Across the Bed
Momma had her last stroke on a Tuesday. I propped her up in her bed so she could look out the window after I raised the shade like I did every morning. The dogwood right outside the window showed off its loads of white, pink-throated blossoms. When I raised the shade the early sunlight hadn’t reached the front porch yet. Momma always used to like to watch the bright new light move across the yard and onto the porch.
I tucked a dishtowel around her for a bib and set a tray on her lap. I had fixed hot oatmeal with brown sugar and cold milk the way she liked it and stood back and watched her. Sometimes she needed help. First thing, she grabbed her spoon, and because she was having trouble holding it, she threw it on the floor. I picked it up, wiped it off on her bib and handed it to her.
"Momma, eat your oatmeal. I fixed it with brown sugar the way you like it.”"
"It’s too much milk.”
“Momma, don’t act like that. You haven't even tried it."
She picked up the tray by one end and tipped it so the bowl slid off and turned upside down on the coverlet.
“Damn it, Momma.”
I lost it. I shouldn't have, I know it, but I did. I grabbed the bowl and the tray. I yanked the bib off her and dabbed up the mess the oatmeal made on her coverlet. She grabbed at the bib and almost fell over, but I grabbed her so she didn't. Then I half lifted and half pulled her so she was lying down, all the time apologizing for being rough with her and telling her I wouldn’t have to be so rough if she didn’t do such foolish things. I heard myself making little noises trying not to cry.
She said, "Why are you crying?"
"I'm not crying."
"I'm sniffling. I have a cold."
"I want my oatmeal."
"You spilled it."
"Why are you treating me like this?"
"I have to fix some more."
"Goldie wouldn't treat me like this."
I stared at her. It had been three or four months since she had been every time sure who I was, but it still felt like a slap with a cold rag. I leaned over her. I wanted to put my face right in hers so she could make no mistake about who I am. That’s when I noticed something all of a sudden different about her face. It looked lopsided, like the skin on one side had fallen off its bones. I’m sure my heart almost stopped, but soon as I realized hers hadn’t, I ran through the house to the kitchen for the phone.
I dialed Doctor B’s number. I didn't have any trouble getting to talk to him when I told his nurse what had happened. He got right on the phone and told me he was calling an ambulance and for me to go in and sit with Momma until it got here. He said he’d meet me at the hospital. Then he said, “Don’t worry, Mrs. Rambler. Everything’s going to be all right.”
I wanted to scream at him when he said that. He sounded just like my husband, Ernest, who wasted a lot of his breath always telling me things will be all right. Maybe it’s a man thing, always worrying about protecting a woman from bad news. They, men, ought to know women understand bad news is natural, especially at our age. Momma used to say we have to live with it. Some do it better than others. Momma always said the reason women live longer than men is we adapt better to nature.
The ambulance men came and they treated Momma real careful. She looked so frail, like she could break right in two. I followed them in my car and all the way to the hospital I kept praying don’t let me be late, not this time, God. By the time I parked my car and got inside the hospital, Momma was in the emergency room with Doctor B and three nurses. They already had tubes running into Momma’s arms and an oxygen mask on her face. Of course the first thing I wanted to know was whether or not Momma was going to recover. Doctor B answered in a soft voice like he was talking to a child and hated having to disappoint her. He always talked to me that way. Mavis from across the street says he talked to her that way, too.
(One time Mavis told me she had gone to see him when she had started the change-of-life. She said, “He patted me on the shoulder and told me everything was going to be all right. I wanted to ask him if he would have thought everything was all right if hot flashes kept him awake all night.”)
Dr. B said, “She’s had a stroke and she’s partly paralyzed on her right side. The paralysis may be temporary. We’ll run more tests and then we’ll just have to wait and see.”
He turned and started walking away. I guess he sort of thought that was that and wasn’t much I could say or do about it. He hadn’t taken more than three or four steps when I asked, “Will I be able to take her home when she gets better?”
He stopped and turned back, and to say he looked surprised wasn’t the half of it. His mouth popped open and closed a couple of times so he looked like a fish coming to the top of its tank to feed. I might have giggled if things hadn’t been so serious.
I said, “I want to take her home. I don’t want her to stay here, not even if you tell me she’s not ever going to get well. I want her home with me no matter what.”
He was a big man, six feet and more, more than a head taller than me, and he had hands large as bear paws. He had brownish hair turning ugly, dull gray and bushy eyebrows, and when I said I wanted to take Momma home, I swear he tried to stretch up even taller just to make me not want to answer him back. He didn’t have to stretch any just to look down at me because I’m only five feet two in my shoes with a two-inch heel. I looked up, straight at him
Doctor B said, “Let’s wait and see how she does. There are a lot of things we’ll have to consider.”
