My mind isn’t what it used to be, that’s for sure. Some mornings I wake up in a state of blissful unawareness, hovering in that gray area between being asleep and awake. I roll over and stretch my arms across the crisp linens of the bed and the scent of lavender engulfs me. Smiling, I reach out a hand towards Dan’s thin Kentucky frame, but he isn’t there. A wave of sickness washes over my body as I feel my hand open and close around the nothingness, and then the haze in my head clears and the scent of bleach and urine and death engulfs my senses once again. I sigh as I open my eyes to greet the eggshell white walls of my little room. The nurse always comes in shortly afterwards, asking me to, “Please sit up,” and to “Please take my pills,” and to “Eat something for once, for god’s sake!” The way I see it, if god really wanted me to keep eating, he would have graced my presence with something a little easier to stomach than the shit they try to pass out here. The nurse hands me a little plastic cup with three pills inside. I swallow them as usual, once in the morning and again at night before bed. Those three little capsules are keeping me alive, the three sisters of fate taking shape in the form of tiny tablets. They hold the thread of my life tautly between spindly fingers, waiting for the moment in which they can snip it apart. It should be any time now really, so it’s pretty hard not to question why I still do what they ask of me. It’s hard not to question nearly every aspect of life when you’ve come to the near end of it. Sitting on the very rim of existence, things just seem to make more sense. The nurse takes her leave; defeated by my refusal to eat; and my mind drifts back to Dan, and of days that once were.
God, I remember when I first met Dan. It was a meeting not unlike most others, sudden and awkward and seemingly insignificant. He took me out to dinner and we stumbled over words and avoided catching one another’s gaze, blabbering on about nothing to fill the silence. But then something curious happened: once I got home, I found myself missing the company of this hopelessly awkward, terribly shy and yet outstandingly charming young man. This made no sense to me, so I made it my vow to meet him again so I could sort out my feelings. Well, soon enough the hours we spent together became weeks and weeks became months and months became years. 3 of them, to be exact. Three years later, we were married. That day was like an hour and an eternity all rolled into one for me. I wore my mother’s wedding dress with the fragile lace sleeves, yellowed and faded from the passing of time. She told me that I looked more beautiful than anything she’d ever seen as she braided my hair into a careful updo, pinning the petals of a white lily into my curls. I felt as if my legs would never stop shaking as I waited outside the heavy oak doors that lead to the sanctuary. It turns out, I was right. My legs quaked all throughout the ceremony, which made me thankful for the long gown I was wearing. The wedding was more beautiful than anything I could have dreamed, and after we read our vows and said our “I do’s”, the church bells began to ring and I burst through the front door of that church, rice falling from my hair, and Dan turned to look at me. “I must be the luckiest man in the world,” he said.
And my heart burst right out of my chest and past the front steps of that church and flew higher and higher until it was caught among the clouds and swirled among the stars and sparkled within galaxies far past our own universe. My heart is still up there soaring to this day.
After we got married, we started searching for a place to call our own. Dan already had a steady job working in one of the many coal mines scattered around the quaint little Appalachian town that we called home, and I had a little bit of money saved up from when I used to work as a waitress at a local Diner. We both decided that we’d rather not live in the coal camp since we had a bit of money tucked away already, so we settled on a small shotgun house just on the outskirts of town. It was perfect for the two of us, and I can scarcely remember a time when I was happier. We closed the deal on our house and I went to work making it a home right away. I spent the days while Dan was away sorting through boxes and bags, sewing new curtains for the kitchen and planting flowers in the yard. Soon enough, it was a place that I was proud to call my own. At around six every evening, Dan would come home from work, always whistling the same old tune. I never really knew what the song was, but it always meant that Dan was home. After we got settled in, I began work as a secretary in a local Law Office. It was a decent job with decent pay, and I honestly loved working there. It seemed that life just kept getting better and better at each step we’d take, and before we knew it, we had a baby on the way. We decided to call him Michael. He was just as perfect as any baby could be, and life was wonderful for Dan and me.
