by Linda Bragg
LATE DECEMBER 1972
The sour smell of lung cancer clings to the humid air – heavy, unyielding. My family lives in Florida, and like most homes, ours has no air-conditioning. My father’s been sick for two years — now he’s coughing up blood and breathing has become something he needs to think about.
Christmas is almost here and he’s in such pain that we need to move him to the hospital. Everyone in the ward has been sent home; he lies in bed alone amid two rows of empty beds. He doesn’t want to be here, but he needs shots of morphine. “Look at the grebe over there,” he says. The morphine is working its magic. I look in the direction he is pointing and see only empty beds. But he sees grebes, little shore birds that live on the dark chocolate ribbons of rivers that buoy up Florida. When I was a little girl, he took me and my brother fishing on those rivers. We saw roseate spoonbills, alligators and the little grebe shorebirds. I’m grateful he is seeing something he loves.
Suddenly lucid, he turns his sunken face towards me. “Please take me home,” he pleads. But there is no way — he needs that morphine. My mother is sick, too, lying in another hospital and unable to care for him. My brother and I are in college and we’ve been admonished by both our stricken parents to finish our studies to graduate. This is a relief to me because going to classes, taking exams, writing papers — the day in and day out of it all — is the closest thing to normal that I know.
My dad turns and with a scrawny, trembling hand pulls out the cabinet drawer next to his bed. I watch, transfixed, as he grasps a brimming hypodermic needle, proffering it to me in his shaking hand as though it’s a magic wand. Horrified, I seize the needle and deliver it to the nurse.
“My father had this in his drawer! How did it get there? He needs another shot. He’s in pain!” The nurse grabs the needle from me as quickly as the rabbit appears in a magic act.
“He cannot have another shot — it is too soon. He could become addicted to the morphine,” she states.
He is terminal. He is in pain. He cannot have the magic shot because the man with riddled lungs, the man with cancer choking his heart and lacing his abdomen, the man immersed in misery, cannot have a shot because he… may… become… addicted? I hate the nurse.
They bring his lunch tray with a napkin decorated with a cheery, fat Santa holding a bag full of toys. I wish there was magic in that bag for my dad.
As I drive home, a thought crowds my mind: I can’t do this again. I cannot look at my dad like this one more time. My half-glass-full father, wasted, his body his foe, is too difficult for me to see.
As if he hears me and wants to kiss my psychic pain, a call comes in the evening. My father is dead.
We bury my father in a casket that my mother chose for him months ago, back when she had a life. She can’t come to the funeral because she is still in a hospital in another town, close to where my sister lives.
EARLY JANUARY 1973
A couple days after my father’s funeral, my brother and I drive to visit our mother. Her ovarian cancer has spewed out, claiming her body. She has tubes connected everywhere; the most disturbing protrudes from her nostril and is attached to a bag that hangs from the frame of her bed. The tube is filled with sludge. Mom tells us that she has an intestinal blockage — her waste is being drawn from her body through the tube to keep her from being poisoned by shit; it comes up through the hose in small clumps. She tells us that she needs surgery to clear the blockage. Her doctor tells her that she’ll be able to walk on the beach again — of course she wants the surgery — who wouldn’t want to walk on the beach again!
At least, I still have my mother.
Driving home from our visit, a fuming, ebony sky unleashes a torrent as we reach the soaring Sunshine Skyway Bridge. Instantly, our world is reduced to inches. When we reach the summit of the bridge, the car’s tires hit a sheet of water, and my brother’s Ford Falcon careens out of control, crashing into the guard rail. As I struggle through the small opening allowed by the smashed door, I’m witness to many people’s nightmares: gaping straight down into the Gulf of Mexico from the top of the bridge, the abyss chosen by many life-weary people to end it all.
Two angels, dressed as a man and woman, stop to help us. They deliver our drenched bodies to the toll booth where we call the police and a neighbor who comes to pick us up to drive us home. When we arrive, we discover that we’re missing our house key and have to break into our own home. Is this real?
But, at least I still have my mother.
I go to the university the next day and search for my good friend, Carol. I need to talk to her about everything that had happened. She stands up from her desk when she sees me and gives me a hug.
“I’m so sorry,” she says. What? What does she mean? What is she sorry about? She doesn’t know about my weekend — my mother — the crash.
“It’s Ruby,” she says, “she’s been in an accident.”
My beautiful 18-year-old friend, stunning, with long, dark curls, has been a support for me during my parents’ decline. She needs me now. Where is she? I must see her. Carol, realizing I didn’t understand, stares into my eyes with hers, full of regret and sorrow, as she explains to me: Ruby had been a passenger in a van when the vehicle skidded into a ditch during the same storm that derailed my brother and me. Ruby tried, with her friends, to push the van out of the ditch. They were almost successful until Ruby slipped on the wet ground, collapsing on the earth, the van sliding over her like a coffin lid. “Ruby’s dead,” Carol finally whispers.
