The Jagged Edge of Her Heart

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.

part two

The next day Richard and I drove to Seattle to get Leif. We waited across the street from the apartment building where he and momma lived. The front doors to the building were large and made of glass and although the lobby was dimly lit we could see the murky green water of a neglected swimming pool inside. Leif appeared in the lobby, hesitated a moment, then pushed through the doors shifting the weight of the backpack he carried from one shoulder to the other. His facial muscles seemed to collapse and pull the skin of his cheeks and eyes and mouth downward and I knew he’d been drinking.
“I-I had some beer, “ he announced like an apology as he hoisted his body into the back seat of the Yukon. He closed his eyes as his mouth tried to form the words his brain searched for, “I-it was squeezin’ my heart so hard!” He let out such a big sigh that I thought he might fall asleep on the way to the hospital but the alcohol had loosened his tongue and he chatted on about nothing in particular. I looked at Richard who shrugged his shoulders and kept his eyes on the road.
Nothing had changed in momma’s hospital room. The window near momma’s bed still framed the tree with its glory of green leaves on November 23 and the breathing machine pushed oxygen into momma’s diseased and dying lungs. I looked at her exposed feet and the perfect little toenails. Leif had to buy baby clippers to cut them with. He said they were soft as white tissue paper.
The respiratory therapist came in and explained what would happen as the tube was removed. Nurses came to disconnect the heart monitor and remove the IV bags and the chaplain came to say a prayer. The hospital bed was lowered a few inches and Leif moved in closer and kissed momma on the cheek. The tube was slowly pulled from momma’s lungs and I watched as the therapist withdrew it, dabbing at spittle that gathered on momma’s lower lip. She gasped inward but seemed unable to exhale and in just a few minutes she was gone.
“I love you momma, I do. I do love you!” I wanted her to know I was there, to hear my voice as her soul drifted away but I felt panic that she was leaving, that we had not said all that needed saying. Leif was still at momma’s side and his eyes remained clued to her face. He seemed intent on gathering the details to be stored in memory as he focused on her mouth, her hair, and her closed eyelids. His hands began to motion in the air and I watched him, feeling embarrassed and thinking he was still drunk, but he began to sing something about a fisherman and a little girl and then about a red rose bush. He began working his hands like he was pulling in fishing nets and I stood and watched, deciding not to care what anyone might think. His voice rose and I knew it would make momma happy, ‘all colors bleed to red, asleep on the ocean’s bed, drifting in empty seas, for all my days remaining…’
I had such tender feelings for momma during those first few weeks after she passed. It was like she’d never done anything wrong, like she was an angel or something and I was the one needing forgiveness. Maybe it was God’s grace workin’ its way through my heart. Maybe it’s how those that die get a peaceful send off from this world, even if they’ve done some bad things to the people they loved—even if they don’t deserve it.
But that’s not really for me to say is it? My children had been protected from her and they really didn’t know their grandma. How sad. Momma accepted it like an ordinary thing. Even Richard had nothing but bad experiences with her, and one of those experiences involved a steak knife, so he was not someone who would understand my roller coaster of emotions.
The guilt I carried was mine and mine alone, like a brick at the bottom of my purse, a pebble in my shoe and gravel on my pillow at night. It was mine and there was no one to share it with. The one person I could talk to about momma was Leif but I knew he was probably drinking himself to death, on a marathon bender to beat all others. I called him everyday just to make sure he was alive.
“Lief?” His tongue was thick and slow to form words. “Oh, hey I’m here.”
“Did you eat today?”
“Ah, I don’t…”
“Leif please eat something.” He sighed and dropped the phone. I heard a thump and a bump and a sound like a chair being dragged across the floor.
“Jus miss her. Miss her soo much.”
The silence between us sucked the air from the room I felt that hollowed out painful feeling like I did when he wondered aloud how anyone could live with half a heart. He promised to eat a bologna sandwich and I said I’d call tomorrow but
Leif called me early the next day to say he was going to detox.
“I called 911”. He sounded more exhausted than intoxicated but I knew he needed to be in a doctor’s care. Momma told me once how he stopped drinking and had delirium tremens, how he was hallucinating and she had to take him by bus to the hospital.
“I can’t be alone right now. When I get out can I stay with you guys for a few days?”
His question caught me off guard. I heard a loud pounding at his door providing an interruption to me answering his question.
“Leif are you gonna get that?”
“They’re here. It’s the aid car. Will you ask Richard? I can’t be alone right now.”
“Call me when you get out. I’ll ask him.” And I hung up wondering what Richard would say.
Richard agreed and I went to pick Leif up a few days after Thanksgiving. When I arrived home from work that day, Leif was unpacking his suitcase. He was nervous and jumpy from the ravages of withdrawal. I gave him a big hug and told him we were glad to have him stay with us. We gave him the spare, empty bedroom, setting up an old army cot and piling on several blankets and quilts. He was tired but relieved that he wasn’t alone.
On the first day of December I drove Leif back to his apartment so he could get some more clothes. We would scatter momma’s ashes in the afternoon and Leif wanted to wear something nice. We drove to Alki Beach, where momma loved to spend time. I had the box containing momma’s ashes on my lap. We found a viewpoint at the north end of the beach and walked out on a pier. It was cold and windy but the sun shone on the water and the sky opened up just above where we stood and provided a blue canopy. Leif and I carefully opened the box and untied the metal clasp. Together we gently shook the plastic bag and watched as the powdery remains fell into the Puget Sound. With a soft splash momma’s ashes hit the dark water. Immediately a beautiful pale green plume formed just beneath the water’s surface. It was translucent and captivating and seemed to be filled with light. We leaned over the pier and watched as the form responded to the motion of the water, expanding and undulating like some exotic underwater flower. Leif’s body shook hard as he tried but failed not to cry. I put my arms around his shoulders and squeezed, crying with him. The luminescent green body of ashes slowly dissipated and became less vibrant. Gentle waves lapped under the pier and coaxed the disappearing form into deeper and deeper water.

