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Rated: 13+ · Short Story · Family · #2249292
A man takes his mother to visit her ailing father in the hospital.
The doors swished open and the cool night wind followed us into the main lobby of the hospital. Up ahead was a sitting area with an arrangement of chairs set around a low table, the tabletop covered with old magazines. A man in farmer overalls sat alone on one of the chairs, reading a newspaper. To the right of the entrance was the front desk, and two older women were sitting behind it. One of them looked up at us expectantly; Mom addressed this woman as she walked up to the desk.

“We’re here to see a patient,” Mom said.

“Patient’s name?”

“Murphy. Frank Murphy.”

The woman looked down at the computer in front of her, tapping lightly at the keyboard. The other woman behind the desk watched the proceedings mutely. The one who was doing the typing read something on her screen before looking back up at Mom.

“Mister Murphy is in Room 208. That’s on the second floor. You can take the elevator or stairs just over there.”

The woman gestured off past the sitting area. A pair of silver doors marked the elevator, and past these a stairway twisted up out of view.

“Thank you so much,” Mom said. “Could you tell us the visiting hours? We aren’t too late, are we?”

“Visiting hours officially end at eleven-thirty.” She lowered her voice then as if passing on a secret. “But the nurses will usually give you until midnight before they ask you to get going.”

Mom thanked the woman again and headed for the elevator; I gave a nod to the woman and followed. The elevator took an eternity to arrive, and Mom kept pushing the button as if that would make it come more quickly. I was about to suggest that we take the stairs when the doors slid smoothly open. A tired-looking man came out of the elevator and headed for the front doors. We stepped into the conveyance and I hit the button for the second floor as the doors slid shut. During the ride up, the elevator moving at a lazy speed, I checked my watch: 8:48.

The elevator deposited us on our floor. A long white hallway stretched off to both the left and right. A sign on the wall told us that we should go left for outpatient surgery, and right to get to the patient rooms. We went right.

Mom walked ahead of me, glancing at the numbers on the doors as she went. The door to Room 208 was ajar, and as we approached I heard voices coming out from within. We entered to find those who’d arrived before us gathered around the hospital bed in which Grampa lay. Aunt Margie and Aunt Laurie were there, and Aunt Laurie’s husband, Luke. The three of them were seated in folding chairs. Kevin, Laurie and Luke’s son, stood in a corner of the room. Kevin nodded to me as I entered and I nodded back. Mom went over and hugged her sisters as they stood to greet her; Uncle Luke did not stand, nor did Mom try to hug him.

I looked at Grampa in bed. His eyes were shut and his lips were parted, his chest moving slowly up and down with each respiration. His face was too thin, the arms resting atop the covers fragile. A needle was taped down where it had been stuck into his arm; a tube snaked from the needle up to a bag of saline solution. I couldn’t tell if he was sleeping or just resting his eyes.

“It’s good to see you again, Mark.”

It was Aunt Margie. She gave me a peck on the cheek and a short hug, and then it was Aunt Laurie’s turn. Meanwhile, Kevin had opened up a closet near his corner of the room and brought out another chair.

“Last one, I’m afraid,” he said as he unfolded it and set it near the bed.

“Thank you, sweetie,” Mom said as she took a seat.

I joined Kevin near the wall, the two of us standing side by side. If I turned to the left, I could see out the window, but there wasn’t much to see down below. Just an empty courtyard with empty chairs set before empty tables, and a small, lighted water fountain that glowed greenly in the dark.

“Have you talked to a doctor?” Mom asked nobody in particular.

“He’s been in here a few times today,” Aunt Laurie answered. “He was last in here maybe a half-hour ago.”

“I’d say more like an hour,” Uncle Luke said.

Aunt Laurie thought about it.

“Maybe you’re right,” she said. “He was in here about an hour ago.”

“Well, what did he say?” Mom asked.

“Oh, you know doctors,” Aunt Margie said. “A bunch of vague bull honky.”

They talked low so as not to disturb Grampa. They talked about his condition awhile, but as was their way their conversation eventually turned to things that had nothing to do with the matter in front of them.

“It’s that troublesome girl of hers,” Aunt Laurie was saying. “We all knew she’d come to no good.”

I hadn’t been following the conversation and had no idea who she was referring to. I hoped it was nobody that I knew.

I looked over at Uncle Luke and saw that he was starting to nod off in his chair, and I knew that Mom would be none too happy about it if she noticed. Not that she’d raise hell right there in the hospital room, but I’d be sure to hear all about her grievances as I drove her back to the motel where we both had rooms. When we’d asked for two, the man in the office had offered adjoining rooms, and Mom had taken them.

Grampa stirred and everyone got quiet, but his eyes never opened. Soon, the hushed conversation resumed right where it had left off. Now the sisters were discussing a cousin of theirs who I’d never met, and whether or not her husband still had a job.

“I’m going to get some coffee,” Kevin whispered to me. “Want to come?”

“Sure.”

