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Authors: Nancy Rue

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BOOK: Pascal's Wager
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She finally got enough control to paw through her backpack and produce one that was only semi-used. She blew noisily, reminding me of Max. I was going to have to start buying tissue in bulk.

“Look,” I said, when I thought she'd finished wiping her nose, “you can't look at it as a C-minus. You have to view it as improvement. You flunked the first exam, right?”

She nodded miserably, hair spilling against her cheeks and sticking in strands to the leftover tears.

“We're going to have three more, and you have the option of dropping your lowest grade. If you keep coming in for extra help, I guarantee you at least a B for the quarter. I know it's not an A, but—”

“Why is it this hard?”

“I could give you a number of reasons,” I said, “but you don't have that kind of time. Just for starters, it's a higher level of math than you've had before. It's college. It's Stanford.”

“That's not what I mean,” she whimpered. “This is—this is, like, what God has asked me to do. I told Him I would follow His will in everything in my life, and this is where He's led me. Only why is it still so hard? I mean, why isn't He helping me?”

“You don't even want to go there with me,” I said.

She went anyway, dragging me right behind her.

“I always thought that if I was doing what God told me to do—if I was living in obedience to His will—He wouldn't let me fail.”

“Look, if you're having some kind of spiritual crisis,” I said, “maybe you ought to go talk to your priest.”

“Pastor.”

“Whatever. I don't think I can help you with this part. If you're struggling with the product rule, the chain rule, the quotient rule, I'm the one to talk to. But when it comes to God—”

“How did
you
know you were supposed to be a mathematician?”

“I was good at it, and I wanted to do something I was good at and something that made sense to me. Plus I didn't want to follow in my mother's footsteps and become a medical doctor.”

She was blinking her enormous gray eyes at me as if she was
suddenly fascinated. I had to blink myself. Where the heck had that come from? I glanced at my watch. She'd already used up seven of her five minutes.

“Listen,” I said, “if you're having this much trouble with math in your first college course, you probably ought to rethink your major. Who knows, maybe you heard wrong.”

“It couldn't be wrong. My parents are so sure of it.”

“Your parents?” I said. “They picked out your major for you?”

“Well, yeah. Not, like, totally. I mean, we all three sat down and went through my grades and my test scores and tried to figure out where God was leading. They figured God was pointing me to something like math because otherwise He wouldn't have allowed me to be accepted at Stanford.”

I stared for a moment. “Really? I didn't know God worked in Admissions.”

She blinked again, as if it was finally dawning on her that I hadn't been “born again.” You'd have thought I'd slapped her across the face.

“Okay, look, we're getting off the track here,” I said quickly. “I can't tell you why this is so hard for you. I can't tell you why things aren't working out the way you and your parents thought they were going to. All I can do is help you with the math. But whatever it is you do to make your decisions, do it again and see if some other major doesn't…what, present itself? However it is that works.”

I stopped before I could offend her any further. The poor kid already looked as if she was going to need therapy because she'd just discovered everybody she went to for help wasn't going to quote the Bible.

“You're coming in tomorrow, right?” I said, standing up and reaching for the doorknob.

She nodded.

“Look over your test, write down the things you don't get, and we'll start from there.”

She gave me one more long look before she slid for the door.
Then she looked over her shoulder and said, “So I guess you don't pray, huh?”

“I don't
what?”
The words were out before I could catch them, swallow them, or at least disguise them.

“Pray. I need to discern God's purpose in all this. Since you're so sure you're doing what you're supposed to be doing, I thought if you prayed…”

She trailed off. I felt as if I looked like her, mouth gaping, eyes blinking. It was one of the few times in my life I had ever been at a complete loss for words.

She just waited. Since it was obvious she wasn't going to leave until she got an answer, I finally said, “No, I don't pray. But how about if I hold a good thought for you?”

“Oh,” she said. “Then I guess I'll pray for
you.”

When she was gone, I shook my head to the empty room.
No wonder you're having trouble with calculus, honey
, I thought.
You're just a little dense
.

That was all the time I had for Tabitha's spiritual condition. I scooped up the now-warm folders from the chair and spread them out on my desk. My plan was to have my meeting with Nigel that afternoon, but I wanted to be able to hand him the work I'd already done on the new thesis at the same time, as evidence that this thing with my mother wasn't going to affect my progress or my performance. As a matter of fact, I decided as I pored over the work I'd squeezed in between grading papers the last three mornings from 4:00
A.M.
to 8:00
A.M.
, I wasn't even going to tell him or anybody else in the department that Mother had Pick's Disease. The more separate I kept that from my real life, the better.