No. No. No. Beautiful Ruby. I want to see her. I need to see her. But, without realizing it during our last visit, I had already seen her for the last time.
At least — I still have my mother.
My mom has had her surgery and she’s finally home. She is weak, but so hopeful. Her withered skin hangs about her bones like a balloon that hasn’t enough air. She believes she’ll be able to walk on the beach again. That’s what the doctor says; she believes the doctor.
An aunt comes to take charge — in every way. My mother has a wet colostomy; her blockage is high in her gut, the opening for the bag too close to her stomach. The acid leaks from the unnatural hole, dissolving her skin. She’s not able to wear a colostomy bag — the runny shit needs to be mopped up as it drools onto her abdomen. I visit my mom in her room when I can get past my disapproving aunt. She acts as though I’m not doing what she thinks I should do. Just what should that be? I’m on a strange, twisted trip without a map.
I sleep-walk through each day: drive to campus, go to class, drive home, study. How do others and the campus world seem so normal? Can’t anyone see that I’m dissolving by degrees?
Jack and Gary try to help keep my spirits up. They’re best friends — in fact, they’re lovers. They are sweet and such fun to be around. No pressure. We explore the campus one evening after smoking weed. Jack and Gary are handsome young men and while we walk across campus, I feel the eyes of girls on our trio, studying, wondering how I came to be with such cute guys.
We’re joking as we reach the imposing science building that we call “the castle” because of its design. The lights are on but there are no students around. We challenge each other to go in, creating a fanciful story of what we’ll find. Full of THC and ease, we enter only to discover huge glass vessels filled with dead, pickled animals. Repulsed, we leave immediately. Isn’t there enough pain in the world?
Evidently not. Another car accident. A head-on collision. On an ordinary street. One that runs along one side of the campus. A road we travel every day. The crash involves a friend. That friend is Jack. Dear sweet Jack, gentle to the core, is dead. His father, a man who never understood his gentle, loving son remarks that’s he’s better off dead.
Oh God, at least I still have my mother.
The telephone screams me awake in the early morning hours. It’s my uncle. I know someone is dead. He tells me quickly that it isn’t my mother, but my grandma. After 86 years of living, the strain of watching her baby, her first born, her daughter, my mother, struggle against cancer has broken her heart. Most will believe she died of old age, but I know better. She couldn’t help her child, she couldn’t bear to watch her baby suffer anymore and her shattered heart brings sweet relief.
But — at least — I still have my mother.
Graduation. My sister and Carol are here for me. Mom is still bed-ridden. I listen to my friends’ plans for trips and celebrations and go home to watch my mother shrivel and fade.
I need to talk to my mom, but my aunt stands guard. Although I’m grateful my aunt is here to help, she’s a sentinel with a disapproving eye, a barrier that and I don’t know how to penetrate. I am powerless.
When my aunt leaves the house to run an errand, I grab my chance. My mother is tiny in her bed. Just 78 pounds, her sunken brown eyes are enormous and tufts of scraggly curls halo her head. I sit by her side. Gingerly, I take her hand in mine. It’s so fragile and bony; is it safe?
“You know I love you,” I tell my mother.
Her haunted eyes stare at me. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock. She mumbles a single word: “No.”
Breath. Release. Breath. Release. What? Breath. Release. She says nothing more.
EARLY AUGUST 1973
My aunt instructs me to call for an ambulance to take my mother to the hospital. I cannot. I do not. If my mother goes through the front door on a gurney, I know she won’t be back. Perhaps — just maybe — if I don’t call, I’ll have more time to talk to her, more time to understand, more time to make things right, more time for a miracle. Disgusted, my aunt calls for an ambulance, and my mother is whisked away. I visit her in the hospital, but although she is breathing, she is gone — and then she stops breathing.
My sister is out of town; my brother is away for the day. By myself, I have to choose a final resting vessel for my mother from a showroom lined with rows of caskets. I didn’t even know such showrooms existed. Overwhelmed, I pick the same one that my mother chose seven months ago for my father. Before dad. Before Ruby. Before Jack. Before grandma. Before mom.
I have no tears. Numb, I gape at the world through dead-fish eyes: flat, unblinking, fixed on horrors that can’t be seen.
I kill people. I don’t mean to do it — it just happens. I don’t use a well-placed knife to the heart or a bullet to the head – instead, it’s the sharing of the same air, the closeness of the bond, the caring that’s gone before, that does the deed.
A friend’s mother tells me she better stay away from me because everyone around me is dropping like flies. You see — even she knows it’s true — even she knows I kill people.
Category: Memoir, Nonfiction, SNHU Creative Writing