I followed him out of the room, shutting the door softly behind me as I went. I heard the sound of a television from a couple of the rooms we passed, but other than that the halls were quiet. We passed a nurse as we walked to the same elevator that Mom and I had ridden up in. The nurse smiled at us as she walked past, the soles of her shoes squeaking as she went. In the elevator, Kevin hit LL and the elevator took us, in its own sweet time, to the lower level of the hospital. The cafeteria was closed, but there was a snack machine serving overpriced bags of chips, and a coffee machine. The coffee, I saw with a measure of gratitude, was complimentary.

Kevin and I each filled a small paper cup with the steaming brown liquid. I added cream and sugar to mine; he added just the sugar. The cup felt warm in my hand as I blew on the coffee until it had cooled enough that I was able to drink it without burning my mouth. We chatted about nothing in particular. I had the feeling that both of us were trying not to talk about the elephant in the room…or the old man in Room 208, to be precise. He told me about the business he was starting. We’d never been too close, but he’d always been nice enough to me, so I feigned interest so as not to be rude. He asked me about Melinda and I let him know about the separation. I couldn’t tell if he was really all that concerned, or if he was just feigning interest as well.

“I think I’ll head back up,” Kevin said when he’d finished his coffee. “You coming?”

“I’ll be up in a minute.”

He tossed his empty cup into the trash and walked back to the elevator. I was alone there by the coffee machine for a while, sipping slowly at my coffee. When I’d finished, I threw the cup away and headed upstairs. I didn’t feel like taking the elevator again, so I took the stairs instead.

When I turned down the corridor leading to Grampa’s room, I stopped when I saw Grampa’s visiting party standing out in the hall. Mom’s eyes were red and wet, and Uncle Luke looked fully awake now. Kevin had his arm draped over his mother’s shoulders. The door to Room 208 was open but a curtain just inside the door was drawn shut. I heard voices coming from the other side of the curtain.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“His heart monitor,” Aunt Margie said. “It started beeping, and…”

She didn’t finish; maybe she couldn’t finish. It wasn’t long, then. Soon we were taken into a little room with a table and some chairs, and there the doctor told us that they’d done all they could do, but Grampa’s heart had just given out. The doctor looked apologetic as he excused himself to take care of his other patients. The women cried for a while, while we men stood around uncomfortably, not sure what to do or say to comfort these people who’d lost their father.

Later, as we all walked through the lobby together, I noticed that Farmer John was gone from the sitting area. One of the women who’d been behind the counter was gone as well; only the one who’d greeted Mom and me when we first arrived remained. She started to say something, maybe intending to wish us a good night, but something in our faces must have tipped her off, and so she said nothing.

Outside, under a clean, white moon, the sisters said their goodbyes for the night, though we’d all be staying in town until after the funeral. Uncle Luke and Aunt Laurie left in one car, and Kevin drove off in another. Aunt Margie stayed talking with Mom awhile before giving us both a hug and heading off.

“You hungry?” I asked Mom. “I could go through a drive-thru.”

This was on the drive back to the motel.

“No,” she said. “I’m tired. I just want to go to bed.”

I was a bit hungry myself but didn’t make any stops.

“Goodnight, Mark,” Mom said before disappearing into her room, shutting the door before I had a chance to respond.

“Goodnight,” I said to the closed blue door of her room. I let myself into the next room over. I took a hot shower, brushed my teeth, and got into bed. There was nothing good on TV, but I found something to watch for an hour anyway, an action flick from the 80s that I watched with the volume turned down low. The curtain by the window was open, and I spent more time looking out on a quiet sliver of the parking lot than I did watching the movie. When the credits started to roll I shut the TV off and lay back.

I lay awake for some time, thinking about Mom in the next room, wondering if she was asleep or if she was also lying awake. I thought I might hear the sound of weeping through the thin wall between us, but I heard nothing.

I slept then. I guess I must’ve dreamt, but I couldn’t recall my dreams even upon first waking. My hunger from the previous night had fled from me, but Mom was hungry, so I drove her to a place for breakfast and we ate pancakes and sausage. I thought Mom might want to talk about Grampa, but she didn’t seem to want to talk at all, and I didn’t push her. When we had cleaned our plates, I asked for the check, which Mom insisted we split. We paid and walked out into the morning sun.

When we got back to the motel, I dropped Mom off and went for a drive. I had no destination in mind, I only wanted to be out and not stuck inside a motel room all day. The windows had been up while Mom was in the car because she always complained about the air making her cold; now that I was alone, I lowered the front windows. The wind felt good as it whipped across my face and, as I drove down streets I barely remembered, I thought that it was good to be driving. It was good to not be lying in a hospital bed, waiting for people I loved (some of whom I even liked) to visit me during approved hours, looking down at me with pity and fear written on their faces, knowing that my death would bring them sadness, yes, but also a certain relief that the business was over with. These things felt good, and at that moment I was thankful just to be alive.
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