Rated: 13+ · Short Story · Dark · #2031379
An examination of how one family copes with death and letting go.
|Hi everyone! Thanks for taking the time to read. I want to trouble you one further, and ask that you review this story as well.|
I'm asking for reviews that give a little more meat than might be typically offered, and I will respond to every such review with GPs. If you like it, great! But I'd love to hear why you like it and what you like about it. If you don't like it or anything in it, that's great too! I just need desperately for you to tell me what it was you didn't like and why. Please don't be overly concerned with hurting my feelings. Thanks for reading and for helping me out! I'll be happy to return the favor to anyone else.
I attempted to soften some of the MC's language a bit at the beginning, and made a point of making it obvious that some people deal with grief and emotion by reacting with anger and that the MC is such an individual.
Further, I expanded a bit on his past and abandoned any attempt at subtle characterization with the others since I seemed to miss the mark in trying to illustrate that the MC while grieving and angry was speaking from a place of compassion for his grandfather and as the sole voices of reason, he and the nurse were scapegoated by the others' irrationalities. The MC and nurse came off as unreasonable and villainous to several people.
The heightened drama is intentional not only in style, but in that the reality is things like death brings out the extremes of behavior and personalities. Grief drives people to act irrationally, bitter, and sad. Sorry, can't help that. Dark stories aren't for everyone. This is a story not so big with the events as how people are affected by loss.
Time is important. You have characters that occupying three orientations of time: in the past, in the future, and then there's the grandfather rooted firmly in the present.
Some reviewers enjoyed that the ending caught them off guard while others found it "out of nowhere." That surprised me because I foreshadowed it. I considered I was too subtle before, so I added more foreshadowing. The ending is supposed to shock, but not surprise - it's not a plot twist. It's an inevitability for which I tried to lay the groundwork without giving it away.
He had been dying for quite some time. How long exactly had become unclear and unimportant. His life was ending; that was important. Despite doctors, treatments, preparation, and prayer, his strength continued to wane. His body wasted away. His cheeks had become sunken, hollow, and gray. His entire body had taken on an ashen appearance. Marred by deep mauve areas scattered across his back, arms, legs, and stomach, his skin no longer held up against friction and gave way with the slightest insults. He weighed next to nothing, but appeared burdened by some unseen mass. Something massive held him to the bed.
The air in the room was heavy and thick. A briny odor clung to everything. The room's light was frail and breathing the heavy and putrid crypt-like air hurt my lungs. Despite best efforts, the bedroom was a shadow of the comforting sanctuary it was when I was a child. Intermingled with framed family photos featuring my grandfather vibrant and sturdy across a lifetime of love and laughter was alien hospital equipment; his stuffed deer head remained on the wall next to the gun case. I noticed among the formal family portraits and candid scenes from various holidays and get-togethers some black and white pictures, yellowed with age, and of familiar looking boy -he could have been me - that were not there before.
The steady thumping of the pendulum and grinding gears gave life to the ornate long clock I always loved, now holding court over this deathwatch. Muffled voices and stifled laughs carried in from the living room. My grandfather's quick and raspy breathing echoed through the air. Sometimes his dry, pale lips would part and allow a trapped grunt or moan to escape. He seemed unaware of the dim world around him. Unaware of my Aunt ‘Manda Lynn lying across the foot of his bed, her face buried in one of his pillows. She began letting out intermittent sobs when she noticed me. A jarring stab of heartache caught me off guard, sending through me a fury with no source of direction.
“It’s too hot in here. You can’t have it this hot in here.” I found my voice as I hesitated just inside the doorway. I was thankful it came out strong and forceful because my fear and grief were immobilizing me. While the family shared in the dread of the inevitable loss to come that had been slinking around the periphery before engulfing our way of life, my own fear was rooted deeper in a different type of cost. The realization that I was fighting a losing battle to preserve my mask of composure perforated my awareness. My determination to be a source of strength and comfort for my family was fading.