I’m snapped back into reality by the ear splitting shrillness of the telephone, and it is all I can do to stop myself from jumping right out of this bed to answer it. I hear the familiar clunking of the nurse’s shoes as she comes jogging into the room, snatching up the receiver in her hand. It’s my son, she says. I haven’t heard from Michael in ten years, I tell her. Not since before I got sick again. I don’t even know if he knows, or if he cares, for that matter. I tell the nurse to get out. She can see that her lies are upsetting me, so she leaves to take the call in another room. Before my illness, things were so much simpler, and I love remembering those days. Of course, memories of the days afterwards seem to crowd them out all too often.
I remember the night I told Dan what was wrong. I had scheduled a doctor’s appointment for a day when I was sure he wouldn’t be home. I don’t know what made me keep my worries from him for so long; I guess ignoring the symptoms and pretending that nothing was wrong made it feel as if nothing really was wrong. Anyway, Dan was out visiting some old friends that he hadn’t seen in close to a decade, and there I was, slumped over an old leather armchair, staring at nothing and thinking about everything. I didn’t feel anything at all. I was empty inside. During my pregnancy, I started feeling lethargic and ill all the time, but wrote it off simply as side effects of being pregnant. However, once I gave birth to Michael, the feeling did not go away. When the doctor explained that I had Lymphoma, my soul left my body.
At around 10:00, I heard the lock on the front door click and my heart immediately dropped into my stomach. The familiar clunking of Dan’s shoes resonated through the parlor and that familiar melody whistled from between his lips. I found myself sprinting towards the sound. When I reached Dan in the parlor, he looked at me and smiled. I broke down right then and there. He just had this look of utter confusion on his face, but he didn’t ask questions right away. He just wrapped his arms around me and stroked my hair. We sat down on the worn oak flooring right there in the doorway. I must have cried for half an hour before I could even get the words out to tell him what was wrong. I kept opening my mouth to speak, but sobs seemed to be the only thing able to escape. I rested my head against his firm chest and brushed my face against the prickly stubble on his chin, making sure he was really there and not just a figment of my imagination. He reached a calloused thumb to my face and wiped away a tear.
“Dan, I want you to know that I am very sick,” I whispered. I felt his body tense around me. In that moment, every sound on the Earth became muted and time seemed to stop, and yet time didn’t stop. Time stops for no one, and I found that out the hard way. He didn’t say anything at all; instead he tightened his grip around me and held me there, as if he feared I would turn to some sort of vapor that would slip right through his fingers. I felt his chest heave in and out as he quietly sobbed into the sleeve of my sweater.
“It’s going to be all right,” he said over and over again.
“It’s going to be all right.”
“It’s going to be all right.”
His reassurance resonated through the otherwise quiet household, and after a while, I started to believe him.
What a fool I was.
“That was very foolish of you indeed, Ms. Mason,” scolded the nurse after I promptly flipped over a heaping plate of orange jello all over the clean tile floor. She was always bringing me various things to eat throughout the day, hoping that someday I may actually accept and consume something more than a bit of toast here and there, for once.
“I’ll be coming back with your lunch in just a few minutes, maybe you’ll like something then,” she chirps like nothing was ever wrong.
“Not likely,” I say, smirking at her. She pretends not to hear and walks out, the smile never leaving her face.
God, she’s just so happy that it kills me.
I’m sorry, I’m coming across as a little bitter, aren’t I? It’s something I need to work on, I really do. I smooth the itchy forest green quilt on my bed and try to relax, but the film reel in my head just won’t stop rolling.
