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Back You are here: Home Stories Words for the People Short Stories Every Mother's Son
Monday, 20 August 2012 05:08

Every Mother's Son

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Hospitals make me sick.  Every day, I walk through the emergency and waiting rooms, through bile, past head wounds and soft whimpers.

Following sneaker tracks through fresh blood, onto the elevator, up five floors to the oncology department.  Here, the patients wait as their bodies betray them.  Here, the red blood is swallowed up, digested, and expelled black.  Nothing smells quite like the cancer ward. 

Cancer means crab, and they named the disease after the red ulcers it causes.  Those little crabs dotting the skin smell like rusting flesh.  The flesh fails.  The cancer emerges.  Something obscene is growing.

The fifth floor is home to me.  The elevator opens onto a long hall with landscapes hanging on the walls.  The art is all the same, mass produced calm scenes, an attempt to make the hospital as hospitable as possible.

Hospital should be a happy word, but it's too hard on the tongue.  Too many severe stops in the word.  There isn't a harder stop than the one you make in a hospital.

White slippered women with buns in their hair blend into the background.  Except for the orderlies, nobody looks at you in a hospital. 

My mother lies in a barren white room, beneath pale blue sheets, waiting for her body to kill itself.  She waits with patience as her cancer grows inside of her until it is healthy enough to die with her.  It'll consume her, both bone and blood.

Every day, the hum of hydraulic hinges announces my arrival as I enter the room.  Mom looks sweet under the blankets.  She's curled on her side, facing the window, with one hand clenched in a fist that holds her brittle hair at her neck.  With her shrunken face, all skin and skull, she looks like a preemie.  The light shining through the window hits her eyelids, and you can see through them to the brown eyes below.

Today, I say, "Mom.  Mom, it's me.  Joshua."

My mom doesn't move beneath the blankets.  She's locked in some dream that she can't escape from, or maybe the cancer has eaten her eardrums.  Her chest rises in little spurts as she draws in the infected hospital air, sustenance more for the disease than for her.

I unsling my backpack and take a seat next to her bed.  I've got a book about St. Peregrine, the patron saint of cancer patients.  We're not Catholic, but I'll try.  I read the passages aloud, trying to sound serious and righteous just in case she dies.  It might be reassuring to hear a familiar voice speaking of miracles. 

Reading out loud passes the time and makes me feel like I'm helping. 

Saint Peregrine was a rich boy and not very Christian-like.  He slapped a saint and later became one.  He didn't sit down for 30 years.  He got foot cancer.

Saint Peregrine prayed for his cancer to go away and it did. 

I memorize the Prayer to Saint Peregrine and close my eyes.  I recite it.  I have to peek twice to finish the lines.

Halfway through a line praising the crucified Lord, my mother wakes up.

"What the hell are you saying?" she asks.  Her lips move slower than the words coming out, slurring them into a single word.

"I'm praying," I answer.  "It's a prayer to Saint Peregrine.  He heals the sick."

"Ask him to get me a glass of water, then."

Mom tries to roll over onto her back, but her arms are too weak to turn her thin body.  She takes a deep breath, and her body spasms as she tries to bring air into the rotting lungs.  She swings her right arm around, giving the turn momentum, and ends up on her back and out of breath. 

On her nightstand are an empty glass and a pitcher of warm water.  I pour her a glass and hold it out to her, but she doesn't see it.  The cancer has spread to her eyes, eaten the cornea and the lens and the retina, I think.  She's totally blind and helpless.

"Joshua?"  Tears begin leaking down the side of her face.  It's a common reaction to death.  "Joshua?"

"I'm here, Mom."

"Of course you are."  Her voice strains as she tries to yell, but the disease has made her weak, and it comes out like a squeak.  Unexplained outbursts of anger are common in cancer patients and can be a sign of delirium.  Once delirium sets in, the end is near.

As much as I love her, I'm starting to wish that she would go quickly.  Quietly.  Sometimes this isn't the woman who raised me.

She wipes the tears from her face, her hand searching her cheeks for the water and fumbling around to clear it off.  Her eyes are runny and yellow.  Tears leak down her face, down her neck, staining the collar of her gown.

"I'm so thirsty," she says.  I hold out the water to her again, but she still doesn't take it. 

"It's okay, Mom.  Here.  Drink this."

She waves me off.  "What time is it?"

"Five more minutes," I say.  In a hospital, in a terminal way, you don't measure time with a watch.  You measure it by the injections of drugs they give you.  Every hour on the hour, the drip feeding my mother will open a valve and allow in a small amount of morphine to help calm her and stop the pain of her body rusting.  After a few days, the addiction becomes your watch, your punch clock. 

