This was a story I first wrote about 10 years ago. It came out of the memory of rather suddenly having to go to visit my aunt to say goodbye when she was in the hospital. The image of this lovely woman hooked up to machines was one that was hard to shake. After writing The End, I unfortunately had similar experiences with other members of my family. Repeating the experience certainly did not make it any easier, but rereading this story somehow brought me some comfort.
The story was published in the DCC literary journal Exposed.
She watches the rain hitting the hospital window and the memories come flooding back. She remembers holding her newborn child in her arms and looking at the rain through another window of the same hospital. At that time, she was a patient in the maternity ward, not the ICU. She had looked down at this wrinkled, wriggly little being and the out at the dull, gray sky and teary-eyed told him, “I know this world seems like a big, scary place, but one thing I can promise you. I will always be here for you.”
Back then she did not even know him. She had felt him moving around in her belly for some months, but it felt more like a frog jumping around inside than a real person. Then Jason was born and her life changed forever.
Last night she dreamt about his childhood, about the sleepless nights when only her warm breast could comfort him, about the first time he called Mama and the thousands of times he called on her after that. And she had kept her promise. She was always there for him throughout his childhood, in the difficult teen years, and even into adulthood.
Along with the proud moments also came the regrets. She thought about the time she lashed out at him for some misbehavior (she cannot even remember now what it was) while coming out of the mall. She did not just yell to get his attention, but rather unleashed a truly venomous tirade in which all her frustrations were unleashed on one dumbfounded three-year-old.
She had been pushed to a breaking point that morning: Jason’s incessant whining all morning; the argument she had with Kevin, her husband, the night before; the guy who was tailgating her all the way to the store; the rude checkout clerk yapping on the phone; the man on the way out of the store who would not hold the elevator even though she was loaded with packages and had a toddler in tow. She sometimes heard other women engaged in similar tirades in public places, just before she shot them a disapproving glare. That day she was the raving lunatic at the receiving end of perfect strangers’ dirty looks.
By now she has long-forgotten all the little annoyances that led to the temporary loss of her ever-cool, laid back demeanor. She could never forget Jason’s response, however. He did not have a tantrum or cry out. He just got quiet and had a hurt look on his face. Really still a baby, he was trying to hold back the tears. She feels guilty even still, thirty years later.
Now she looks pleadingly at Jason, as if to say “You’re all grown up now. You don’t need me anymore…let me go.” She has too many words she wants to say, so many thoughts racing through her head. She does not want to leave this world, but she also does not want to stay in it like this.
The doctor had told her it was a simple procedure, that she would be in and out of the hospital within a few days. Of course, he gave her the standard disclaimer about the risk of infection inherent in even minor surgery. However, she was in good physical condition and looked years younger than she really was. In the end, the risk of infection turned out all too real. She had contracted an antibiotic-resistant staph infection. In a matter of weeks, her plump but shapely body had deteriorated to skin and bones, her perfectly highlighted and cut hair was a straggly nest of grays, and her round, rosy cheeks grew sunken and pallid.
Now she hears the doctors talk about her as if she is not even there. She watches them speak to her husband. Kevin looks at them as if they are speaking a foreign language. In a way, they are, since he was never a science person and all that medical terminology would require a PhD to understand, anyway. It is even harder for her to listen to the nurses. She can hear them talking in hushed tones out in the hallway about “the poor husband” and how suddenly it happened and how there was no hope for her. She hears no comforting euphemisms from them. She is going to die.
She had what some might consider a boring life, but she was not ready to leave that life behind yet. She just retired a few years ago. Years. It seemed like just months. It is funny how the more free time you have, the faster it goes by. Still there was, or should have been, plenty of time left for Kevin and her. All those things they had put off doing with each other. They had talked about going on a second honeymoon since the flight back from their first, but it never materialized.
Thinking of her honeymoon reminds her of her wedding day. Throughout her life, whenever she felt discouraged she could think of that day and feel again that sense of just starting out, or perhaps starting over. It is still a comforting reminder of a happier time. She looks over at her husband snoring on the chair across the starkly lit room, salt and pepper hair rumpled from too many sleepless nights and too few trips home from the hospital, and she worries. “What will become of my family?” she wonders.
Even now, she is haunted by mundane anxieties. Will Kevin see the oil bill she stuck in her jacket pocket the day before the so-called minor surgery? Will Kevin give Jason all the mail he keeps getting at home even though their son moved out six years ago? The bigger concerns follow: When will Jason settle down? Will Kevin remarry and will she be good to him? She just wants to know they will both be happy.
A host of scenarios runs through her mind. Maybe Kevin will finally win the lottery he has been playing, and losing, for the past twenty years. Perhaps he will then meet some gold digger who will break his heart and leave him penniless. She envisions Jason on his wedding day – so handsome – and pities him and herself when she thinks of not being there to see it.
Life in the hospital ward is quite surreal. Were it not for the view out the window day and night would be synonymous. The painkillers make her thoughts fuzzy most of the time. A constant flow of medical staff comes in and out of the room changing bedpans, taking blood, changing IV bags, checking irregularities in the monitor readouts. This is what is left of her interaction with the world outside of her family.
Not that she can really communicate with her family. The tube in her throat prevents her from speaking. She can grunt or she can attempt to communicate with her eyes. Usually these two modes of communication are horrendously inadequate, leaving the recipient of her attempts feeling hurt, helpless, and wholly confused about what she wants.
As the days, or perhaps weeks pass, the range of visitors widens. It is no longer just her immediate family who comes to see her: her brother who lives in another state, nieces and nephews who she usually only sees at Christmas or weddings, her son’s friends, even an old friend who she had lost touch with but always intended to get together with again. She gets the feeling they are saying their last goodbyes, although no one actually says that to her. They put on a cheerful face and tell her about what is new with them. Before they leave, however, they invariably look like they want to say something else, or they tell her something that they would not normally say. For example, “We just want you to know we love you,” or “You were always a role model to me growing up.” It is a strange feeling to be told such things and have no means of responding.
With time, the worries begin to slip away. She now spends more of her time in the past. It is strange, but most people assume that your life passes before your eyes just before you die and in chronological order, from birth to the moment of death. For her, the experience was more like a lazy, dawdling walk through a maze of memories. She begins to think about her parents and her own childhood. Even the most trivial events and acquaintances of her childhood become immanent. She is once again playing hide and seek, teasing boys on the playground, getting into trouble, having fun. A look of peace passes over her face.
Suddenly, she is at the moment of her birth being placed in her mother’s arms. She feels so safe, so secure, so far away from that hospital room. A feeling of warmth and happiness overcomes her as her own mother cuddles her and tells her, “I will always be here for you.”