"She’s beautiful, isn’t she?" Father exclaimed, though it was more an exclamation than a question.
He lifted the tiny newborn girl, red-faced and squalling, up for Vincent, Catherine, and three-year-old Jacob to see.
"Here, let me clean her up," said Mary, reaching for the child. Then, "Lena, you get Catherine comfortable," Mary directed as Lena, the devoted apprentice, jumped to obey.
Vincent cuddled little Jacob on his knee as Mary and Father bent over the latest addition to the family of Vincent and Catherine Wells and Lena dutifully bathed and groomed the new mother. When hygiene and examinations were complete, the baby girl was placed in her mother’s arms and father and big brother took their places on either side of Catherine in the large birthing bed.
Candles burned low in their stands and the eucalyptus-scented water Lena had used to bathe Catherine perfumed the air. "We’ll check on you later," said Father, bending to kiss the new family. "I’ll be right outside," said Lena, as the three attendants left the hospital chamber.
* * *
"We welcome the child with a name," said Father, two days later, looking around at the gathered community. Gaily-wrapped gifts glittered on the long, low tables in the Great Hall. Candles burned brightly, above in the candelabras and all around on the table tops. Vincent scooped the tiny girl child from Catherine’s arms, leaving her free to cuddle young Jacob.
"The night our daughter was born," announced Vincent, gazing lovingly at the baby, "I walked beside the Mirror Pool, and the stars were glorious! Constellations like sparking crystals! I felt such gratitude . . . I never felt more blessed . . ."
He held the beautiful baby girl aloft for all the community to see. Her petite face scowled adorably, the soft, pale blond haze of hair across her tiny head stood up like a halo. "We have named our daughter Estelle!" proclaimed Vincent with a father’s pride, as the community broke out in applause and cheers.
"It means Star!" shouted Jacob, from Catherine’s embrace, as laughter and ovations resounded.
* * *
Weeks passed, and Vincent and Catherine’s expanded family became a focus of the Tunnel community. Daughter Estelle, with her bright golden hair and crystal blue eyes, was a daily delight. She displayed early verbal ability, babbling excitedly when visitors dropped by the family’s chambers, leaving all callers convinced that she had spoken directly to them individually. Jacob played the little master of ceremonies, scurrying about to fetch blankets or rattles for his sister and declaring dramatically, "Heeeeere’s ’Stell!" when the Tunnel dwellers dropped in.
* * *
One evening, after he had performed baby Estelle’s six-month examination earlier in the day, Father sat alone in his chamber, contemplating the little girl’s astonishingly rapid development. "I must discuss this with Mary!" he said aloud to himself. The old doctor scrambled to his feet, clutching his cane, and set off toward Mary’s chamber.
As he approached Mary’s quarters, Father began to reminisce about the particular location of her chamber – quite removed from the others – and the reason for that distance. He stopped to catch his breath, leaning on his cane and resting against the cool stones of the tunnel wall. Memories swirled into his consciousness . . .
The year was 1948 and Jacob Wells was introduced to Mary McCarthy by his friend and medical associate Peter Alcott. Mary was 22 years old, a nurse at the maternal health clinic in Cincinnati, Ohio, and full of fire for the work of health activists Margaret Sanger and Mary Lasker and wealthy Dr. Clarence Gamble who put their efforts toward birth control and planned pregnancies. As Mary said, "Motherhood must be self-determined. The only cure for abortions is contraception." The term "family planning" was just becoming known and the Planned Parenthood Foundation was forming internationally.
Mary was seeking asylum in Tunnels. The oppression of birth control that Mary had faced in her struggles echoed the McCarthyism that had blacklisted Jacob for his exposure of industrial practices toxic to the environment. He felt an instant rapport with Mary McCarthy – who was also disillusioned and heartbroken. He also felt keenly the deep sadness within her. Her newborn daughter had died within the first days of life. Mary had been recovering from tuberculosis and her husband had refused to delay sex until she was well. She was convinced that conceiving a child during her frail health state had resulted in her baby’s death and she could never forgive her husband for his insistence.
She had pleaded for a living quarters apart from the new community so she could assimilate gradually. "How she assimilated!" thought Father, with a smile. Mary was mother to so many!
