The Ring

Chapter 1

Paige struggled to stay attentive during the eulogy as the funeral home director’s calm voice droned on.

“Devoted husband, loving father of two daughters, Ryan West was an ardent provider for his family. He was a humble man, often putting the needs of others before his own.”

It was annoying to listen to a man, who had barely known her father, talk about him as though they had been friends. The substantial gold watch she cradled in her hands provided some comfort, the mere feel of it reminding her of happier times when it had graced his virtuous wrist.

She fidgeted on the unyielding bench next to her mother, the tightness in her chest unrelenting. At forty-two, she had been to enough memorial services to know how her mind and body would react. But this was different—this was her father they were mourning.

She glanced sideways at her mother, dressed in a black St. John knit suit, a veiled pillbox hat atop her head, her face still except for one tiny muscle pulsing in her jaw. Her stiff, frail body looked as though it would instantly shatter if Paige were to tap her on the shoulder.

“Could these seats be any more uncomfortable?” Paige whispered. When her mother didn’t respond, she clutched the watch a little tighter.

The gaudy floral carpeting provided a welcome distraction as Paige half-listened to the man at the podium still speaking—it had now been over twenty minutes—until the muted French mauve lilies appeared to grow before her eyes. She blinked away the moving images and shifted her gaze to the wall behind the podium where a glassy-eyed figure of Jesus loomed over the room, until she couldn’t tolerate the sight of the spikes pounded into his flesh another second.

Paige turned her focus to the blown-up photo of her father resting on the easel beside the memorial urn that contained his ashes, a photo she had picked out for the occasion, one she had taken the previous year when she and her father had gone to see La Traviata at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Happier times.

“And he served his country well too, with active duty in the Army for four years.” Word-for-word what her mother had given the man days before.

The comingled aromas of cut flowers and the perfumes, colognes, and body odors of at least a hundred people in the room made her feel lightheaded. She closed her eyes, wishing the service was closer to its end rather than the beginning.

“Let us pray.”

Let’s do.

As the balding, emotionless man at the podium recited the prayer, Paige reflected on her father’s life. A salesman of large medical equipment, he had traveled extensively throughout his career, sometimes overseas, making a substantial income. She wanted for nothing while growing up, except perhaps more of his time.

“Born to second-generation immigrant parents, Ryan worked his way through school and was the first in his family to attend college.”

Her father had often told her that education had the power to change one’s life. It had undoubtedly changed his—without a college degree, he likely wouldn’t have had such a successful career.

“Ryan West was a charitable man, giving of both his time and money. He gave so generously to Lakeside University that they named their science lab after him. And when he was in town, you would often find him volunteering in one of many neighborhood soup kitchens.” What her mother had provided verbatim.

Paige had often joined her father in the kitchens and planned to continue going. She had loved watching him interact with the patrons like they were his long-time friends. She aspired to be more like him in this respect.

“He leaves behind his loving wife, Elaine Forrester West, and daughters, Paige Cushman West and Natalie West.” Paige’s sister Natalie was, unsurprisingly, not in attendance.

Upon hearing the name Cushman, her former married name, Paige realized she had failed to contact Leland about her father’s death. Her father had liked Leland and was disappointed when they divorced. When she had been married to him, Leland and her father had gone on twice-yearly fishing trips and the occasional outing to an Indiana riverboat casino.

The thought of her ex-husband conjured up the mournful memory of their daughter, Briana. Rarely a day went by when she didn’t think about her and her tragic death from a congenital heart defect when she was only eighteen months old—an agonizing loss with rippling effects that Paige suspected would linger over the course of her lifetime.

“The family has asked that donations be made to the Huntington’s Disease Clinic at Midwest Memorial Hospital. As you may know, Mr. West died of complications from this disease.”

Paige was actually thankful that pneumonia had set in before the often-lingering disease had a chance to take its final toll. Because the illness was genetic, with a 50/50 chance of passing from parent to child, Paige was tested as soon as her father was diagnosed. Fortunately, the results had come back negative. Natalie had not taken the test to her knowledge.

“Let us pray.”

She had wept all she was going to over his death—one good cry at first, followed by many sorrowful moments in the days following. Despite his frequent travel, she had been exceptionally close to him, and it was difficult to imagine life without him.

At the end of the service, the funeral home director asked if anyone wanted to share memories about the deceased. Her father’s long-time golf buddy and CEO of the company where he had worked spoke first.

“I loved playing practical jokes on Ryan,” he said, “and the best one I ever played was when I had a plaque made that said a bad day at golf is better than a good day in this lousy office. I sent it to him anonymously…at work. After he opened it and set it on his desk, I walked into his office and pretended to be outraged by it. I think I may have even fired him. Of course, when he realized the joke was on him, he threw it at me. And…I guess I deserved it. We laughed about it afterward. We laughed a lot, Ryan and me. I miss that. I miss him.”

