“And the patient’s name?”
That was the receptionist at our hospital. The hospital is small—almost homey—and we like it that way, even now, after the changes that came with the COVID pandemic. But this that I am remembering and relating was before COVID.
I had stopped by to see Jess, hoping to get some encouraging word, because I’d heard that she had been very ill.
“Miss Fleming—Jessica Fleming,” I said to the receptionist.
Just then I caught a glimpse of Dr. Jim down the hallway. “Excuse me,” I said, and made a start to intercept him.
“Well,” Jim responded to my inquiry, “she has been very sick. Are you related to her?”
“No, and she has no relatives here that I know of. She was an only child. She and I have been seated close to each other in several University lectures. You know, Fleming and Fletcher. Her parents divorced several years ago. She chose to stay with her mother; but then her mother died. Her dad married again, and she has no contact with him. She’s alone—absolutely alone.”
“I’m sorry,” Dr. Jim said. “She seems like quite an appealing person.”
“Appealing,” I answered, “Yes, that’s a good word for her. Jess is kind and thoughtful, which, in this tough world, gives her a genuine appeal.”
Jim, always conscious of diplomacy in his hospital, had moved us aside, into a small solarium, where he had motioned me to a seat and taken one himself. I judged that he was glad to be off his feet for a minute or two.
“Perhaps I don’t know Jess that well,” I said, “but I know that life has not been easy for her. It seems that in such situations a person either gets closed-in and embittered, or else becomes more sensitive and understanding toward other people.”
“My impression of your friend Jess,” Dr. Jim said, “is that certainly she has taken your second route.”
The afternoon was getting on. It was still late winter; but a shaft of gold sunlight came through between the drapes of the solarium and fell on the front of Dr. Jim’s white coat, making his name and the caduceus—the medical symbol of a staff with two serpents twisted around it—stand out in sharp relief.
“Thanks, Jim,” I said, as we both got to our feet, “thanks for giving me this moment of your time.”
“Glad to have the opportunity,” he answered. “Jess is going to make it, all right. We were a bit anxious there, for a while; but she’s pulling through.”
Jim went on his way, and I found Jess’s room. The door was slightly ajar, so I pushed it open quietly and slipped inside. Jess was sitting up in bed, wearing a pink jacket, and with several pillows at her back. As I entered, she looked up.
“Hello, Don,” she said, “I thought maybe you’d be coming by.”
“No-one could keep me away,” I answered, going to the bed, taking one of the white hands on the coverlet and kissing it, then stepping back to look at her, as I went on.
“I met Ed on the way, and he asked me if I was coming. ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘she’s my Stella attraction.’ ‘You mean stellar,’ he said, ‘but what’s stellar about her?’ ‘No,’ I answered, ‘I mean Stella, as in Jonathan Swift’s “Journal to Stella”. Go and read it and maybe you’ll understand.’”
“I’m not altogether sure that I understand,” Jess said. “Maybe my mind isn’t as clear as it needs to be.”
“Well, Jess,” I said, drawing up a chair, to sit near her bed, “you’re a dear friend—one of the dearest that I ever had. But if I said that, saying that I love you, people like Ed might jump to conclusions. Jonathan Swift, whom I admire, wishing that I could have known him in person, had in his sometimes-bitter life this woman friend whom he called Stella, the Latin word for ‘star’.
“’He cherished her; perhaps he loved her deeply; but not with any romantic overtones. Our culture finds that hard to understand and to accept. Love between a man and a woman to whom he is not related by family ties is always, we think, romantic, at least to some degree. But Swift’s love for Stella was not so—as he would indignantly have asserted. And you can see why I told Ed, without trying to explain it to him, that I was coming to visit Stella.”
Jess leaned forward, reaching out her arms to me. She held me in a long embrace.
“Don,” she said, “that is so beautiful. I want always to be your Stella—the most that I could wish to be.”
Donald R. Fletcher
Author Notes: After publishing 5 books, Don Fletcher, at age 102, continues to write short stories and prose pieces.