This piece of short fiction debuted at Burnside Writers Collective.
I leave the hospital room. The gasping breath and wasting body of my daughter stay in my mind as I close the door. It’s been two days since I’ve been home. My old body needs a good night’s sleep.
The hallway of the ICU is all lit up even though it’s pretty late into the night. Spending so much time in this hospital is getting disorienting. Seems I can’t keep the days and times straight.
Everybody says that a parent shouldn’t have to watch their child die. And that’s because it’s true. My daughter isn’t supposed to be in the bed, dying while I watch. It should be me.
It’s only been a couple years since she came back after so much time of being lost to us.
“We need a place to stay for a while,” she’d said the day she came back. I held the door open, not believing she was really home.
“We?” I asked.
“This is Sara.” She pushed a little girl toward me. “Say ‘hi’ to your grandma.”
Sara cowered, folding up into herself.
“Rebecca.” It was the only word I could manage before I reached for my child, sobbing.
She let me hold her. The bones in her body stuck out. When I let her go, she walked past me.
“Is daddy here?”
“He’s in the garage.”
Sara still stood there, looking at me.
“Why’re you cryin’?” she asked.
“I’m just happy to see your mom and you.” I got myself calmed down.
“Can I have a sandwich?”
“You sure can, sweetie.”
That night we set Sara up in Rebecca’s old room to sleep. I sang old Sunday school songs to her until I heard her soft snores. Such a beautiful child. Big, chocolate eyes. Smooth caramel skin. Curls erupting all over her head.
I sat with Rebecca at the dining room table. She sipped a can of soda.
“I’m clean now. It’s been 90 days,” she said. “We’ve been going to church. You know, trying to get things straight.”
“That’s great.” I tried not to imagine all she was clean from.
“Yeah.” She smiled. So briefly I almost missed it. “I can’t afford a place for us right now. All I can do right now is keep away from the drugs. The half-way place wouldn’t let me have Sara with me. I can’t leave her.”
“You can stay here as long as you want.”
“Yeah. She looks a little like her father. Sometimes that’s hard.”
“Oh, I think she looks like you. Just different coloring.”
Rebecca rubbed her eyes. “Mom, I need to tell you something.”
She looked so worn down.
“What is it, honey?”
She tightened her eyes, almost a flinch. “I’m really sorry.”
“It’s okay.” I didn’t know what to say. “It’s just nice to have you here now.”
“That isn’t enough.”
“Oh, I think so.”
“I have to apologize to you. I’ve just hurt you so much.”
“Well, if you think you need to.”
“I’m sorry that I stole things from you.” Her eyes fixed on the table cloth. “And that I lied and broke your trust. And I’m sorry that I was gone so long and never called to tell you I was okay.”
“I know you’re sorry.” I felt uncomfortable. “You don’t need to explain.”
“The thing is, I couldn’t tell you I was okay because I wasn’t. Things were really bad.”
“Well, you’re okay now.”
“No, Mom. I’m not.”
She looked up. Her eyes so full of defiance and fear and pain all at once. It scared me. How could it be my daughter looking at me like that? My daughter should have been safe from hurt and hardship. She should have been protected. But her eyes told me that something was very wrong.
“I don’t understand.”
“Mom, I have AIDS.” She swiped a tear from her cheek. “I’m dying.”
“But you look okay. And there’s a lot you can do.”
“No. I let it go too long. It’s too late.” She looked at the ceiling. I could tell she was fighting the tears. “The doctor told me there wasn’t much he could do. It’s taken over.”
“Isn’t it worth trying?” I reached across the table and grabbed her hand. “I’ll fight this with you.”
Her sobs shook through her and to the table. Coming around the table I knelt next to her and held her head to my chest. A memory played back of when she was a little girl and I’d comfort her after a scraped knee or a kid teased her. So long ago. Why did life have to become more complicated for her? If only I could fix it all for her. Take on the illness and die in her place. I would have done it if I could.
“I don’t deserve you,” she said. “You’re too good. All I’ve ever done is hurt you.”
“That’s not true. You came back home. It’s our chance to start everything all over again.”
That was two years ago. Her illness progressed far more quickly than I expected. Even with all the treatments, her body couldn’t fight off the infections that attacked her.
Now it’s pneumonia. The doctor thinks this will be it for her. And if not now then later and after a lot of suffering. For the first time I understand when people talk about someone’s death being a relief. Not because my suffering is about to end. No, that is just beginning. But because Rebecca’s pain will end. The relief is not in never seeing her again. That will be grief beyond any I’ve ever known.