When the man finished, Paige walked to the front of the room, her taller-than-average, slim figure standing erect behind the podium. The prepared words had long since flown from her mind, so she went instead with what came to her spontaneously.

“For those of you who don’t know me, I am Paige West. Ryan West was my father. And as I am standing up here today, I realize how fortunate I was to have him as my father, my mentor, my hero really. Losing him has been painful, and I don’t think I’ll ever be the same without him.

“Dad was a hard worker—I’m sure most of you know that. And while he traveled a lot in his job, his time at home was always devoted just to us. His work stayed at work.” She gulped back the emotion that clogged her throat. “Whenever he was going out of town, he’d say to me, ‘Look for that star tonight, sweetie.’” Now unable to hold back her sobs, she choked out, “Because he’d told me when I was little that he’d wished on a star for me to be born.”

It didn’t matter to Paige that he had missed most of the milestones in her life—her first day at school, many birthdays, her prom, high school graduation, seeing her off to college. When he was around, he made her feel as though she was the only thing on his mind and the most important person in his life.

“I don’t have words to express what an influence he has had in my life.” Paige glanced at her mother. “Along with my mom, the examples they set for me, the values they imposed upon me, and their knowing advice are why I am the person I am today. I can honestly say my dad was everything a daughter could ask for—someone to look up to, someone to respect, someone to listen to and learn from, and someone most of all to go to when I needed him. I know nobody is perfect, but my dad came as close to it as a dad could come. He taught me so much, but two things stand out for me. One is that if you really put your mind to it, anything is possible. And the most important thing you can give to another person is your respect.”

Her father was the most nonjudgmental person she’d ever known. He was a good listener, had empathy for everyone, and never put another person down. Respect for others, in his mind, was the most important virtue a person could have.

“My father was a strong man—in body, in spirit, and in commitment. As he faced his final days, he may have lost some of his physical strength, but he displayed not one moment of self-pity. The day before he passed, when the nurse asked him how he was doing, he gave the same answer he gave every day. ‘I'm doing fine, and you?’”

“To say I loved my dad would be an understatement—to say I’m going to miss him would be even greater.”

On the way back to her seat, Paige surveyed the sea of vacant-faced guests, tears partially blurring her vision. Most of the mourners were her and her father’s business associates. Few relatives on either of her parents’ side of the family were in attendance—two nephews from Indiana whom Paige hadn’t seen since she was a child and a great aunt neither she nor her mother had ever met.

Seated together, near the front of the room, were “the girls,” Gayle, Sandy, and Valerie. A close circle of friends for many years, the four of them supported each other and had each other’s back no matter what the circumstances. Paige walked by them as Gayle appeared to be comforting Valerie who was known to cry easily, even at certain TV commercials.

Paige rejoined her mother in the pew, grateful they had waited a month after his private funeral to hold this memorial service. Otherwise, she wasn’t sure she could have held it together as well as she had among all these people.

“I wish Natalie was here,” her mother whispered as Paige settled back into her seat. Natalie, who lived less than twenty miles from her parents, had been made aware of their father’s illness and eventual death, and their mother had even offered to arrange for an Uber to pick her up and drive her to the funeral and memorial services. Her absence from both was surmised to be due to lack of sobriety.

After the last person had said a few words, Paige and her mother stood at the head of the long receiving line. As she had suspected, it proved to be a test of endurance. And while pretty and appropriate, the music didn’t help. “Morning Has Broken,” “Amazing Grace,” and “Love Lives On” were painful to withstand, but she had no one to blame for the song choices but herself.

Mourners repeated the same few sentiments in the receiving line, until Paige silently screamed I know you’re sorry for my loss. That’s why you’re here! Honestly, who wouldn’t hope a person hadn’t suffered in the end? And whether he was “in a better place,” or not would be something she could argue either way.

Halfway through the receiving line, a woman she didn’t recognize told her she knew what Paige was going through because she had lost her dog the previous month. Are you kidding me? Before she could think of a response, a thunderous clatter from across the room drew her attention toward the stand where her father’s memorial urn containing his ashes was displayed along with a flower arrangement and the large, framed picture of him. A woman—rather short with a dark shawl wrapped tightly around her head and shoulders—dashed away from the stand, which now lay on its side, with everything once on it strewn on the floor.

Everyone in the room stopped talking and watched the woman hastily exit out the side door. Paige looked at her mother, who shook her head but continued the conversation she was having with one of the mourners as if nothing had happened.

Paige called for the director, but by the time he arrived, the woman was gone. He and another person attempted to put the items back on the stand, in the same manner in which they had been originally displayed, but when they were done, it didn’t look quite the same.

When everyone had been through the receiving line, Paige took her mother aside.

“Did you see what that woman did?” Paige asked her. “Do you know her?”

“I didn’t see her face.” She took a step forward. “Let’s go over to the remembrance table one last time.”

Paige grasped her mother’s arm. “Mom, I think she deliberately knocked over the stand with Dad’s ashes on it. Why would she do that?”

