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A Gift For The Heart

She sat at the kitchen table, the litter of unpaid bills surrounding her. The smoke curled faintly from the overflowing ashtray, as the ember of her last cigarette winked, and died.

Just like my life, she thought, defeated. Trembling hands scrubbed a tired face. She willed herself not to cry.

It was three o'clock on a bitterly cold morning, near the end of March, and she'd been at it since the children had gone to bed, desperately trying to make two hundred dollars cover twice that amount in expenses.

She sighed. It was late. Dispiritedly, she collected the papers, stacking them neatly. Anything to delay having to go to bed, to sleep, to dream further nightmares.

She drank the last of her coffee, gone cold in the cup, but there wasn't enough left to waste even one cup. Her stomach clenched at the thought and then pinched with hunger. As she had so often in the past few months, she ignored it, and turned out the lights.

Sleep eluded her, chased away by her memories. She sighed and gave in, remembering.

Six months ago, the world had crumbled. First came the early morning telephone call. "Mrs. Flynn? This is Dr. Waysmith," the voice intoned. It sounded even more distant than the miles separating them. "I'm calling to inform you that your father passed away a few minutes ago. He suffered a major heart attack. I'm sorry. There was nothing we could do."

"Will you be all right?" the cool voice asked, sounding mechanical, after a few moments of silence.

"I'll be fine. Thank you," she said quietly, and put the receiver back in its cradle.

The children had been awakened by the ringing of the telephone, and were clamoring for her attention. She smiled at them, but it didn't reach her eyes. "Everything's fine," she lied, and distracted them with breakfast. This was, after all, a work day. She'd deal with the phone call. Later.

Her false serenity lasted until she'd waved the children onto the school bus. She closed the screen door and laid her forehead against the icy glass of the window. Daddy's gone, she thought blankly. He's gone. But the tears only closed her throat, they did not fall.

Shaking fingers dialed the office number. It took three tries to get it right. A gruff voice answered. "Mr. Sutherland, it's Peg. I won't be in for the rest of the week. My father," she choked a bit. "My father passed away this morning, and I need to make arrangements to go to the capital."

"I'm truly sorry for your loss, Peg," her employer said. "Can you come in for at least this morning? I have that meeting with a new client in half an hour, and there's no one to mind the office while I'm gone."

Peg sighed, in memory and in fact. She didn't remember much of that day. She remembered, vaguely, the six hour bus ride the next day, with two children who understood the adventure of the trip, but not the reason. She remembered going to the bank, only to find the meager savings she'd asked her father to hold for her, were locked in, now that he was dead.

She remembered his apartment, and how, if it hadn't been for her ex-husband's family, it would never have been cleared out.

Six months later, she had no idea what the lawyer looked like. Her memories of the funeral were only the deep gold drapes of the funeral home, the dark blue uniforms of the Legion Honour Guard, and the urn, now resting on the living room shelf, with the cremated remains of her parent.

The alarm clock rudely proclaimed a new day. If I slept, she thought as she crawled out of bed, at least I didn't have any nightmares.

The day began as it always had. There was breakfast to make, lunches to prepare, and the children to been seen off to school. She took her coffee into the living room. The house had settled into a lonely silence after the children left.

Her mind wandered back to pick up her thoughts of the night before. She'd driven her father's car home, packed with kids and cartons of his things. The urn had sat in the youngest child's lap. There was no room anywhere else.

Her mother had died the previous year, and her father's things joined her mother's, together for the first time in decades. She would deal with it later, the boxes, the grief, and the lingering feeling of guilt and betrayal as she thought of the divorce that had allowed her father to walk away from his daughter.

The weeks passed quickly, but little of it registered. Little but her employer's voice, as he spoke those fatal words. "You've been making too many mistakes, and I'm afraid we can't afford to keep you any longer." With a calm that surprised even herself, she cleared out her desk and was out of the building before coffee break. She didn't cry.

She almost remembered the rounds of the employment offices, and agencies, the forced cheerfulness, the despair as application after application was refused.