Besides, I wasn't even sure I believed it yet.

At noon, I was on my way out the back door to grab a bagel at the Terrace when Deb hailed me from the opposite end of the hall. I tried to pretend I didn't hear her, but Jacoboni poked his head out of Peter's office door and said, “Hey, Jill. Deb's calling you.”

“Oh, really,” I said.

“People are tryin' to work here, Deb,” Jacoboni said. “You wanna hold it down?”

Deb blinked at him furiously and continued toward me, some kind of flowing, East-Indian-looking costume flying out behind her.

“Well, Deb, darlin'?” Jacoboni said, slanting casually in the doorway. “Do you plan to be functional as well as decorative today?”

“Jill, tell me you're on your way out to pick up three dozen cookies, and I'll kiss your feet,” Deb said.

“Why would I be going out to—” It hit me like a freight train. “Is today that stupid tea?”

“Why, Jill!” Jacoboni said, his hand pressed to his chest in mock indignation. “Are you referring to an opportunity to meet with the best mathematical minds Stanford can bring together as ‘stupid'?”

“You forgot?” Deb said. She tossed the unruly curly hair off her forehead with a jerk of her head. “I teamed up with you because you never forget anything. You have a mind like a steel trap. What happened?”

“Don't have a stroke,” I said. I dug into the pocket of my jacket and produced a roll of ones. “I blew it. I'm sorry—just, here—take this and buy my share. I'll do all the legwork next time.”

“Are you going to help me set up?” Deb said. “What time?”

“The seminar's at four-thirty, the tea's at three-thirty—we ought to set up about three o'clock.” She glared at Jacoboni. “If we set it up any sooner, the vultures will have the table cleaned off before the speaker even gets there.”

Jacoboni shrugged. “I plead innocence.”

“Tell me you can be there at three,” Deb said to me.

I did a quick analysis in my head. I was meeting Freda
Webster-Claire-Smith-Barney or whatever her name was at two o'clock. If it took longer than forty-five minutes for her to realize that all I wanted was the name of a good caretaker, I was getting another social worker anyway.

“I'll be there,” I assured her.

Then I skipped the bagel and went up to the first floor, poured myself a cup of coffee, which was now strong enough to stand a spoon up in, and headed back down to retrieve my folders and attempt to get a meeting with Nigel. Just then Nigel himself stepped out of the department office. For once something was going my way.

“Dr. Frost,” I said. “Just the person I was looking for. Do you have a minute to talk about my new thesis?”

“Of course,” he said. “We can go up to my office right now if that works for you.”

I debated over whether to race down and get my folders but decided against it. A bird in the hand and all that.

Nigel led me unhurriedly up the steps to the second floor, nearly driving me crazy in the process. I had to force myself not to grab him by the arm and propel him forward.

“How's your mother?” he asked.

“What?” I said.

“Your mother. How is her recovery?”

“Oh. She's coming home in—” I glanced at my watch—“about forty-eight hours.”

“She's doing well, then.”

“Yeah,” I said.

He didn't say anything else on the interminable remainder of the walk to his office. Except for my slight irritation with him a few days before, it was the first time I could remember feeling uncomfortable with Nigel. It had been apparent from the start of our advisory relationship that he wasn't going to intimidate me and I wasn't going to have to be Miss Congeniality around him. Since then, through the preparation for my area exam at the end
of my third year, and through my research last year and this, we'd worked together like a well-oiled machine. Now I felt like the proverbial squeaky wheel.

But I didn't have much choice. If I didn't get this taken care of now, I wasn't going to be able to focus on handling Freda. And if I didn't handle Freda, Mother was going to come home to an empty house. Who knew what that meant at this point?

We were in Nigel's office before I realized he was talking again, glasses already in hand.

“Your new proposal is fine,” he said. “As I mentioned the other day, if there is any fault at all, it may be overly aggressive.”

I hadn't even sat down yet, and I stayed standing. “Could you flesh that out for me?”

He perched the glasses on the end of his nose, then took them off. With his usual maddening slowness, he sat down in his chair and folded one leg precisely over the other.

“I don't want to run the risk of being scooped again,” I said. “I was merely—”

“Have you considered that you might be biting off more than you can chew?” Nigel said.

