A Private Matter

Katy Carl

“There’s a woman downstairs who wants to talk to Penny, but Penny isn’t here. Do you have time to sit down with her?”

Jim peered into the cubicle where I sat scrolling through e-mails and the morning news bulletins. Two weeks away from the end of my newspaper internship, I had grown fond of what our grizzled cop reporter termed “butt journalism”—- hooking up to the internet and telephone and letting the information come to you. Field interviews remained a thrill, but increasingly I liked a story you didn’t have to leave your chair to complete.

Cradling my coffee cup, I looked up at Jim. “I’ve got to finish my part of this shared-byline story on hurricane damage before noon,” I told him.

“Well, it shouldn’t take too long. Twenty minutes should be more than enough for her to say whatever she came to say and get it out of her system.”

I glanced at my clock, agreed and, taking up my notepad, went out to the lobby. Jim ambled away, loose blue jeans swishing—- it was Friday, the downward slope. This couldn’t take too long.

The woman I had been sent to meet was sitting in one of two black leather chairs under a potted palm. She hobbled to her feet, clutching a bamboo-handled cane and the strap of a black bookbag. She was maybe as tall as a ten-year-old child. Thick orthopedic shoes, the left one markedly larger than the right, balanced out her uneven legs. Waves of the smell of sweat and hair ointment washed around her, but her crisp black hair stood proudly out on either side.

She wore a cheap banana-colored skirt with an elastic waistband and an oversized T-shirt sporting a large image of the Sacred Heart. To the T-shirt she had pinned plastic buttons of the Coronation of Mary, the Ascension of Christ, the apparition at Fatima and the roses of St. Therese. She was already like something out of a Flannery O’Connor story, and then she opened her mouth.

“You the repotah, honey?” The woman’s words clicked and whistled through dentures the color of her skirt; her breath smelled like an uncleaned coffeepot.

Repotah? Reporter. “Yes ma’am,” I told her, shaking hands.

She looked me over—- my blue checkered shirt, denim skirt and blue shoes-— with a cataract-glazed eye. “You pretty,” she said finally, grinning.

Embarrassed, I thanked her and asked her to sit down. I’d been given no cues, so I started off simply. “What was it you came here to tell us, ma’am?”

Without warning, the woman launched a mumbling, stumbling crusade of words that whinnied past my head like so many horses. Her mouth worked around the yellowing dentures, obviously struggling to articulate. What came out seemed to revolve around one central point: Someone had died who, she said, wasn’t supposed to have died. This woman in front of me suspected that the dead person—- Delphine Smith-— had been murdered.

“We don’t have God in America no more,” she said; and then, “You got to tell dese people. You got to tell ‘em for me. You believe in Jesus, don’t you? You a sweet Catholic girl. I see you got on dat miraculous medal. I know you know Jesus say dis killin’ ain’t right. People got to know dat. Dey got to know de truth.”

Trust shone forth from her brown eyes. I thought of my friend Jessie, who sees prophecies everywhere and believes firmly that everyone’s sane until proven crazy. I thought of saints who had hosted traveling angels and given their cloaks to a disguised Christ. I glanced at my watch and asked her, “What happened?”

She fixed me with a stern eye and, I thought, changed the subject. “Do you know about these what-they-call mercy killin’s?”

I nodded.

“Whatch’ou think about ‘em?”

Startled by her bluntness, I could only stammer, “Well, I’m Catholic. I believe all human life has value and…”

Heartened, she charged right over me. “You know it, honey. I thought dis only happened other places. Dey don’t ought to be doin’ it anywhere, and ‘specially not at a Cath’lic hospital. All of ‘em know about it. Dis is no secret. Nobody come out to save her, though.”

I’ve condensed the story that followed, that only came out through much clicking and whistling and watering of eyes and groping for crumpled handkerchief and Kleenex.

“I come to visit dis lady call Delphine Smith in de hospital. She don’t got no fam’ly who come to visit huh. She a cancer patient on de twelf flooah. Well, whenever I come up dere to see huh, I spend hours sometime and never see a doctah, never see a nurse. And I’m wonderin’, what’s wrong dat dey never come an’ take care of huh?

“Well, I go up an’ I ask de nurse why no one is comin’ in to see Delphine and why no one ever come in to take no care of huh. And she just kinda look at me funny. I keep askin’ and askin’, but won’t nobody tell me what’s wrong. I keep comin’ up to see Delphine, but more an’ more dey treat me funny an’ talk to me like I’m stupid. An’ I know dey got to be somethin’ wrong goin’ on.

“One day I come up an’, as I’m walkin’, I overhear dese nurses in front of Delphine’s room. Dey sayin’, “We got to let huh go. She sufferin’. We got to let huh go.” Now I know Delphine she gettin’ better because of what she tell me. But dem nurses, dey talkin’ about killin’ huh.

“My daughter, she a doctah. I tole huh to come an’ find out what gonna happen to Miz Smith, try to stop dem an’ take care of huh, but dey wouldn’ even let a doctah in. You can call my daughter an’ ask huh. She a doctah in Spring Hill—- Jennifer Johnson, Jennifer Allen Johnson. You ask huh what she see when she come heah.

“De nex’ week I come to see Delphine, and nobody dere. She just gone. I ask someone and I find out dat dey kill huh. Now dat ain’t right! Dat just ain’t right.

“Don’t let dem get away wid dis. It don’t matter how sick she was. It don’t matter how much trouble it take to care for huh. She somebody baby. More dan dat, she God’s chile. Don’t let ‘em toss huh out just because she broken. Evybody broken. I was broken. God heal me so I can walk. Maybe He heal Delphine too, excep we don’t give Him no chance. She couda live for thirty more years. But we don’t give God no chance to make it happen.”

