Beryl Conners sat watching her mother die. She glanced at the clear plastic bag that hung like ripe fruit from a sterile metal arm at her mother’s bedside. She had forgotten her watch and was measuring the passage of time by the decreasing amount of fluid in the bag. Beryl shifted positions in the green vinyl chair at the foot of her mother’s hospital bed, peeling the warm plastic away from her thigh. She must stay awake, she thought. The loss of one’s mother should not go unnoticed, especially if one is in the same room. Dying ignored is worse than dying alone.
Beryl looked for a long moment at her mother and, satisfied that the shallow breathing would continue for at least the length of time it took to refresh herself, she rose to enter the small, adjoining bathroom.
At that moment her older sister burst through the door, announcing herself, as always, not with words, but with presence. Rachel was impossible to ignore when she invaded a room. Her quick, strong motions announced her entrance like a royal presentation.
“Where are you going?” Rachael demanded.
“I need to go to the bathroom.”
“Get a cool cloth for Mother’s forehead.”
Beryl bit her lip to keep from saying Any other orders? It had been that way from childhood: Rachael issuing orders to the world and to Beryl in particular, and Beryl acquiescing because she could not come up with a passable reason to resist. Beryl nodded and opened the bathroom door
“Cool, not cold,” she heard Rachel say behind the drifting door.
“Yes, your Majesty,” Beryl whispered into the mirror. She splashed some cold, not cool, water on her face and added some warm water until the water was cool, per Rachael’s orders. Taking a washcloth from the towel rack, she dipped it into the bowl several times, letting it float and soak up the water. Its white mass bobbing in the sink reminded her of jellyfish, and she gingerly pulled it out to wring, half expecting to be stung.
When she looked up, she caught her reflection in the mirror as she twisted the last drops of water from the cloth. The florescent light dug its way into each crevice of her skin, making it impossible to ignore the network of fine lines that, judging from her mother’s face, would deepen into canyons with the passing years. She knew that her dark hair was gray at the sides, but she had not realized that cutting her hair short had the effect of creating silver wings on each side of her face which, when not smoothed flat against her head, resembled a bird in flight. If I were a man, Beryl thought, turning out the light and opening the door, I would have gray temples and look very distinguished.
She pushed the door open and faced Rachael, who was planted by her mother’s bed waiting for her orders to be carried out. Beryl dropped her eyes to the checkered floor. Suddenly, she felt an urge to play hopscotch — one white, two black. She hated this quality of hers, this tendency toward inappropriate responses. It reminded her of the time that she had laughed in church when she had thought she noted a slight bulge in the minister’s trousers during a particularly moving sermon on the wages of sin. It seemed, she reasoned, that she simply did not have a mind that respected occasions.
“Here,” Beryl said, handing her the cloth.
“You could have folded it,” Rachael snapped.
“All right, I’ll fold it,” Beryl said, snatching it back and slamming the corners together.
“I think she might be coming around,” Rachael said. “She moaned.”
Beryl sighed and edged away from the bed. How could she explain to Rachael that life for their mother was nothing to hope for? Rachael didn’t understand about the loss of someone: how you should start letting go as soon as you loved them, how they should be something apart. People should be loved through a window, like January snow, while you stayed inside away from the cold.
Beryl hadn’t known that with her father; she had gone outdoors for him, without a coat, even — just plowed right in never think of avalanche.
It had been such a little bridge. That’s what she found so odd about it: that such a tiny bridge could do so much damage. Her father had crossed it every day on his way to work, and one day it collapsed, just folded down into the river when he was halfway across.
Rachael and her mother consoled each other, and she realized now that their grief had been real. But then they had seemed trite, somehow, as though they were only going through the motions of expected behavior. They couldn’t understand her pain. Their we’ll get along’s were contemptible in her eyes. She had hated their shallow grief and their clinging hope. She had hated them.
“Beryl, we’ll be all right,” Rachael had said one night when Beryl could no longer stifle her sobs into the pillow.
“I’ll never be all right,” Beryl had answered with the fury of discovery.
“Do you think you’re the only one who’s sad? He was my father, too.”
“Not like he was mine!” It was true and they both new it, and they might have left it at that if Rachael had passed up her opportunity for revenge.
“We’ve still got Mother. Of course, she’s not your mother like she is mine,”
Rachael had answered. And Beryl had known that this, too, was true.
In the months that followed her father’s death, Beryl began to feel superior when she watched Rachael and their mother together. There was something comforting about not sharing their closeness. I am not in danger now, she thought. Her mother could not steal parts of her away and take them where she could never retrieve them. What was left of her was hers alone.
She could feel it happening, a slow closing, like a garage door drifting shut, lower and lower until she was encased in half light. She had felt safe in her shadowed world. Everything had passed before her like a giant moving picture, with players floating before her eyes as she nestled in the safety of darkness, an audience untouched.
“Did Jonathan say when he would get here?” Rachael asked as she placed the washcloth on her mother’s forehead.