I could tell he didn’t say what he wanted to say and I also knew he meant that if we waited long enough he might help me think more rationally, or maybe there wouldn’t be any question about taking Momma anywhere, ever.
I said, “I want her home with me soon as she’s able.”
“We’ll see. Where is Ernest this week?”
Doctor B knew that Ernest traveled the whole state of Arkansas selling lamps to furniture stores and that he’d probably be home Friday night.
“He had to go up north to Fayetteville.”
“He’ll be back by the weekend then?”
He meant that maybe on Saturday he would talk with Ernest, who had to be more sensible than I am just because he’s a man. I knew that if Ernest had been there right then, Doctor B would not have looked down on me. He would not have looked at me at all.
I felt something rise up in me that I didn’t expect. It was like it came all the way from my toes and started to get stuck in my throat and tried to go back down, but I wouldn’t let it. I couldn’t swallow it. I almost spat it out.
“She’s my mother, not Ernest’s, and I’m going to want her home with me, and I hope you understand that because I really mean it. My father died . . . “
He had turned and was already walking away before he said, “We’ll talk later.”
I watched him. He walked with a bit of a slouch. I got the feeling he had to try not to walk too fast because he didn’t want to look like he might be running away.
I said, “Won’t be much to talk about.”
I didn’t shout it down the hall but I could tell by the way his neck and shoulders tightened that he heard me.
The rest of that week passed, each day like a blurred picture on top of another blurred picture. Momma shared her room with another patient. Only some sliding curtains gave us any privacy. The night nurse apologized for there not being any private rooms available, and she had an orderly bring in and set a big chair next to Momma’s bed. It wasn’t very comfortable for sleeping but it was softer than the canvas cot I had sometimes been sleeping on next to Momma’s bed at home. The nurses were nice to me, but when I asked any one of them when I could take Momma home, she just smiled and said Doctor B would let me know.
I took time to go to the house on Wednesday because Ernest always called then. He never failed. I didn’t tell him about Momma right away. When I said “Hello” and he didn’t answer me right away, I knew he was discouraged. I could always tell when things had not been going well for him, and up north was the toughest part of his territory.
Last time he came home from up there he said, “Nobody’s buying anything. They’re spending all their money on having bomb shelters dug in their back yards. They’re ugly as hell, too. Look like concrete tombs with a stove pipe sticking up from them. Why in hell they think Kruschev wants to bomb Arkansas, it beats me.”
When I heard that tone in his voice, I kept quiet about Momma as long as I could, and when I did tell him he said, “I’m coming home tonight.”
I said, “No, you stay and come home Friday, like always.”
“I don’t like you being alone there.”
“I’m not alone, and besides, you can’t do anything here. You’d just be under foot and I can’t be fixing your supper and be with Momma at the same time. You just stay out there and maybe you’ll sell some lamps.”
It took longer than just that to convince him, but I finally did.
Mavis came over next morning and took the linens from Momma’s bed to her house and washed them and hung them out on the line. She knew that Momma liked fresh sheets that smelled like sunshine. That was a real kindness on Mavis’s part and I told her come blackberry time she’d have all the cobbler she’d ever want to eat. Two other ladies from the Methodist Ladies’ Assistance Committee came to the hospital to see Momma and I appreciated that, too.
Next day, I thought Momma looked stronger. I was sure the side of her face didn’t sag so much, and she stayed awake a good part of the time. I was ready for the doctor when he came to see her, and I told him again I wanted to take Momma home. He didn’t put up much of a fight. He just shook his head and told me he would have to mark a note on her chart saying what I was doing was “against medical advice.” Didn’t matter. I wanted her home and not there. I didn’t care what he or Ernest, or anyone else, thought about it. I knew they both were afraid Momma would die with no one but me in the house with her. Truth is, I was even more afraid if I kept her in the hospital, she’d have to die with me not with her, like Daddy did.
Doctor B came back once more before Momma left the hospital. I guess he thought if he tried again he could persuade me different. He still talked to me like I was a child.
“I can’t tell you how long she has, but I . . .”
He hesitated, like he had a catch in his throat, so I said, “I know it. That’s why I want her home now.”
“We can keep her comfortable here.”
“I already called for the ambulance.”
“If there’s anything, you need . . . “
And it was one of those things he didn’t need to finish. I looked at the stethoscope dangling from his neck and remembered something I needed to ask.