“No,” I said. “I haven't considered that at all. If my approach is now to take someone else's work to a new level, I want to make certain that level is high enough to be considered original research in itself.”

“Even a lower level than what you've proposed could be considered ‘high enough.'”

“Maybe for the committee,” I said. “But not for me.”

He locked gazes with me for a moment, then returned his glasses to his face and flipped through my pages again.

“You realize, of course,” he said, “that it is ultimately up to me to tell you when you have solved your problem.”

I hadn't realized that. It had never been an issue, and I didn't see how it was now.

“At some point,” he went on, “I may indeed feel that you have
shown that something is
not
true, which is also interesting. Even being able to show a class of examples not previously known—”

“I know I can solve this problem,” I said. “All I need to know is whether you have any doubts about my ability to do it.”

“About your ability, no,” he said.

“Then I'd like to proceed,” I said.

The arm that reached out to hand me my proposal was stiff. I suddenly didn't want to leave it this way. I smiled at him as I took the folder.

“Just so you'll be reassured,” I said, “I'll leave the work I've already done in your box.”

He peered at me from behind his glasses. It wasn't the look of reassurance I'd hoped for. Whatever was there, I couldn't read it—and I couldn't leave it alone.

“You think I'm being too aggressive,” I said. “But I don't see it that way. I hear graduate students reevaluating their commitment to their studies all the time. I don't do that. I know what I want and if I drive myself harder than anybody else to get there, it's because I know where ‘there' is.”

Nigel slowly removed his glasses and tucked them into his pocket. To my surprise, he smiled back at me in a wry way.

“My dear,” he said, “if you always know where ‘there' is, you possess a secret I'm not privy to.”

For the second time that day, I was at a loss for words.

SEVEN

F
reda Webster-Claire—the woman who was setting me up with a caretaker—arrived at Mother's house just as I was shoving the last of the dirty dishes into the dishwasher. As I opened the front door, I saw that she was one of those women who has enough hair for thirty-seven people and uses it as punctuation. She hurried up the front steps, hand already outstretched, hair in exclamation points.

“You must be Jill,” she called. “Freda Webster-Claire.”

“Come in,” I said.

“Wonderful.”

I led her through the foyer and into the living room, where I'd put a legal pad and a couple of pencils on the coffee table as a signal that I wanted to get right down to business. Freda was too busy saying how wonderful the décor was to notice. The minute we sat down, she reached over and squeezed my hand.

“This must be incredibly hard for you,” she said. “How are you doing—really?”

“I'm fine.” I withdrew my hand and reached for the legal pad. “Should we start with my questions or yours?”

Her smile didn't fade—I doubted that it ever did—as she folded her hands neatly around her knees and nodded, though at what I wasn't sure.

“Why don't we start with what's on your mind?” she suggested. “Then I think you'll feel more comfortable.”

I wanted to tell her that I'd feel more comfortable if she stopped acting like
I
was the patient. Instead, I gave her my list of
questions: What exactly does a caretaker do? How much was one going to cost? What accommodations did I have to make for her? Freda waited until I got through the entire list before she said, “Now, are you certain it's the best choice to have a caretaker here, as opposed to putting Mom in an assisted-living situation?”

“You mean a nursing home?”

“No,” she said patiently, “assisted living is not a nursing home. We wouldn't recommend a nursing home for Mom unless she required bathing, changing, feeding—that sort of thing. As I understand it, she is still doing all those things for herself. In assisted living, Mom could continue to do that, but remembering to fix the meals and so forth would be left up to someone else.”

“My
mother,”
I said, “will be fine here. Dr. McDonald seems to thinks she needs a caretaker.” I tapped the list of questions on the legal pad. “That's all I really need to know about.”

Freda's smile went soft, and she patted my arm. “Wonderful. Let's focus on that for right now.” She consulted her notes. “Her insurance will cover 80 percent for a full-time caretaker, and her supplemental policy will cover the rest. Your mom certainly had her affairs in order, which is wonderful.” She cocked her head, creating a comma with her hair. “You know, I think it makes it that much harder when a bright, together person suffers from dementia.”

I glanced at my watch. “And what does this caretaker do?”

Freda ran through the list of household duties, including dispensing medications, making sure “Mom” was bathing regularly and otherwise keeping up with her hygiene.