Her throat caught, and she took a sip of lukewarm coffee to swallow the lump as she remembered the final humiliation - the Welfare Office. Her first worker had been sympathetic, but not very helpful. It was unfair of her, she knew, but she'd allowed one tear to escape as she begged for a few dollars to buy food for the children. After two agonizing weeks of 'maybe', her first cheque arrived.

She'd had to rely on the charity of strangers for Christmas last year, too. If it hadn't been for them.... She closed her eyes against the pain and sternly ordered the tears not to fall.

They'd had a paper tree for Christmas. She'd called it a "Pioneer Christmas" and the children accepted that. On Christmas Eve, she'd placed a table lamp on the coffee table, and ran crepe paper streamers from the shade to the table. With a lot of imagination, it looked like a tree. The children had had fun cutting out shapes from construction paper and colouring them with crayons, bits of yarn and pictures clipped from an old catalogue. She'd spent hours shaping a coat hanger into a star that would fit over the lamp shade holder in preparation for this night.

The children had insisted that she decorate the star. It took a great deal of effort for her not to cry. Tin foil was carefully wrapped around the coat hanger, and her youngest had carefully placed it atop their tree.

They'd sang carols, and she'd read them "The Christmas Story". They'd played card games, ate popcorn and drank hot chocolate.

The children had presented her with gifts they'd made in school. They'd saved their money to buy her a dozen fancy bath beads. She'd spent the hours after they'd gone to bed, knitting them each mittens, a toque and a scarf. They found a small toy in one mitten, and a silver dollar in the other. The scarf was wrapped around the books she'd bought months before, a mystery for the oldest, a colouring book for the youngest. The toque held an orange, some cookies, and peppermints. Two presents, carefully chosen and neatly wrapped by strangers, held the place of honour under the tree. There had been no tears then, either, as she carefully took a bite out of 'Santa's cookie' and drank some of the milk, but it had been hard not to choke on it.

The children had made a snow house in the backyard while she had readied Christmas dinner. For just the three of them, the turkey was huge. She remembered smiling sadly. It was as good a time as any to learn to make soup from scratch. The price of bread had gone up again. Maybe the heat from the simmering stew pot would help the bread rise. She didn't know. She'd never made bread before, either.

New Year's Eve found her at the kitchen table, staring tiredly into her coffee cup. She took a sip and made a face. It was cold. She had dumped the vile stuff down the drain and rinsed out the cup, angry at feeling guilty about the waste. She glanced at the clock, and sniffed. "So much for a prosperous New Year," she murmured. "All Hail the Year 2000," she jeered softly, bitterly, and turned out the lights.

January crept into February, inexorably. The days were getting longer, but she felt that they were endlessly black. An interview with her Welfare worker left her doubting her own sanity.

"Mrs. Flynn, you've been on Welfare for two months now, and you haven't found a job yet. Are you looking?" the woman accused icily.

"Yes."

"And?"

"No one's hiring. They all want people with experience. And I don't have that," she'd said.

"Well, you'd better get some then, hadn't you?"

She'd said nothing.

"Now, about your assets. You have a computer. How much is it worth?"

She'd stared at the woman across the desk in surprise. "I don't know," she stammered. "It's old, and doesn't have a CD player. Maybe a hundred."

The woman stared coldly, unbelieving. "It's got to be worth more than that. Have it appraised."

"I can't do that," she'd said softly.

"And why not?" The imperious voice made her feel about 4 years old.

"The nearest dealer for that brand is in the capital. I can't afford to go there. Besides," she'd hated the pleading in her voice, "They haven't made that model in over ten years. It's not likely I could sell it, even if there was value in it. I couldn't sell it in town, anyway."

The woman stared, waiting for a 'reasonable explanation'.

"There's no market for it," she'd apologized, her head down so that the inhuman creature in front of her couldn't see her shame.

"Look at me," she was commanded.

She's looked up, but couldn't meet the woman's eyes for long.