Forced now to inhale the various odors of death, a part of me regretted not having taken a deeper breath before entering the room. I felt instant guilt for this regret, but buried it to deal with what was in front of me. My grandmother, eyes puffy and wet, looked up from her chair, and another ache stabbed my heart.. She extended a bony hand to show she wanted me to come to her. I swallowed back my pain, and trying to ignore the fury that followed the pain, I walked over and squeezed her hand.
“He’s cold,” She whispered.
“What about his blankets?”
“He gets hot”
“We can take the blankets off if that happens. We just need to get the air circulating. Put something besides a sheet on him. It’s suffocating in here.”
‘Manda Lynn emancipated a wail that she seemed to have been saving for the mention of something like suffocation. My anger found a target. As always, 'Manda Lynn was using something centered on someone else as platform to get attention for herself. It was just like the time when I was riding my bike down the side of the street. 'Manda Lynn came driving along accidentally hitting me when she veered over while fiddling with the radio. Sure, in hindsight, my minor cuts, abrasions, and broken leg could have been worse, but as I lay crying in the street expecting death to come for me at the age of eight, the gathering crowd of family and neighbors huddled around 'Manda Lynn. Also in tears, she was traumatized by having hit a child "that darted out of nowhere in front of her new car."
One of my uncles thought enough of me to come over to sit with me, encouraging me to be calm because my "crying was upsetting 'Manda Lynn." My grandfather shooed him off, and reassured me that I would be fine. He distracted me with a story about how he fell from the back of a pick-up truck when I was my age. He predicted with calm confidence I would be fine because I was his grandson, and like him bounced back from anything.
'Manda Lynn did not even realize that I was who she run down until later, after which she needed a sedative to deal with the knowledge of having nearly killed me after I jumped out and ruined her car. She first related this fact to me later that week after waking me from a pain medicine induced nap with "You came close to dying and makin' me a murderer. You might still die, the doctors said." Thanks to 'Manda Lynn's histrionics I got grounded for riding my bike into traffic, a permanent marked limp, and against my grandfather's objections to my grandmother 'Manda Lynn got a new car. I never got another bicycle.
“‘Manda Lynn, get off of him. Sit in a chair,” I directed.
“She doesn’t want to leave his side,” my grandmother interjected.
“She can still stay by his side and NOT drape herself across him like a dachshund” I scoffed.
“Why….d’you…..have…to...be…so...so heartless?” ‘Manda Lynn bawled glancing up, “This…is…killin'….me!”
I rolled my eyes at this classic 'Manda Lynn production.
“I’m sorry! Can I get you anything?” I asked.
“No” ‘Manda Lynn replied, voice filled with mourning and obliviousness.
“Oh, I wasn’t talking to you” I replied, “I was addressing the actual dying person in the room.”
"Like you're such a saint, you totally ruined the front end of my new Mustang" she scoffed.
With that, I pulled ‘Manda Lynn off the bed with as much force as I could muster. I marched her over to the chair next my grandmother. Then shoved her down into it with more force than I needed to. She gasped. Crocodile tear filled eyes widened, her mouth opened for a brief moment as if she was about to object. I met her stare full on, feeling the malice for her burn inside me, daring her to say something.
“Stay off his bed! He didn’t like people hanging all over him when he was healthy. No way he’d be okay with it now.”
“But...I,” she said through tears
I leaned over scowling into her face, lowered my voice and hissed from the bottom of my throat: “It’s not about you.”
“I’m going to have to ask you all to step out,” a voice boomed from the doorway, “It's time to change out his bed linens.”
I faced the owner of the voice. She was a slender and tired looking woman with dark hair. Dressed in white, she had many pockets on her shirt and her pants. They all seemed to contain something. Her stethoscope was limp around her neck. She stood tall, head erect, calm faced, with her alert eyes surveying the room. In her arms were fresh sheets.
‘Manda Lynn jumped up, whining, “I am not going anywhere! I'm stayin' with my daddy”
“Yes, you are,” I grabbed her by her elbow and dragged her, shoving her out into the living room, I felt the cramping in my left leg, so I drove driving her into the refreshing spaciousness with extra force. My grandmother remained behind with the nurse, and closed the door behind us.