“How will I know?”
“How do I make sure she’s passed? I’ve never been there right when it happened.”
I expected him to tell me somebody to call, maybe him so he could come to the house and make sure, but instead he said, “Use a mirror.”
“Yes. Hold a mirror up as close to her nose and mouth as you can without touching her. Hold it there for at least a minute. If she has any breath, it’ll make moisture on the glass. If it stays clear and dry, then she’ll be gone.”
So, after I got Momma home and settled in her bed, I found an old compact I didn’t use anymore and took the small round mirror out of it. I cleaned the powder off it and put it on the night table beside Momma’s bed. I thought several times about holding it up to her face, but I didn’t. I figured I’d ask Ernest to try it when he got home. Meantime, I checked on her every fifteen minutes or so during the day. At night, I slept on the canvas cot against her bedroom wall. I’m usually a real light sleeper. I set up the canvas cot so’s I could sleep in the room with her in case she woke during the night. I really am a light sleeper, unlike Ernest, and anything that stirs will likely wake me.
She started the rattle the night before Ernest got home. I’d never heard that sound before, and I won’t care if I never have to hear it again. It woke me, and I sat up and listened. There was a long pause, and then again that sound like she was trying to breathe underwater. I guess that was just what she was doing, only the water was coming from inside her and there wasn’t any way to rescue her from it.
It was after eight and already deep dark when I heard Ernest’s tires crunch the gravel in the driveway. I didn’t run out to meet him. Instead I hurried up front to Momma’s room and got busy tucking her sheets in tighter and fussing with things on her nightstand. All that while I listened until I heard the dull thud of his car door and trunk slam shut, and then his footsteps in the kitchen and on to our bedroom. I heard him set his suitcase on the floor and then his steps coming in the hall to find me.
I was brushing Momma’s hair when he came into the room quiet as if he was walking on tippy-toes. I made a hush sign and he just nodded and gave me a quick kiss on the cheek. He looked at Momma and leaned over her. Her breathing had gotten quieter for a time. After a moment, he stood and pointed toward the back of the house. I followed him out of the room and to the kitchen.
I asked, “Have you had anything to eat? I can scramble some eggs with sausage, and there’s cold biscuits I can heat up.”
He said, “I stopped in Russellville and had a hamburger. How is she?”
“Not good. Her breathing has gotten real slow. Sometimes she takes so long between breaths I believe she’s passed. I’m afraid even to go to the bathroom or to come back here to get something to eat, for fear it will happen while I’m gone. If you’ll sit with her, I’ll fix a fresh pot of coffee.”
Mavis had brought over a pan of biscuits that afternoon. While the coffee brewed, I split a couple biscuits and put a teaspoon of orange marmalade on each half. When the coffee got ready, I poured him a cup and took it and the biscuits on a tray for him. He was standing beside her bed with the compact mirror in his hand and a question mark on his face. I explained what Doctor B said about using it so we could know when Momma passed.
He asked, “Have you tried it?”
“No. I was afraid I wouldn’t do it right.”
He waited till the next time Momma let her breath out. Then he leaned over her with the mirror. He held it between his thumb and forefinger like it was as fragile as butterfly wings. He put it close to her mouth without it touching her, for just a second or two and pulled it away before Momma took another breath. He looked at it and held it out for me to see the tiny whispers of moisture on the glass.
He watched with me all that night long. He made me take short naps on the cot. He wanted me to sleep an hour, but I couldn’t go off for more than twenty minutes at a time. When I finally got him to take a rest, he slept for a couple of hours. I knew he had to be tired after driving as far as he did to get home. The road at night from Fayetteville is a hard drive, winding through dark hills and darker forest, and it made me glad when he slept.
The next day Ernest decided to be as helpful as helpful can be. He fixed breakfast and lunch. Mavis called and said two of the Methodist ladies would bring us some supper. Ernest called Doctor B to see if he had any instructions for us. Doctor B told Ernest to call the funeral home to come pick up the body after Momma died, and he meant right away. In fact, Ernest might want to call today and tell them to expect his call any time now.
He told Ernest, “You know what some people say about being forewarned.”
Ernest did that and he told me the man he talked to said the same thing about calling right away, no matter what time, even if it was in the middle of the night when it happened. I believe it would have been real easy for someone to think Momma was his Momma, just by the way he treated her. He acted so gentle with her.
We watched all day and on well past midnight. I have to admit I’ve never been so bone weary before or since as I was then. I actually nodded off while I was standing next to her bed and had to catch myself to keep from falling. Ernest noticed it.
