Rumors

Ingoglia, N. A.

In July of 1971, when my father was just short
of his sixty-ninth birthday, he had a massive heart attack and died.
His death was not unexpected; he had rheumatic fever as a child, which
left his heart damaged and vulnerable.

“I wish it could be me,” said the oldest of
his four immigrant brothers, at the funeral home, tears streaming down
his face. My sisters and I had not seen death this close before and
we like our uncles, grieved openly. But it was my mother who was most
devastated. She and my father had met in the late 1920s when she was
in nurses’ training and he was a medical intern. They married
several years later and then spent the next forty years together, raising
a family and being partners in just about every aspect of their lives.

The stream of mourners passed by the first evening
of the wake, each trying to console my mother who rarely stopped sobbing.
On the second day, a woman I had never seen before came up to us.

“Betty, do you remember me?” she asked. My
mother looked puzzled. “It’s me, Claire, from nursing school. Remember?
I know, forty years is a long time.”

A brief smile crossed my mother’s face. “Yes,
of course I remember,” she said. “How nice of you to come, Claire.
Thank you. After all these years…” Turning to me, she said, “This
is my son, Nick.” Claire stared at me, studying my face.

“Yes, I see the resemblance. He looks so much
like his father.” Claire hesitated nervously wringing her hands,
then turned away from me back to my mother. ”Betty, can I talk with
you alone for a moment?” My mother nodded and they retreated to an
empty corner of the room. I watched Claire as she talked and gestured.
There was an urgency about her. My mother just listened. Then,
Claire’s eyes lowered, and I saw her form the words, ‘I’m so sorry.’
A moment later she embraced my mother and without another word, turned
and was gone. When my mom came back all she said was, “Poor Claire.”

“What did she need to talk to you about? What
was so important?” I asked. “She had a story to tell me,” mom
answered. She didn’t say anything more and I felt it was not the time
to ask for more of an explanation.

Claire’s story was not mentioned again until
about a month later. I was in the attic of our house helping mom sort
out her stuff when we came across a picture of her nursing school class
at graduation.

“Can you pick me out?” mom asked, with
a playful smile, unseen since my father had died.

“Of course,” I said. Over the years, I had
seen several pictures of her from her ‘dapper’ days. I located her
in the third row.

“See that girl on my left?”

“Yes. She ‘s really pretty,” I said, looking
closely.

“That’s Claire. We were best friends back then.”

“I’ve wanted to ask you since the funeral,”
I said, cautiously. ”When she came to the wake and spoke with you,
you both looked so secretive and serious. What did she say to you?”

“Well,” mom began. “I hadn’t seen Claire
in so long. Not since we finished our hospital training and she went
home to Indiana.

“I had met your father about a year earlier and
we had become a steady item around the hospital. No one really knew,
not even Claire, but he had asked me to marry him. We had just decided
to announce our engagement, when I got a letter from my aunt who lived
in up-state New York. She wrote that her husband was terribly ill and
would need constant nursing care. Would it be possible, she asked, for
me to come up and help out for the summer? I hated to interrupt my training
and to leave your father. But I was so fond of my aunt and knew she
wouldn’t ask if there was any other way, so I arranged things with
my supervisor, bid a teary goodbye to your dad and left the next day.

“There was no telephone at my aunt’s home so
I wrote to him the day after I arrived, telling him I was safe and giving
him my address. But with the way mail was in those days, he didn’t
receive my letter until well into the following week. The first letter
I got back from him, now almost three weeks after I had left, was a
shock.

‘Betty,’ it said: ‘I was stunned, then overjoyed to get
your letter and to find that you are well. There was a rumor around
the hospital that your bus had crashed and you were dead. I am so glad
it was just vicious gossip.’

“We never knew how that rumor got started and
by the time I returned to New York the following fall we had practically
forgotten about it. The mystery wasn’t solved until the funeral. You
see, Claire confessed to me that it was she who had started the rumor.
She told me that she had been in love with your father and thought that
if he felt I was out of his life, she might have a chance. Poor Claire,”
mom said. “All these years, all these years.”

(an edited version
of this essay was published in The Sun, September 2011)