“I’m sure it was just an accident, Paige.”

“If it was just an accident, why would she have run out of here like that?”

“She was probably embarrassed. Wouldn’t you be?”

Paige didn’t accept her mother’s explanation for the incident but knew it would be pointless to discuss it with her any further. She led her to the remembrance table where more than a hundred pictures of her father were displayed—ones from his childhood, her parents’ wedding, his army tour, Paige’s childhood, golf outings, and family vacations—a visual tribute to him and his life. The commemorative display drummed up images of her father helping her with homework, supporting her through her difficult teen years, and walking her down the aisle at her wedding. A small, vacant place on the display marked the spot where a photo of her father holding Briana on his lap on her first birthday had originally been pinned. Paige had later removed it due to the uncompromising feelings it evoked with the reminder of her daughter’s short life and eventual death. Now, she didn’t know which was more painful to look at—this photo or the empty spot it had created by her removing it.

The table beneath the photo board displayed the many sales awards her father had won over the years. An expansive arrangement of purple irises, his favorite flower, adorned the center of the display. She found their subtle but sweet, fruity fragrance to be soothing.

Within a couple of hours, the chapel thinned out to a few remaining mourners.

“It went well, I think. Don’t you?” she asked her mother.

“Mm-hm,” she said as she swept a strand of Paige’s curly auburn hair away from her forehead. “You have his eyes. I never knew what he was thinking either.”

“You look troubled. What’s wrong? Is it about that crazy woman who came in here?”

“No. I’m just thinking back to his funeral and what happened while we were here. It makes me not want to go home.”

Paige’s mother’s house had been burglarized the previous month while Paige, her mother, and a few close friends had attended his funeral. Afterward, Paige had had a more sophisticated security system installed at her mother’s home, and as an added precaution today had arranged for the local police to keep an eye on the house during the memorial service.

But Paige suspected there was something else her mother was still upset about regarding her father’s private funeral. Her mother’s estranged sister, Bernice, and Bernice’s daughter, Wanda, had shown up…uninvited. Her mother had asked them to leave for reasons unknown to Paige. All Paige had heard of the conversation was her mother saying, “You know damn well the reason why.” While she was dying to know what had caused the interminable rift between the two sisters, Paige knew this to be too sensitive a subject to bring up with her mother…ever.

“It won’t happen again—the police are watching out for us,” Paige said, referring to the break-in.

“I hope so.”

“I’m still freaked out about the woman with the shawl on her head,” Paige said. “Why would she do that?”

“I wouldn’t worry about it. Like I said, she probably just bumped into it and got scared or embarrassed and left without saying anything.”

“I don’t know.”

“When it’s just you and me left, how about we go home and have a drink?”

“Good idea,” Paige said, troubled by the woeful expression on her mother’s face. “What are you thinking?” she asked.

“I don’t know. The service stirs up so many memories.”

Paige put her hand over her mother’s. “Fond memories.”

“Mm-hm.”

She and her father often took the train to downtown Chicago to see live theater, go shopping on Michigan Avenue, or visit a museum—always followed by a fancy restaurant where they would talk about where they had been, what they had seen. She remembered one time when she was thirteen and they had shopped at Marshall Fields for a birthday present for her mother. Afterward, they went to the top of the Hancock Center for lunch. That day, they talked about her future—what she wanted to be when she grew up. Inspired by the panoramic view of the city from the top of the skyscraper, she had told her father she might want to work in real estate. Years later, she ended up doing just that.

“Someone from Dad’s office asked me how long you two were married. Forty-three years, right?”

A flush crept across her mother’s face.

“You okay?” Paige asked.

“It’s been a long day, that’s all.”

“I sure do miss him.”

“Me too,” her mother said behind a pained smile. “I have to go to the restroom before we leave. I’ll meet you back here.”

Paige watched her mother walk toward the stairs, her flexed posture and deliberate stride jarring Paige with the realization that her mother could become more dependent on her as she aged. With little time to herself amid a hectic work schedule, Paige wasn’t sure how that would play out.

She walked toward a small seating area to wait for her mother to return when a woman barged through the door, almost running into her, mumbling something about being too late. Paige watched her enter the chapel, then turn around and approach her.

“Everybody’s gone?” the stranger asked.

Paige took stock of the woman. She was her own age or maybe a little older. Her outfit was casual, more so than what most people would wear to a memorial service.

“Just my mother and I are left. And you are?”

“I was looking for my sister,” the woman said.

“This is the memorial service for Ryan West. Is that—”

“Yes, I know,” she said as she headed toward the door.

Paige’s mother joined her. “Who’s that, dear?” she asked.

“Not sure.”

Before leaving, the woman snatched one of Paige’s father’s memorial cards from the sign-in stand, glanced down at it for several seconds, then looked up. She stood there for a long, uncomfortable moment staring at Paige and her mother before leaving.