Winter hit hard that year and a snow fell that lasted the better part of a week. With our daughter living in the college dorm it was just me, Leif and Richard and we spent most days watching movies and taking naps. I made hamburger soup in the Crockpot and Leif ate it eagerly, commenting that it was just like momma’s, making me feel happy, like I’d somehow brought a small part of her back to life.
I’d wake early each day and start a pot of coffee. Leif would smoke cigarettes out on the deck and I’d watch him through the garden window. He’d sit on a wooden stool and stair out at the bare cottonwoods that filled the greenbelt, blowing smoke into the cold air. Sometimes he’d look up at the sky and I imagined he was thinking of momma and trying to send her a message. We’d sit at the kitchen table, bundled in sweatshirts and with double socks on our feet, talking quietly.
“Don’t you go feeling bad about not calling her.”
“I can’t help it Leif. I think about that phone call from the doctor every day. I guess I’ll just have to think that if I’d called, she would have asked me to help you.”
“And that’s what you’re doing.” He went on to say how sorry he was that momma gave me such a bad time about my trip to Tennessee–the trip to see my after–the man she hated. Leif hung his head over his empty coffee cup and sighed, “When she was harassing you about that I felt sick to my stomach. I couldn’t tell her anything though, you know she’d get mad and turn on me.”
“Don’t beat yourself up about that. I know you couldn’t stop her.”
When momma drank she not only burned bridges–she would destroy entire towns. My heart was scorched many times but somehow rebounded without too much scar tissue, surviving when other hearts would’ve been full of holes from verbal shrapnel.