"Can I get you something else?"  I want to reach out and hold her, but I don't.  And I want to tell her that everything is going to be all right, but it won't.  I want to be a miracle worker, but I'm not.

Mom's slowly working herself into a sitting position, sliding her back up the pillows at the head of the bed.  Sweat beads on her forehead immediately.  Her skin sallows.

Sick people move in time lapse.  It takes them forever to do the simplest things, and it is exhausting.  Time is not on their side.

Her mouth works words that have no meaning.  Her sounds are animal whispers and cries as she struggles.
"It's all right.  You just relax.  Just a few more minutes, Mom."  I don't want to listen to whatever she is trying to say, because I'm not sure if it's really her saying it.  Delirium.  Her cancer has spread to her brain, metastasized into something horrid.

"I want to go home," she says.  She squeezes her eyes shut, and the flood keeps draining down her cheeks.  Around her neck, her robe yellows with tears.  She takes deep breaths, shuttering when her chest rises and shaking while she exhales.  I'm watching the clock for the injection to come and take away whatever she might say.

"You look tired, Mom."  I want to grab a pillow and fluff it for her.  I want to hold it over her face and put her to sleep.  I almost get up for the pillow, but I notice I'm still holding the glass of water out to her with a shaking hand.  Water spills over my hand.

I hear a click and look over to the IV.  A small drip of liquid joins the fluids that are flowing into my mother's arm.  Her forearm is dotted with purple bruises around red holes in her flesh.  Her jerking breaths calm a bit and her eyes open.  The yellowed film covering her eyes shines in the sunlight.

Her eyes are blank, staring up at the ceiling.  She's somewhere else, somewhere with the cancer.  I put the glass of water down on the nightstand.

Brain tumors, I think.  Right now, I'm picturing little crabs crawling around my mom's brain.  They're taking over her moments: her life, her dreams, her future.

The folds of thin eyelids close over her brown eyes, and her mouth keeps moving, but no words are coming out.  I lean over her to hear the words I'm afraid she's speaking.  I put my hands to her face, wiping away the matted hair stuck to her moist forehead.

"It's going to be all right, Mom." All I hear is the thin breath holding her to her body.  She rolls over onto her side, facing away from me.

A prayer runs through my head, but comes out all wrong.

Our Father, who art in heaven, probably isn't.

Mom has her own room because she smells.  The nurses say it's tenure; she's put in her time and now she gets her solitude.  Really, it's the smell.  The TV is bolted to the wall, like in a motel room, to make sure nobody steals it.

I don't think the hospital has to worry about an 85-pound woman stealing the television.  The lamp is bolted down too.

When Mom breathes, I can hear movement in her chest.  She almost sounds like she's snoring, but if you listen really closely you can tell that something loose is flapping in the breeze of her breath.

She's so small under the blanket that I can't tell where her feet are.  They're hidden in a tiny fold of blanket.  I can make out one leg, but not the other.  She looks like a small child.  Her skin doesn't fit her skeleton anymore.  Her hair is light blonde and thin and you can see through it to her white scalp.  She has a bald spot from lying on a pillow all day.

Mom used to lie on her side on the couch and watch TV.  Late at night, sometimes she'd fall asleep on the couch, and I'd crawl up and cradle into the hollow behind her knees.  I'd lay my head on her hips.  I'd hug her leg to my chest.  If there was a blanket, I'd huddle inside of it until the air was so stale that I'd have to come up for a breath before returning to the safety under the blanket.

I want to do that right now.  I want to cuddle up to my mom and feel safe.  I want it so badly.  The hospital bed is barely wide enough for the skeleton that is my mom now, so I sit beside the bed and rest my head near her back.  She's not warm anymore.

I don't feel safe anymore.

"Mom," I say.  "I love you."

Nothing in a hospital is warm.  A hospital is a place you go to lose your warmth a little slower.

"Mom," I say.  "I'm sorry."

In the hospital room, even with the noon sun shining in and casting a yellow gleam on the white walls, it always seems like twilight.  I grew inside her once.  Now something else has taken my place.  I push my head against her back, wrap my arm around her tiny body, and for the first time in a long time, I close my eyes tight until there isn't anything left.  There is no light, no hospital, no mother.

Just me and the fading warmth beneath the blanket.

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Last modified on Monday, 20 August 2012 05:13
Bryan Howie

Bryan Howie always wanted to be either Batman or a writer.  Since he doesn't have the legs for tights, he started writing.  He now lives in the American Inland Northwest, where he has been searching for a muse to amuse in the trees and rivers. He loves photography and motorcycle riding, but has a hard time doing both simultaneously.

His short story "Your Mother's Smile" was featured in Volume 6 of The Best of Carve Magazine.  More of his work can be found at Solarcide.com and Redfez.net. 

Website: bryanhowie.com

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