My mother and various extended relations, all of whom too torn up to face going in the other room looked up in unison. Their eyebrows raised with our appearance. I recognized those hungry, expectant looks, and fury again spread through my spirit.
“You don’t have to be so rough Jude,” ‘Manda Lynn hissed. She threw herself onto the sofa, which commenced act two of her portrayal of a tortured victim of fate. Bystanders crowded around her for information. My mother walked over to me,
“Behave yourself Jude,” she said through clenched teeth.
I looked at her with wide-eyed solemnness, lifted my right hand and said, “Scouts’ honor. Tell your sister stop propping herself up on the dying.”
I noticed a gardenia smell wafting through the room, while my mother ignored me,“You need to call Uncle Ed, and see where he is. Tell him it’s time. You need to talk to the nurse too. Find out how much longer it’s going to be,” she instructed. I glared at her, my arms across my chest, jaw tight, “Nobody can say how much time is left”
“I know that, but she’s a professional, she knows about these things. Find out how much longer it’s going to be. See if Aunt Martha is going to have time to get here. Tell her Aunt Martha is on her way,” she pushed me back in the direction of the room, “Don’t forget to call Ed and tell him to get down here, it’s time.”
“What exactly are you doing?” I demanded
“Just do it! I’m taking care of things out here!” She waved her arm to in the direction of the crowd speaking in hushed tones. "You are just like your daddy. No heart or compassion at all," she told me, not for the first time. "For once do as you're told without smartin' off to me," She kept talking, and telling me things to do as I stalked away ignoring her. There was nothing to take care of in the living room.
I could never decide if my mother took pleasure in situations like these or not. Situations where people fell apart and needed someone to direct them in what to do and where to go. I remembered her always taking notice at the slightest sign something could go awry. She became particularly focused if a situation was especially dire or life threatening for someone.
Her entire bearing stiffened, head tilting as she zeroed in on distress. She reminded me of a wolf or lion that located its prey, keen to the scent of blood in the air. However, my mother was not vicious. She would move in, and ask about superficial details: how long someone had been sick, where some member of the family was. Often she would step in to give advice and direction. Counseling grief stricken individuals with sage authority on matters related to finance and preparation. Matters she refused to address in relation to herself.
My mother always seemed to come alive in a crisis. As a child, I found it comforting that she seemed to know just what to do and say if something was wrong. When she remembered to direct that information to me that is. As an adult, I found it hollow, insincere, and far from comforting, much to my chagrin. The reason for this was twofold. I realized my mother enjoyed appearing to be helpful and knowledgeable. Additionally, a part of me resented that false reassurance she offered so freely to everyone, but me. She expected me to be stronger than that because according to her, I did not have the luxury to be weak; a fate I shared with her, she often reminded me.
But she was just putting on a show for everyone. The counsel she provided was more for her than anyone. It looked like the right thing to do, so it was a temporary good feeling for her. This would become clear when we got home. She would sigh; weary in anticipation of all she had to do for everyone. Her voice was grave when she spoke about the weight of all that fell to her. Sometimes she speculated on what would become of all the people she helped if she had not been there when they needed her.
As I got older, she spoke more of my own duty to help people as she delegated tasks from her to do list. I found myself calling family members or funeral homes. I became skilled in the kitchen when casseroles and meals for the bereaved became my duty. Eventually, my mother dropped all pretense of doing anything. All the things she volunteered herself for became my responsibility. She explained, “You know about these things more than I do, and you’re better at them.”
It would be unfair to remember these things as if they occurred every day. Of course, they did not. Nevertheless, the sheer mass of everything that gathered when someone died made it feel innumerable.
My heartlessness became a recurring theme in our exchanges. When I grew older and moved out on my own, I felt I could finally teach my mother the value of knowing one’s limits. She so often painted a picture of these poor grieving family members taking advantage of her generosity causing her to overextend herself. I thought I could impart to her the power of saying no. However, the notion of denying anyone in need horrified her. Even if one did not have the means to assist the individual in need.
Whenever she would start with what she “had” to do for someone, I reminded her that most of her headaches were her own doing since she offered her services so liberally. She always pointed out that everyone put her in such a position she could not neglect to offer help. Her logic was bizarre to me, and I often told her.