Leif and I created a ritual for ourselves, one that gave us both a sounding board for our feelings and a time each day for grieving. I looked forward to our few hours in the early mornings and hoped momma knew Leif was OK. He was feeling better I thought, appearing less jittery and more relaxed. I still awoke every day with the thought in my head, momma is gone—gone from this world forever but my guilt was abating little by little and I had Leif to thank for that. He was on a waiting list for inpatient alcoholism treatment but it would be at least three months before a bed opened up.
Richard was kind, patient and generous, keeping Leif company while I was at work and taking him to his doctor appointments and to the store for cigarettes. He got a little tired of it at one point though and told Leif he’d have to take the bus back from Seattle after one of his appointments. When Leif didn’t arrive home after six hours, Richard called me at work, “Purslane, did he call you? I told him what bus to take. I shouldn’t have to be his chauffer!”
“It’s ok. He’ll get there. He’s a grown man and he’s not gonna get lost.”
Richard was trying my last nerve and I didn’t appreciate the distraction.
“Call me when he gets there.” I sighed and told Richard I had to go. His voice softened then and I knew he was really more worried than anything else.
“I just don’t want him wondering around lost and afraid to call for a ride.”
I smiled and hung up the phone and Leif arrived at our house a few minutes later. He’d stopped to look around at Walgreens and bought some new Tee shirts and underwear.
I sat our coffee cups on the table and waited for Leif to finish his cigarette. Squirrels played in the cottonwoods, nearly invisible against the gray, bare bark, their swishing tails calling out their presence. I watched Leif on the deck as he finished his cigarette and dropped the butt into a rusted coffee can half full of a brown soupy mix. Today we would sort through photos and I would keep what I wanted. It would be a tearful morning I knew, one that we’d started and stopped twice already. Each photo prompted a slew of memories and for the most part we smiled, finding a sweet kind of melancholy that was tolerable. Leif told me about locating momma’s own mother, Ola Mae, a few years ago.
“Poo wanted to see her and had been nagging me about going to see her. We knew she lived in Renton and the lady at the library helped us find an address. That was when Poo could still walk. We took the bus over there and saw Ola Mae.”
I’d heard of Ola Mae but never really thought of her as my grandmother and I knew momma was not on any kind of terms with her. I’d only seen her once and since momma never talked about her, I didn’t ask.
“Poo just stood and looked at her mother but didn’t say a word.” Leif shook his head like he didn’t quite understand.
I never knew about momma’s trip to see Ola Mae and it made me curious,
“Isn’t that strange? I asked, did she invite you inside?”
“No, she said her husband was sick and in bed. I did all the talking and Poo just watched. Ola Mae had on a gold ankle bracelet, I remember.” Leif paused and was gone for a few minutes in the memory of that day. It hurt me to think of momma being too scared to talk to her own mother but Leif said the trip made her happy and she seemed content with the visit. We finished our coffee and Leif took both our cups to the kitchen sink. I watched him rise slowly from the table. The gray sweater he wore had a hole where a button had been torn away and his navy boat shoes had worn spots where his big toes were threatening to break through. I heard a scratching sound and looked out to the deck where two squirrels ran along the railing.

Conclusion (part three)

