Written by: Katya Szewczuk
Cars moved through the city streets like a grazing cattle on the prairie. As the summer’s heat smothered the passerby, a woman blared her horn within the sea of cars, her hands raised and voice rasping. She was frail and tired, her bones ached and her slender fingers were blemished with stale coffee stains.
She grabbed her sunglasses that rested on the dirty dashboard and knocked over a plastic, thin card that said “Visitor’s Pass” on it.
When the traffic jam moved through the cracked, sizzling streets, the woman stepped on the gas pedal and honked the horn.
Sometime later she pulled into a hospital lot that was filled with shiny, new convertibles, beat-up gas-guzzlers and even a few bicycles. The woman slammed her car door shut, grabbed her cup of cold coffee and rushed to the Intensive Care Unit Entrance. She saw a frail, old man in a wheelchair mumbling and praying on rosary beads. His skin was dark and leathery, his eyes were lazy and he wore a paperboy’s cap. He stopped the woman before she entered the ICU and laughed.
“Busy as a bumblebee,” he said, “What’s your name, hun?”
The woman fixed her posture and said, “Bethany.”
The sounds of ambulance sirens took Bethany by surprise as the red and blue lights reflected off the glass doors.
“I hate those sounds,” she mumbled.
The old man said, “Get some rest. You look as tired as an old car engine.”
“I haven’t been able to sleep for days now.”
“Well with this city’s noise I don’t blame you.”
“I don’t live in the city. I’ve a small house in the outskirts of town.”
“Quiet there, ain’t it?”
“And you still can’t sleep?”
“Too many worries on my mind.”
“What a shame.”
The old man touched Bethany on her wrist and smiled uprightly.
“I’m Stewart. It’s nice to be of your acquaintance, Bethany.”
“A pleasure, Stewart.”
Bethany watched as Stewart’s son pushed the wheelchair and lifted it into his black Cadillac. Then the car rumbled and joined the busy streets.
She rushed into the ICU, took out her visitor’s pass and bolted through the heavy, automatic doors that were manned by two, exhausted secretaries.
The air was thick, cold and smelt like old perfume and baby wipes. Doctors, nurses and techs rushed round with focused eyes and grim faces. Bethany paid close attention to the room numbers, and shielded her eyes. The florescent lighting flickered and caused the rooms to look pale and vacant. She glanced at all of the patients who coughed in their cots. Some cried, begging for company, others laughed and enjoyed their television shows, while their visitors talked with the doctors outside.
When Bethany turned down the next hall she saw a young boy fussing in his cot, holding onto his stomach and groaning. She looked away the moment a nurse pulled the curtain around the cot and scowled at her.
By the time she reached her destination, Bethany was out of breath. She saw a plump nurse with kind eyes changing the bed sheets and waited by the door.
“Bethany?” mumbled the nurse.
“Yes?” Bethany said, eager to enter the room.
“We had to put your mother on the ventilator. She looked like she was having trouble breathing.”
Bethany glanced at a bed where a small, old woman laid stiff and frail covered in blankets and IVs. A long, plastic tube ran down her throat where air pumped from a ventilator and kept her lungs breathing. The nurse checked the numbers on the ventilator, glanced at the heart monitor and raised her brows. This made Bethany feel wary. Her fingers wrapped tightly around the coffee cup. She held her breath.
She saw that her mother’s wrists were tied to the sides of the bed and gasped.
“She tried to rip the tube out of her throat. What a stubborn lady she is.”
Bethany made a face.
“No one called me about this.”
“It was for the best, sweetie. Come now, make yourself at home.”
The nurse turned to her and talked about blood pressure levels, medication and the outcome of her mother’s condition. Bethany understood the nurse, but it was all a blur the moment she left the room. All Bethany cared about was her mother’s fragile life.
“Mom,” Bethany said as she entered the room, “How are you today?”
Bethany watched as her mother shuddered beneath the blankets. She kissed her delicate, wrinkled cheek. She pulled out a chair and sat beside her mother. Holding her cold hand that swelled from the poking and prodding of needles, Bethany tried to act casual.
“I wish I could take you home, Mom. I know you’d want that too.”
The old woman opened her mouth wide, as if she wished to speak. She was a stubborn woman, independent and strong-willed as an ox. Even in this state she kicked her legs, scowled and tried her hardest to respond. Bethany stroked her mother’s hair behind her ear and said:
“You don’t have to talk, Mom. Just get better.”
Bethany looked outside her mother’s room and saw a few doctors huddled together, mumbling and discussing matters about the patients. Panic hit her gut when they pointed towards her mother’s room and shook their heads. What had they been keeping from her?
