The sky was already dark. I knew I was pushing bedtime, but I hated going to bed. I hated the night. I sat quietly at the aluminum breakfast table in our skinny linoleum kitchen, watching her spread grape jelly on thin slices of white bread already covered with cream cheese. School lunch for tomorrow. She hummed and swayed back and forth to the music. Mitch Miller.
I watched her quietly, cradling my face in my hands. She was a small woman. Her black hair was pulled back in a bun at the nape of her neck.
Without warning, she whirled around to me, stretching out her hands.
“Let’s go, hon,” she laughed her infectious laugh, waggling her eyebrows and cocking her head to the beat in the music.
I rose. Happy to be noticed, I grasped her hands and let her pull me into the sway of the music.
“Just Molly and me, and baby makes three, we’re happy in my blue heaven,” crooned the Mitch Miller singers. We swayed in each other’s embrace, my mother deftly moving me across the narrow floor space, her strong, knuckly hand firmly cradling the small of my back. “This is how you do it,” she swished me into a small circle, “and then, cheek to cheek,” bringing her face firmly close to me, tango style. “And then —”
Dip. Back I went, taken a little off guard and embarrassed, hoping she wouldn’t drop me on my head. Up again. She laughed.
“Don’t look so scared, lovey,” she said. “Just go with the flow. Follow my lead. You’ll be a great dancer.”
On and on we danced and giggled in the narrow kitchen, gliding to the music of the Sing Along King.
The chemo wasn’t working. Although she started to lose her hair, it never came completely out. Walking was increasingly more difficult. There was the chance of infection now, her blood cell count was low. We would always have to monitor it now. It came to be the sum gauge of her wellness.
Hope became a number. A roller coaster of cell counts and body weight; fevers and comas; alertness and hallucinations. She was losing a lot of weight. Her back was bent as her bones bent to the commands of the disease.
But we made the hospital room nice. There were silk flowers hung in the corner from a hanging basket, photographs of us at Christmas, a small tape player with tapes of all kinds of music.
“I had the most interesting conversation this morning,” she said, adding in a low conspiratorial tone, “on the ceiling.”
I listened, setting the donut bag on the night stand next to her bed, and pulled off my raincoat. “Tell me, Ma.”
Her black eyes were darting rapidly back and forth. She lifted herself up toward me, face tightening with the pain wracking her bones.
“Lenore,” she said in a voice still laced with remnants of her Bronx upbringing, which softened her “r” into an ‘aw’ sound. “You are not going to believe this,” she said patting the side of the bed where she insisted the oncologist sit.
“He wanted to talk to me about my new treatment, and then all of a sudden, what do you know, zim, zam, zoom, up we floated to the ceiling,” she said, moving her bony arms upwards, eyes wide.
She lowered her voice to a shocked whisper. “And he just kept on talking as if nothing had happened.”
I had to stifle a laugh.
“When did you come down?” I asked, amused by my own double entendre.
Silence. The clouds came quickly over her eyes those last days, thanks to the morphine. Ever so slowly, she drifted back into the blue air mattress supporting her tiny frame. The whooshing sound of the air pump continued unaltered as her slight weight barely made an impression. Her eyelids fluttered, half-open but not seeing. Her beautiful dark eyes had become flat and unfocused, staring lifelessly into the somewhere beyond the room.
Seconds passed. The overwhelming feeling of helplessness washed over me as I watched her eyelids droop heavily. They twitched, as if gently brushed by hummingbird wings. Then the raspy, sluggish breathing of the drugged sleep became steady, almost rhythmical. A mucousy serenade.
I gently stroked her arm, her crepey skin and dark black blue bruises which they said were common with this type of cancer. I slipped on my raincoat and carefully laid out the Boston creme donut and decaf coffee on her tray. The clear bag which hung from the pole near her bed was almost empty. The red digital numbers on its monitor counted off the amount left. A small alarm would soon beep, signaling time for a new bag, sending a nurse squeaking into the room. It had become an all-too familiar drill.
I tapped the bag and walked out of the room. I like coming to visit in the early morning. Even at a hospital, there’s something calm and soothing about the first light breaking over the horizon: the eternal symbol of hope.