“Did you feed the birds?” Richard appeared at the foot of the stairs looking irritated. I felt for an instant that he might be jealous of the time Leif and I spent together each morning, but I think he knew I needed Leif’s company, that I needed a cushion for my heart, for the part that he knew little about, for the part that loved momma.
The next few months played out slow and uneventful. I found comfort in routine, not just our coffee time in the mornings but in other simple activities as well, like sitting in my parked car before going to work and watching the moon. I’d arrive at the parking garage and find the same spot on the third floor every day. In February the moon moved through it’s stages to fullness and I watched it grow big and soft like a ball of butter. At one point a jet passed in front of the moon, just a black cut out against yellow and I smiled thinking of those Halloween pictures I liked to draw when I was little, of the witch on her broomstick with the moon behind her.
Leif got word a bed would open up on March 1st. He’d get treatment at the Thunderbird Center and would probably stay at least three months, maybe more. He would get counseling and medical management, which he was in dire need of, as his blood sugars were high, usually in the 300’s, thanks I’m sure to Richard’s rice cooker always being full and to Leif’s appetite which seemed to have replaced food for alcohol. We celebrated his last night with us by making homemade milkshakes.
By March I’d shed a layer of my grief and was beginning to feel good about things. I was making plans to go see daddy again and I awoke each day without that heavy dread I’d lived with for so long. The bricks, stones and gravel had gone.
I didn’t want to think of Ola Mae but I couldn’t help it. I’d never thought of her as my grandmother, but she was. What kind of woman disowns grandchildren—-even great grandchildren? I grew bitter thinking of her with her gold ankle bracelet and momma dead—-her ashes washed out to sea. I wanted to visit Ola Mae and tell her about momma. She deserved to know and I had the right to ask her a few questions. I did a search in Google, not hoping for any results but there it was right on the screen—-an address in Enumclaw! I wrote down the address and tried to put it out of my mind but by the end of the work- day I knew I’d have to go see her. I excitedly told Richard of my discovery. I’d gotten Map Quest directions and learned it should only be about a 40 minute drive.
We ate a quick dinner then headed out in the Yukon. We drove East on State Route 169, continuing for miles in one direction. Soon we were in farmland with green pastures on each side and the Cascade Mountains up ahead growing dark violet as the sun dipped. Turning right on Semanski Street we found the house easily. It was a small yellow rambler with three white pillars and a small narrow concrete porch. Richard pulled the car into the driveway and I felt a flutter of nerves in my stomach. I lifted the metal door knocker and rapped three times. We heard movement on the other side but the door remained closed. The sound came nearer; a dragging, shuffling sound that suddenly stopped. The door opened slowly. A tall, burly man stood before us with dark longish hair and full beard. Although he was big, he was not intimating and he said hello cautiously and waited for us to respond. “Is Ola Mae here?” I asked, clasping my hands together nervously. It was barely a shadow, a second of longing and grief remembered. It passed from his eyes and over his face and caused him to steady himself and hold a little tighter to the cane that helped support his weight. I noticed his foot in a soft cast of sorts and he inched a little closer to us and said slowly, “She died almost a year and a half ago.” I sighed and looked down, my eyes settling on his injured foot. Richard put his arm around my shoulder, “This is her granddaughter.”
“Are you Alan?” I asked. I knew Ola Mae had given birth to a son after she left her husband in Tennessee and I remembered momma said his name was Alan.
The man looked perplexed but nodded and waited for me to explain. “I just wanted to let Ola Mae know her daughter, Maggie, has died.” I said, and kept my eyes on his, anxious to see his reaction. He looked at both of us saying nothing. I could see the confusion and surprise. “You had no idea, did you? I’m so sorry. You didn’t know?” He shook his head slowly. “I knew mom had a sister in Tennessee and they’d had a fallin’out. But when she died I couldn’t find a phone number or address.” I smiled and quickly told Alan that he had four half brothers and sisters and he had at least six or seven nieces and nephews. Alan stepped aside and asked if we’d like to come in. It was hard to gage his reaction, he said so little. Richard and I stood in the shadows of the small living room listening to Alan tell us about Ola Mae’s bout with Shingles and how she never quite recovered, falling sicker and passing away shortly after. His dad was now in a nursing home with dementia and he was struggling with the payments and trying to get some state assistance for his father. Alan sighed and shrugged his shoulders. The house and everything in it would have to be sold. I looked around the room, wanting some clue to the kind of woman Ola Mae was. I saw shelves full of knick -knacks and noticed a pair of hoot owls made from tiny seashells. I glanced over Alan’s shoulders to where the kitchen was. A dull yellow light barely illuminated a small table. I imagined me and Ola Mae having tea there, her patting my hand with her own, leaning in to tell me something about her daughter, ‘Maggie never gave me a moments peace. She was feisty, a real spitfire!’ But I’d come too late and Alan couldn’t answer any of my questions. He’d grown up thinking he was an only child. I felt sorry for his troubles and quickly dug in my purse for a piece of paper. I wrote our phone number and address down and handed it to him and thinking he probably needed some time to absorb all this new information.

The sun had just set over the horizon giving the neighborhood a silvery gray cast and the air felt clean and smelled of pine. Ola Mae kept four children and seven grandchildren secret. After she left her husband in Tennessee she started a new life as if her old life had never happened. Even on her death bed she had not told her youngest son about his half brothers and sisters. I couldn’t understand why and I cried in frustration, anger and disbelief.

The sky grew dark and the long country road in Enumclaw became lit by the occasional headlights of passing cars. The farmlands that were lush and green earlier in the day were now just black voids, sad and depressing in their emptiness. I was empty too, and tired. I had to refill myself with all the good things I’d come to know, to remember how I loved my husband, my children and our life together.

I let the days and months roll out from under me. I let my mind rest and put aside my hearts hunger for answers. Why some things happen and why people do what they do is God’s mystery. I know momma didn’t mean to hurt me. Maybe she was just trying to shake off the pain her own momma left, to give a bit of it to everyone who came her way, forcing it on others to ease her own burden of it.
It was just her way. That’s just how mamma was– loving everyone with the jagged edge of her heart.

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