When I arrive, she is alone. Someone has changed her sheets and her gown. The room smells of bleach and the floor is still drying. I hold her hand, and today, she doesn’t squeeze back. Someone has removed her polish, revealing the grooves of her nails, pale and yellow, the beds no longer pink. I can see the indent from her ring. We had it cut off yesterday. It was the only thing to do.
She is puffy and swollen, and her mouth is strangely flat. It takes me a moment to realize that it’s because someone has removed her dentures. White and grey gather at the corners of her mouth, gumming her lips together. I warm a cloth and gently clear it off. I wipe her face and her neck. I need to get her ready before they start to show up. She would die if they saw her like this. She lies there, eyes closed and unmoving, while I put on her lipstick and brush her hair. It is oily. I will wash it. I blot her lips with a tissue and I catch myself popping and rubbing my own lips together just as I have watched her do so many times.
Her breathing stutters. It becomes restricted. This has happened before—fluid is pooling in her lungs. I go to the door and call for help, the pitch of my voice rising as I hear the crackly phlegm taking her breath. I am torn between making sure that someone is coming to help her and being beside her bed, reassuring her. The nurse never gets here before I start to panic. What would happen if I wasn’t there watching? Would they just allow her to suffocate? This nurse is young, younger than me. She calmly turns on the suction for the wall-mounted tube, snaking it down her nose and into her lungs. Milky-pink fills the container. It is still a struggle, although the air is moving easier. But today, she doesn’t thrash or bang the bed, gasping, unable to speak. She just lies.
I am overcome.
She is helpless.
I walk quickly from the room, working hard to keep from running, through the hallway maze. Everywhere I turn, there are people like me, and nurses, all busying themselves, fighting to smile or to touch, or to even just stay. Nobody here is indifferent, but many fight to maintain that appearance. A man attempts to stroll, hands in his pockets, ball cap on, chewing gum. His eyes betray him, though. They are red, and wear gray and purple beneath them in circles that blend into his cheeks. His face is unshaven. He isn’t sleeping either. I can tell—he is trapped in the in-between as well. I wonder, who is he pretending for? His wife? A parent? His children? I look inwardly. My best guess is that it is for himself. It is rising in me. Soon I will not have charge of myself anymore, I can feel it. My lungs are full—I didn’t realize I was holding my breath. A deserted waiting room mercifully appears, the empty chairs and the disarray welcome me and I collapse.
I fold my body over my arms, my face in my elbows, fingers knotting and twisting hair, holding on. My breath and my tears have wet my face. Every inhale is a sob. It is hard. My entire body is a part of this emotion and this moment, like the stride of a marathon runner. I am trying to reclaim myself, to find what therapists call “the centre,” to retreat from this forced abandon. I focus on my breaths. Years of memory and history are pushed upon me. My throat is tight. My lifetime is so wound in her presence that I cannot separate her from it and go somewhere else for a time, allowing me to regain control. These minutes are unbearable, and all those that have come before them make them even more so. I squeeze my eyes, shut them tight.
In one moment, I am close to her. I can smell cold cream and cigarettes, my nose in her neck. I play with the gold cross she wears there, fingering it and watching the light change it yellow and gold. My hair is wet and I can feel her shoulder getting damp. Her arms are wrapped around me, my knees to my chest, the flannel of my nightie soft against my skin. It is clean and smells like it came off the line, just like the sheets on the bed. The TV glows blue. Her breaths are slow and deep, and I am falling asleep.
“One day when you grow up, you’re going to forget all about me.” She always says this. And it is, of course, the silliest thing anyone could think. How could I possibly forget her? I want to be her.
“No I won’t. I will never, ever forget about you.” She moves her fingernails across my back, in figure eights. It is both tickly and soothing at the same time. She is quiet. And then she starts to sing. Her chest vibrates, the deep tone resonating. I join her. Soon we will say our prayers. It’s time for bed.
In another moment, it is this time of year. I am four. The sun is uncharacteristically warm and the flies are buzzing lazily. I taste dust and smell the smell I get when I bury my face in the old farm dog. I can distantly hear the drone of the combines working in the field. The porch sounds hollow, not the clickity-clackity that the cement did when I walked on it. I pause a few feet from the door and adjust my hat—I can’t see to knock on the door. My dress is green satin, with a tulle overlay and has a pretty sparkling broach in the center that dips way, way down. I feel like a grown-up, ready for a dance. My purse is heavy, burdened with Charlie perfume, blue-tinted mascara, a partial deck of cards, and Monopoly money. I am very rich and very important. I am ready for visiting. I step forward and knock on the door. It is quiet, though I have rapped hard enough to hurt my knuckles, so I try again, louder. The floor creaks with footsteps and the door sweeps open grandly. The smells of cinnamon and brown sugar follow with the burst of warmth from the house.
“Well hello, Mrs. Jones! So good to see you! Won’t you come in?” She is red nails and lipstick. “It’s been so long since I’ve seen you. How have you been?”
This is my big entrance. I smile a big smile with all of my teeth, my back straight and my nose pointed up, just the way she taught me. I step forward, into the house, not only tripping on the doorstep, but the hem of my dress as well. I am going down. I’ve barely hit the floor before she’s gathered me in all of my finery, up in her arms. I am crying, more because my entrance is ruined than because I am hurt.
“You want to try again?” She kisses my cheek. I never wipe away her kisses—I like the mark they make. She pulls a tissue from the neck of her blouse and wipes off my tears. I nod. She sets me down and holds the door open while I steady myself in my heels. I start again all the way back at the lilac bushes, one foot in front of the other. And this time, I get it right. She cheers. Always, she cheered.
And so, I am overcome. This is no longer discomfort from the wait-and-see. It is mourning for who she was and realizing that she will never be that woman again. The contrast is so great that it takes my breath away.
The clock on the wall ticks in a very certain way, locking away every second. I am aware of each one that passes, of their value. They are my answer, the way that I will help them let her die: one moment at a time. I make my way back to her room, full and raw. I need to wash her hair.