I remember that night so clearly that it could have been just yesterday. I was shuffling about in the kitchen, trying to keep my mind on the specific task of not letting the night’s dinner burn. The baby was crying and for some reason I just couldn’t get him to calm down, so I would go from room to room, rocking the baby and then rushing back to tend to the food on the stove. Then, just as soon as I would rush back to the stove, the baby would start fussing again. After about 5 or 6 trips back and forth I was about to go crazy. I had just sprinted back to the kitchen to find that the water from the pan of potatoes on the stove was boiling over, so I frantically turned the heat down, trying to keep the boiling water from pouring over onto my feet. Just when I thought things couldn’t get any more hectic, the phone rang. As you can imagine, I was not happy in the least about this. I wiped my hands on the faded floral printed apron tied around my waist and ripped the phone from its hook on the wall, preparing myself to hang up on any persistent telemarketers. Instead, it was Dan’s boss. He seemed very quiet, and he talked with a carefulness in his voice that I’d never heard before, as if my ears were made of eggshells that he was determined not to crack. He slowly explained to me that Dan had been involved in an accident in the mines. The shaft he was working in collapsed. 16 men were killed. He expressed his deep condolences. I fell into a kitchen chair and a wave of numbness traveled up and out of every point in my entire body. I sat in that chair for what could have been a few minutes, or what could have been a few days, I’ll never know. There I sat with the telephone receiver in hand, cord twisted about my body like some gruesome, writhing reptile, the dial tone’s steady screech scolding me for breaking connection with reality. All I know is that those potatoes burned and I couldn’t even hear that baby crying anymore.
I remember being so angry at him. Isn’t that funny? For the first couple of weeks, I raged at him as if it were all a joke. Like he were just playing some kind of sick joke on me, waiting to jump out of the darkness of some corner of the house and say, “Gotcha!” I had never hated him in life as much as I hated him in death. He knew I was sick, and he had to go and be so fucking careless, climbing down those mine shafts, not paying attention to what he was doing. I could have killed him if he weren’t already dead. He just had to go and leave me, just up and leave me right when I needed him most. I couldn’t do it on my own, and he knew that. But he left me anyway, damn him. He left me all alone.
I am so sick of this rain that I can hardly stand it. The steady downpour has lasted for about three days now, and I’m dying to see the sun. Dying. That’s not a word we’re supposed to throw around freely in this place. There’s always someone dying here. Still, I wish the rain would stop for a while. I’d like to see the sun. People always try to reassure you by giving you a hearty slap on the back and saying, “The sun will come out tomorrow!” Well, that may very well be true, but who’s to say that I’ll be around to see it? Who’s to say that any of us will be around? I know that Dan didn’t expect to never see the sun again on that day the earth swallowed him whole.
The silence is what haunted me the most. Right after he died, sometimes my mind would play tricks on me and I would be so sure that I heard him whistling, always that same old tune and I would stop whatever I was doing and I would scramble around the house, checking every single corner of each room because god, he really couldn’t be gone, could he? I must have done that frantic search 100 times that first year. Then gradually, I’d hear Dan’s song less and less until eventually, I couldn’t even remember it at all. He was never there, and I never knew what song that was so I never heard it again.
The nurse is back now, my lunch tray in hand. She asks me if I feel up to eating anything this afternoon, and I promptly tell her to get out. I guess I really shouldn’t be so short with her; it doesn’t really tend to make a great impression on people. I’ve made myself that way though, over the years. After Dan died, all I did was push. I pushed and pushed at the people I loved most until they got so fed up that they just up and left. I pushed them out. I pushed them away.
Of course, after Dan died, things got a lot harder for me and Michael. Dan had a little money he’d saved up for us, but of course things were really tough when the fear of leaving behind an orphan child ran constantly through your mind. My mother was very gracious throughout my treatments; she even lived with us for a while. She did most of the cooking and cleaning and caring for Michael, since I really wasn’t in the shape to do it myself. My mother always told me that she was sure I was going to get better, and that this was just a short roadblock in the pathway of my life. She always had a smile on her face, but sometimes I’d hear her crying in her room at night. I don’t know how much faith she actually had, to tell you the truth.
Anyway, by some miracle, I did manage to put my Lymphoma into remission, and things began looking up again. Michael was growing fast, and we were both starting to adjust to life on our own. Of course, we both had our rough days. I remember the first time Michael asked me about his dad, what he looked like, how he talked, how he dressed. I told him about Dan’s scruffy brown beard, his bellowing laugh, and his soft blue eyes, soft blue eyes just like Michael’s. I told him about the way he used to whistle, and about his job in the mines. I told him that his daddy had loved him very much. I cried through the entire conversation, silent tears poured down my face as I took the time to tell my son about the father that he never knew. I think I talked all night long.
