Issue > Fiction
Lee Hall

Lee Hall

Lee Hall has an M.F.A. in fiction from Sarah Lawrence College, and she is the editor of Sassy Living Below the Mason Dixon Line. Her work has appeared in Richmond Lifestyle, Commonwealth Magazine, Style Magazine and online at Lostwriters.

Because

St. Mary's Hospital was no longer a west end landmark on the corner of Libbie and Monument; it was my daily destination (sometimes more than once). As I entered Mother's room, I imagined myself in a funhouse, but without the exhilaration of exaggerated discovery or the promise of a ready exit. Painted white and almost bare, the walls held a chipped crucifix, instructions for aiding choking victims and brass swing bar lamps. A clock hung unsteadily, its thin hands slowly gliding over the numbers. Outside I could see bare tree tops bent forward by the wind's consistent prodding and grey clouds swollen with rain. The screech of sirens and the flashes of intermittent blue and red lights were continuous. A sign for the emergency room was visible if I focused. The "M" was missing.

Mother lay still in the bed, slightly elevated to keep her head aligned with the ventilator. Her pink, quilted bed jacket with one large round button was folded in four neat sections across her feet. She hadn't spoken in a week or opened her eyes or moved her head, but just in case she awakened and wanted to receive visitors, the jacket was ready for her to wear. Or did I put out the pink jacket for myself? So I could imagine her smiling and laughing and making every one else feel comfortable with her paralysis. She might tell a story about her parents and their sense of public service to the homeless in 1930, and how it influenced her own views on the homeless in 2000. Or maybe, she would recite poetry from her grandmother's collection interspersed with stories about her survival as a writer in the reconstructed south. On a good day, she might get out of bed, ask for an arm on each side to steady her, and struggle to walk the hospital hall, cheerfully greeting other patients and their families. She would sympathize with other families' suffering and try to divert their minds by sharing old stories about my sister's miniature doll collection and my father's aviation obsession and our dog General (a restless hound) and our lives together. She might laugh and mention the time we spent a whole summer day catching lightening bugs in a glass jar with hand punctured holes in the metal cap, naming them—Sammy, Louis, Joe Joe, Mr. Bob and Mikie—and imagining lives for them and waiting until evening to let them go, sending each bug off with a prayer.

Today, she was sleeping soundly, her legs, stiff and useless as discarded logs, providing a slight bump underneath the blankets, and her breath's shallow, irregular pulses struggling to break the silence. I combed her brittle grey hair, adjusted her cotton gown (faded blue from continuous washing) and held her hand. They were clammy. The diamond dinner ring Daddy gave her the year before he died felt scratchy as I stroked her fingers. Occasionally, she pulled her hand away. Was this a reflex or was she letting go? I held her hand tighter and conducted a one-way conversation on the upcoming presidential election, the kitchen dishes and how I had let them pile up, what the vet had to say about Jersey's flea problem and Merv Griffin's last Ladies Home Journal interview on his years with the Gabor sisters. Which one did he date—Eva or Zsa Zsa? Those Gabor sisters were hard to pin down, and they had always confused me. I made a mental note to ask Mother when she woke up. She always kept track of such things.

A worn stack of paperbacks rested on her bed stand—Emily Dickinson's Complete Collection of Poetry, Jane Eyre, Black Beauty—and a photocopy of the poem "Ulysses" stuffed in her bible (a gift from her grandmother sixty years ago) with recipes and bookmarks and old address labels and her handmade garden club directory (dark green construction paper with white typed pages stapled inside and a pansy sticker on the front in the middle). Her knitting needles strung with red Merino wool (my favorite) for a cardigan sweater, daddy's Distinguished Flying Cross encased in an elegant blue leather box etched in gold, and her parents' framed photographs. They were all in the drawer, within easy reach.



It was an early January morning, barely dawn. The hospital attendants were collecting trash and the nurses were changing shifts. An orderly came in, nodded his head without looking me in the face, and went to the back corner of the room where he purposefully dipped a mop in a brown metal bucket and began cleaning the floor. He worked from side to side and I watched conscientiously as the mop's long cloth tentacles stretched across the blocks of beige and brown flooring. A haze of stringent cleanser made the air seem visible, and, I gagged, slightly. The floor dried unevenly, patches of wet intermittent with dry areas. I looked on, mesmerized, and wondered aloud why some things in life responded to good planning and order and other things were destined to be random and tragic. The orderly didn't look up, but answered me, without any inflection, saying, "because."

