It’s All I Can Do
Look closely. Can you see me? I’ve been here for eight days on the top shelf of the walnut bookcase a friend built for my son.
A couple of weeks ago, I told my son it was time. There were no miracles cures for me – ninety-two years old – not really high on the list of miracle-cure candidates.
From where I rest, I can see decades past when I walked through our old second floor apartment above the Firestone store and entered his bedroom. My blessed event asleep in the same wooden crib I had as a baby. I touched my newborn son, reached to smooth his sheet, and, with the hand of a mother, adjusted his left ear, then kissed his soft forehead. It’s all I can do not to cry. I searched for a reason to remain in that darkened room. I felt his cloth diaper and listened to his breathing. Were I to linger in that glow, I’d enfold him into me and refuse to release my little boy.
Six years later, I’ll lean against the wall in a grade school hallway as he walks alone toward the teacher’s desk, and, as we rehearsed, hear him say, “Good morning, Sister,” then smile and walk to his assigned seat. It is all I can do not to rush to him.
Eleven years after that, I will park in front of the administrative building of his high school to talk with the principal. My son has had another incident. What my family later called “his troubles”. As I walked through the hallway, I saw the top of my son’s head from inside the closet-sized phone booth, followed by a shadow. He thought I didn’t know. My son was hiding behind the door of the phone booth.
One year later, I will stand in a college dormitory hallway, tears blocking a clear vision of my boy. I’ll reach for his hand. He’ll kiss me, then walk without me into his dorm room.
Seventeen years later, I will receive a phone call from my son who will tell me the police have raided his office and he must flee the state.
Three years after that, I will stand on the landing of a second-floor entrance and watch as my son transfers dirty laundry from one bin to another. He won’t notice me. I’ll walk into the hallway of the diagnostic and rehabilitation center to meet the state-appointed counselor to discuss his case. I won’t see my boy again until he is escorted to me. I’ll rush to him. I’m here now. But, unable to reach his face, it’s all I can do to struggle to touch his hand through the glass.
Twenty-one years later on the floor of a hallway, I have not taken a breath in over twenty minutes. My son will rush toward me moments before an emergency medical tech will call out, “No pulse. What time is it?”
My son will lean against the wall, exhale, then slide onto the floor where his wife will comfort him. After they place me back in bed – the same bed where he was conceived – he will smooth the sheet, and with the hand of a dutiful son, adjust my left ear, kiss my forehead, then cry.
Six days later at the funeral home, he will watch as I am brought to him. My son will carry me to the car, position me in the passenger seat and adjust my seatbelt. When we arrive home, he will place me on the walnut bookcase where I will be with him every day.
It’s all I can do.
It’s not difficult to understand how she did it – liver and lungs. They can only take so much abuse, then they quit. I knew for years she was trying to kill herself.
Each Sunday for weeks I circled the block three, four, five times – until one afternoon, she walked onto the porch. I had not seen her in six years – bountiful hair, t-shirt, jean shorts, full-bodied, long-legged. A glass of scotch in her right hand and a cigarette cradled with incredible dexterity between the index and middle fingers of the same hand. The smokey aura of a late summer afternoon near the river enveloped her.
Unbeknownst to me, behind her front door was minimal food, no washer or dryer; and her, a working mother with multiple jobs, bouts of sleepwalking, and a behavioral pattern akin to ADHD. Five children: two teenage girls whose angry looks drifted into disorientation, and two very young boys lost and wavering. There was also a dead child – funeral costs unpaid, who lay without a gravestone. Abandoned by a husband when he trotted off with someone younger and more naïve; and left the mother of his children with neither child support nor stability. A woman adrift in addiction; frightened and unmoored in a world that requires electricity bills to be paid and children to be attended.
One evening deep into a stupor, her thoughts garbled and saturated with anger and regret, she told me she had borne children to receive praise from her father and husband, “I was having children just to be thanked. To be complimented.” She had endured her husband’s abuse by hiding deep inside the safety of her adopted persona – Wanda. When she morphed into Wanda, she was not the usual happy to angry, or aloof to affectionate drunk, but a different person – mentally and physically. Bitter, slurred thinking. Paranoid speech.
