SANCTITY OF LIFE: A Scent of Jasmine, a novel, Chapter 1
EDITOR'S NOTE: Baptist Press today begins a 12-part serialization of the novel, "A Scent of Jasmine," by David Dockery, a member of Pocahontas Baptist Church near Jackson, Miss.
The barren oaks draped in Spanish moss reflected Stephanie McAllister's gloom as she hurried toward a group of picketers shouting protests. It was an overcast winter's day, and Stephanie felt alone and afraid. Only her doctor knew of her illness, and now her test results were in his office. What would they reveal? Stephanie's trademark composure gave way to nervous apprehension.
In front of her sprawled the white-columned porch of Westhaven's finest antebellum mansion, a huge home made of heart pine that Dr. Ward had converted into his family clinic. Stephanie knew the clinic well. Too well. It was a place of many memories for her. The first floor had been remodeled into a spacious waiting room that led to a rectangular corridor lined with examination rooms. The second floor contained rooms for labor and delivery, as well as a large laboratory.
Dr. Ward's general practice included two of his sons and a daughter, all medical doctors. The oldest son, Bill, was fondly known as Dr. Bill to his patients. Dr. Bill had received his medical degree from Duke University Medical School, where he was famous for his Baby Jane operation. This was a novel surgery in which Dr. Bill had extracted Baby Jane from her mother at a weight of just two pounds, repaired a diaphragmatic hernia, and replaced the baby in her mother's womb. The mother had delivered a healthy daughter two months later. Dr. Bill had also received a Masters Degree in Electrical Engineering at Duke; his thesis concerned the construction of incubators for the tiniest of premature babies. His idea of helping some of God's smallest creatures had promoted him to the level of folk hero in the small Mississippi town.
Stephanie sighed. Small towns would always be small towns…everybody's nose in everyone else's business. How well she knew. She had grown up in Westhaven but now lived in the neighboring capital city of Jackson. There she worked as a journalist, specializing in women's affairs for the Jackson News.
But today she wasn't on assignment. The news she was seeking was purely personal.
As she scanned the crowd, hoping to find a familiar face, Stephanie pushed up her oversized sunshades on her nose. It was silly of her even to wear them, she knew. They only made her more conspicuous ... especially when folks told her she already looked much like the former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy.
"Ms. Erma!" Stephanie called to an elderly lady, whose sign read, Don't Do It, Reta! "Why are you picketing Dr. Ward?"
Erma, thin, white-haired, and spry for being in her nineties, cocked her head toward Stephanie, as if, for a moment, she didn't know her. Then recognition appeared to dawn.
"The rumor is," Erma said, "that Reta Holloway came in this morning to abort her baby." Erma frowned and cried out, "Don't do it, Reta!" as if Reta could hear her through the thick walls of the stately old mansion.
Stephanie placed her hand on Erma's shoulder. "If she did, Dr. Ward will probably talk her out of it."
"How can you be so sure?" Erma said to Stephanie, then shouted again. "Reta, you'll be sorry!"
"I wasn't sorry," Stephanie mumbled to herself.
An instant later, she wished she could back up time and clap her hand over her mouth. Where had that come from, after all these years? And why now, today, of all days? She thought she'd buried that secret long ago.
Erma, a retired high-school principal, peered through her new bifocals at Stephanie. "What do you mean, 'you weren't sorry'?"
Stephanie swallowed hard and gave Erma a dismissive wave, hoping the older woman wouldn't pursue her. But Erma was the kind of woman who never gave up on a project once it was started. It's what had made her a tough-as-nails principal, yet one whom both children and parents trusted.
Stephanie could hear Erma's footsteps behind her. When Erma touched her on the shoulder, Stephanie spun around and met Erma's earnest eyes. "What?"
"Did you abort a baby?" Erma asked softly.
A confrontation was the last thing Stephanie needed right now. Especially on today of all days and about something that was over and done with so long ago. Maybe she could sidestep Erma's questions?