“I asked if Jonathan said when he would be here?” Rachael repeated.
“I don’t know. Some time today.”
“Didn’t you ask him?”
“Ask him what?”
“Honestly, Beryl. You have the attention span of a gnat. Why didn’t you ask Jonathan what time he’d get here?” Rachael’s words carried the familiar exasperated tone that had become habitual when she spoke to Beryl.
“I don’t know. It wouldn’t have changed anything,” Beryl answered. “He’ll get here when he gets here.”
“It would change the fact that we don’t know when to expect him,” Rachael snapped. “I should have called him myself; I know how imprecise you are.”
Beryl smiled and pulled a thought from her only Rachael file. Only Rachael would call someone imprecise. Any other sister would have called her stupid, dimwitted, lazy even; something you could work around, chalk up to name-calling and discard. But Rachael always managed to come up with the exact — no, the precise — descriptive phrase, one that nailed you right to the floor with no possibility of escape.
“Sorry,” Beryl said. “Anyhow, he said he would leave within an hour of my call, and it’s a three hour trip. I’d say about noon.”
Rachael glanced at her watch. “It’s eleven twenty-seven.”
The file was still open. Only Rachael would say eleven twenty-seven. Why not eleven twenty-five, or almost eleven-thirty?
“I suppose he’s bringing her,” Rachael sniffed. “And I suppose they’ll expect to stay at the house.”
“I suppose so,” Beryl said.
“You didn’t ask, of course.”
“He has a right, Rachael. After all, the house is one-third his.”
Rachael sighed. Rachael always sighed when she couldn’t argue. This was her you’re right, but you shouldn’t have said it sigh, a short, gathered puff, like air being forced through a straw. “If he had to get married again, why couldn’t he pick someone his own age? Besides, he doesn’t need her here; he has his family.”
Beryl turned and looked out the window. She couldn’t tell Rachael that their brother had never had his family; he had always been the spare wheel, the odd-man-out. Their family had been a quadrangular arrangement between Beryl and their father and Rachael and their mother, leaving Jonathan to skirt the edges of their affections. She and Rachael had had a family; Jonathan had had moments of inclusion, like a visiting friend.
“Will the hospital let us all in here at one time?” Beryl asked.
“They most certainly will!” Rachael huffed. “For what we’re paying for this room, we should be allowed to send in clowns at midnight if we want to — although I wouldn’t object if they limited visitors to the immediate family.”
“Oh, don’t worry. Jonathan would probably leave if we didn’t allow her in, and that would upset Mother.”
“I don’t think…” Beryl began.
“You don’t think what?” Rachael asked, daring her to say it.
“I don’t think he’ll be much longer,” Beryl finished. What she had started to say was I don’t think she’d know the difference, but she knew what Rachael’s reaction would be. She rummaged around in her “what Rachael would say” file and came up with how can you be so cruel? No, not cruel. Callous. Rachael would say callous.
Would Rachael be right? Beryl felt a flash of guilt. Maybe she had been wrong all these years. It seemed there was a down-side to letting go that she hadn’t counted on: To let go was to not have.
“I’m going to find that doctor,” Rachael said, heading toward the door. “He said he’d check her again before lunch.”
“All right,” Beryl said. Normally she would have reasoned for Rachael to wait another half-hour, but she wanted this time alone with her mother, to have her after all these empty years. She walked to the bed and lowered the metal bars, thinking how silly it was to begin and end life in a bed with bars that guarded against neither life nor death.
Beryl looked down at the small mound of covers. Her mother looked at peace with her oblivion. She reached down and grasped the silver braid that curled like a snake across her mother’s breast. “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your long hair,” she whispered, recalling how Rachael would repeat the fairy-tale words as she loosed the braid from its crown around her mother’s head. Beryl removed the cloth and placed the back of her hand on the damp forehead. She leaned closer, pressing her lips against her mother’s gullied cheek.
At first she barely heard it. Then it grew louder, a low, rasping wheeze, like the dying of some great engine. Was this the end? Did all of the dreams, accomplishments, and disappointments of a long life expire in a small room with no bands playing? Beryl reached for the buzzer beside the bed, but she did not press the button. This was, she knew with absolute certainty, her last chance to atone for all her years of shallow love.
As her mother drew her last breaths, Beryl dropped the buzzer. What if her mother died and, in her rise to the ceiling or wherever newly released souls go in their first moments of freedom, looked down and saw that Beryl was not calling for help? Would she think that Beryl actually wanted her to die? Would she understand merciful love?
There was no noise now, no movement of blankets or involuntary twitching. Death, unlike dying, is quiet, tranquil. Beryl stood for several minutes, allowing death to settle in and marveling at the peace that filled the room. She was, she suddenly realized, alone in linear space: no parents, no children, untethered from either end. Beryl bowed her head and said a quiet prayer for her mother’s soul and for God’s understanding before she reached for the buzzer again and pressed. It was only then that she realized she was crying.