Kira Wagner died when she was six.
The house where she lived with her parents and her baby brother collapsed,
burying them alive. They were discovered the next day.
By then, Kira’s parents and the baby were long gone; she was breathing, but
just barely. In the ambulance, during the mad dash to the hospital, her heart
suddenly stopped. In medical terminology—she flat-lined. For the next six
impossibly long minutes, her heart stood still, refusing to pump blood and depriving her brain of oxygen. Two paramedics, who were grim, dirty, and exhausted, immediately started CPR and delivered her to the Emergency Center in record time, all things considered.
Then the doctors took over the fight for saving the little girl, one of the
thousands of victims of the deadliest hurricane in the history of Florida that had
such a ridiculously poetic name—Andrew.
Kira’s heart stubbornly refused to re-start even after a high-voltage shock was applied to her chest for the third time. It made her little body arch and bounce, and it burned her skin, leaving ugly marks. And then, when the doctor was about to pronounce her dead and turned his head to read the time of death off the ER wall clock, her heart suddenly began to beat again, and Kira took a shallow breath.
Her eyes opened, and she asked in her clear, high-pitched voice, “Where is Albert?”
Movement One. Allegro Moderato
Adelina Wagner was sitting in a hospital waiting room, stiff and chilled to the bone. Her mind still refused to get in sync with reality, reeling from the shock.
Her son was dead, and so were her daughter-in-law and her grandson, baby JJ. The horror of this news was so enormously overwhelming that she couldn’t accept it yet. Her brain knew, but it refused to deal with it.
The five-hour drive to the hospital went by in a blur. She didn’t even remember how she got there. After the morning call from Miami, she ran to the door of her shop, jumped into the car, and peeled out of the parking lot, heading south. She didn’t remember if she closed the shop.
Oh, Emma was there too, Adelina realized, still dazed. Emma was already chatting with the first customers when the phone near the cash register started to ring, so Adelina took the call that changed her life forever. Before and after.
Her whole family, she’d been told, had perished in a hurricane.
“All of them?!”
“Please accept our deepest condolences, Mrs. Wagner…Oh, I’m sorry, ma’am, my mistake—your granddaughter is listed as critical.”
Her little Kira was found alive but in bad shape, she was told. Multiple bruises and lacerations, moderate to severe concussion, one dislocated shoulder; she had also suffered a cardiac arrest.
My God,Adelina thought, how much more could the fragile six-year-old body withstand?!
Until she arrived at the Humana Hospital in Pembroke Pines, where all the victims of Hurricane Andrew were taken, Adelina didn’t know if Kira had survived.
Even now, sitting in a crowded waiting room, surrounded by so much pain and grief she could almost touch it, she didn’t know if her little girl was alive.
Finally, the doctor stepped into the room and called her name. Adelina sprung to her feet. She beseechingly searched the harried face of the doctor, who seemed to be too young to shave until you looked into his ancient eyes.
“Alive. We managed to bring her back.”
Adelina sagged against the wall, clamping her mouth with her hand to muffle the cry. Thank God, oh, thank you, God! she screamed on the inside. Her little girl was alive. Kira has survived.
“She was asking about Albert. Her father?”
Adelina looked at the doctor, too shell-shocked to process his question. After a moment, she shook her head. “No. No, her father’s name is…was Richard.” Her voice shook. Was. Her son, her dear boy was dead! The pain was enormous, debilitating and sharp; it was tearing her to a million tiny pieces, threatening to swallow her alive.
Can’t give up, Adelina kept repeating like a mantra. Need to be strong. For Kira, for my baby girl. Must be strong.
Kira was alive, thank God, and she was her responsibility now.
“Do you know who this Albert person might be?” the doctor asked again.
“No…I don’t know. Maybe her friend? I don’t know, doctor. Why?”
“Just curious. It was the first thing she said.” The first and only, the doctor thought.
“Has she asked about her parents? Her brother?”
“No. Just about this Albert.”
My God, Adelina realized that she would be the one to tell the little girl about her family. She briefly closed her eyes, then shook her head. It wasn’t the time to feel sorry for herself. There would be time for that later. For now, she must think only about Kira.
Adelina took a deep breath. “What exactly did she say?”
“She said, ‘Where is Albert?’”
“‘Where is Albert?’ What…what could that mean?”
“I guess it doesn’t matter,” the doctor answered, a bit brusquely. “What matters is that your granddaughter is alive and breathing on her own again.”
“Yes, yes, of course.” Adelina dismissed the subject of this Albert, asking the most important question. “What is her prognosis, doctor? Please be honest with me. Did she suffer any serious trauma?”