"Dr. Ward talks most women out of having an abortion," she told Erma. "He'll probably talk Reta out of it."
Erma's eyes narrowed. She persisted. "And did he talk you out of aborting your baby?"
Stephanie exhaled in frustration. "I was only a college freshman. Yes, he tried, but I had the abortion anyway."
Erma pivoted back toward the mansion. "Don't do it, Reta!" she called—this time even louder. She cut her eyes again at Stephanie, eyes that showed both sadness and confusion. "Stephanie, how could you? Your own baby! I remember when you were a leader among the young people of our church. Brother Paul and Jane Anderson loved you like you were their own daughter. Then you just disappeared. What happened?"
"Don't please me, young lady. I'm not finished. Don't you know that your Heavenly Father cares when even one sparrow falls from a tree? How much more do you think He cares for babies?"
"Please!" Stephanie implored. "My appointment is in thirty minutes. Dr. Ward refused to give my test results over the phone…I'm afraid he's going to say I have cancer."
Ms. Erma shut her mouth.
Stephanie paused. "Do you think that God would give me cancer?"
Erma's angry expression softened. "No, honey. I thought that of someone once; then I lost my husband to cancer. He was the most wonderful man I ever knew, and I miss him every day. Cancer doesn't care who you are."
Ms. Erma considered Stephanie again. "Come with me, honey. Let's talk on the porch."
They took a seat on a bench swing that looked down on the picketers below. Erma peered over her glasses. "Stephanie, I haven't seen you in church for several years."
Stephanie winced. "It's been fifteen years. I go to church in Jackson now. First Westhaven Church treats abortion like a cardinal sin. They have hundreds of little crosses on the church grounds. After my abortion, I no longer felt welcome."
"Five thousand crosses!" Erma clarified. "One for each child aborted in Mississippi every year." She looked sad.
Stephanie was silent.
"Now tell me about these tests," Erma requested.
"I haven't told anyone," Stephanie answered.
"You can tell me, honey. I'll pray for you." It was the same tone Ms. Erma had used all those years with high schoolers who were in trouble and hurting.
Stephanie hesitated, but explained, "A routine blood test showed my white-cell count to be high. I had Dr. Ward run some other tests. Now I'm so afraid."
"Brother Anderson is here. We can have prayer for you."
"Thank you, but I'd rather that Brother Anderson not know about it….I don't even know why I said anything to you. It must be the stress."
"Well...," Erma speculated, "maybe the test will be negative. You've grown into a beautiful young lady. You look perfectly healthy to me."
"Thanks. But my body is telling me something different. I have the same symptoms my mother had before she died of leukemia. My father died the next year of colon cancer. I remember how they suffered. They were too young to die."
"You need friends who will pray for you. Let me introduce you to some of mine."
That was the last thing on Stephanie's mind at the moment. She wanted to be alone. She wanted to be with Dr. Ward. And she wanted to know the test results. But it wasn't yet time for her appointment.
Ms. Erma nudged her. "It will be a good distraction for you. It'll take your mind off those tests."
"Margaret, Margaret Meade," Erma called. "Come here and meet Stephanie."
Margaret came. She was holding her daughter, a four-year-old Down's syndrome child. "Hi, Stephanie. I read your column from time to time."
Stephanie's eyes were fixed on Margaret's daughter. Such a beautiful little child…such a tragedy.
"This is Emily," Margaret volunteered. "Emily, say 'hello' to Stephanie."
Emily smiled at Stephanie and took hold of her sleeve.
"She likes you," Margaret noted.
Emily's touch seemed a pleasant distraction. Stephanie gathered Emily into her lap. "Hello, Emily."
Erma smiled. "Margaret, tell Stephanie why you're protesting today. Stephanie's afraid we're bothering her doctor."
"I have nothing personal against Dr. Ward," Margaret explained. "I'm just trying to talk Reta out of a decision she'll later regret."