Father advanced toward Mary’s chamber; and, rounding a curve in the passageway, he noticed that no drape was across the entry. He caught sight of Mary within her room, seated at her dressing table, giving her waist-length hair its customary one hundred strokes. Her long, loose hair was chestnut in color, with soft strands of silver mingled in to represent the years. The candle light cast gentle shadows over the scene and Father was stopped in his paces, remembering . . .
A council hastily convened to approve the new addition. Mary, pledging to keep the secret and contribute her skills as a nurse to the underground community. Mary, with only the clothes on her back and so much honesty in her face . . .
When they learned from a Helper at the County Courthouse that Mary’s husband had filed for divorce on grounds of desertion - then later, that he had died of colon cancer - Jacob had comforted her. Those sweet, peaceful nights – when Jacob and Mary had shared their quiet passion . . . two kindred spirits called to a higher service. She had never made any demands on him after . . .
As she said, herself, "I lost my own. To lose a child is to lose everything. I’m here for the children. To nurse them, and teach them. I love them all - like they’re each my own."
Then, "Ja-cob!" Mary called happily, getting up to welcome him. "What a far-away look you have!" She reached out, gesturing for him to take a seat beside her.
The sturdy silk-corded, velvet-upholstered furniture in Mary’s chamber was probably gold in color at one time. Now, it shone a dull apricot against the worn mahogany. Father sat on the divan as Mary positioned herself on a low ottoman at his feet. She reached up casually to take his hands, saying, "What brings you here tonight, Jacob? What’s on your mind?"
"It’s the baby . . . Estelle. She’s . . . extraordinary! So advanced . . . she - "
But Father never finished verbalizing his thoughts, for suddenly, Mary’s grip on his right hand fell away and her face drooped on one side. She collapsed backward from where she sat, and Father narrowly prevented her head from striking the chamber floor.
"Mary! Mary!" he cried, cradling her and loosening the clothing around her throat. He eased her to the floor, reaching for a cushion to place beneath her head. He then leaped up and rushed outside to the passageway to tap furiously on the pipes: SOS SOS Mary’s chamber SOS
* * *
"You were right, Jacob," said Peter, hours later, in Father’s chamber. "It’s a stroke."
Father thrust his hands in his hair. He looked about helplessly. Then, "You know the pact we made," he said, looking anxiously at his old friend.
"What pact?" came Vincent’s voice from the doorway. Catherine stood behind him.
Father and Peter looked hesitantly at one another, then back toward Vincent and Catherine.
"Sit down, you two," said Peter gently.
The four took seats around Father’s study table. The atmosphere was tense with uncertainty.
Vincent spoke first. "Father, Peter, what is Mary’s condition?"
"She’s had a stroke," answered Peter. "I’ve administered an anticoagulant – a blood thinner. And my associate will be bringing an oxygen device for her."
"What did you mean about a pact?" asked Catherine cautiously.
Father exhaled slowly, rose from his chair and began to pace slowly with his cane. "Years ago," he began, "those of us who started this community made a pact."
He turned to face the others. "We agreed that if any of us should ever need . . . extreme intervention . . . something only available beyond the Tunnels . . . that we would . . . accept whatever care could be delivered here . . . and be satisfied with the consequences."
"Though Mary joined us later," he continued, "She entered into the same agreement."
"So, she can’t be sent to a hospital?" Catherine asked.
"No," said Peter, as Father echoed the sentiment by shaking his head.
"But . . ." said Catherine, looking anxiously from one doctor to the other, "she might die . . . !"
There was only the sad and loving expressions of the three men seated around Catherine to answer her.
* * *
"Thank you all for coming tonight," Father began, looking around at the worried expressions on the faces of the community members. "Our beloved Mary – mother and nurse to so many of us – has fallen ill. Peter and I believe she’s suffered a stroke."
A collective gasp went up from the group. The children were especially quiet, tucked in the embraces of the adults and older children. Young Jacob sat snuggled against Vincent’s chest, listening. Baby Estelle fed peacefully at Catherine’s breast, under a soft shawl draped for privacy.
