Mom’s short-term memory no longer tethers one moment to the next, so I’m at the hospital to stay overnight with her following breast cancer surgery. Though she still has moorings in the distant past, recent events float quickly to a further shore, so my job is to keep retying her to a drifting present. The ward has precedents for this kind of stay, for mothers and sisters and daughters, that is; but not for me. None but our shared visit 48 years ago in this same hospital, when they brought me to her as soon as I was cleaned and snipped from my own tether, and the first thing I clung to in the world was the breast she’s about to lose.
I was ten pounds then; I’m almost two hundred now, so I won’t nestle with her this time. What I want is to lie in the room’s other bed and tell her where she is, how she got there, and why her chest hurts. I’ll probably do this every five minutes until she goes to sleep; that’s the life cycle of her memory, the interval of her fear. Everything that isn’t old is fleeting. By that measure, I’m old now because she remembers me, though she sometimes rewinds time to put me back in college, right before Dad started crumbling.
The nurse tells me she’ll have an answer about the bed by the time the surgery is done. She wants to make it happen because she thinks I’ll be a comfort, even if I’m not exactly comfortable doing it. In the meantime, I go down to the lobby for a cup of coffee and a chicken sandwich, and I watch doctors and nurses and visitors come and go, unaware that the day’s main event is underway upstairs. Mom is already in surgery, so their rushing about can’t amount to much. It quickly occurs to me how silly this take on things is, like that of a newborn for whom a mother is everything. I haven’t treated her that way in a while.
As I wait, I think about ways to insert Mom into an essay I’m writing about Dad. I don’t examine why she isn’t already there, why ministering angels haven’t interested me as much as fallen ones. But I do manage to wedge tidbits about her into Dad’s story, and I’m happy to see that they add context. Nothing wrong with my memory.
I finish my coffee and head upstairs, and soon they’re wheeling Mom back into the room, where I’m told I can have the extra bed. Notebook in hand, I pull up a chair beside her and watch her sleep. It strikes me that I haven’t watched her rest in a long time, and that she looks old now, her hair thinning and her cheeks drooping. I take notes about how Dad’s implosion wore her down.
Slowly, she starts to come out of it, her mouth moving, her eyes opening part way, then wider, and then she sees me. With heaved breaths, she asks me where she is, what happened, when Dad will get there. I answer one question at a time, and after I tell her that Dad died three years earlier, she has a look that blends concentration and pain, her eyes squeezing to stars.
I put my hand on hers and tell her to get some rest, and before long she obeys in a way my kids never have at bedtime, closing her eyes with her head tilted a bit toward me, her breath slowing. I try to make mine match hers, thinking it might help me feel what she’s feeling somehow, but I’m thrown by the hospital’s beeps and buzzes, which come between us like the tubes and monitors she’s hooked up to. I can’t put myself in her place; all I can do is sit and wait.
She’s on the verge of sleep when a nurse comes in to check her bandage and vitals, and then Mom is awake again, asking the same questions and getting the same answers. I feel like a parent whose child has been roused by a slammed car door. She eventually manages to fall asleep briefly, only to wake with a snort, a breath catching in her throat. Going to sleep, waking with a snort-breath, asking questions—this pattern repeats itself for over an hour, during which time she loses her breast and her husband four times each. A busy night.
Finally, I give up on my notebook. I turn down the lights, lie down behind the half-closed scrim, and try to will her to sleep. But her will is stronger.
“Hello?” she calls out.
“I’m here,” I say.
“What happened?” she asks.
“You had surgery for breast cancer,” I say. “It went well.”
“Dad’s not here?”
“No,” I say, cutting grief short this time.
The silence on the other side of the curtain is longer this time, and thicker. “I suppose I’ll see him soon.”
“I suppose so,” I say as I move my pillows to the foot of my bed, figuring she might hold onto my words longer if she can see my face. And even if she can’t retain the news I share, she might at least be comforted by seeing me.
“Where are we?” she asks.
“Hartford Hospital,” I say.
“We’ve been here before,” she says.
“Do you think they remember us?”
Michael Gracey lives in Newburyport, Massachusetts and teaches English at Pingree School. His writing has appeared in The Briar Cliff Review, Dogwood, The Green Mountains Review Online, Under The Sun, Post Road, Water~Stone Review, and Ninth Letter.