IT WAS an unseasonably cool day in Charleston and had been raining lightly since the end of the funeral. Dr. Weston Stanhope took a long drink of bourbon and let his head fall back onto the overstuffed wing chair in his father’s study. How like the Colonel to keep me waiting.
Wes gazed around the well-appointed room and, not for the first time, thought how pompous it felt—as though it were a movie set. The tall, slender windows allowed the overcast skies to cast a gloomy, gray light that danced on the engagement portrait of his parents, Colonel Robert Lee Stanhope IV and Elizabeth Pettigrew Stanhope, hanging above the fireplace. Someone, likely John, the “house man,” had built a small fire, and the flames were reflecting off the Colonel’s antique mahogany desk. The highly polished piece of furniture, flanked by floor-to-ceiling bookcases that stood as though guarding the Colonel’s official business like sentinels, seemed so much smaller than it had when he was a child.
Continuing his gaze, Wes stopped at the exquisite shiny brass telescope, undoubtedly pointing toward Charleston Harbor and Fort Sumter, that he’d never been permitted to touch as a young boy. A smile formed on his lips as he was suddenly six years old again and commanding the navy from this very room. But the smile quickly faded when he remembered how many times he’d been shooed out of this study because the Colonel was too busy to be bothered with his foolish games. Closing his eyes, he tried to remember the last time he had been in Charleston. The days, months, or years didn’t really matter because however long ago it had actually been, it still seemed like a lifetime.
After graduating from the Citadel, he could barely wait to escape the constraints of Charleston society and the responsibility of being the Colonel’s only child. He’d inherited his mother’s blue-gray eyes and her strong sense of compassion, and because of the latter had decided to forego the long-standing Stanhope tradition of military service, instead enrolling in medical school with a single objective—to get as far away from Colonel Stanhope as possible.
Suddenly, he felt tears well. He would never see or talk to his mother again. Elizabeth “Betsy” Pettigrew Stanhope had died of an aneurysm just three days ago. Wes remembered getting the call from John while he was on rounds at the Seattle Medical Center. A frantic set of activities ensued: arranging for coverage for his patients in the pediatric oncology unit and making harried flight reservations. It was just now, after the funeral, that he began to feel the devastating weight of his loss.
Sitting alone in this room, so full of memories, Wes’s chest began to tighten, and it was suddenly becoming very difficult to breathe. The tears that had welled earlier threatened to overflow onto his cheeks, but he knew the Colonel would join him eventually, and in the Colonel’s eyes, crying was a sign of weakness. He would never give his father the opportunity to call him weak; he would hold it together. He had no choice.
He closed his eyes in an attempt to hold back the threatening tears as he privately mourned the loss of his mother. She’d been his best friend, his strongest advocate, and an unending source of support and encouragement his entire life. His heart was aching from the large hole left there by her departure. And now that she was gone, he felt alone and adrift.
He was slightly startled when his father walked into the room. He stood, more out of habit than respect, and noticed the Colonel had removed his impeccably tailored suit jacket and tie.
“Well, I see you already have a drink, then,” the Colonel said as he turned toward the liquor display.
“Yes, it seemed like an exceptionally good idea,” Wes replied as he folded himself back into the wing chair.
“I was very pleased with the turnout at St. Michael’s this morning,” his father said.
Immediately, Wes felt his resentment rising, an almost visceral reaction—as though the funeral attendance was a measure of the Colonel’s own importance rather than a genuine outpouring of grief for the loss of one of South Carolina’s biggest philanthropists.
He really didn’t know what to say. His parents had been married nearly forty years, and he was tempted to ask the Colonel how he was coping with what must have been a devastating loss, but he knew this line of inquiry would be lost on his father. The Colonel was a lot like Fort Sumter—an island, impenetrable, and somewhat uninterested in vessels floating around it.
Knowing his condolences would mean nothing, Wes simply replied with an even tone, “I have a flight at eight o’clock. John told me you wanted to have a word.”
Wes watched as the Colonel settled into the matching wing chair in front of the fireplace. He thought his father looked a bit uncomfortable and almost acted as if he wanted to assess Wes’s reaction to his next words before they were uttered. Wes decided that a second bourbon would be in order. He stood and walked over to the crystal decanter and poured himself another drink. He smiled sadly at the photo on the Colonel’s desk—a young Weston Stanhope in his Citadel uniform. A lifetime ago, he thought as he settled back into his chair and looked at the fire. He waited for his father to speak.
Wes’s gaze drifted back to the portrait of his parents. He tried to remember every detail of his last visit with his mother. Six months ago, Betsy had flown to Seattle to help Wes organize the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new pediatric oncology wing and had donated a significant amount of money to the hospital. He remembered how she had beamed when he cut the ribbon and how she had lingered long after the ceremony to speak with some of the young patients. She had been the sole reason Wes occasionally regretted his decision to leave Charleston and live on the West Coast.