"Maybe," Stephanie offered. "But maybe it will also be a decision that will help her get back on track with her life."
"That's what my husband and I thought during my first pregnancy," Margaret said. "Our excitement turned to fear when tests showed our child had Down's syndrome. Dr. Ward warned me against an abortion. He had treated my mother's bouts of depression. Dr. Ward said that any regrets I might have could lead to the dark world of the depressed.
"I had never experienced depression before, so we insisted that Dr. Ward perform the abortion, or we'd find someone else to do it. After the abortion I was fine until the baby's due date. That night I became so depressed that I wanted to die. The next day I couldn't work. I couldn't help around the house. I couldn't eat. I just wanted to die and be with my baby."
"So where did Emily come from?" Stephanie questioned.
"After several days of deep depression, Dr. Ward made a house call and told me about a newborn baby named Emily who needed someone to love her. We fell in love with Emily immediately and adopted her. I'm able to do for Emily what I can't do for the child I betrayed. Emily gives me great joy in the place of my depression."
"Emily is like a dose of good medicine," Stephanie agreed, smiling down at the child again. "I feel much better already."
"Stephanie has an appointment with Dr. Ward about her test results," Erma resumed. "We need more people to pray for her."
Stephanie stiffened a bit. "Both of my parents died from cancer. I'm really scared."
"We'll pray for you," Margaret promised. "Won't we, Emily?"
Emily nodded. Her soft brown hair tossed about and then settled into a trim layered cut that bordered her pretty face.
"Who are we going to pray for, Emily?" Margaret asked.
"Stephanie," Emily replied in a clear, crisp voice.
Stephanie was amazed at Emily's speech.
"Emily never forgets a name." Margaret held out her hand to the child. "Come on, Emily. We have to carry our sign where Reta can see it from the second floor."
When Margaret departed with Emily, Stephanie felt the icy fingers of fear clutch her stomach again.
Somehow Ms. Erma must have known. "I have some other friends I want you to meet," she said. "Henry! Lois! Come up here!"
A middle-aged couple, dressed in Sunday clothes, left the picketers and ascended the stairs to the porch. Their signs read, This Could Be Your Only Child!
"Henry and Lois, this is Stephanie McAllister. Stephanie, this is Henry and Lois Seymour."
Erma turned to Lois. "Tell Stephanie what you mean by that sign."
Lois began, "Henry and I were freshmen in college and dating when I became pregnant. We came to Dr. Ward for an abortion. He reminded me of my mother's hysterectomy at a young age. Still I insisted on the abortion."
Lois paused to wipe her eyes. "Shortly after Henry and I were married, I hemorrhaged and had to be rushed to the emergency room. The doctors performed a hysterectomy to save my life. Now I'll never be able to conceive a child."
"But she does have a son," Erma added.
"Yes," Lois continued, "we adopted Ben when he was just two. Dr. Ward recommended we give Ben a home after his parents were killed in a car accident."
"Ben," Erma interrupted, "fits into their family perfectly. He looks like them, acts like them, and even wants to be a policeman like his daddy."
Lois wiped her eyes again and managed a smile. "Ben is wonderful, and we love him very much. He's a big fourth grader now."
Henry took her hand. "It was nice meeting you," Lois told Stephanie as they returned to the other protestors.
Erma waved good-bye to the Seymours, then faced Stephanie. "No one but God can tell the future. The Meades and Seymours can only wonder at the futures their children might have had."
"Not all women are like that," Stephanie countered. "I'm too busy to think about what might have been. Those who focus on the past have no future."
It was the litany that had run over and over in her mind for so long that she'd come to believe it.
Taken from "A Scent of Jasmine" by David Dockery (OakTara, www.oaktara.com). The entire novel is available from amazon.com, christianbook.com or barnesandnoble.com. Used by permission of the author and publisher. David Dockery is a Mississippi geologist and member of Pocahontas Baptist Church near Jackson.