“She'll report to you daily any changes she sees in your mom's behavior,” Freda said.

“Daily,” I said.

“Yes. When you come in from work or after dinner when Mom is settled in for the night—whatever is comfortable for you.”

“She and I can work that out, I'm sure,” I said. “And she'll have my cell phone number.”

“Wonderful idea,” Freda said. “That way she'll be able to reach you at a moment's notice. What do you do, Jill?”

“I'm a graduate student.”

“Wonderful,” Freda said. “That's perfect. You'll have the time to spend with Mom, then. So many people have full-time jobs, and they're just overwhelmed when something like this happens.”

“Right,” I said dryly. “Well, that about covers it for me.”

“My turn, then!” she said, hair in exclamation points again as she reached for her briefcase. “I just have a few things. I like to make sure my families know what may lie around the corner so they're not blindsided. You'll find out that I'm very protective of my families. I already consider you and your mom to be—”

I cut her off before she could say “family” again. If she'd uttered it, I probably would have ripped out a semi-colon or two.

“Wonderful,” I said. “What things?”

There were more than just a
few
. She spent the next thirty minutes going over them. I was going to have to become acquainted with Mother's finances so I could take them over when she was no longer able to. There was a “wonderful” financial counselor available to assist me. I was probably going to have to handle her retirement from Stanford, and there was a retirement counselor at the hospital who could walk me through that. Then, of course, there were the family and friends to deal with who would have various reactions to “Mom's” changing behavior. Freda herself would be happy to help me through that, but I could also select my own therapist, whatever I felt most comfortable with.

Comfortable? If I made all the appointments with the people she suggested I talk to, I'd be wound up like a spring. But I took every business card she tucked into my hand—including the one with the name of the caretaker she was recommending—and continued to nod in hopes that full agreement would get her out the door sooner.

But even after she'd snapped her briefcase shut and appeared
to be ready to leave, she leaned toward me yet again and put her hand on my knee.

“Let me just say this,” she said. “You seem to be very capable and independent, and I think that's wonderful.”

You think everything is wonderful,
I thought.

“But the time is going to come when this is all going to seem like too much for you,” she continued. “Promise me that you won't be too proud to give one of us a call. It doesn't have to be me.”

Good thing!
I thought.

Freda looked directly into my eyes, her own a practiced firm-but-friendly. “Now promise me.”

I held her gaze and said, “Thanks so much for all your help. I'll call Ms.—” I glanced at the top card in my palm—“Rose right away and set things up with her.” I shook Freda's hand solidly and couldn't resist saying, “You've been wonderful.”

“Oh,” Freda said as she stood up, “I never did have a chance to look around. Do we have time to do that?”

“Not really,” I said. “What's to look at? My mother has lived here for twenty-five years, so it's not like I'm bringing her into foreign territory.”

I could have bitten off my tongue. Freda's eyes lit up, as if she'd just hit pay dirt—some misconception I had that she could help me with.

“But you see, it is foreign territory to her now,” she said. She walked briskly into the foyer and looked around. From there she could see Mother's study door and she made a beeline for it, with me trotting along behind. I'm sure my nostrils were flaring.

“This is obviously where she did her bookkeeping and such,” Freda said. “And I'm sure at one time it was neat as a pin in here.”

I had to admit she was right about that. I hadn't been in this room since before the accident, and it was currently far from pinlike. A drawer in the oak file cabinet was yawning open, exposing its untidy contents. A checkbook lay face down on the desk amid
a jumble of papers, and a pile of unopened mail was spilling out of the In basket and onto the floor.

“The more cluttered things are, the more confused Mom will become,” Freda said, “so you'll want to have this tidied up before her arrival, or she may think she can come in and pick up business where she left off. These things lying around will be reminders to her.” Freda curled her fingers around my upper arm. “We can send someone over to help you get organized—”

“I'll be fine,” I said.

“How about the other rooms? Where is her bedroom?”

“I think I have the idea,” I said through my teeth.

“Wonderful. Whatever you're comfortable with.” She at last turned toward the door, but her glance obviously caught the two photographs on the shelf, because she stopped. They were the only two pictures Mother kept in frames. One was of the two of us the day I graduated from Princeton, which resembled one of those Civil War era portraits of people who looked for all the world as if they were suffering from hemorrhoids. The other was of Mother with her father, the day
she
graduated from UCLA—after only three years, she'd told me at least a half dozen times. She and her father were shaking hands. He was looking into the camera with all the expression of a dial tone, but Mother was gazing up at him as if
he
were the one who'd just pulled off summa cum laude and she was bursting with pride at the feat he'd accomplished. I knew that photograph was one of her most prized possessions. There had been no photo of her graduation from medical school at Vanderbilt. Her father had died by then, and there was no one to make proud but herself.