I stepped back into the bedroom. Found it cooler, less stifling, and a little more hospitable to life. The nurse was sitting with my grandmother who was looking away from the nurse, arms crossed, in her position of rejection. This was the position she would assume when she wanted to deny an inevitability or fact.
The nurse smiled at me with warmth, standing up, “I need to get a few supplies from my car. I’ll be right back,” Her eyes said to me, Talk some sense into her. When she was gone, I sat down and asked my grandmother about the details of their conversation.
“Oh, I don’t even know. That awful woman has been saying terrible things to me. You need to call her supervisor and have her fired now,” she said.
“What has she been saying?”
“I was telling her that her and the doctor weren't doing more to save your grandfather. He won't eat, so Aunt Lureen said for us to put in a feeding tube and make him fight. And you know what the nurse said? She said your grandfather is…” she paused as if what she was about to say next would alter everything I knew about the world, “is...dying” she whispered and wept.
I tried to phrase my response with as much sensitivity as I could, “And?”
“’And’?” my grandmother cried as fresh tears ran down her face, “What do you mean 'and?' What else do you need?” she wailed.
“Grandma, I don’t mean to sound insensitive, but he is dying.”
“You sound just like her!” my grandmother sobbed.
“Grandma!” I grabbed both her shoulders, and she looked at me, “You have got to pull yourself together. I know that's painful to hear, but all this medical stuff; a feeding tube it's not going to change the outcome. He is still going to die. Right now, he is suffering, and we need to let him go, not put him through another procedure to try to hold him here. He needs to know he can let go, so he won’t suffer anymore.”
She wept, “I don’t want him to die.”
“Letting him go won’t make that any less true,” I explained, and as I struggled to restrain my own sorrow and the tears I felt stinging the edge of my eyes I said, “I don’t want him to die either, but I’m going to let him go because it’s the best thing for him."
"I won't live without him if he's gone I have no life and our family won't be our family anymore," she asserted.
"It won't be easy, but you'll go on. We all will. It won't ever be like it was, but we'll keep going," I encouraged, "This here,” I pointed to his broken body, pale and limp. His gaze was fixed on a point somewhere beyond us all, “This is hell. This is pain and this torment. We need to let him go. This only ends if he's freed by death.”
She sighed, dabbing at her eyes with tissue, “I need a few minutes to say goodbye,” she resolved.
“Okay. I’ll be right outside," with the simultaneous sensations of grief and relief washing over my numb mind and body, I didn't hear the faint click of the bedroom door's lock.
The living room was empty except for my mother. Everyone else was either outside or had to go home, but would be back she informed me. The nurse was in the kitchen doing paperwork. She reported this with obvious disapproval.
“Mother, she has documentation she needs to keep.” I admonished.
“What? I didn’t say anything.” She insisted, eyebrows raised as she clasped her hands across her abdomen.
I sat down and put my face in my hands. My eyes hurt.
“Did you ask her how much longer it would be?”
“Not soon enough,” I answered rubbing the back of my neck. She burst into tears.
“Why do you want your grandfather to die? Why don’t you want him to fight and live?”
“Mother! This is no life. He is in pain and suffering. I don’t want him suffering.”
“They give him medicine for that,” she whined.
In that moment, I saw my mother as a little girl. I saw what she must have looked like when she pouted because she was not getting her way. Moreover, I saw this sad, pathetic grown woman petulant and arguing to keep another human being in a state of agony. All because it suited her better than the alternative. I was sad for her and disgusted by her selfishness. I was so overcome with disgust I almost did not hear what sounded like a gunshot from the bedroom. The second gunshot rang with a thunderous clarity as the nurse darted from the kitchen.
Frozen, my eyes locked on to my mother’s eyes. As horrifying realization dawned on me, I remembered the sound of the door locking, and recognized that the resolve I saw in her eyes had been resolve of another type, fueled by the loss of the life that once was and the complete abandonment of hope. My mother lowered herself down to the sofa and spoke with quiet detachment, “You need to go see what happened. Then call your Uncle Ed and Aunt Martha.”