* * *
The days flashed by and the nights were short. Bethany took her kids to school, went to work on an empty stomach and couldn’t get a wink of sleep. She survived off of coffee, determination and pure adrenalin. The doctors, nurses and techs from the ICU familiarized themselves with her, as she rushed to visit her mother day in and day out. They even told her that they were concerned for her health, but this hadn’t stopped her from seeing her beloved mother who’d be all alone without her.
One day Bethany saw a swarm of doctors marching into her mother’s room, examining her and pumping her veins with drugs. They pulled Bethany out of the room and said she was getting better, but hadn’t been responsive. Bethany nodded to the doctor’s words, but ignored them as she walked into the room and told sweet stories to her mother.
Bethany lived in a rundown home with her three daughters with barely enough money to pay the bills and buy food every month. She worked as a dog walker around the town and did home aid work for her elderly neighbor who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. Each day was a struggle. Through it all, Bethany hadn’t any time to hold down a meal and had lost enough of weight to make her spindly and weak.
When she came home her daughters asked about their grandmother with worried hearts. Bethany told them the truth and hadn’t kept any secrets. Though when her eldest daughter asked her if she had been all right, Bethany lied through her teeth and acted peachy.
The following day Bethany’s eldest joined her for a visit. The girl was happy to see her grandmother, but Bethany could tell she couldn’t stomach her suffering.
“Is she going to be okay?” her daughter asked.
Bethany hadn’t answered.
“The doctor’s need her blood pressure to lower. Then she’ll be fine. Don’t worry, Gene.”
Eyes welled with tears, Bethany watched when Gene sat beside her grandmother’s cot, holding her hand and stroking her hair.
“When can she come home?” Gene asked.
“When she gets better,” answered Bethany.
The hours passed by and the night drew near. Gene had fallen fast asleep next to a hot radiator, which relieved Bethany. A nurse waltzed into the room, carrying a cup of coffee and a heated blanket. She handed Bethany the coffee and covered the sleeping Gene with the blanket. Bethany thanked her for her hospitality and placed the coffee on a little, wooden table.
“You love your mother very much, don’t you?” the nurse asked.
Bethany nodded and went to her mother’s side. She hovered over her, as if to protect her like a mother lioness would with her cubs.
“A daughter’s love for her mother is precious,” the nurse said, “Your mother knows you love her.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Don’t be so humble,” the nurse scolded, “you can tell she loves you very much. You’ve become her security blanket.”
When the nurse left the room, Bethany stared at her trembling mother and remembered how she had tried to nurse her back to health. Memories flashed through her mind like a forest fire’s rolling flames. When her mother could not walk she became her crutch. When she could not see, she became her shepherd. Though she was the daughter, Bethany became her mother’s mother, and never once had she regretted it.
* * *
Bethany woke Gene and said it was time to go. The two said goodbye to all of the kind-eyed nurses, left the ICU and clambered into the night. Bethany noticed Gene had been silent the entire drive home, and hadn’t tried for her attention. She knew it was best to enjoy the soothing silence.
The next morning, Bethany walked into the ICU with Gene and noticed her mother hadn’t been in her room. Gene panicked, asked hundreds of nervy questions and chewed on her nails. Bethany asked a nurse where her mother had gone and the nurse said the doctor ordered some tests. This hadn’t relieved Bethany, but it set her mind at ease.
Come lunchtime she took Gene to the cafeteria where the sounds of peaceful music were playing over the speakers. It was quiet. The entire place was inviting with soft, warm colors and a display of beautiful artwork. Doctors, employees and volunteers filled the booths and minded their own business. Many more people gathered round buffets and picked through the salad bar.
“Best dang food here,” one man hooted.
Bethany grabbed a tray and handed it to Gene. She told her to have her fill even though Gene looked too troubled to eat. She filled a bowl with salad, grabbed a vanilla yogurt and an iced tea and hurried to the cafeteria. Bethany paid for the meal and joined her daughter. She sat down in a booth and watched the televisions that blared about politics and the daily news.
Bethany looked at all of the people in the cafeteria and overheard a woman wailing about her husband who suffered from dementia. She caught her attention. The woman came over to the table, glanced at the television, made a face and laughed hard.
“He’s been in the hospital for over one month now. I’ve been surviving off of this food.”
“It is good,” Gene said.
The woman smiled.
“My husband doesn’t even remember me anymore. Dementia’s caught him under its evil spell.”
Bethany looked at the woman with concern.
The woman said, “Don’t worry hun, we’ve accepted it. He’s as happy as a lark somewhere in that mind of his.”
“And you?” Bethany asked.
“I’ve my moments,” she hesitated, then said, “And how about you? What brings you to this cafeteria?”