Robert Lee Stanhope IV was rarely at a loss for words. Born the oldest son to a long line of South Carolina Stanhopes, the Colonel was proud of his lineage and determined to carry on the Stanhope name. It was no small disappointment to him that his beloved wife bore him just one son, and his son had no interest in remaining in Charleston to create a legacy of his own. In fact, Wes had nearly been Robert Lee Stanhope V, but his mother had put a quick stop to that. He recalled her words: “No son of mine will be forced to endure the fifth of anything.” However disappointed, the Colonel was proud of his son’s reputation as the preeminent pediatric oncologist in Seattle, even though Seattle was not located within the borders of South Carolina. True, Wes had fulfilled the family tradition of attendance at The Citadel, although the Colonel had never understood why his handsome and accomplished son had not, at the age of thirty-seven, married and started a family of his own.
The Colonel cleared his throat and directed his gaze at Wes. “Weston, your mother and I had several long discussions after her last visit to Seattle for the dedication of the new pediatric oncology wing. I’m sure you are aware of how proud she was—rather, we are—of all you’ve accomplished there.”
Wes looked at his father and turned his gaze back to the fire.
The Colonel continued. “When your mother returned, she spoke to me about allocating resources from the Stanhope Foundation to build a children’s hospital here in South Carolina, and it was her fondest wish that you would lead this effort.”
Wes felt his mouth go dry and he straightened in his seat. “You’re building a hospital?” His voice was hoarse.
“That’s what I want to discuss with you.” The Colonel leaned forward in his chair. “I am prepared to move ahead with this project. Your mother and I talked about this at length, and we have a large parcel of land in Mount Pleasant that’s been in the family for years. We’ve had some preliminary discussions with the Governor, and he assures me his office will support this initiative.”
Wes’s lips curled into a smirk. Of course he will. The Governor was just one more of the Colonel’s fellow Citadel graduates and would hold true to the Colonel and his wishes.
The Colonel rose from his chair and walked over to the windows. He gazed at the harbor through the rain. “As you know, your mother was a tireless volunteer and served on the Governor’s council to conduct health education outreach for the state’s poor. When she returned from her last visit with you, I think she had already decided that this hospital would be her legacy. She had planned to ask you to assist her in its development. Now it’s up to the two of us to make sure the Stanhope Children’s Hospital is built.” The Colonel turned back to face his son.
Wes lowered his eyes and stared at the ice in the bottom of his glass. He hoped the Colonel wouldn’t see the tears welling in his eyes again. “I see,” was all he could manage to say.
The Colonel continued. “I, of course, will be the chairman, and we have selected the other members of the Board—most of whom, I daresay, you’ve known most of your life. You will be the CEO and be responsible for the design, construction, staffing, and—once completed—the entire operation. You’ll answer to the Board and be responsible for securing approval for each major milestone leading the project to completion. You will be well compensated, and if you agree, I can have a contract ready for your review next week.”
There was a knock on the study door. John nodded to the Colonel and said, “Dr. Stanhope, your taxi is outside.”
Wes stood and suddenly felt a bit off balance. He wasn’t sure if it was the effect of the bourbon or the shock of the Colonel’s pronouncement. He looked at the portrait above the fireplace once more and then directed his gaze back to the Colonel. “I need some time to think about this. I loved my mother deeply and nothing would make me happier than to build a hospital to honor her memory. But I have a life and practice in Seattle. I can’t just pick up and leave that quickly.”
“Well, move her back here to Charleston with you then. Whoever she is, she would have a good life here. We can make sure she is accepted into society and help her establish a nice network of friends, maybe a job. You’re thirty-seven years old now, son—high time to start a family.”
Wes walked toward the door and picked up his bag. “I’ll give this very serious consideration. That is all I can commit to right now.”
The Colonel nodded. Wes started in the direction of the door and then stopped midstride. He wanted to run to his father and seek the comfort he knew they both needed, but in the Colonel’s eyes, again, he knew that would be a sign of weakness, so he simply said, “Good-bye, Father.”
WES settled into his seat in first class and opened his BlackBerry. After glancing through several e-mails of condolence, he checked his voice mail and breathed a sigh of relief. The five-year-old patient he was most concerned about seemed to be responding well to her treatment. He decided that once he landed, the hospital would be his first stop. He glanced at his watch and frowned. Even with the three-hour time difference, he wouldn’t get to the hospital until one thirty in the morning at the earliest. He laid his head back and closed his eyes with the intention of grabbing some sleep.
