Issue 01

Unburdening

W e were outside under the covered walkway because Thomas wanted to smoke and I didn’t want to be alone. I had been with our mother at the hospital for seven days and nights. And all that time I had been alone.

“You want one, Dee?” He tilted the pack toward me. I didn’t. He hadn’t called me Dee in years. I was lucky if I got Deanna. I was lucky if I got anything at all. Before he showed up at the hospital that evening I hadn’t heard from him in eight months.

“Has she been sleeping good?” he said.

“She wasn’t till they gave her some stronger meds. She does all right now.”

“Good,” he said. We were watching the rain come down easy in the dark. The cool, moving air felt nice, so I lifted my face to it and closed my eyes. Hospital air just sits on your skin.

Thomas was different from the last time I had seen him. He had always been gruff and detached like our father, but his eyes had settled deeper and his features had hardened somehow. He looked like someone on the other side of grief, like he had wrestled with it and was done but you could still see it on him.

For one thing he had never gotten over Dad’s passing. It had been nearly three years, but Thomas still grieved over him, still wrote him letters. He told our Uncle Benny that he thought of it like he was on the battlefield and Dad was back home. So he would write him letters and then put them on the burn pile in the evening and watch them go up. Thomas loved our father more than I did, then and still.

The cherry tree blossom petals were looping in the moving air. Thomas and I were stone-still and not speaking. We never said much. We had gotten most of our words in early, before he turned eighteen and moved to Ohio for work. Work that wasn’t crawling on his hands and knees down deep in the earth. He had been terrified of going underground ever since the cave-in at the mine where Dad worked. Thomas was seven. He wrapped himself around Mom’s legs and cried while she was crying on the phone trying to find something out. Dad had been standing outside checking on the belt line.

“How’s the shop?” I said. Thomas had his own collision repair place. Mom and I were proud of him for that.

“Pretty good,” he said. He didn’t look at me when he spoke. He watched his smoke roll or looked down at his scuffed, brown work boots. “I don’t know what I was expecting,” he said. “She doesn’t look good at all.”

She didn’t look that bad, relatively. But he hadn’t seen her in over a year. He hadn’t witnessed her slow uncoming. Her skin drawing tight to her bones, the thinning thread of her voice. Her delusions of her decades-dead parents sitting bedside. Finding her in a flowering puddle of her own shit. Listening to her whisper that she wants to die, and why won’t I let her. He had missed all that.

I had been retired from teaching for two years, so I’m sure he thought I had nothing better to do. No family of my own to tend to. But it was hard being the only one.

We were standing far enough away from the entrance so that Thomas wouldn’t get reprimanded by the staff who were eager apostles of the “no smoking within fifteen feet” sign. A few yards from us was a tall, thin man in a hospital gown and blue robe. He was holding a cigarette in one hand and his IV pole in the other. Across from him was a weeping woman, her whole body heaving while someone who seemed to love her was holding on. And beyond them, out past the half-empty parking lot, was the rim of mountains that held it all in, like colosseum walls, but more ancient and blooming and alive. They looked down on us like they had looked down on all the ones before us. We were all the same—the condemned, fighting for what we were only ever meant to lose.

“I’m glad Dad never had to go through it like this. Dying slow,” he said. “You don’t get to say all the things you need to say, but you don’t see them suffer either.”

My father had died above ground. A motorcycle accident in late spring. He was on his way down to Daytona with his girlfriend. She existed, the often rumored and often denied other woman, and she had a son. My half brother, who was older than Thomas but younger than me.Thomas and I kept it from Mom because we loved her.

It wasn’t easy to orchestrate Dad’s funeral, but Uncle Benny helped, mostly because he liked to be in the middle of everything. He brought them around for visitation early. Just mother, son, and Benny there in the room with Dad with the lid of the casket kicked up. Mom arrived later, after they were gone. And she was so distraught at the gravesite that she didn’t notice the young man who looked like the deceased standing at the back of the huddle.