“Luckily, no, which is a miracle in itself. Her brain shows no after-effects of oxygen deprivation; her heart is beating strongly. She is one extremely lucky girl.”
“Miracle, indeed,” Adelina whispered.
“She has some lacerations, some bruises, but nothing life-threatening. We’ll keep her overnight and monitor her concussion closely, but if everything goes uneventfully, she’ll be ready to leave in the morning. Are you the one who’ll be taking care of her?”
She and Kira’s maternal grandparents, who were living on a small farm in Ohio, were the only family Kira had left.
God, Adelina thought, closing her eyes, I have to call Magda and Paul and shatter their world with the horrible news.
Listed as an emergency contact for both her son and her daughter-in-law, Adelina had been easily located by the authorities the very next day after the tragedy. Plus, she lived in the Sunshine State too, just a few hours north of Miami by car in the quaint, historical St. Augustine.
“Yes,” she repeated. “I’ll be taking care of her now.”
Kira was released the next day. She was unnaturally quiet. As a matter of fact, she didn’t speak a single word except “Oma,” acknowledging Adelina’s presence when she first saw her. She didn’t smile, just looked at her with huge, clear eyes that somehow had changed color from the quiet grey she was born with to deep aquamarine blue. The change was eerie, to say the least. Adelina was chilled to the bone every time she looked into those bottomless, questioning eyes.
Kira’s black hair was now sporting a snow-white streak above her right temple, another dramatic change that the tragedy had brought to her little girl.
Her doctor was the first who’d noticed it, thinking that it was residue from the ashes of the burned home she was rescued from. But after the shower the nurse gave Kira, the white lock was still there, even more dramatic against her raven-black hair.
And of course, there were the burns from the defibrillator paddles on her chest where the doctors were shocking her heart. Otherwise, she was absolutely healthy, although a bit on the skinny side.
She was a six-year-old girl who now officially had two birthdays: one in March, when she was born, and another on August 25th, 1992, the day she was rescued and brought back to life after her clinical death—the day the whole country associated now with Hurricane Andrew.
Adelina signed a gazillion discharge papers for Kira’s release, collected her little girl, dressed now in brand new white shorts and a pink t-shirt she had bought in the hospital’s gift shop (all Kira’s clothes and belongings had become ashes and were scattered somewhere under the pile of debris that used to be her home), and left the Pembroke Pine Hospital, holding onto Kira’s little hand like her life depended on it. And on some level, it did; her little girl was now the whole point of Adelina’s life, the whole reason for her existence.
Just before getting into the car, Kira stopped and looked at Adelina, her eerie aquamarine eyes solemn under her long bangs. That horrible white streak above her right temple gave Adelina goosebumps.
“Don’t worry, Oma,” she said in a quiet, serious voice, clear and fragile like a silver bell. “I will take care of you now.”
“Oh, my precious,” Adelina’s eyes misted as she kneeled in front of Kira. “We will be okay; we’ll take care of each other. How about that?” Her heart broke when Kira nodded and lifted her little pinkie.
“Pinkie swear.” That was their special game, the one Adelina herself had taught Kira when she was just a little tyke. But now, seeing Kira’s serious, determined face, it looked and sounded more like a solemn oath.
“Pinkie swear.” Adelina hooked her own little finger around Kira’s. “And now,” she resolutely stood up and gave herself a mental shake before she had a complete meltdown, “off we go, sweetheart.” She helped Kira get into the back of her old Mercedes.
“Where are we going, Oma?” Kira asked, looking at her questioningly.
“Home, baby. We are going home.”
On the way back to St. Augustine, they stopped twice to use the restroom and buy some sandwiches, so it took Adelina almost six hours to get them back home. Kira was subdued and quiet when she was awake, but mostly, she slept in the back seat, tucking Adelina’s jacket under her head for a makeshift pillow. She slept fretfully, waking up with a start, then looking at Adelina and realizing where she was, going back to sleep only to be reawakened by whatever horrors invaded her dreams. Adelina watched her in the rearview mirror, her heart breaking anew every time Kira jerked up from her sleep and looked searchingly around herself.
Poor little one, Adelina thought, whipping tears from her face that refused to stop leaking from her already scratchy, puffy eyes. She was afraid to know what Kira was dreaming about. She herself was trying to put up a brave front for Kira’s sake, but apparently she had failed if the little girl’s first words to her were, “I’ll take care of you.”
Oh, Richard, she choked on a broken breath, I will do my best by your girl, I swear. I’ll take good care of her for as long as I’m alive, I promise you, son.
At that moment, Kira bolted upright.
“Where is Albert?”