Her drinking replicated her father’s suicide quest – “When my mother died, daddy spent the next twenty years drinking himself to death.” Her self-diagnosed sleepwalking wasn’t sleepwalking, but recurring blackouts.
I’ve gotta get out of here. Then I paused. Unsure if her behavior was a one-off, or, possibly by this point, a two-or-three-off.
On many nights, however, she entered the bedroom – freshly-bathed, a towel wrapped around her, legs smooth and exposed – and glided toward the walk-in closet, popped her head around the door jamb, smiled, and said, “They’re asleep”.
I would watch her unwrap, pull over, pull off, pull on, then reappear. Bare legs, high heels, a tattered off-the-shoulder V-neck shirt slightly cut at the breast (She would gasp when, in a fit of passion, I ripped it off). She walked slowly toward me on the edge of the bed, reached for a pillow, placed it on the floor, and knelt. I intertwined my hands behind her head and leaned back.
Dinner the next evening was forgettable. By seven o’clock, grasping a bottle of scotch secreted from one of her three hiding places – the kitchen or in one of the two bathrooms – she was slurring again.
The evening droned on, until I heard her say, “They’re asleep.”
Addie Doesn’t Live Here Anymore
Unbeknownst to him, the once spry, ninety-four year old landlady was taken to the hospital. Asleep at the time, he learned about it when he received a letter from her niece. Maybe a heart attack, possibly a stroke – either way she was gasping for air as they wheeled her out. “Addie’s on oxygen with so many tubes attached to her. And a liquid diet to keep her alive.” The letter continued. “Not good. Not good at all.” Then she added, “But she’s asked about you.” He tossed her letter on the table.
More than anything else in the world he did not want to go. Twenty-three years old, a third year law student renting the west unit of Addie’s duplex, four blocks from the state capitol, and two blocks from the high school made famous fourteen years earlier by the Board of Education case.
Two days later –
Okay. Okay. Just suck it up, Get it over with.
He walked past the welcome desk, the wall directory, past young, smiling candy stripers, the lab and pharmacy units, entered one of the three elevators, rested his head against the back wall, and, in a few moments, approached the nurse’s station on the fourth floor gerontology unit, turned left into the hospice section. No one looked up. Carts pressed against walls. Tubes and disposable plastic bags dangled from stainless steel poles. DNR signs extended from each doorway. Wheelchairs parked as if on a used car lot.
He had visited the hospital many times when his grandmother wasted away. That earthy, concentrated cumin smell – fetid and feral – revived his memory, then hit his nose like stench from an open jar of preserved body parts. For a moment he didn’t realize it, but he stopped breathing. Memories and odors emanated from his amygdala. Acrid and foul. Then he inhaled the pre-cadaverine smell that creeps through hospitals. He knew exactly what it was – that same rotting tang as when his grandmother died.
Two beds in a large sunlit room, blaring TV’s, innumerable tubes, and several blinking monitors with indecipherable green lines flashed against black screens. There was Addie, shriveled and supplicant, surrounded by white walls, confined to a white bed, encased in white sheets, her disheveled white hair rested on white pillows. Frightened eyes, crimped skin, cracked lips. She raised her right hand, called his name. Her hand quivered, remained extended, stretched toward him.
Out of habit, he reached his right hand toward her. She grasped his fingers. Pulled him closer. Her grip encaged his hand. He needed to escape. She did not release her grip. He tried again. He failed. Then again with the same result.
Seconds build upon minutes into an eternity. He spoke. Louder. Repeated himself – not shouting but firm.
More words. Unremembered. Until her grasp weakened. He extracted his hand, smiled, babbled a few lies about returning in a couple of days, and turned to leave.
Just before he stepped into the hallway, he heard, “You were always nice to old people”.
Thomas Elson’s short stories, poetry, and flash fiction have been published in numerous venues, including Better Than Starbucks, The Cabinet of Heed, Ellipsis, Flash Frontier, New Feathers, Inlandia, Lunaris Journal, The Selkie, The New Ulster, The Lampeter, and Adelaide. He divides his time between Northern California and Western Kansas.