When we arrived last night she was grumpy. Frustrated with the oxygen tubes in her nose. Unhappy about cold, tasteless hospital food.
She looked at the lineup of people sitting on the couch at the foot of her bed and declared, “You look like a seminary!”
Adriana crawled in bed with her and sang gently in her ear. We stayed and sang until she calmed a little. My other sister took the night shift after we all left and barely got any sleep.
Tonight it’s my turn. Our turn, actually. Mark packs a supper and helps me gather blankets and pillows. We’ll do this together, the way we did the night after Emily Beth was born and we slept on the floor of his mother’s office at Florida Hospital because they insisted on discharging me and refused to discharge Emily Beth. I dragged myself off the floor and up to the nursery every time they summoned me to nurse her. Mark dragged himself to work the next morning. That was almost 24 years ago.
We’ve spent plenty of nights apart, but we cling to each other more and more as we grow older and increasingly comprehend the fragility of life and the limits of our precious time together.
This time we have a pull-out bed and a recliner. Thank you, Walla Walla General, for a welcoming space and kind nurses.
She is more herself tonight. More aware. More peaceful. She’s still not thrilled with the oxygen tubes but is willing to tolerate them. She watches quietly as my brother and sister pass the baton to us. We gather around her to pray. After years of living in separate corners of the continent, it is only by some strange miracle that we are all here together at this stage in our lives when she most needs us and we most need each other.
I can barely keep my eyes open. Mark settles into the recliner to work on deadlines. I crawl in beside her and lay my head on her chest, placing my arm gently across her tummy. She runs her beautiful crooked fingers through my hair, across my cheek, and down my arm, then reaches up to trace my eyebrows. I notice her fingernails, lovely and untouched by arthritis that has crippled her for 52 years. A line of demarcation indicating that suffering and disease can come so far and no farther.
She rests her hand on my arm and I feel the familiar sensation of her fingers playing melodies and rhythms on my arm. Mark does that, too, right before he falls asleep. It’s one of my favorite things. I can actually hear the songs they play. She is playing, “Holy, Holy, Holy.”
She used to play the organ and piano. Like Mark, she would sit at the piano on Friday nights and play beautiful chords and melodies that matched the peacefulness of Sabbath.
Those precious hands. How many times she has comforted me. I still need her more than she needs me.
“Don’t you need to go home to bed?” she says.
“I’m staying here with you.”
“Mmm. Then I can take care of you,” she says softly. “I can watch over you.”
She looks over at Mark. “Is he staying here, too? How many people can they fit in these rooms anyway?”
She has gotten so funny with age. I want to write down everything she says the way I did with my kids. As with them, I can’t tear myself away from the moments. I forget everything later. Fighting the urge to pick up my phone and record everything she says, I lay my head back down on her chest. She softly strokes my head and face, relaxing a little.
“Can you sleep?” I whisper.
“Sleep?! I have thinking to do. And other things, too!” she says and closes her eyes as if she’s resolved to begin a day’s work.
I know exactly what the other things are. They’re the same “other things” my dad did when cancer took his voice but not his thoughts.
“What other things?” I ask anyway, because I want to hear the answer.
She opens her eyes, looks at me, and we say it together:
March 2, 2016