Short Story (part one)
I knew momma was dying. She’d suffered from COPD and had at least one hospitalization every year for the past three or four years. Sometimes I’d rush to her side with a small vase of flowers, but other times I wouldn’t go and Leif (momma’s common law husband) would call in the evening with an update on her condition.
I felt nothing. Even the image my mind conjured up, with her looking scared and shrunken in the hospital bed, her belly swole up with a big liver from years of drinking, did not sway me to leave the comfort of my life and cross that threshold into hers—even temporarily. But when Leif called the next day I cried.
“The doctor says she only has half a heart left. How can anyone live with half a heart?” His pain and need of compassion left me wilted and by nine PM that night I was on my way to the hospital. Momma was at Harborview Medical Center in what was called ICU holding. It was just a big room in the basement where the sickest patients waited for someone even sicker upstairs –in the regular ICU– to die.
A dozen beds filled the room, six on the left side and six on the right. They were lined up against the wall with the foot of each bed facing inward, creating a corridor of sorts. Each bed had a curtain for privacy hung from a metal track that ran along the ceiling but only momma’s curtain was closed. I was told to wait while a team of nurses tried to tap momma’s femoral artery for blood. Because of her severe diabetes, the veins in her arms were impossible to access. An East Indian nurse pulled the curtain aside, smiled sadly and said, “We must sedate her. She is very combative and not resting for the doctor to draw blood.” That would be momma, combative even in the most dire of circumstances.
When the medical team finished, momma’s curtain was slowly pulled back and I saw her for the first time in nearly a year. She had a breathing tube in her mouth and her whole body shook as the machine forced air into her lungs. The faded bandanna she wore sat high on her forehead revealing a receding hairline that I’d never seen before. Somehow her hair loss gave me more a sense of sadness than the big box-like machine that was keeping her alive. I leaned in close to her ear and shouted, “I’m here momma. It’s me, Purslane. I’m right here!” I had a sudden memory of her ‘fixing her face’ as she called it. I watch as a little girl, fascinated. She’d spit on a cake of Maybelline mascara and transform her eyebrows into beautiful black arches. She was often told she looked like Elizabeth Taylor and even had a mole on the side of her face (like Liz) that she’d darken with the same waxy substance.
I went to work the next day, my emotions still unsettled and my mind not fully accepting of momma’s condition. At five I left and drove to the hospital. Leif met me in the lobby and I could see he was thankful that I’d come. With each step he seemed to unload a bit of boxed up pain and I could almost see it falling from his shoulders; like potatoes dropping from a bag and rolling off in every direction. His posture relaxed and he smiled and took my hand, “I told Poo you’d come. I knew you would.”
“I was actually here last night, I replied, but it was late and I didn’t stay long.”
Leif was Alaskan Native and he and momma had been together nearly 20 years. He’d gained a lot of weight since I’d last seen him and his black hair was cut with bangs straight across like one of the Three Stooges. I followed him across the lobby floor and into an empty elevator. “How ‘s she doing?” I asked.
“Oh, she’s much better since they moved her up from the basement. She seems real peaceful.”
Momma still had the breathing tube but her body was not jerking like before and she did look peaceful. The doctor had given her a paralytic agent and it kept her from fighting so the machine could do its job. After about an hour Leif needed a cigarette and I walked outside with him. The hospital sat on a hill above Downtown Seattle and the city was crisply outlined against a clear November sky. We stood across the street and leaned against a cold metal guardrail as I-5 roared beneath us.
The moist air smelled of salt and felt good to breathe. I watched the smoke from Leif’s cigarette swirl and break apart in the black sky. I looked at his profile and wondered what he must be thinking.
“You took real good care of her, Leif.”
He squished the butt of his Marlboro against the railing and wiped the black residue off with his hand, “Well, I loved her you know…”
And I knew he did. He told me how mad he was when the State approved payment for her oxygen but then took it away if she got even a little bit better.
He went on to tell me how the same thing happened when they approved a wheelchair. “Poo just laughed when the truck came to take the chair back, ‘there go my legs!’ she said.” Leif’s small hand folded into a fist and he pounded it on the railing, “Fuckin’ Welfare system! “
The next day I spent at momma’s bedside. I noticed how her feet were so cold and always seemed to be sticking out from under the flannel hospital sheet so I bought her a pair of fuzzy pink socks and carefully put them on. The nurse said I should talk to her, that she could hear me, and so I did. I told her about the beautiful tree just outside the window that still had its leaves. I told her about how blue the sky was and how nice the fall air felt and how she didn’t need to worry about Leif because I would help him. I kept talking until another nurse came in, one I hadn’t seen before, and she hung a plastic bag of something that looked like pureed chicken on the pole above momma’s head. The nurse called it ‘nutrition’ and I know momma needed it but it made me sad. Like she’d turned a corner and was taking the exit marked, leaving forever, instead of the one that said, slowly coming back.
Sometimes I just sat in the chair beside her bed without talking and I’d glance up at the clock that hung high on the wall as it ticked away the minutes in military time. I tried not to think of why a clock like that hung behind every bed in the ICU, but I knew it was to mark the time of death.
When Leif arrived I was relieved and happy to have company. We talked about the past and he told me how he’d managed to find out where momma’s own mother was living. They’d gone to visit her and stood talking in the driveway. “She didn’t invite you in?” I asked.
“She said her husband was sick and sleeping. Poo didn’t even say a word, she just stood there with a little smile on her face.”
“I never even met my own grandmother.”
“She had on a gold ankle bracelet.”
Leif grew quiet and his eyes seemed to focus on something far away. I stood to stretch my legs and Leif did the same.
We went to the cafeteria for a dinner of broiled fish and rice. I watched Leif’s face break into a big smile, revealing crooked, tobacco stained teeth. I put my fork down and asked to be let in on what he was thinking. “Poo was mad that she didn’t have a clan affiliation, so I declared her a member of the badger clan and she seemed to like that a lot.” I laughed thinking of the badger and its relentless tenaciousness and agreed it fit momma perfectly.
The next morning I awoke suddenly after hearing a knocking at the window. I sat up wide -awake and looked to where the sound had come from. The curtains were closed and I could tell it was still dark outside. The dogs weren’t disturbed and my husband, Richard was still sound asleep. The clock on the nightstand read 4:19 and I new momma had passed away at that exact time. It was her knockin’ at the window to say goodbye. I called the hospital and although momma was still alive, her conditioned had worsened and she was retaining fluid. I walked to the window, pulled the curtains back and pressed my forehead against the cold glass. I rapped with my knuckles four times. Yes, the sound was just what I’d heard, one, two, three, four, I am O.K., I am so sorry, one, two, three, four, please let me go…
The sight of momma in her hospital bed frightened me, and I could tell by the soft outline of her flesh under the white sheet that her body, so full of fluid, had nearly doubled in size. The Lasix wasn’t working and they’d have to try something else. The fuzzy pink slippers I’d placed on her feet were gone but I understood why as I watched the nurses checking the pulse at her ankles every half hour or so. I sat silently at momma’s bedside that day, too sad and overwhelmed to say a word. The hospital staff filed in on a regular basis to check the machine settings, adjust this button or that, replacing IV bags or putting drops of liquid in her eyes to keep them moist. “She has very pretty blue eyes.” A nurse commented, wiping the excess liquid that spilled onto momma’s cheeks like tears.
Copyright 2017 caceresbg