"What can we do?" "What does that mean?" "How can we help her?" "Will she get better?" "Tell us, Father!" the anxious questions began to rise.
Peter stepped up beside Father, gesturing for everyone to settle down.
"A stroke can cause physical problems - difficulties with walking, swallowing, self-care," he began, instructively. "It can also affect the thinking abilities – the way people use their brains to talk, read, write, learn, understand, reason, and remember."
Sounds of crying came from the crowd, and Peter rushed to explain further. "Every stroke is unique, not the same for everyone. Many people do recover at least some of their abilities, spontaneously or through rehabilitation."
"Tell us how we can help!" pleaded Lena, obviously distressed at the news about her mentor.
"We – all of us – will work together to help Mary," said Father. "We will maintain a routine - doing certain tasks at regular times during the day. We’ll help her communicate, perhaps with pictures or letters on a board."
"I’ll make it for her!" piped up Kipper excitedly. Suddenly, a positive energy poured forth from the group as they all began volunteering to help.
"I’ll make her favorite dishes – however she can take them," said William.
"I’ll read to her," said Rebecca.
Pascal called out, "I’ll see to adjustments in her furniture, and make sure someone’s always on the pipes for her."
Samantha and Jamie spoke up, "We’ll take care of her chamber and help her exercise."
Mouse called out, "Get chair – with wheels! Bring Mary to hear Rolley play!"
"Let me make a schedule," said Lena, coming to Father’s desk, "and we’ll all take turns."
"That’s a wonderful notion, my dear," said Father, touching Lena’s cheek. He could see so much of Mary in her.
"I’ll stay in her chamber with her, take care of her," Lena whispered to Father.
"She would love that," he responded, full of compassion for the young girl.
* * *
The first week of Mary’s rehabilitative care, young Jacob came back to the family chamber from a visit with Mary, clutching a gold, brown, and cream-colored fringe fan pull. Jacob presented the tassel to Catherine, exclaiming, "This is magic!"
"Tell me about it," said Vincent, pulling the child onto his lap.
"I found it! Under Grana Mary’s bed! If I keep it, and believe on it, she’ll get well again!" Jacob seemed convinced and cheerful.
"What do you know about magic?" asked Vincent.
"Grana Narcissa says magic can help when there is no help from anywhere!" Jacob said adamantly.
"Narcissa . . ." said Vincent, rolling his eyes toward Catherine, who suppressed her smile.
* * *
Over the next months, strange things began to happen. The community members performed their tasks for Mary as they had pledged. Mary grew stronger; however, she did not regain her ability to speak. Her facial expression was one of kindness and wisdom – no different than before she became ill. And – within the community - prayers began to be answered.
William ran out of eggs and milk. Then, as he prepared thickened soups for Mary, thinking he would have to adjust all his recipes, Henry sent a message that supplies were available.
Rebecca’s loom broke and the spare part was not to be found - until she visited Mary that evening to read to her. Then, somehow, Mouse found the part.
A subway route change caused a major alteration in the pipes. Pascal was beside himself about the necessary repairs - until he sat with Mary one evening, and the next morning, two Helpers arrived with information that facilitated the appropriate re-connections.
After Kipper delivered a communication board to Mary’s chamber, he led a group of boys on a foraging trip and returned in a few hours with many valuable discards to benefit the entire community.
* * *
As Catherine and Vincent put out the candles and prepared for bed, they expressed amazement at Mary’s improvement.
"Father says she’ll be speaking again soon; and Peter says her mobility should come back completely!" said Catherine, happily.
"It’s truly a miracle. We have much to be thankful for," replied Vincent, tucking Baby Estelle into her crib. Turning his attention to his young son, Vincent called gently, "Jacob, time for bed."
Jacob sat focusing and working intently on an origami mobile for his sister.
"Grana Mary got well by magic!" he said emphatically.
"Jacob, you know I don’t believe that things happen by magic," Vincent replied kindly.
"Is okay, Daddy!" answered little Jacob, not looking up from his work. "Me and ’Stell b’lieved it for you!"
Vincent could only smile . . . and marvel at the blessings of his extraordinary children who knew already that family was wherever people love each other.
* * *