Thomas snuffed his cigarette out on the concrete. We went back the way we had come, through two sets of automatic doors, past fake plants and an unattended yellow mop bucket, and up to the fourth floor to 417.

She didn’t wake when we walked in. She just lay there in a pool of herself, hooked up to tubes and monitors and hemmed in by safety rails. I had had a lot of time to look at her that way, but that wasn’t the worst of it. The worst was having to see her like that while still holding the clear memory of her dancing to some radio song in a body that cooperated, solid and tall.Thomas leaned up against the wall with his arm folded across his chest and watched her. He looked her over like she was somebody’s totaled vehicle.

“I heard she was dying,” he said.

“Who told you that?”

“Benny.” Benny didn’t know. He lived ten minutes away and hadn’t been to see her once.

“She’ll be fine,” I said. “They’ve been talking about letting her go home soon.”

“And she would be fine. Our people died in winter. They waited until the snow came, until the ground was frozen solid and hard to dig. Till the roads were glass and the wind was an unrelenting ice scythe. Till you would have to tramp through slush and mud to grieve them.”

Thomas moved over to her bed and put his hand on top of hers. When he was a boy he used to sit in her lap and hold onto her long, black hair. He would fall asleep against her and she would cradle him. I wondered if he remembered.

They were both unrecognizable now. He was a tall, broad man with a beard and Jesus hair. She was gray and wasting. And Lord knows I had changed. I was growing old, thick, untrusting, and bitter, and I knew it, but there was nothing to do but let it come. We were not at all who we were. Sometimes I thought we must’ve been a dream we had.

“I’m all by myself here,” I said. “It’s just me.”

“You don’t have to stay right here with her all the time.”

“Yes. I do. She wouldn’t make it if I didn’t.”

“What in the hell are the nurses for, then? All she has to do is push a button and they come running. I’d love to have this setup. And you wouldn’t be sitting right in my face all the time neither.”

I tightened my grip on the arms of the chair till it felt like bone against wood. All the force of my pumping blood beat in my hands. “You have no idea,” I said. “You’ve long had the luxury of not having to worry about how she feels or what she needs.”

He ignored me. Mom woke up, and he kissed her on the forehead. He talked to her maybe ten minutes. Then he pulled his phone out of his pocket and stared at it while he walked past me and out of the room. I watched from the window to see if I could see his Camaro in the lamplight, but I never did.

***

T he next day Mom got up early, and all she wanted to talk about was Thomas.

“He looked good, didn’t he,” she said.

“He did. Must be taking care of himself.” Of course. Thomas was the only person Thomas had to take care of.

For me, breakfast was a pack of blueberry mini muffins and a Diet Coke, the same as the day before. At the hospital, my mornings were on autopilot. Wake up around six when the nurse comes in. Wash Mom’s face. Brush her hair. Hand her her teeth. Help her eat. And then I would walk myself to the vending machine.

Hospitals always smell like just-cleaned ass. It was noticeable at first, but somewhere around day three it stopped smelling like anything and joined the rest of the sensory information that had been pushed out of my awareness—the constant hallway traffic; the dingy panels of fluorescent light; the tortured, waiting room faces; the too-loud nurses on the night shift.

So when my brother pushed the door open around noon, I didn’t blink. I assumed he was another nurse. Which was just as well, since he paid me no attention. He walked over and sat in the chair next to Mom.

Thomas had turned out to be one of those people who talks to the elderly the way you talk to children or intelligent dogs. I heard it then when he started talking to Mom—a light, false tone with hints of condescension, like she wasn’t a human adult. Like she hadn’t taught him how to write his name or tie a shoelace.

About half an hour later, two nurses came into the room and wheeled Mom back for a heart cath.

“Here, go down and get us something from the cafeteria,” I said and handed him three tens. He tried to act reluctant, but he took the money.

“What do you want?”

“Taco salad.” It was the only thing I wasn’t sick of yet. “And get you whatever you want.”

He came back about twenty minutes later with our food on one of those trays that they had been bringing Mom’s food on. It was the dusty rose color that was on the hospital logos and curtains and beds. I hated that color.

