*Unedited and subject to revisions.
According to notes in Rena Averest’s file supplied by Judge Dennison, she had daily physical and occupational therapy in the outpatient services center of St. Mary’s Hospital and was usually finished by 10:30 AM. He had arranged for the use of a hospital conference room and Rena’s transportation back to the Bellamy’s in order to give her and Olivia more privacy and time to talk.
Olivia arrived thirty minutes early and was shown to the conference room. She repositioned chairs for a more conversational atmosphere, then set up her video recorder. No one viewed the recordings besides Olivia, except for the rare occasion when she might ask a member of her personal staff for their opinion. She only recorded the initial interview not so much to remember what was said, but how it was said. Children were usually more honest and open than adults, but sometimes fear, real or imagined, would cause them to protect the adults involved, even to their own detriment. Olivia could review an interview once or several times. It all depended on her minor client’s demeanor and the attitudes of the adults involved.
After finishing her setup, Olivia made a quick trip to the hospital’s cafeteria for drinks and snacks. Returning to the conference room, she noticed an orderly coming towards from the opposite direction pushing a young girl in a wheelchair. She appeared to be too tall for an eleven-year-old, but Olivia could recognize a child in crisis anywhere. The bowed head and constant fidgeting with fingers was a dead giveaway. As there were no photos in the file Judge Dennison had given her, Olivia didn’t know what to expect, but was surprised to see that her client was also African-American. A crème colored blanket covered her legs and lap, and a green jacket sat on her shoulders, but Olivia could tell the child was thin. The type of thin that comes with injury, loss of appetite, worry…and mourning. Rena’s hair was hidden under a green scarf, but she could see one unruly curl had escaped. It appeared to be the same shade as Olivia’s brown hair, although Rena’s complexion was a shade lighter.
“This must be Rena. Hello. I’m Olivia Chandler,” She said with a sincere smile. The child raised her head hearing her name, and Olivia nearly faulted. The deep brown eyes looking back at her were mired in so much sadness, Olivia’s chest tightened. She could feel her own heart began to race and willed herself to stay calm and in control. This is not about you, Olivia Chandler.
“You must be Mrs. Chandler. I’m Leon, one of the physical therapy assistants.” She had almost forgotten she and Rena were not alone, but focused her smile on the man. “Nice to meet you, Leon. It’s Ms. but please call me Olivia. Would you mind taking Rena on into the conference room?”
“Sure thing.” He deftly maneuvered the still silent child into the room and around the chairs Olivia had repositioned. “Is here okay?”
“It is for me, but how about you, Rena?” Not raising her head, Rena shook her head. Caught off guard, Olivia looked at Leon. “Can she walk?”
He nodded. “She can walk, but she’s had quite a work out this morning between occupational and physical therapy. She may be more comfortable resting in the chair a bit longer. Her legs and feet are supported and don’t have to rest on the floor. Is that okay?”
“It most certainly is.” Olivia knelt down in front of Rena. “This meeting is about you and for you, angel, so by all means I want you to be as comfortable as possible. Okay?” Rena responded with a slight nod of her head. Rising, Olivia reached out to shake Leon’s hand. “Thank you for helping us out today, Leon. I appreciate your time.”
Leon returned her smile, but was slow to release Olivia’s hand. “You’re welcome. Anytime. I was told you’ll also arrange for Rena’s transportation home today, correct?
“That’s correct, Leon. I have all the information right here,” she responded while patting the file folder.
“Great. Take good care of our special girl.” He bent down close to Rena’s ear. “See you tomorrow morning, Princess.” She raised her head and rewarded him with a faint smile, and a barely audible, “Okay. Bye, Leon,” and Olivia didn’t know how she was going to make it through the interview.
Removing another of the chairs from the table, Olivia sat down and pulled the cafeteria tray so that it sat between her and Rena. “I wasn’t sure what you liked Rena, but I know I get a little hungry during the late morning and thought you might be too. There’s chocolate milk, orange soda and a bottle of water. And I got chocolate chip cookies, french fries and celery and carrot sticks. It’s a weird combination, I know…but I’m a little weird like that. So what would you-…”
“Is my daddy dead?”
Olivia felt the instant sting of tears and took a couple of deep breaths. “Why would you think that, Rena?”
“Because the last time I was taken into a room to meet someone, they told me my mommy was dead. Did my daddy die too?”
Feeling as though all the air had been sucked out of the room, Olivia leaned forward and folded her arms on the table. Taking yet another deep breath, she spoke slowly, “Sweetie, I have not met your father yet. But according to my information, he’s still in the hospital and very much alive.” She watched Rena’s body visibly sag and reached out and squeezed her hand. This poor kid had been in a ball of knots thinking she was about to hear about the death of her surviving parent. “When was the last time you got to visit your dad, Rena?”
“I’ve only been once, and he was in a coma and didn’t know I was there.”
“Have you spoken to him on the phone?”
“No. They said he needed his rest.”
Olivia felt her blood pressure sky rocket. She shuffled the file documents around trying to calm down. Idiots! Everyone involved was an idiot! Every medical journal on the planet espoused the merits of involving family and loved ones in any course of wellness treatment, yet this small family devastated by loss and injury was being purposely kept apart. Things hadn’t changed much in twenty-eight years, she thought bitterly.
Olivia leaned back in her chair and noticed the sad eyes staring at her intently. “Forgive me, angel. Was just trying to get my bearings. Rena, do you know what an attorney is?”
“Yes. A lawyer.”
“Right! And do you know what lawyers do?”
“Sue people.” Olivia sputtered, then threw her head back and laughed. She could feel the tension easing in her body.
“You are correct…and just too smart for me.”
The sad eyes brightened just a bit, and the Mona Lisa smile returned. “Angel, lawyers represent you in legal situations. They go to school to study the law and learn to interpret it to help, and yes…sometimes sue people.”
The smile was growing – teeth were almost visible. “I am an attorney, Rena, and more importantly, I am YOUR attorney. The court appointed me to work for you.”
Rena frowned. You work for me? Do I need to sue someone?”
“No, angel, you don’t. But sometimes there are situations where a judge wants to know what a child thinks or what that child wants. Because you lost your mommy and your daddy is still in the hospital, this is one of those situations. I will talk to you, anyone you think I should talk to, plus your dad and the people involved in his life besides you. But even though I talk to all of these people, I am still bound by law to report first and foremost what it is you want. Please understand, the court tries to make sure the child is happy, or at least satisfied, but sometimes they will decide against the child. It doesn’t mean they do not believe or agree with you, but their decision also has to be backed up by the laws we live by. Am I making sense?”
Rena nodded. “Yes, you’re my voice.”
Shaking her head, Olivia grinned. “How about if you be the attorney, and I’ll be the kid?”
Rena responded with a nod. “Okay…but only if I can have the orange soda…and the celery and carrots sticks!”
Passing her the soda, Olivia narrowed her eyes. “I knew you were going to be trouble.” She was sure her heart skipped a beat when she heard audible laughter. “Well, fine! I guess I’ll just sacrifice my hips and eat these horrible french fries and yucky chocolate chips cookies then.”
“I want some of those too!” Rena giggled.
“I think it’s only fair to warn you, Rena Averest, that I will shamelessly fight a kid over food. I’m just sayin’.” That got her a full blown grin from her young client.
“You’re too nice to fight anyone. Now pass the fries.” They both laughed. The tension that enveloped the room not thirty minutes ago was now bearable, and Olivia knew without a doubt, she would fight someone to keep a smile on Rena’s face.