"And this life insurance policy you claim to have. Is it worth anything?" Her voice clearly doubted that any information about it would be truthful.

Her policy! That was the only thing she had that would at least see that the children would have bus fare to go to their father's, if anything should happen to her! "I'm not sure," she finally admitted. "My ex-husband has the papers for it, as it's part of a family insurance policy in his name. It's been in place for about 10 years."

"Well, get the information. And speaking of him, you haven't said how much child support your ex-husband pays."

She shook her head. "He doesn't."

"Well, Mrs. Flynn, there are some things that need to be changed, then. Firstly,..." The woman clasped her hands and placed them firmly on her desk. She lectured on for almost half an hour, Peg dutifully taking notes. Legal Aid was to be contacted, the computer was to be sold, if possible, the Employment Office was to be contacted again, the insurance papers retrieved from her ex-husband, she had to find a job, moving to the capital, if necessary. The demands, the unwanted, unneeded, and inaccurate advice, the sneering, patronizing voice, all gave her a headache. And then, mercifully the inquisition came to an end. "This is the middle of January. I expect you to have everything done by the beginning of March, or you will be ineligible for assistance," the cold woman concluded.

She stared in shock. "But the legal proceedings alone could take...."

"Well, that's your problem, isn't it, Mrs. Flynn. I suggest that you get busy."

She left the office, fighting back the tears. She would not cry. She would not.

As the deadline crept closer, she slept more and ate less. Her first court date wasn't until the end of April. In a rush of cowardice, she'd asked her Legal Aid representative to speak with her worker. His kindness almost undid her, as he agreed.

"Not that she can legally do that, you know," he'd said gently. "But she'll make life miserable for you." She almost succeeded in not embarrassing them both with her tears. Almost. She tried to apologize as he handed her the box of Kleenex.

He waved away the apology with a smile. "I have four sisters. I'm used to it."

And she'd smiled, weakly, watery, but a smile nonetheless. She'd left the interview with an unexpected gift. Hope.

That was a month ago.

The telephone brought her back to the present with an abrupt confusion. Her breath caught. It was about time for her worker to call.

"Mrs. Flynn? I understand you're looking for work. Are you familiar with imaging and desktop programs?" It was the chief designer for a local printing company.

She admitted to have a basic familiarity with a common imaging program, but only a marginal familiarity with desktop publishing. "I can set up a basic page, but I'm afraid I don't know everything about the program."

"That's okay," he'd cheered her. "I need a graphics editor more than I need someone in layout. Can you be here at nine tomorrow morning? I'd like to see what you can do."

She stared at the phone after she'd hung up. She had an interview for a part-time job in a printing company!

She began work the next day. It was arranged that she come in every morning, Monday to Thursday, to help with the imaging work. At least for a trial period at minimum wage. "After that, who knows?" the chief designer had grinned.

Her trial period lasted three days, the remainder of that week. There had been no offer of full-time employment, but she would be the first one called if they needed help, she had been assured. The assurances rang false. She didn't have any experience on the computer programmes they used and it showed.

Her paycheck in hand, and her heart in her mouth, she left the building. She was feeling too let down to cry.

The telephone was ringing when she arrived home.

"Mrs. Margaret Flynn?"

"Yes."

"Mrs. Flynn, my name is Lindsey Bathurst. I'm with the Civil Servants Annuity and Pensions Program. I understand your father passed away recently."

"Last September."

"Please accept our condolences on your loss. We've been trying to get in touch with you since last October. I'm glad we've finally located you."

"Is this about my father's pension? I'm afraid he didn't leave a will. Just give me a moment, and I can give you the number of his estate lawyer."

"Oh, we don't need that. We have it. It's part of the application for Survivor's Benefits and so, on record. No, this is about something else. Your father has had an insurance policy with us for the last thirty years, as you know, and he has never changed you as the beneficiary. As such, there is no need for the estate to be involved. It's all yours."

She was still for a long moment. "Thirty years?" she finally managed to croak out.

"Uh-huh. The last changes he made to it were in 1970, when he changed his beneficiary from Elizabeth Stoddard to yourself."

