"Can you call your brother?" Mom asked, handing me her phone.
"When did you call him last?" I asked. "What does he know?"
"He knows how sick she is, but that's about it. I don't even think he knows that we're at the hospital."
I am overcome with a wave of resentment that doesn't belong in a Pleasant Grove ICU. How is it my responsibility to call him? He's not my son. Can't Kelly do it? She's so much better at stuff like this. I can't even watch Babe without bursting into tears, and I'm supposed to be the one to break this story?
I swallow my indignation along with a half gallon mix of tears and snot and take the cel. I start scanning through Mom's contact list, trying to move quickly through the names of everyone that will eventually need to be notified, all of the brothers and sisters and uncles and aunts and nieces and nephews and cousins and in-laws and former in-laws and neighbors and ward members and old friends and old friends' children and the bank will need to be called and we'll have to close the account and I wonder what kind of coffin she really wants and whether or not she wants to be made up or if we're going to bury her in Alabama or if she'd rather be interred in her adopted home of Utah County and dear God in Heaven how did this all happen so quickly.
I keep going through the list, but trying to see right now is like opening your eyes underwater in a murky pool and so I exit the contact list and dial Corey's number manually after cursing my stupidity. He answers the phone.
"What's going on?" he asks.
"They're not thinking she's going to make it through the night," I tell him.
There's nothing more to say.
"How's Mom?" he wonders.
"She's okay," I answer. "I mean, okay as she can be, I guess. She and Dad are the only ones who aren't crying."
"Is Kelly there?"
"Yeah. She's not doing so well."
"You alright?" he asks. I don't know what to say.
"I'm okay," I lie through my teeth. "It's her time, you know?" I run out of emotional stamina and can't go on.
"I'll be out there tomorrow," he says. "I was gonna come out today, but trying to get a flight a week before Christmas isn't easy unless you, like, have your own plane."
"I'll see you then," I stutter.
"Keep me posted. Thanks for calling," he says.
"Talk to you later." I hang up the phone and, with ironically poor timing, immediately regain my composure.
The ICU is laid out like a really nice cell block with windows instead of bars. There are seven rooms in here and Gloria is in #6. All of the other ones appear to be occupied, but we're the only non-patients in there. My mom is sitting by her beside with a hand on hers, while my dad sits next to my mom with a hand on her unused one. Mom's clearly fighting back tears, but doing an incredible job of it. My dad, ever the rock, is poker-faced, but the warmth from his eyes is making this darkened fifth-floor a little easier to handle. My sister, Kelly, four months pregnant, is in silent hysterics, and I wish I had her ability to be comfortable in these displays of emotion that I somehow feel need restraining. Her husband, Nathan, is staring at the ground. Every ten seconds or so, he raises his eyes to Kelly, as if he's about to say something comforting, but puts his eyes back to the ground. There's not much to say.
I begin slowly pacing back and forth across the linoleum, as if I'll find some answers at this side of the room, oh wait, maybe that side of the room can justify this, no, better check back over there. Nothing. One of the nurses approaches me.
"Can I get you anything?" she asks with an austerity that must have been part of her job interview. "A Coke or something?"
"No," I choke through the nasal haz, "I'm okay. But thank you." On 'thank you,' a handful of sobs bursts through the dam. I immediately try and rebuild my resolve, and three or four seconds later, after several breaths so deep I don't know where the air all went, I'm back. "Thank you. For everything."
"Of course," she says. She puts her hand on my arm for a split second and I muster a weak smile.
My phone vibrates. I begin dreading the possibility of having to tell another family member that my grandmother wouldn't live long enough to watch an entire episode of The Sopranos if I had started it ten minutes ago.
But it's Melissa. Shit, I haven't talked to her in, what, three days? Ever since--wait, this isn't important. I'll call her later. I hit the ignore button. Thirty seconds later, the phone rumbles a voicemail-notifying aftershock.
But there are bigger things at stake.
Two more nurses approach Gloria's bedside and inspect the readings on some machines. I can't imagine anything but jumping up and down and wildly devout claims of "IT'S A MIRACLE!" being an indication of good news, and their silence is damning. It's wildly past visiting hours, but I feel like these circumstances sort of supersede any issues of chronology. That's the thing with death, I think: everyone around you gets to be an exception to the rule.