As I walk in the door, Sara and my husband are all snuggled up, asleep on the couch. There’s so much sweetness between them. Her eyes pop open.
“How’s mama?” she asks.
This is always her first question when I get home.
“Hey, sweetheart. You should be sleeping.”
“Is mama doing better today?”
“No, honey.” We learned early that this child can spot a lie from a mile away. “She’s getting worse.”
She wiggles loose from her grandpa’s arms.
“How about I tuck you into your bed?” I grab hold of her small six-year-old frame. There is nothing I need more than to have contact with her very alive body. It heals a small part of my heart.
In her room, I pull the turquoise-colored covers up to Sara’s chin. She falls into a gentle sleep. Sitting at the edge of her bed, I study her face. Everything about her is a different color than Rebecca. But her nose, mouth, cheeks, are all like her mother. I only wish Rebecca could have realized that. This little girl is such a part of her.
It seems like a moment ago that I tucked my little girl into this same bed. I’d smooth her hair, sing songs to her, read her stories of Jesus and His disciples. When she woke up with nightmares I’d hold her until her fears were gone.
Looking at Sara, I know that there is nothing I can do for my daughter anymore. All I can do is watch her die and promise to take care of her daughter. The helplessness turns my stomach.
My head rests on the pillow next to Sara’s soft curls. Exhaustion takes over.
A telephone ringing in the middle of the night is a panicky sound. It seems louder, more urgent than during the day. I look at the clock next to Sara’s bed. 4:11 am.
“Hello?” My husband gets to the phone first.
He gives me a look. There’s pain there.
“You better get to Rebecca,” he says.
It takes 22 minutes to get to the hospital. Every time. Tonight that 22 minutes feels like hours. My body seems to be held back by something. I just can’t seem to move fast enough.
The walk through the halls of the hospital feels like déjà vu. But it’s only because I’ve been here so many days and nights lately. The nighttime janitor looks up from her mopping and smiles.
I nod. If I said a word to her I’d lose myself and might not get to Rebecca in time. There’s time to fall apart later.
A nurse meets me at the door to my daughter’s room. She knows not to look at me with pity. That would break me to pieces. Weakness isn’t an option right now. Only love for my little girl.
“Hey. It’s almost time.” She opens the door.
Rebecca’s body is covered by so many tubes and blankets. Pillows are tucked here and there to keep her hips angled just so. We’ve been turning her for days, hoping to keep her from getting bedsores. A raw spot on her skin could cause an infection that could kill her. So many dangers for her. So many little battles for us to wage to keep her alive.
She’s sucking the air even though the oxygen is being fed into her nose. The gasping is so much worse than earlier tonight.
“Hi, honey. It’s mom.” I walk to her, grab her hand, smooth her hair.
She opens her eyes. Oh, Jesus help her. I see her pain. She is gulping air like a fish out of water. The sound of her lungs is awful. Gurgling.
The nurse puts her hand on my shoulder. “She’s been fighting. I think she needs you to tell her she can go.”
I turn to my baby, the only one God gave me. And now I needed to let Him take her? How can I tell her to let go and die? All I want in this world if for her to live. To be well again. To outlive me. But that love takes over. It’s for love of her that I need to let her go.
My head nestled next to hers, my mouth by her ear.
“Rebecca, honey, I love you so much. You can go now. I promise, Daddy and I will take good care of Sara for you.”
I stand up a little. She’s trying to form words. I put my ear by her mouth.
“Mama, I’m so sorry.” Her voice is just a scratchy whisper. “It’s my fault.”
“Sweetie, it’s okay now. I forgave you a long time ago.”
“Why do you love me? I’ve been so bad.”
My hands cup her cheeks. She’s so thin, so brittle. But her eyes are the same as always. Blueberry eyes.
“You’re my girl. I’ve never stopped loving you, honey. I never could.” I cry, not from despair. The tears come from love. “It never mattered what you did.”
“Thank you.” Her eyes roll a little. She regains her focus. “I’m ready, mom.”
“Take it off me.”
I pull the tubes from behind her ears and out of her nostrils. The nurse takes it and turns off the oxygen. Rebecca’s gasps become louder.
“Thank you for being my daughter.”
“Love,” she says, so quiet I can hardly hear it. But I know she said it.
“I’ll see you again, sweet girl.”
I sit in a chair across the room from my daughter’s body. The nurses prepare her to be taken to the morgue. She’ll be cremated. We’ll have a small gathering in her honor.
It’s morning. The sun is shining in the window. Love takes over my heart.