Friday, July 20, 2007

31. One Angel in Another's Hell

I remember with a kind of illness the day I uncovered among Gregory’s few effects the remnants of a relationship with a girl who had been slightly older than Helena. Gregory’s genuine caring for Helena, his patience with her and the way he sought out a relationship with her touched me: Here was a man for whom children did not appear to be baggage.

Strictly speaking, the other little girl was not Gregory’s daughter, although you could say he loved Gretel like his own flesh and blood. He had moved in with her mother before the two were married. How strange that he never uttered a word about his stepdaughter during our six years together. Not a word? Not a hint of a word.

This was all the more perplexing as I pored over the childish drawings, the “I love yous,” the poems. Gregory kept few mementos of his past. He gave all the pictures from his marriage to his second wife. He held onto only about a few photos of himself and his dad. None of his mother. None of his brother. None of Gretel.

But these drawings he kept, along with a few of Helena’s. Here I was, peering into one of Gregory’s compartments after his death.

I would learn about Gretel from her mother, a woman whom Gregory disparaged but who still loved him after all the time they’d been divorced, loved him after incidents that would have driven other women to hate, loved him as much as I did.

Her daughter had been a brilliant child with a bright future, good at science and skilled with math, which gave her and Gregory a natural affinity. She attended a program for gifted students, first at a middle school and later at an arts magnet high school. Gretel, whose flowing brown hair and wide, winning smile reminded me of Helena’s, also played the flute.

She was 14 when Gregory moved in, and she was dying. Doctors suggested that she had inhaled asbestos while playing the instrument, which had contributed to an adrenal carcinoma. Afflicted with this rarest of cancers, Gretel would develop a tumor the size of a baseball on her adrenal glands.

Gregory loved Gretel, and Gretel loved Gregory. She called him “my angel” and wrote him little notes and poems. When she was feeling good, he took her anyplace she wanted to go. She would lie in the sun with him, chaise beside chaise, when the weather was warm. He helped her with her studies. And when her disease progressed to the point that she no longer felt well enough go out, he brought things to her in her room.

He would buy her dresses at Neiman’s, knowing she would never be well enough to wear them. He would bring them home and put them on her bed. He bought her jewelry and trinkets.

In the final months of her life, he rigged up a speaker system not unlike later baby-crib monitors so that he and her mother could hear her breathe from their bedroom. And when Gretel would awaken in the night crying in pain, Gregory would go to her. He learned how to give shots so that he could gently inject the pain medicine that eased her discomfort. Then he would lie beside her and hold her in his arms until she fell back asleep.

As happened with increasing frequency toward the end of her life, Gretel was in the hospital on the hot July day when her mother got the news that Gregory had been shot at the liquor store. One of them was would never leave the hospital.

Image by Vladimir Kush


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