Bethany took a deep breath and said through choked-up words:
“My mom’s here. One symptom turned into the next. Now she’s on a ventilator.”
The woman gasped. She looked surprised.
Bethany shook her head.
“You love your mother very much. I can see it in your eyes. What a special thing to have.”
Bethany watched when the woman returned to her table and held her breath. She hadn’t anything to eat and barely touched her bottle of water. She looked at Gene who had finished her meal and stared at her with buggy eyes.
“Mom?” she mumbled.
Bethany nodded and focused on the television screen. The naysaying politicians looked stressed and dog-tired. She laughed, patted Gene on her back and left the cafeteria.
The two walked towards the ICU when suddenly Bethany saw that Gene stopped in her tracks. She spotted a small chapel and stared.
“Can we go in?” Gene asked.
When inside, she said a prayer for her mother and looked around the dim-lit room. Small candles burned on a table where many different prayer cards rested. A woman was knelt on her knees in the corner of the room, chanting a prayer with eyes shut tight. Bethany kept quiet and watched as Gene finished her prayer, crossed her heart and sat back in the comfortable chair. She closed her eyes for a moment and wondered how many hours had passed since she arrived at the hospital. Then she stood up and left the chapel.
The moment she pressed the bulky button to open the doors of the ICU, her gut sunk to her toes. Like a child on her first day of school she felt out of place and nerve-wracked. The nurses and techs welcomed her and Gene into the room, which lifted her spirits. Nothing seemed to change.
When she reached her mother’s room there she was, resting, aided by the power of the ventilator. Hours passed by, but to Bethany they felt like mere seconds.
One year ago, Bethany had lost her father. The doctors said he had gone into kidney failure and asked Bethany for her consent to put him on kidney dialysis. For days Bethany watched her father coughing and suffering in the hospital bed lethargic and delirious. She signed the consent forms and watched as dialysis kept him alive like a machine. For days the machine was attached to his body, until one day Bethany walked into the ICU and was stopped in her tracks. She watched as a nurse scurried out from behind a curtain, eyes welled with tears and hands covered with rubber gloves.
“I’m sorry, he passed,” she had mumbled.
Feeling like a sailor lost at sea, Bethany’s heart sunk and smothered her with confusion and pain. Hundreds of eyes stared at her as she broke down into tears and fell to the ground. Nurses consoled her, stroking her like a tot. A tall, loutish, tan doctor that looked nutty and grim started mumbling about cardiac arrest and blood-pressure medications, but Bethany couldn’t focus on anything but the stiff, pale body of her father.
He had passed away.
These haunting thoughts swarm through Bethany’s mind each time she walked through the doors of the ICU. She felt like jelly. When she swallowed, her throat felt rough and tight. Though, like her mother and father she was strong and acted accordingly. She couldn’t bear to cry in front of her daughters, especially Gene. Stubborn, she became the rock of the family and urged forward.
* * *
Come evening, Bethany had gone to the hospital by herself and to her surprise bumped into Stewart. He rolled around in his wheelchair, still holding his rosary beads and had a bellyache filled with laughter when he saw her.
“My, oh my,” he started, “Nice to see you again l’il lady.”
“A pleasure,” Bethany said.
“Good gracious, you look like you haven’t gotten any sleep since I last saw you. Is everything all right?”
“My mother’s still here. I have to see her.”
“Your mother wouldn’t want you to get sick.”
“I’m the least of my worries right now.”
Bethany walked down the halls with Stewart, headed for the ICU. She watched him as he rolled into a lounge and scrutinized over a coffee vending machine. She noticed he hadn’t known how to use it.
“Mind lending me a hand, ma’am?”
Bethany nodded. She walked into the lounge, rummaged through her purse and took out a wrinkled dollar. She shoved the dollar into the slip in the machine and pressed a few buttons. A cup fell into the dispenser and hot coffee poured into it, along with the milk and sugar. Handing the cup of hot coffee to Stewart, he looked stunned.
“To be honest, I never would have guessed that’s how you’d work that machine.”
“It is good coffee so it’s worth it.”
“Bless you,” he said as he rolled down the halls.
Bethany watched him through wearied eyes and felt warm air blowing against her face from the vents. Then she continued onward and walked through the doors of the ICU.
When inside her mother’s room, she noticed her blood pressure had dropped once more. Concern filled the nurses’ eyes as they waltzed in and out of the room, which startled Bethany.
“Mom,” she whispered.
She checked the catheter levels and saw that there was hardly any urine inside of the bag. With a head hung low she started to cry.
She called out for her and stroked her face. She watched as she struggled and opened an eye, shivering. Her one eye stayed focused on Bethany, watery and blank.