The hum of the hospital's muffled activity fluttered like a shadow across my consciousness. I felt comforted by the sameness of the morning, the sameness of the weeks and the sameness of the months in St. Mary's Hospital. As dawn broke into morning's first full light, the nearby nurse's station became more animated. There were laughs and giggles and sighs. Being a nurse, I thought, must be like watching a movie: You could feel the sadness, happiness, pain and joy of the characters without the burden of the consequences.

I always arrived at the hospital at dawn and usually went for morning coffee around 7:00, but today I overheard the nurses discussing an elderly patient's condition so I waited and listened. I opened mother's room door further and stood closer to the hall, hoping for a clue to their conversation. They never said a name and my ears strained to adjust to their chatter. They talked about diastolic blood pressure and blood gases and oxygen levels and improved prognosis and quality of life and early discharge.

"Is she better? She seemed worse yesterday when I had her."

"Yeah, I know. But she seems a little better to me."

"What do her morning vitals look like?"

"I haven't had a chance to check yet. They were stable when I came on yesterday. Somehow, she just seems better to me."

"Wait a minute, which patient are we talking about? "

I never heard a name.

My mother's body lay motionless as it had for nearly two months, but I suddenly felt a surge of hope while my head struggled to moderate my emotions and sort out the truth. The nurses were now discussing rounds and medications. No more talk about the elderly patient's condition, so I went back to the green metal chair and sat down. My mother's health suddenly felt like the forward motion of a wave, rising, falling and slowly coming towards its destination.

The doctor came in at 7:30, his careful steps barely audible, and the scent of Irish Spring preceded his arrival. He stared at the clipboard in his right hand, fidgeted with the eraser end of the pencil and began scribbling, and then, he finally looked at me, reached out for my arm with his left hand and said, "I have something to tell you." He stood against the far wall, his back slightly arched and a University of Virginia sports backer tie tucked in his shirt. I sat in front of him with my arms dangling loosely at my side and my feet were jumpy and unsteady. I anticipated his words and thoughts and prognosis, but, still, I was unprepared.

"There's nothing more we can do," he said. "I'm sorry."

"What do you mean nothing?" I asked.

"Nothing."

"You mean nothing more today?"

"That's not what I said."

"There's nothing more you can do, ever?"

"Right, I'm sorry."

"But, how can that be?"

"Your mother is dying."

"Now?"

"Yes."

I can't remember what I said or how I reacted or how I felt. I walked outside St. Mary's Hospital, gasping for air, almost choking, and squinting in the bright sunlight, tears welling without following through, and steadied myself on the railing at the handicap entrance. I wanted to run back to the moment before he told me. My mother, dying, I never imagined it this way. Sitting alone by her hospital bed, watching her struggle to breathe in and out, in and out, day after day after day, feeding her Italian ice cups (lemon and raspberry) with a plastic spoon, watching re-runs of Mary Tyler Moore, and reading her anything by Salinger and my thoughts, wandering and wandering and wandering. My father died in the same hospital. But, mother and I had been together. We would sit by his side, taking turns going downstairs for coffee, and, occasionally going to the cafeteria together on Thursdays for butterscotch pie. We talked about books and movies and plays and neighbors and family, but we never talked about his condition. My mother always believed he would get better.

She didn't die that day or the next day or the next week or the next month. But, early in March, early in the morning, before the darkness had lifted, she died. Suddenly. The nurse told me that I should go home because she was rallying. 'Get some sleep,' she said. Turned out it was a death rattle, and I wasn't there. I was there when she fell three years prior. I was there when she had a massive stroke that would deprive her of any mobility. I was there when the doctor told her she would never live on her own again. I was there when she decided to leave her home. But, I wasn't there when she died. I was at home, sleeping and talking to her in my dreams, when a telephone ring shattered the calm.

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