[Image Credit: Elyse Holmes]
My mother was propped up on pillows like a thin doll. The dusky yellow of her skin caught in the light of the bedside lamp and her body cast a small shadow. The contours of her face had changed again, her body had sunk down into itself, and bruises fretted her arms and hands. Her nightgown didn’t cover the bulge of her port, which stuck up under her flesh like a religious medallion. I could see that my sister hadn’t been exaggerating on the phone and that the suit I’d borrowed would be worn this trip.
I looked at her half-open closet door and saw her impotent shoes. I couldn’t imagine her standing and walking now.
She stirred, her eyes opened and blinked. She said my name and held me surprisingly hard, like a scared child clinging as it was pulled gasping from a pool. When she regained herself, she asked about my flight and about New York. As I answered she reached up and touched my face. I let it happen, wanting it and fearing it. She said, “Your hair is so short. I like it a little longer, you know, with your ears.”
Her voice was thin with a drag at the end as if something moving like a bird or a cloud had caught her eye mid-sentence and she was distractedly tracking its progress. “I’m glad you’re here. I didn’t know if you’d be able to get away. If you’d be too busy.”
Was there an edge to what she was saying or was I imagining it?
I felt like she had something more she wanted to say, like she was hesitating. She looked at me, smiled sadly. “This sure is something.”
I waited for something more but she drifted back off. Her eyelids flickered, then closed. Her breath stuttered and smoothed out.
Watching her I burned with the need to get up, to still be alive. I stood up quietly and made my way through the half-lit rooms to the patio door and walked outside.
I stood on the concrete slab, which was cracked along its northeast corner creating a little dip if you walked too far left. Where the woodpile had once been stacked high for the winter the slats were empty and tall grass bent between them. The small hedge around the patio was almost completely stripped bare of leaves giving the impression of raked-up tumbleweeds, a place where everything had stopped moving. The pine trees flanking the yard had grown enormous, swaying and dropping cones and needles into dead brown semi-circles.
The property had been on the cusp of cornfields and family farms when we moved here. All of that was long gone. Over the years since I’d left the city had spread like middle-aged hips, sprawling to the northeast and overtaking farms and horse stables. The population had jumped and the factory, where Dad had worked was shuttered. A decade ago there had been an exodus of families seeking job security at another plant. The relocators had ended up on night shifts in the paint department, nursing migraines during fitful hours of day sleep.
I wandered across the grass and lit a cigarette. Smoke moved out from me like concentrated breath. No matter how far away I went I never really left here. This place wasn’t the ash trees or the gentle roll of the hills in the southern part of the state where the glaciers got tired. This place wasn’t Joe McCarthy’s vandalized grave or the serial killers who in keeping with the state’s pioneer spirit made furniture and food out of their kill. This place wasn’t even the things that had happened here or the people who had done them. It was how long you could go on unloved and what you’d do to make it look like you were loved.
I watched the smoke rise, a slight thing disappearing into the cloudless sky and then crushed out my cigarette. I turned from the dark yard to the darkened house; two groomed wildernesses, and listened to the faint but steady sound of traffic in the distance. As a kid it had lulled me to sleep with its promise of larger moving worlds and escape, but now it sounded like something running in circles. Different wider circles, still running and still going nowhere.
“How’s your pain? How would you rate it?” the hospice nurse asked.
“Seven,” my mother rasped. Her face was closed, tired by the pain and talk of pain.
The nurse moved with deliberate gait of someone focused on a checklist. Her face was kind in a practiced way and her voice rose in pitch as she suggested actions to my mother, “Maybe we can sit up a little?”
My mother was dutiful and responsive to each request as the nurse tended to a bedsore on her lower back. It was a blackened crust the size of a hockey puck, delicate and revolting. The nurse’s large arms blotted my mother out and I looked away as though it was an eclipse. I didn’t need to see my mother being cleaned.
I retreated to the living room and sat on the couch leafing through a magazine, looking at an endless flow of youth and beauty and shine.
On the wall was a collection of wooden hobo crosses made of small interlocking spikes threaded together to look like geometric thorns. Train-hopping itinerants made the crosses. Their labor had been exchanged for hot meals and beds in rural church basements. I imagine the men with freshly scrubbed hands that won’t come clean, concentrating on constructing these elegant and gruesome decorations. Alcohol sweat stained their underarms, their water-slicked hair came unparted, and their thick fingers with walnut-sized joints fumbled.
When the nurse appeared I looked up at her dull face and wondered what her life was like outside of watching other people die.
“We’re all done,” she said.
I hesitated. “How long do you think she can go on like this?”
“I really can’t say. Some people really fight and don’t want to give up.” She looked right at me. “And some are ready to go.”
Maybe they weren’t legally supposed to give estimates.
After she left, I moved back into the bedroom. My mother was very still. The effort of speaking and of moving under the nurse’s care, of being cleaned and freshened, made comfortable, had worn her down. She closed her eyes. I got closer to feel her breath and watched the rising and falling of her chest.
Women with bowed heads, their hair dyed ash blonde or russet or honey blonde or butterscotch with gray roots showing and men with faces that looked hard-boiled and then plunged into cold water, cracking the shell with fine fault lines, came to the door and milled about the living room. They spoke in library voices until my sister guided them to see our mother, announcing each guest as if it was a governor’s ball. By her bed, they spoke in hushed tones or too-bright Jesus voices. They tried to say meaningful things. They attempted a spirited and true variation on their normal chatter but it ran at the edges. The men stood with their hands in pockets and heads downcast, talking from the sides of their mouths. Their talk had migrated from the optimistic pomp I’d heard on previous visits to a sad and resigned murmur, falling into quiet that was interrupted by religious cant.