Silent, I scrawled as fast as I could. The lady sat there patiently, ankles crossed, hands folded, brown eyes wide. When I was done, I looked up, realized I didn’t even know who she was, and asked her name.

“Annie Mae Allen,” she declared proudly. “Missus Annie Mae Allen—don’t you forget the Missus.” She grinned. I wrote “Mrs.” in front of her name and let her talk on about her marriage and her travels and her daughters who went to college, until the phone by my chair rang. I picked it up.

“Do you need us to come rescue you?” murmured a female voice.

I cast my glance around, bewildered. The caramel-cheeked secretary was looking discreetly down at her desk, but her mouth was moving.

“Um. No, I think it will be all right.”

“Are you sure? You can pretend this is an important call.”

“No, we’re almost done here.” I checked my watch. An hour had gone by.

“Okay. Well, if you change your mind, just call me back here and let me know. The extension’s 4000.”

“Thank you.” I hung up.

“Ever’thin awright?”

“Yes ma’am, it’s fine. I just need to get back upstairs to finish a story soon.”

“Ah, that’s awright. I got to get ovah to the Bulletin an’ tell ‘em about dis too. We got to tell everyone dat dis ain’t right. You tell ‘em for me, honey. Hey, dere a water fountain in dis buildin’?”

I showed her to the fountain around the corner; it took her a long while to get there, so I chatted with her as she shuffled along. We talked about my classes at school. She noticed my ring and congratulated me on getting engaged. She shook my hand again, pressed a prayer card with St. Michael the Archangel into it, and hobbled away with a security guard, shouting “Write it, honey” over her shoulder.

It occurred to me to wonder how, on an August day when you could stick a tap in the air and draw a glass of water hot enough to make tea in, this lady who clearly couldn’t drive had gotten to the newspaper office to begin with. How was she getting to the Bulletin, an hour away?

It wasn’t until I sat down again, hid the St. Michael card in a drawer, and stared at a blank computer screen for about ten minutes that I realized Mrs. Allen’s story just had no legs. There was no concrete evidence and no way of getting it; there was no corroborating witness. There wasn’t even any proof of how Delphine had died: deliberate euthanasia, neglect, an accident, a natural fading away… It would be legally—- and rightfully—- claimed as a private matter, outside the scope of media coverage.

Half an hour later, when I had already buried my head in the hurricane story again, Jim sauntered by, whistling.

“You get rid of her okay?” He rolled his eyes and smirked.

It took me a minute to realize he was addressing me. “Huh?”

“Lady out front.” He inclined his head toward the door.

“Oh.” I thought for a minute. “I’m not sure what to do with her, really. She thinks she’s witnessed a wrongful death at Providence.”

Jim shrugged. “Follow up and, if there’s anything there, send your notes over to Penny. She’ll know what to do with them.”

I looked up the doctor-daughter in the phone book. A nurse who answered told me to call back after lunch. Around 1 p.m., Dr. Johnson answered melodically. Her voice turned quickly sharp, though, when I asked about her mother’s visits to the hospital.

“My mother was very unhappy with how that patient was managed,” snapped Dr. Johnson. “But she had no right to get involved. That was between the patient, the patient’s family and the doctors.”

A pause ensued. My questions had been blown away like leaves in a hurricane. “You. . . you mean this was the patient’s decision?”

“Yes. It was a private matter.”

“So you don’t wish to comment further?”

“No. Goodbye.”

Dr. Johnson smacked the phone down on the receiver. The dial tone hummed.

* * *

A private matter, a private choice. They will say that, as a journalist, I can’t presume to say what should have been done. In fact, I can’t even know what was done. There is sensitivity to think of; there is objectivity and privacy. Then again, how sensitive is a society that won’t look these exceptionally delicate questions square in their human face—- the only face they have?

I’m not suggesting we examine Delphine Smith’s medical record. I only wish we had a way to tell her story. I only wish we could know what it was.

Did Annie Mae Allen have more evidence for what she said—did someone, actively or passively, intend to take Delphine Smith’s life? If so, I can only repeat: “Don’t let ‘em toss huh out just because she broken.” It’ll only break everything worse. Don’t let them do it without a fight, anyhow. Don’t let them do it without somehow showing the facts of the matter. Plain facts tell us when things aren’t right, when even though they may be legal they’re also crimes against humanity, against heaven, against blood that cries out for justice.

Maybe it does cry out. Or maybe this sincere Mrs. Allen, who wandered childlike into the Register office that morning, just grew sincerely confused. Maybe Delphine slipped gently out of the world one morning after a routine dose of painkiller. Maybe she decided to live her last hours quietly, without some extreme radiation or surgery that might have kept her lying in that bed a little longer. Maybe it was just her time; maybe no human action caused her death at all.

Missus Annie Mae Allen, tender-hearted as she was, could well have been convinced that the nurses didn’t care about Delphine because of the distaste with which they greeted her own clumsily dressed, barely audible, devout, insistent self. Maybe nothing worse took place than some social snobbery.

Then again, maybe I just missed a chance to do what the earliest journalists did: force examination of an issue surrounded by silence, help society to see an injustice for what it is.

“Just the facts” reporting is a great and valuable thing—- but it only stretches so far. A reporter without facts is a helpless creature unless she can be something more than a reporter. All that professional training comes to so many pennies held in the hand, no good even for paying the parking meter. Larger coin is needed before I can get anywhere.

“Write it, honey”: with the anguished Sacred Heart staring implacably from among the buttons, with the odor of sanctity trying to fight its way out from under dirt and sweat and dentures and pomade. She didn’t need to tell me; she didn’t even need to ask. What else could I have done?