“I know it's hard,” Freda said at my elbow. “And I won't try to tell you that you'll adjust to the idea that she's not the same person she was before—”

“Good,” I said. “Thanks again for coming.”

She sagged ever so slightly, and she gave the stairs to the second floor a wistful look before she gave in and went out the front door.

I'm sorry you're not comfortable with that
, I thought as I closed the door behind her.
Maybe there's a counselor we can set you up with so you can process it
.

I looked at my watch. It was ten till three. There was just enough time to race back to the math department and help Deb. I was turning out the light in the study, purse slung over my shoulder, when the phone rang in there, so softly I could barely hear it. Mother had obviously turned this one down instead of yanking it out of the wall completely. I pondered not answering it, but in spite of myself, I could hear Freda telling me all the things I was now responsible for. I picked it up.

“Elizabeth McGavock, please,” a tired-sounding woman's voice said.

“She isn't here,” I said. “May I take a message?”

“This is PG&E calling. To whom am I speaking?”

“If you're calling about a special offer, we're not interested,” I said.

“No, I'm calling regarding her account,” the woman said. “When is a good time to reach her?”

I had a sinking sensation. The power company didn't usually call to congratulate you on how beautifully you were handling your bills. I gripped the receiver.

“This is Jill McGavock,” I said. “I'm her daughter. I'm handling her financial affairs now that she—while she—how can I help you?”

The woman then crisply informed me that Mother was two months behind in paying her gas and electric bill. She'd promised to make the payment last week, and she had, but the check had arrived made out not to PG&E but to herself. They were about to turn off the power.

“Don't do that,” I said. “I'll get a check to you. How soon do you need it?”

“This afternoon by 5:00
P.M.”

“What does she owe?”

“The amount is $456.17,” the woman said.

I bit back a
You've got to be kidding!
, and promised I'd have it there within the hour.

How I was going to do that, I wasn't sure. Mother's checkbook was there on the desk, but who could tell how much money she had in her account? She hadn't entered anything in it since August, as far as I could tell. The mail that was spilling out of the In basket included several bank statements, but until I could make some sense out of all that, I was hesitant to write any checks on it. And besides, what about a signature? I was going to have to get Power of Attorney. Of course, I could go to the hospital and ask Mother to sign a check, but the mere image of me telling Mother I'd been rummaging through her personal papers left me cold.

I dug in my purse for my own checkbook. I had about $1200 in my account, but that had to last me until the end of January. On the other hand, the reaction I could picture on Freda's face when she got word that I had taken my mother home to a house with no gas or electricity made me pick up a pen. Mother could reimburse me later.

By the time I got all of that taken care of, it was 4:15. The tea would already be winding down, and I wasn't in the mood to face Deb. So I went back to the house to look up the name of Mother's lawyer and get started on the Power of Attorney ordeal. His secretary promised she would have him call me as soon as he was free, so while I was waiting I attacked the unopened mail. I groaned with each envelope I opened.

PG&E weren't the only ones who hadn't been paid for several months. Pacific Bell was threatening to disconnect. The cable TV company had already discontinued service. American Express was “concerned” about her lack of payment since she'd been such a responsible customer for the last twenty years. The bottom line was, she was not to attempt to use her Gold Card until a full payment—of over five thousand dollars—was made.

Frantically I searched for letters from her insurance companies, but there were none. A hunt through the filing cabinet reassured me that both premiums came directly out of her paycheck. Which reminded me, her job was another thing I had to take care of and soon.

I called Ted Lyons and arranged to clean out her office the next day. Then I went back to opening the mail, only to find out that
all
of the checks Mother had written the week before to pay the bills had been made out to herself. They'd been returned with a variety of cryptic notes. I sighed and got out my checkbook again and paid all except American Express and the cable company. Nurse Rose didn't need cable as far as I was concerned.

The lawyer didn't get back to me until almost seven that night. He was sympathetic to the point of nausea—who wasn't?—and promised to have the Power of Attorney papers in order for me the next afternoon.

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