I'm so disgusted with my crass philosophizing that I decide to punish myself. I dig my canines into the underside of my lower lip until they can physically go no further and then I give an extra push. Retracting the teeth causes two small bursts of copper to spread all over my tongue and I'm grateful for the pain. I relish it and I swim in it and each crimson swallow is a way to take away the pain that her failing lungs are giving her. I'm subsidizing what she feels. I'm taking it upon myself. Because there can only be so much pain in the world at one time and this 82-year old woman shouldn't have to suffer alone, and since I can't manage to step inside that room, among the machines and cables and monitors that have essentially caused her to live her last minutes as a cyborg, this will have to do.
I will share the pain because I have nothing else to offer.
I trudge to the waiting area and look out the window down below. We're several stories above the ground and the view of this tiny suburb is a lot prettier than it has any right to be. I ascribe its glory to the season. Everything looks this good a week before Christmas Eve, I tell myself, and I look down into the hospital's garden that, in the minimal moonlight, I can barely make out.
There's a man sitting on the bench next to the frozen man-made pond, next to the willows that, despite what looks to be a tumultuous wind, are sitting perfectly still, presumably out of respect for what's happening five stories above them. I can see the man's face and wonder what he's escaping out there.
Maybe his wife is dying and he just can't handle seeing her go. Maybe his wife is about to have a baby and he's terrified that he's not going to be a good enough father and he's debating whether or not to go out for that ephemeral pack of cigarettes that sends so many men out into the wilderness to escape their responsibility. Maybe his estranged older brother has terminal cancer and asked him to take him out of his misery and take him off of the life support that their parents demand is necessary out of a misguided Christian morality and he doesn't know what to do.
Or maybe his wife just delivered a beautiful baby boy named Henry and he was so happy that he screamed like a Star Wars fanboy seeing Mark Hamill--IN PERSON!--and the doctors, while appreciative and grateful for his exuberance, suppressed their smiles and asked him to step outside so that they could get their jobs done and to come back in fifteen minutes. Maybe his mom just came out of a coma and he's brainstorming all of the ways he's going to be a better son and how he'll tell her just how grateful he is for all of the sacrifices that she made when her husband left for the sake of her children.
I see the willows, still frighteningly motionless, and I'm reminded of that song she loved. I can't help myself from humming it.
Crossed many states just to stand here now, my face all hot with tears.
"Andy," my dad calls from the room. I'm baffled by how he's able to say so much with just my name. I walk back to the room, making sure to only step on the white tiles of the checkerboard linoleum beneath my feet. Anything to try and help.
I crossed city, valley, desert, and stream to bring my body here.
Gloria's trying to speak. Noises are coming out of her mouth, but they're leaning more toward gurgles and sloshing than actual words and my brain doesn't want to acknowledge that this is what death is. It's not the ending to Blade Runner. Nobody's going to release a dove into the air to fly away the moment she passes. No one has speeches, no one has philosophy, no one has comfort. There is just this thing that is there one moment, and not there the next. It's an emptiness. It's a subtraction from the world.
My history and future blaze bright in me, with all my joy and pain
"Water," she says. "Please give me water." My mom can't take it and exits the room. The doctor told us she would ask for water, but that we can't give her any.
Go through my head on our mountain bed where I smell your hair again.
"I need water," she repeats. That's too much for my sister, who sobs loudly and stands crumbles into her husband's arms. My dad turns his face to the ground. I'm so horrified by the indignity of this that I can't take my eyes from her.
"Thirsty," she whispers. "So thirsty." Each laborious breath sounds like a steam engine whistle in reverse. She opens her eyes that have been closed for the majority of the last four hours and looks right at me.
"Andy, please," she wheezes, "water."
Twenty minutes later, her body concedes victory to the rules of fate and quietly bows out. The steady beeping of the heart monitor indicates as much and tries to fill the air with a soft, steady tone. I appreciate its efforts. The nurse steps into the room.
"It's December 17, 2007. Time of death, 1:30 AM," she says. "Can you confirm the time, please?" she asks me. I nod briskly.
"I'm sorry for your loss," she says. My mom folds her frown into a grateful smile.
"Thank you for being so kind," my mom tells the nurse.