especially the violent pink Mrs. Evans favored—would make her feel like an overgrown flamingo.            
The curtain enclosing the waiting area ruffled, and Mrs. Evans looked up expectantly.
“Michael,” she whispered, but when she saw who it was, her smile turned brittle. Instead of her son, her future son-in-law stepped into the small space. Heather knew Mrs. Evans both liked and approved of Jake Tyler, but he wasn’t Michael.
The one who isn’t here is always the one they want to see most.  
Jake gave Lacy a quick kiss. “I overheard you talking about the wedding colors again. Isn’t it settled yet?”
“The devil’s in the details,” Mr. Evans said morosely.
“I tried to talk Lacy into jarhead camouflage, but she insists on navy. Navy, of all colors!” Jake shook his head.
“Hey.” Lacy gave him a playful swat on the shoulder. “I could always go Army green.”
Jake shook his head. “It’s enough to make a Marine consider an elopement.”
“I’ve got a ladder you can use, son,” Mr. Evans groused. “This wedding is gonna cost the earth.”
“Now, George,” Mrs. Evans chided, “you’ll love giving Lacy away in style and you know it. After all, she’s the last daughter you have to walk down the aisle.”
Heather had finished her nursing degree and moved back to Coldwater Cove to take a position at the hospital in time to be around for the wedding of the decade, the joining of Crystal Evans and Noah Addleberry. Years later, folks still talked about the event. The Addleberrys were one of the town’s first families, so everything had to be just so. Mr. Evans had complained loudly and often to anyone who’d listen, and a few who wouldn’t, that if the Addleberrys wanted to bankrupt someone over a wedding, they should start with themselves.
But the real driver of overspending was his own wife. Mrs. Evans got her way in the end, and the wedding was elegantly excessive. Everyone in Coldwater Cove had a guesstimate about how much the wedding had cost. On the low side of the gossip scale, Crystal’s wedding could have provided a substantial down payment on a house. If you took Mr. Evans’s complaints into consideration, the amount would have run a small country for a week.
He disappeared behind his paper again. Lacy and Crystal and Mrs. Evans nattered on about the color scheme. Heather injected the sedative into her patient’s IV and waited for it to take effect.
“It says here in the paper that Levi Harper needs a liver transplant,” Mr. Evans told Jake. The young Sooner quarterback was one of Coldwater Cove’s favorite sons, a rising University of Oklahoma star. Then he’d gone on a mission trip with his church group to some backwater country over the summer and come home with an exotic parasite that demolished his liver. Now he was forced to sit out his junior year.
“That’s a shame.” Jake had been an all-conference halfback himself when he was in high school, so following college football was second only to following Lacy. “If Levi gets a new liver, will he be ready to play next year?”
“Hope so,” Mr. Evans said. “He comes from good stock, I hear. Aren’t the Harpers related to the Walkers, Heather?”
“Yes,” she said. “Levi is my cousin several times removed. His mother’s uncle was my grandmother’s first cousin or some such thing.”
Levi was eight or so years younger than Heather, but she remembered him from the big Walker reunions. Levi had been the self-proclaimed leader of a whole gaggle of little boys that styled themselves the “Monkey Troop.” They terrorized the great-aunts piecing quilts and then made off with the pies before the rest of the picnic things had even been laid out. No watermelon was safe from their predations. No jug of Kool-Aid stood a chance against their not-so-stealthy marauding.
No one held those youthful indiscretions against Levi now. Since he was family, Heather had been tested for a possible partial liver donation. Unfortunately, she was not a match. If he didn’t get a liver soon, he’d have more to worry about than missing a football season.
Heather focused back on her patient at hand. Mrs. Evans was trying to referee while Lacy and her sister wrangled about whether the bridesmaid dresses should be tea length or drape to the floor. Heather was grateful that their argument was distracting their mother. Once the box was checked to indicate whether or not the patient was willing to be a donor, no one going into surgery should be subjected to a prolonged discussion about transplants.
Mrs. Evans was blinking more slowly now. It was time.
Heather told the family. The good-byes took a while because there was a lot of kissing and hugging involved. Through it all, Mrs. Evans assured them that everything would be all right. She stared at the closed curtain once more, as if thinking hard about her son Michael would magically summon him. When he didn’t appear, she sighed.
“I’m ready.”
Heather pulled back the curtain and started pushing the wheeled bed down the hall.
Then Mrs. Evans waved her hand in the air and sang out gaily, “If anything happens, give my liver to that football player!”
Behind her, Heather could hear the Evans family chuckling despite their tears. Shirley Evans was a wonderful human being. She so deserved the support of her entire family.
If Heather ever ran into Michael Evans again, she’d happily lock him in an examination room with a first-year proctology resident and let the new doc practice till he got it right.
However long it took. 

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