We arrived at your apartment ahead of you and rearranged your bedroom to make room for the hospital bed. It would be the last piece of furniture you would ever need. We positioned it next to the one you shared with your husband for seventy years, but now only serves as a place to put all the things we need to keep you comfortable for the next week, maybe two.
The doctors said you had weeks, which is what I was told in a teary phone call, where the words struggled to be spoken. I let the word “weeks” swim around in my head until it made sense. I thought, weeks as in plural, as in next month, or perhaps the month after that. What do doctors know anyway?
I kept hearing how thin and frail you had become, and how you were not eating. I would call you and chide you about how you needed to eat. You would say you knew that, but then the subject matter would change to grandkids, the weather, and our other regular topics. Our last phone conversation was the most difficult one I ever had. You were out of breath and wheezed your words. It was next to impossible to understand you, so I made you believe that my cell phone was acting up. I told you I loved you and hung up.
I could feel the inescapable coming like a freight train whose distant din is beginning to separate into its distinguishable parts. For some reason, it’s easier this time than it was with Dad. Maybe it’s because I didn’t see how Dad spent his last few days. When I got the call at work that he was dead, it was still a shock, although I am not sure why. On my last trip to see him, I kissed him goodbye when I left because I knew he would die soon after.
After I was told that you were dying, I flew out two days later. I was catching a cold, and sat in the middle seat the whole way. I was miserable. I wondered if any of the other passengers were in a similar situation, going to see their dying mothers. It didn’t matter. They are in their world and I am in mine.
The next day the paramedics wheeled you into your apartment and transferred you to the hospital bed. It was my first look at you in a year. The cancer inside you is sinister in its single-mindedness, and ninety-four is no age to stand up against something so determined. You looked drained and helpless.
I gave you a kiss as I said “hello.” I wasn’t sure if you knew who I was, but I managed to put a smile on your face with a bit of gallows humor. Making you laugh is a talent of mine. I began to feel reassured until I watched one of the paramedics use a magnetic clip to hang a pink DNR statement on the refrigerator. It was our constant reminder of the inevitable.
We suddenly find ourselves thrown into a brand-new world that is cast in the darker shades of apprehension and uncertainty. We talk with social workers and hospice nurses. We try to absorb all the information about medications, how your bed works, the oxygen machine, how to move you to change the bed pads, how to interpret the sounds you will be making. It’s overwhelming.
The hospice nurse tells us about the stages of the dying process. We try to envision them, but it becomes apparent that you know it when you see and hear it. It has been nine full days of worry, logistics, sadness, helplessness, frustration, little sleep, some alcohol to steady the nerves, and little jokes to keep our sanity. Love for you seems to come from everywhere.
You follow the script penned by the hospice nurse. You can barely talk and then you can’t talk. You can barely eat and then you can’t. You can barely drink and then you can’t. You come in and out of consciousness and then you are sleeping all the time. We do our best to keep you comfortable. We can only guess as to how well we’re doing. We want desperately for you to tell us we are doing fine.
Each day you slip a little further away, while eerily looking past or through us. We watch with some awe as your arms move about, giving gentle embraces to ghosts. I wonder if they are assembled around your bed, if they are your reality and we are now the phantoms.
The nurses say you can still hear us, so we talk to you, gently urging you and even begging you to let go. We try reasoning with you that there is a better world out there. We tell you that Dad is waiting. Your only response is your whispering, metronome-like breaths, counting down their eccentric measure of time. You stubbornly cling to the last few threads of a life no longer worth living, inside a body that is completely wasted. You have become a living, breathing, still life.
You have begun to drift into that shadowy place between worlds. You don’t really need us anymore, but we stroke your hair, adjust your bedding, and tell you we love you just the same. The terrible truth is that you became tired and frustrated with living and wanted to die a year ago. The terrible irony is now that your body has finally acquiesced, you refuse to let go. And here I sit on the ninth night of this vigil, listening to your rhythmic, medicated breathing, waiting and praying.
JON BEIGHT lives and works in Western New York. He has been published in Feathertale, Spilling Ink Review, Apocrypha and Abstractions, Microliterature, and other fine publications.