A nurse came into the room and said:
“We don’t know what’s keeping it from dropping. We gave her two blood pressure medications and she’s still unresponsive.”
“If you were to take her off of them?”
“We now know she wouldn’t be able to survive.”
While Bethany held her mother’s swollen hand, the nurse checked the bag of morphine and shook her head.
“Tsk. Tsk,” she started, “We gave her the lowest dosage and she’s still unresponsive.”
“The neurologist came in and checked for a coma. No coma, no strokes, nothing.”
“What’s your opinion on this?”
The nurse contemplated.
“There’s always miracles.”
Bethany thanked the nurse for her honest thoughts and spent most of her night beside her dying mother.
* * *
The next day, Bethany brought Gene to the hospital and discovered the blood pressure levels were still dropping.
“Mom!” Gene shouted, “What’s going on?”
“They can’t get her blood pressure to rise.”
“They don’t know.”
When Gene had asked hundreds of frightful questions, Bethany hadn’t known how to answer. She saw the same batty doctor that pronounced her father’s time of death, checking the patients for bedsores as he wandered round. When he reached her mother’s room, he knocked three times and stared at the shriveled up old woman who trembled in the bed. He checked her heart rate and blood pressure, and then stared at the ventilator’s screen.
“It’s only in time,” he whispered to Bethany.
Bethany hadn’t known what to say and felt as small as a mustard seed. She nodded several times. When the doctor left the room Bethany held onto Gene as she cried in her arms.
Time felt still as the clock on the wall ‘ticked’ and ‘tocked’. Maids came into the room to wax the floors, nurses charted the blood pressure levels hourly and doctors gave Bethany their greatest condolences.
“What are we going to do, Mom?” whimpered Gene.
“There’s nothing we can do.”
“Stop saying that. They killed her, they did.”
Bethany kept her mouth shut and watched as Gene fell apart. She hurried to the front desk and informed her sisters about their mother’s condition. She called her eldest sister first and said in a woeful voice:
There was a lingering silence on the other line.
Bethany hadn’t known what to do next when she hung up the phone and listened to the strident beeping sounds all around her. She saw Gene crying and hanging onto the frail body in the bed shouting out to the heavens and praying. She watched as the batty doctor, nurses and techs scoped the room like filthy scavengers and counted down the seconds until her mother took her last breath.
The heartbreaking memories of her father’s passing troubled her, as she looked around feeling helpless and unsure. She joined her daughter and watched as her mother’s bowels were crawling up the ventilator’s tube. Her flesh was pure white, her eyes were crusty and her lips were dried and blue.
In her passing her breath was a mere whisper. Nothing jumped, nothing made a sound. Her body just lie there —— an empty shell. Bethany cradled Gene in her arms and wept. The doctors asked her questions about funeral plans and expenses, but Bethany hadn’t cared to listen. She stormed out of the hospital with Gene and felt sick to her stomach.
* * *
For months Bethany had held herself responsible for her parents’ deaths. While her daughters, friends and family would pacify her and say she did everything humanly possible that she could do, Bethany would disagree and fall into the depths of her sorrow.
Despondency clung to her like a wet garment. She looked haggard and drained and skinny to the bone. Though she hadn’t any strength left, she continued to walk the town’s dogs and looked after her elderly neighbor who became a close companion. People would glance in Bethany’s direction and stare at her with screwy eyes. They were curious about her weight loss and put their noses where they didn’t belong.
After her neighbor was put into a nursing home, Bethany decided to work with dementia patients and to her surprise noticed Stewart was one of them. He mumbled strange words, counted frontwards and back, and fiddled with his rosary beads as he bobbed his head. Stewart’s son, Bobby, was more than grateful for Bethany’s assistance.
“Your mother was blessed to have you,” he said, “Thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
Bethany felt privileged and blushed.
“There’s no need to thank me.”
“Dad’s been getting worse. His appetite is good, but his mind is slipping.”
Bethany looked at Stewart and heard him singing a soft, Polish lullaby. She bent down beside him, grabbed his hands and smiled. As she listened to the charming song a drowsy hum floated into the air like thistledown.
“That was beautiful,” she said.
“Look there,” Stewart mumbled, “the clouds are movin’ in like sails.”
Bethany heard Bobby laughing.
“He sure does love to fish. Don’t you Pop?”
“What? Fish now?”
“Yes, fishing. You love to fish?”
“That rain be bringin’ lots of fish.”
Bethany helped Bobby with his coat and watched as he left with his fiancée and kids. She talked with Stewart, fed him his dinner and snack, put on a movie and changed him in his evening gown. She looked at the whacky man and smiled. She listened to the buzzing sounds on the television screen and finally got some sleep dreaming…soundly.