Many brought casseroles, another corpse for the refrigerator, more inedible pasta in tangy orange sauce or something bathed in creamed soup. I rearranged the refrigerator, trying to find space in the morgue.
Aunts, uncles, and cousins I hadn’t seen or spoken to in years came and I struggled to recognize them. Many were soft-featured, soft-spoken, puddle-eyed, and puddle-minded. Their presence filled me with sludge-like inertia. I nodded and the corners of my mouth pulled up. My spine felt compressed and I slouched, growing smaller in a faded armchair, eyes roaming the room seeking a place to steady.
In the yard I smoked absently, staring at the sky as it turned colors, slow pinks and swipes of yellow, and I looked for a plane cutting through it, a plane like the one that would take me away and not bring me back. My stomach felt sour and my hands grew wet.
I heard the women inside talking and the men rumbling in lower registers. Coffee had been made, pastries brought out, and now a few people were discussing what they could and couldn’t eat, what disagreed with them. No one came for me, and that was fine.
My mother feared sedation, feared morphine. “What if I don’t wake up?” she said. And I thought, At some point you won’t.
For a while my mother preferred the pain to the confusion of the drugs.
“I never knew what you liked about them,” she said one afternoon.
You will, I thought.
Her pupils became small dots. She floated on morphine, looking at the room and its contents as if they are amusements or souvenirs. She moved along on a river of images and memories. She said, “I don’t like what I’m seeing on the walls.” She looked up at the cracked plaster. “The sky is broken.”
“Have you been away on a long trip?” she said. Her eyes pulled at me, looked beyond, and then returned. The medication dislocated her, sending me away and bringing me back.
“I’m here now,” I said.
The night was quiet and still, the numb end of a long day. I stood at my mother’s side. The sheet was pulled up halfway. It looked almost as if she had been bisected and her lower half was gone. Her body was vanishing.
My sister said she was turning in and trailed off like a thought, down the hallway.
I dozed on the sofa, half-waking at strange intervals to the sound of her slow spaced breath. She drew air, a long pause, and then she exhaled.
I woke after midnight to silence. Panic pushed its way up from my gut, and then I got up and walked to my mother. I couldn’t tell if she was dead at first. I thought there would be something more, not simply stopping. I held her hand and stroked her hair. I touched her fingernails, her fingertips, her knuckles.
Her eyes were half open and I closed them. I placed her hands together over her abdomen. My balance wavered, and I sat on the floor beside her bed for a long while. I wanted to remain beside her, in between life and death, in a tender fog that stretched out over us, stopping time.
When I could, I stood up and walked down the worn carpet to the room where my sister slept. In the half-light, I looked at her for a moment. She was on her side, wadded up. I sat on the bed and hesitated. I almost wanted to let her sleep, not waking her, not telling her. Then I gently put my hand on her and she woke. Her hands were curled and she squinted, looking like a boxer knocked to the mat.
“She’s gone,” I said.
My sister’s shoulders moved up and down, and then abruptly, she stood. “I want to see her,” she said. We walked to the living room, and I held my mother’s hands. They were no colder than mine.
“It’s like she’s just sleeping,” my sister said. It was a thought so untrue that it pierced me.
I looked at the clock with its whiteness and flatness marking the hour.
“We should call hospice,” my sister said, but she didn’t move.
I walked to the kitchen and looked at the page with names and numbers in my mother’s perfect handwriting. I located the hospice number and dialed. My voice cracked when I said she’s dead.
We sat with our mother until the hospice nurse, arrived. She hugged my sister who cried on her shoulder for a moment. I didn’t hug the nurse or extend myself in any way. I needed a small pocket of rage to keep sane and warm because coldness was covering me in a flat veil of nothing.
In the kitchen, the nurse emptied morphine and another trinity of bottles down the sink. There were poached painkillers in my pocket. Watching them being dumped down the drain, I wished I had stolen more.
“Her suffering is over,” my sister said.
“Yes, her suffering is over now,” the nurse said, almost singsong.
The nurse finished with the drugs, walked into the living room, and removed tubes. My sister stood beside her, serene at first and then hiccupping with tears. The nurse prepared to leave, packing up odds and ends like a vaudevillian act heading to the next city. She hugged both of us in one powerful motion, a hard squeeze. “Now you two take care of each other,” she said.
A man and a woman from the funeral home arrived. They covered our mother in a sheet, placed her body on a gurney, and wheeled her out. I told the man that we would make arrangements in the morning. He shook my hand, but I couldn’t feel it. I was numb but my numbness played as strength.
Once the funeral home took our mother’s body, we were left with the bed and the oxygen tank, and wheelchair. It was as if it was the first time I’d seen these objects. They had been symbols of a failing body, of impending death. Now that death had arrived and the body was gone, all we had were props.
My sister opened the sliding door to the patio and let some air in. I got a glass of bourbon and took one of the painkillers. I stepped outside. I had waited for this. I had counted on it and counted on how I would feel. The thing I hadn’t counted on was that I would still be alive.
Nate Lippens is the author of the chapbook Mince (Bridge Productions, 2016). His stories have been published in Catapult, Vol 1. Brooklyn, Hobart, Queen Mob’s Tea House, and SAND Journal, among others.