But I don’t like the night. It is not comfortable to me, nor I with it. As a child, I didn’t want to go to sleep. I would do everything to prolong it. By the time I was in high school, my mother just accepted it and let me read into the wee hours of the morning until I fell asleep. Then she would creep into my room and shut the light off.
I believed things came alive at night. Bad things. As a child, I was crippled with fears of superstitious beings that wandered the hallways, and emerged out of my bedroom walls. I would – and still do – flick on lights before entering a room, check hidden corners and closets and always look over my shoulder. I do not trust the night. Insomnia would later take the place of fear. I would stare down the night as my worthy opponent, never letting up until daybreak.
It was clear, someone had to stay overnight with her. A large vein pulsed in her neck, her face was flushed with fever. She had an infection. Someone had to be with her. Dad was so tired from sleeping at the hospital for so many nights before, it shouldn’t be him. No, I would stay. After all, I lived close by, just minutes from the hospital. I would stay through the night.
As night closed in, the feel of the hospital changed. Lights were lowered and the bustle of white died down; urgency gave way to quiet efficiency. Every one spoke in hushed tones. The hum of television sets and pumps created a soft background din.
She was in a morphine sleep. I had brought enough books to keep my mind occupied and the demons away. Hopefully, it would be enough. By this time, I knew where everything she needed was in the nurse’s station. When someone is this sick, protocol is benignly ignored. The water jug was checked every hour, sure it was filled with crushed ice and water. Plenty of fresh straws, some snacks if she woke up. Her toothbrush, toothpaste, small bed pan – all in waiting if needed. There was even a small wash basin that I had pilfered from the supply room, ready to wash her feet in warm water and rub lotion into them. The falsetto tones of the Mills Brothers softly sang of always hurting the one you love.
Everything was meant to act like magic talismen. “She is still alive” screamed everything in the room, all out there in plain view. Satisfied with my preparation, I hunkered down in the blue naugahide chair, a small quilt covering my legs propped up on her bed.
Death comes at night, vigil needed to be kept to make sure it wasn’t this night. Deep into the darkness, I started to doze. Shaking myself to consciousness, I moved the cumbersome chair closer to the bed, I took her limp arm in my hand. I closed my eyes hard and started to pour my thoughts into her body. Close to her ear, I whispered words of healing. Be healthy. Be victorious. Heal. Goddammit. Heal. If only I could get those damn blood cells to change their course.
Determined to push my life force into her body, I continued my flow of words. There must be a way to bridge this barrier between her body and mine. I came from her; we are connected. She gave me life. Can’t I do the same for her?
Like a child, I fell into the despair of the darkness. Heal, Mommy. Please get better, please don’t die. Please live to see me become a famous writer. Please hold my yet-to-be-born children. Please don’t leave us. Don’t leave Daddy.
The tears would not stop. I clung to her arm. The floodgate had broken. I wept like the miserable, unhappy soul I was.
Spent, I laid my head down on the bed right next to hers, and slept with her.
Death comes at night, but not this night. She had heard me. I knew her well enough to know she wouldn’t let death take her when one of her babies was hurting.
She did not die at night. She died in the early afternoon. Ironically, I had taken the day off from work. I had intended to go to the hospital, but figured I would go later. I needed a nap. It was a muggy day. Cloudy and hazy, much like my mother’s state of mind. She had been hallucinating, in and out of consciousness all morning. My family went to lunch in the cafeteria where no sooner had they sat down when they were summoned back to the room. Come quickly, they were told.
“I have the saddest news in the world for you,” Dad’s voice sounded crackled and distant when he answered the phone. I never had heard him sob so uncontrollably before.
The tears streamed down my cheeks and the warm numbness enveloped my body. I had just had the most wonderful dream. She and I were dancing to the Sing Along King. I was twirling and twirling and twirling her, round and round. In mid-twirl, she turned her face to mine, her dark eyes twinkling shiny black, “Let me go, honey. It’s okay now.”
We laughed as she broke free from my outstretched hand and moved across the floor, alone.
I listened as Dad choked through the news I already knew. The floor moved away from underneath me. I was floating, but the warmth of her hand from our last dance still lingered.
Lenore Skomal is a freelance writer and author of 16 published books, columnist for the Erie Times-News, former journalist and professor of journalism. She lives in Erie, Pa. with her husband.
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