“Thanks,” I said and took the black plastic bowl. I was standing up and had Mom’s tray table as high as it would go. I set the salad down, took off the plastic dome lid, and put my fork to it. “There’s corn in this.”

“Okay,” he said.

“I can’t eat it.”

“I’ve seen you eat corn.”

“I don’t eat loose corn in things. You know that.”

He lifted his face from his hamburger and paused to glare at me. “I do now.””

“You don’t remember that one time at Thanksgiving when Mom and Dad took us home over the fit I threw?”

“What do you want me to do? Pick it out? Here.” He walked over and grabbed the bowl and pushed his fingers into it. He flicked each kernel at the floor.

“Stop it!”

“I’m helping you out.”

He kept on like a crazy person. You couldn’t talk to him when he was like that. Like that time he was in high school and couldn’t pass Algebra II. After one more unsuccessful tutoring session with Mom, he took the thick book out on our back porch and started ripping out all the pages. Big hunks at a time. Then he stomped on the paper pile and held one cover down with his foot while he tore the spine.

I went to the bathroom down the hall and sat on the toilet with my elbows on my knees and my head in my hands. I thought of nothing. I sat there a long time. I started humming and listened to my breathing and sang the chorus of “I’ll Fly Away.” Then I sang it two more times and did a different harmony part each time. I left the bathroom to walk laps around the fifth floor where the babies were. When I got back to Mom’s room, there was thirty dollars on the tray table. Next to it was a new taco salad. No corn. I ate it, but only because I was hungry and he wasn’t there to see me. I was glad he was gone.

“I wish he would’ve stayed,” Mom said.

A couple hours later Thomas stood at the door and motioned for me to walk over to him.

“You forget something?” I said.

“I’m going to tell her,” he said. He looked me right in the eye. “About Dad. And Maggie and Wallace.”

I hated hearing their names. I never said them out loud. I tried not to think them.

“No,” I said. “There’s no point.”

“The point is it’s the right thing to do. Everybody ought to know the truth of their own life.”

How naïve and absurd to think we ever could. He didn’t know the half of his, how his father would lock me and Mom out of the house when he got angry. How he would stop talking to us or leave for days at a time. Once he was gone for almost two weeks and came back with a different car and three new pairs of running shoes for himself. How he would hit us until the rage drained out of him. It was Thomas’s inheritance, and he didn’t know a thing about it.

He pushed a hand through his long hair and let out a deep breath. “It’s been riding my back like dead-weight, knowing and not saying a word. You’ve not felt bad keeping it from her all this time?”

“No.”

“Well. That says a lot about you, don’t it?”

He nodded his head once and pushed my shoulder to move me out of the way. I grabbed his arm and pulled it as hard as I could with both hands. I dug my nails in deep, past the flannel shirt to the skin. He peeled me off and walked over to her bed.

I shut the door, and I sat in the hallway with my back against the wall till it was done.

After a few minutes I heard the door handle click. Thomas didn’t look down at me, but I watched him. He walked toward the elevator like somebody who’d just made bail.

The early afternoon sun pushed through the blinds and flooded Mom’s room with warmth and slatted light. It washed over the pink tulips I had set by her bedside. And it covered my mother, yet she somehow still seemed cold.

“Mom, do you want another blanket?” She was trembling a little. Coumadin would do that, make her feel like she was freezing. I walked over and squatted down so I was even with the safety rails. I tried to see her face, but she had it covered with both hands. Her whole body was tense, pulled into itself and sharp, all elbows, knees, and knuckles. Every few seconds she would jerk a spike of breath into her mouth like she’d just been thrown on shore. I touched her arm.

“Tell him not to leave me,” she said. Then she wailed like she’d been shot straight through.

A native of southeastern Kentucky and a coal miner’s daughter, T.M. Williams is the 2011 recipient of the Jean Ritchie Fellowship in Appalachian Writing. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Still: The Journal and various anthologies.

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