Nights at the nursing home are always the worst. During the night, you have time to sit and think in the perfect solitude, save for the sound of a distant patient’s screeching. I always wonder what exactly it is that they scream about. People often fear the dark, but I don’t seem to mind it much. In fact, I wish they’d go ahead and turn off the little lights that hover near my bed. The yellow glow makes me sick to my stomach. I think that people fear the dark because in darkness, thoughts are free to create whatever they please in the empty space. Those who fear the dark let their minds fill blankness with demons and witches, ghosts of haunted pasts and less than holy existences. People don’t seem to fear the darkness, but rather their own demons, and I can assure you that demons do pile up as the years roll on. I’ve learned to shut most of mine out at this point, but maybe that’s what causes so many of my fellow residents to cry out in panic each night. Although that doesn’t quite make sense, because I find that fearing the darkness makes even less sense than fearing the daylight. In the daylight there is no darkness, there is only the truth. Anyway, I guess the screaming is probably just some sort of side effect of one condition or another, but I like to imagine, nonetheless. Here I can do a lot of imagining. It’s really what keeps me occupied, but I fear that I’m beginning to go mad from it all. I can scarcely remember the last time I was able to think without having my thoughts crowded out by the words of others.
The nurse pushes her way past the mound of gray curtains that surround my bed. She smiles at me, but it’s so weak and forced that I can’t help but look away. I can’t stand it when people smile at me like that. I know my face is not as smooth and lovely as it once was, but please, don’t feel sorry for me. I’ve had my youth, I reveled in it. This face shows the map of a life well lived, lines and wrinkles play a story across my countenance. One day, the nurse will grow old too. You will all grow old. Sprout, blossom, wither, and die. Let me tell you, my dears, it is nothing to be ashamed of. The sorrowful nurse clasps her hands together and softly assures me that my son will be here soon. I look at her, a puzzled expression on my face. I don’t know why she keeps mentioning Michael; I haven’t seen him in ten years. I suppose he’s given up on me. I remember the day he was born. His little round face smiled up at me, all warm and pink and so full of newness and life. I could scarcely believe that one day he’d grow tall and old and distant too.
Like children do, Michael grew up fast, so fast that I felt like I’d scarcely blinked between the time I’d held him as a baby in my arms to the time he stormed out of the house at 19 and never returned. God, he was so mad at me that night. Of course, now that I think about it, I would have been mad at me, too. I had had a little too much to drink, a nasty habit that I picked up when Michael got old enough to fend for himself a bit. When I got drunk, my mouth just ran and ran and showed no signs of stopping, and this time, Michael was not having it. I made a snide comment about his new girlfriend or his grades or something, and he stormed towards the door, to which I responded by throwing a porcelain vase at his head. Luckily, I missed and hit the doorframe just to his right, but the damage had been done anyway. He screamed and cursed all the way out to his car, vowing that he wasn’t going to put up with me anymore. And that was it; he was true to his word. He did eventually come back to pack up all of his belongings, and we were eventually able to be mutually civil to one another, but after that night things were never really quite the same with us. For a while he visited at least once a week, but then he stopped coming by as much, then he stopped calling, and then I just didn’t hear from him at all anymore. It’s my fault really, I pushed him away. Every time he’d come to visit, we’d get into some sort of argument and I’d end up saying something that I didn’t mean, and he would leave angrily and I would cry and drink for the rest of the night. I guess it’s been about ten years since I saw him last.
I can hear someone shuffling down the hallway towards the door, making an attempt at escape. The residents here do that often. They’ve got not a single thing left rattling around in their brains, but they sure as hell know to make a break for that front door at every chance they get. The alarm sounds as whoever it is grabs at the handle with gnarled and weathered fingers, the signal for a nurse to quickly escort the patient back down the hallway to safety. I still have my wits about me, but some days I feel an incredible urge to sprint through that door, too. It’s been a long six months, that’s for sure.
