“Earth to Mom, earth to Mom . . . ” He waved his hand in front of her face in an effort to get her attention.
“What, honey?” she asked as if in a daze, finally turning her attention back to him.
“Don’t you think we should get going? We’re going to be late,” he replied. “We promised Grandma that we would be there by 7:00.”
“What time is it?” She suddenly realized that she was completely disoriented, and struggled to focus on her son and his words.
“It’s 6:15 and we still have to stop by the market and pick up a couple of things,” he gently reminded her.
“Oh, that’s right. All right,” she sighed, “let’s say our good-byes and get moving.”
As she rose from the chair, leaned over the bed railing and tenderly kissed her husband on his forehead as she stroked his hair, she noticed that, as usual, her son walked straight to the doorway, not looking back. He made no move toward the man lying in the hospital bed.
For those brief moments, the only sound in the room was that of the respirator that poured oxygen into her husband’s lungs through the tube inserted into his mouth. At first, the sound had been disconcerting, jarring. But after the first few months, she got used to it and came to find the sound comforting. After all, it was the sound of her husband breathing and so long as she heard it, she had told herself, there was the possibility that his eyes would open and this whole ordeal would be over.
But his eyes remained closed.
Eventually, she pushed the steady drone of the machine from her conscious thoughts. Now when she came to visit, she was no longer even aware of the sounds it made. They were simply part of the hospital environment.
How much time had elapsed since she abandoned all hope that he would awaken and resume living his life?
As they walked down the long hospital corridors and exited into the brisk cold of the parking lot, they did not speak. Their routine was familiar. They would spend an hour or so in Dennis’ room, talking to him for a few minutes when they first entered, as she surveyed his appearance in search of any slight change in his condition. Then they would lapse into some small talk about him, his room, his caregivers.
“Dad’s color is good today,” for instance. Or “I think we should ask his nurse to arrange for his hair to be cut. Remind me to speak with her on the way out, all right?”
Then they would sit quietly by his bedside, each lost in their own thoughts — memories of happier times, anger about the circumstances, regrets, sorrow, resignation — until one of them spoke up and suggested that they depart.
On this day, it had been her son who was anxious to spend Christmas Eve with his grandparents. She was ready — indeed, happy — to leave the hospital. Somehow, Dennis’ plight always seemed even more hopeless on holidays, especially at Christmas. Her mood was becoming increasingly morose as the darkness of Christmas Eve was enveloping the world.
Snow was beginning to fall lightly as they drove to the local supermarket and purchased egg nog, a small bottle of brandy, and a few other items to bring with them to the home of her husband’s parents. Their conversation was still limited to small talk about their purchases. They were both tense, anticipating an uncomfortable but obligatory evening with Dennis’ parents. She would have preferred to stay home, prepare a nice meal and spend the evening watching movies with her son, but she simply could not bring herself to decline her in-law’s invitation. They were insistent that she and her son spend Christmas Eve with them.
As she put the key in the ignition, her son said, “Mom, you know that they’re going to ask.”
“I know,” she replied, the weight of the evening ahead evident in her tone. She drew a deep breath and continued, “I am going to do my best to change the subject when they do. It’s Christmas Eve and I just can’t deal with their questions tonight.”
“Well, Mom, he is their son and they feel like they have a right to know what you plan to do. You would want to know if it were me, wouldn’t you?”
“Oh, honey,” she left the keys dangling in the ignition as she turned to face him. “Of course I would. It would be the most difficult thing in the world for me, just as it is for them. Your father is their only child and there is nothing worse for a parent than to lose a child. We all grow up believing that children are not supposed to die before their parents and when they do . . . “
Her voice trailed off as she looked out the windshield of the vehicle at the customers entering and exiting the store. Most were in small groups of two or three, chatting happily. One couple, wearing formal attire, came out of the store’s main entrance arm in arm, strolling dreamily back to their car. The gentleman was strikingly handsome, but then, she thought to herself, even the homeliest man can look dashing in a tuxedo. He was carrying a single bag that appeared to contain a bottle of liquor. He kissed the woman as he opened the car’s passenger door and assisted her to get in.
As she watched them, she was transported back to one special New Year’s Eve so many years ago.
“Earth to mom,” she heard her son say again. “Mom, you’re doing it again.”
“I’m sorry, honey,” she said genuinely, as she struggled to pull herself out of her melancholy reverie. “I really am. It’s just Christmas . . . ” her voice trailed off. “It’s just getting to me. I’m doing my best, though. I hope you understand that.”
“I do, Mom. I know that. I know how hard this is for you,” he said with a mature tone that sent cold shivers running down her spine. “It’s hard for me, too. And it’s hard for Grandma and Grandpa.”
Then he turned to face her and asked bluntly, “Are you or are you not going to keep the promise that you made Dad? I want to know, too.”
Click here to read Chapter Nine