Thirty years ago! Then he didn't just walk out and leave her alone with an embittered mother, leave her to finally track him down twenty years later. He did care! She swallowed hard as the realization hit. And she'd never told him how much she loved him, either.

"Mrs. Flynn? Are you still there?" The voice was filled with concern.

"Yes, I'm here," she managed.

"Oh, good. For a moment, I thought we'd been disconnected. I need to get your current address and a copy of the death certificate, if you have it, before I can mail you the cheque."

"Cheque?" she repeated.

The voice laughed. "Yes, Mrs. Flynn. The cheque."

"How much?" she asked softly, not daring to hope for too much.

"Well, it's not much, really," the voice apologized. "After taxes, about fifty thousand."

They talked for a few minutes more and then she hung up the telephone. Fifty thousand dollars! That was more money than she'd seen in the last five years! More money than she'd ever dreamed of! She put a damper on her hope. The taxes would take a great chunk of it, she was sure. And there was still the estate. No doubt that would demand a share.

She dutifully mailed off the requested information, and life went on as before.

The next day, a letter from the Welfare Office arrived. With shaking hands, she closed the door. She took a deep breath and opened the letter. It was from her worker, informing her that, due to her failure to meet the requirements set out by the Welfare Office, she would no longer be considered eligible for assistance. She sat down with a thump on the stairs. She had been expecting it, but it still came as a shock.

She called her Legal Aid representative. He assured her that he'd look into it. She hung up the phone, not at all comforted by his assurances. There was nothing he could do, she was certain. A second call to the estate lawyer assured her that any monies from an insurance policy, if bequeathed to her, would not become part of the estate.

About a week later, she heard the doorbell ring. It surprised her to see the postman.

"I have a registered letter for you, Mrs. Flynn," he announced.

She froze. With a calm that surprised her, she signed for the letter opened it. There were two sheets of paper in it. A third piece of paper was clipped to the back of the last page, but she carefully ignored it. It couldn't be anything important.

'Dear Mrs. Flynn,' the letter read, 'Enclosed is a letter your father, Mr. Stoddard, requested that we send with the cheque. Please accept our sincerest condolences on your loss. Sincerely, Lindsey Bathurst.'

She turned to the letter from her father. It was dated the last day she'd seen him, in the lobby of the courthouse.

'Honeybunch,' she read. It was her childhood nickname and in her father's handwriting. 'I have to go. I'm sorry. No doubt your mother will fill you in on all the details, but I want you to believe one thing. I love you very, very much sweetheart. I always have, and I always will. I'm sorrier than you will ever know, that I'm such a coward, but I cannot live in the same town as you, and not be able to see you. Your mother has seen to that, and I don't blame her. I drink too much, I spend too much time at the bar, and I'm not really the stuff good fathers are made of. '

She closed her eyes, willing the tears to hold until she finished reading. After a moment, she continued.

'But I'll always think of you. Try not to hate me too much? '

"Oh, Daddy, I could never hate you," she choked out softly, her eyes filling. "I love you." She bent her head to the letter again.

'I know you like to draw. I can remember watching you sit in Grandpa's big chair, carefully colouring in each picture that you'd drawn. Do you know that you bite your lip when you're concentrating hard?'

She could hear his laughter as she read the words. She wiped away the tears, determined not to cry.

'Peg o' my heart, I don't have much to give you now, but perhaps later on I will. Until then, I'm putting you as the beneficiary of my insurance policy. Among other things, it should allow you enough money to go to a fancy art school. You may not deserve a father like me, but you deserve that much. If I should live to be old enough to collect a pension, this policy will include not only the insurance, but any pension money that hasn't been sent to me. I know it won't take the place of having a father around. Try not to think too badly of me, honeybunch. And remember that I'll always love you.'

And his signature was scrawled underneath.

It was then that she looked at the cheque. Just to make sure that it was real. Just to make sure her dreams of being a graphic artist might possibly come true.

And then the tears came.