I found out that my lymphoma had returned with a vengeance on Christmas Day of this past year. After all these years, that dreadful cancer was back. If you’re wondering, no, it did not ruin my holiday, because my holiday was pretty much ruined just the way it was. When I was young and full of life, I never thought I’d be the one to sit alone at Christmastime year after year, watching the world pass by around me. This past decade has been so hard for me. I just couldn’t shake the habit of the alcohol, and it had eaten away at my body and it had eaten away at everything and everyone I loved. Michael still hadn’t called, but I had faith in him. He was always such a good boy. Every year since the year that he left, I’d sit by the phone, waiting for him to call. It didn’t have to be anything special, just a simple, “Merry Christmas, Mom.” That’s the only thing I wished for.
My doctor recommended that I move into an assisted living facility to help make living out my final days a bit easier on me. The cancer had spread too far this time, and let’s face it; I wasn’t as strong as I used to be. So, I packed up everything I owned and said goodbye to the place I’d called home since Dan and I were first married. Closing that door for the final time was like closing the door of my life, and the feeling could not have been more bittersweet. I sat down on the steps of the front porch for a while, letting the coldness of concrete seep into my aching bones. It was at that moment that I suddenly became very aware of the fact that my life was drawing to a close. I remember being 16 years old sitting in my parents’ living room, wishing with all my heart that I could be 18 so I could just move out and away already. I wanted a husband. I wanted to grow old with him. I wanted babies, and I wanted to watch them grow. I did some of those things, I failed at others. I had good days, and I had many more days in which I was so mad at God for giving me this life and so mad at myself that I could scarcely stand to look in the mirror. We come here to exist for a fraction of a second in the universe. Once my flesh and bone rot away, the earth will forget. The thought depressed me, and yet it didn’t depress me in the least. My triumphs will wash away, but so will my mistakes. In that realization, I was free. Here I am, left with nothing but a few dusty memories of the life I led. It’s all behind me now. All of it is over, and that’s really such a hard thing to grasp. Now what? So that’s it, I guess? With these questions, the age old question that has troubled hearts for centuries crept upon me:
Did any of it even matter?
But instead of staring blankly into the sun, a realization hit me so suddenly it was hard to believe that it hadn’t always been carefully tucked away inside my head.
It doesn’t matter if my life doesn’t matter, because it’s the only thing I’ve got. So of course it matters. Life is precious because it is the only thing that is certain.
And from that day on, I stopped worrying so much.
The sorrowful nurse is back again, but this time a young man takes careful strides behind her. My god, it’s really my son. It really is Michael. I want to say something to him, but my mouth can’t seem to make the words I need so desperately to say. He doesn’t say anything either, he just stands there. He is hovering over me, like some sort of angel in an oversized polo. I want to say something, but my thoughts swirl together and the only thing I’m thinking of is how much his eyes look like Dan’s. I think I might be crying. I lift my hand to touch my cheek and sure enough, I am. Why? He takes my hand in his, and he says something. His voice is so far away from me, like he’s trapped underwater and he keeps sinking in deeper and deeper. He says it again. And again.
“I love you, mom. Please, above all else, know that I’m sorry.”
Sorry? No Michael, I should be the one that is sorry. I’ve let you down so many times, Michael. I shouldn’t have been so careless with my words, with my actions. I love you Michael, dear god I love you. I just hope you know that.
But the words do not escape my lips. They cannot. I simply cannot.
But Michael is here. He is telling me he loves me. He takes my hand in his. He’s still underwater and it’s so hard to hear. The air is thick, and everything looks so pink. If I could only rest awhile, this will all make more sense in the morning. Let me rest awhile, let me rest.
And the rain outside stopped so suddenly that it seemed a dream.
It’s all just a dream in the end.
© Copyright 2016 CL Hotchkiss. All rights reserved.