Twenty minutes into his flight, he realized sleep was out of the question. The events of the last two days seemed surreal. I can’t believe Mom is really gone. How could I not have known she wanted to build a hospital, for God’s sake? If only I could have spoken to her about her dream—and could have considered the Colonel’s proposal knowing she would work alongside me to build the Stanhope Children’s Hospital. Instead, if I do this, I’ll answer to a Board of Directors headed by the Colonel and likely populated with several of his Citadel cronies. No, it’s out of the question. I’m settled in Seattle. Even if I had someone in my life, the last thing I would do is recommend a transfer to Charleston.
The Colonel had always been very opinionated about “the proper Stanhope life.” In Wes’s case, this would have meant a wife from Charleston society, children, and a large home “South of Broad.” Broad Street is considered by the locals the demarcation point between the very wealthy “old money” Charlestonians and everyone else. In fact, one clever restaurant owner named his establishment “Slightly North of Broad,” or “SNOB,” as a tongue-in-cheek comment about the district. It would be risky to expose anyone he cared about to the rigors of “being a Stanhope.” He’d made a decision, years ago, not to even bother, and that decision had its benefits and drawbacks.
After he’d moved to Seattle, he’d had his share of liaisons to fill in the loneliness. His colleagues would introduce him to women they knew would be a “perfect match.” There was no doubt Wes was considered quite a catch: his thick, sandy-blond hair had a slight wave and his blue-gray eyes were kind and warm. He was tall at six feet three inches and muscular thanks to his daily workouts at the hospital gym. His voice still held a bit of Charleston drawl, which the ladies found irresistible. In spite of their best efforts, Wes never felt a connection with any of the women he met. When asked why he had never married, he would shrug and politely say, “I’m married to my work. A doctor’s life can be punishing for a family.”
Settling in for a long, sleepless flight, Wes opened his laptop case and removed his iPad to catch up on the latest oncology news. As he read, his thoughts kept returning to his mother. How could he not do this for her? What did he have in Seattle anyway? Maybe he should put all the bitterness in his heart aside and focus on creating for the children of South Carolina a hospital that would make his mother proud.
“Excuse me, Dr. Stanhope. In preparation for landing, would you please bring your seatback to the upright position?”
Wes opened his eyes and glanced at his watch. He must have fallen asleep. Well, that’s good, he thought as he began to wonder about his patients at the Seattle Medical Center.
WES stepped off the elevator onto the fifth floor of the pediatric oncology unit. After rounds, he decided to grab a coffee in the cafeteria.
“Buy you a coffee, Doc?”
Wes turned to see his good friend and colleague, Aaron Goldstein. “Hi, Aaron. Thanks, and you can buy my breakfast while you’re at it.”
“When did you get back?”
“A few hours ago. I just finished rounds.”
“I’m sorry about your mother, Wes. You flew out of here so quickly, I didn’t have a chance to tell you sooner. Your mother was quite a woman, and I’m so glad I had the chance to meet her at the dedication.”
“Yes, she is—” Wes hesitated and felt his throat tighten. “Was an incredible human being.”
The two settled at a table next to the windows. Outside, dawn was just beginning to break. Wes sipped his coffee and stared out toward the city.
“Anything I can do for you, Wes? Perhaps you’d like a couple of days—you know, some personal time.”
Wes hadn’t intended to share his conversation with his father, but he looked at Aaron and said, “I’ve been offered a significant opportunity to build and run a children’s hospital back in South Carolina.”
“What? What do you mean? I thought you went home for your mother’s funeral?” Aaron queried.
“I did.” He relayed the details of his mother’s plan and the Colonel’s proposal.
“My God, Wes! Are you going to do it?”
“I don’t know, Aaron. I’ve been thinking of little else since I left Charleston. There are so many reasons it could be a bad idea and only one reason why it would be a good one—to honor my mother’s legacy.”
Aaron leaned across the table and looked directly at Wes.
“Wes, my friend, you’re wrong. There are so many reasons to do this—you just haven’t met them all yet. Each child who would become a patient at this hospital represents a very big reason to move forward. Believe me, I would hate to see you leave, but how many people get the opportunity to have such an impact on so many lives? I don’t think you have a choice.”
Wes considered what Aaron was saying as he sipped his coffee; he hadn’t touched his breakfast. “You’re right, of course, Aaron. I can’t have anyone else design and staff the Stanhope Children’s Hospital. I don’t have a choice.”
Aaron nodded in agreement.
“Can I ask you to keep this conversation between us until I’m ready to announce my decision?” Wes asked.
At seven o’clock, Wes took a taxi from the Medical Center to his condominium. After a long, hot shower, he crawled into bed and slept soundly for the first time in four days. When he woke, he made a large pot of coffee and placed the call that would change his life.