“You need some sleep.”
When I didn’t answer him, he said, “Goldie, you need some sleep. Go get in the bed. I’ll call you if I need you.”
I said, “Maybe for a little bit,” and started to sit on the cot.
“I said the bed. You look worse than whatever any cat ever dragged in and you’re not going to be any good for anything tomorrow if you don’t get some real sleep.”
The clock on the nightstand said it was almost three-thirty in the morning.
“You promise you’ll call me.”
“Ill call if I need you.”
I taxed his patience. He came around the bed, put his hands on my shoulders and moved me toward the door.
“Go to bed, now.”
“You promise to wake . . .”
“Goddamnit, Goldie,” and he moved me a couple of steps toward the door before he let go.
I went to our bedroom and sat on the bed. I could barely hear the uneven rattle of Momma catching breath, and I thought I ought to take off my shoes. I thought again, too tired, and fell back, pulled my feet up and fell asleep. I slept hard and deep. I didn’t dream, and I didn’t wake up in twenty or thirty minutes like I had been doing for the past few days and nights. I didn’t know when Ernest came in and took off my shoes and covered me with the afghan Momma and I had crocheted together.
The silence, the silence and bright daylight on my eyelids woke me. I listened, sat up, and listened again, but the house had gone totally silent. Something cold and heavy touched me in my chest, and when I stood I must have gotten up too fast, because I felt dizzy and had to catch myself against the edge of the bed. The cold weight on my chest became a narrow, sharp pain, and I knew something terrible was happening in Momma’s room and I had to hurry to stop it. I couldn’t, wouldn’t let myself, be too late.
Oh, I told Mavis later, I do believe I knew I already was too late, but something in me had to not believe it, at least until I ran into the room and saw her empty bed. The wadded up bed sheets and covers lay in a heap by the door, and the folded up canvas cot stood in the corner by the window that looked out on the flowering dogwood tree. I don’t know if I saw all that right then, or maybe not until later. What I’m sure I saw was Momma not being in the bed and Ernest holding the small round mirror from my compact in his hand.
“Where is she? You said you’d call me.”
I couldn’t believe what he had done. He told me Momma had died almost exactly an hour after I went to bed. He had used the mirror, even putting it up to Momma’s mouth three or four times to make sure she was really gone. He did everything he had planned to do. He called the funeral home to come take Momma’s body away. He said the two men from the funeral home treated Momma nice and careful, real respectful. They tiptoed around, he said, like they were afraid they’d disturb her. After they left, he folded up the cot, stripped the bed. He had even arranged all of Momma’s toiletries in a neat little stack on the night stand.
I had been robbed. Again! Someone might just as well have broken into the house and done something terrible, even the most terrible thing, anyone could do to me, and it wouldn’t have been half so bad as this. Wasn’t anything else ever going to be half so bad as this. Ernest moved toward me.
I turned right on him and yelled, “Why didn’t you call me?”
He stepped back and looked at me like he didn’t know who I was, or maybe he got surprised because he really thought I would be thanking him for being so considerate and so helpful and letting me get my sleep and covering me up and keeping me warm while he took care of everything.
He said, “You were so tired.”
I think I started crying just because there wasn’t anything else I could do. Of course that made Ernest feel like he had to comfort me and he touched me first on my arm, like he wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to bolt and run. If I had been able to think of it, I might have done it, but I just stood there next to the bed and cried some more. He moved his hand up to my shoulder.
He said, “I’m sorry. You know I’ll miss her, too.”
I leaned against the foot rail of the bed and cried and shook so hard it made the coil springs under the mattress rattle.
He said, “Goldie,” in that same soft voice he always used when he started to get tender. His hand moved to my back, and then came, the pats—one, two, three—and he said, “I understand.”
I turned to throw his hand off my back and moved around to the side of the bed, and Ernest moved so he could stand on the other side and look at me. I stood beside it, an iron bed with its stripped mattress, and it wasn’t Momma’s bed anymore. It wasn’t and wouldn’t ever be anybody’s bed again.
He said my name again, “Goldie,” soft. like he would have had I been an upset child.
I sucked in hard air two or three times and wondered if any part of it could be left from the last breath Momma had let out. I thought maybe some little bits of her breath still floated around in the room.
Ernest said, “I wanted to spare you.”
“You didn’t call me.”
I took another deep breath, trying to feel the breath she had left behind, but I couldn’t find it. The air felt empty. The room felt empty.
Ernest said my name again. I looked at him and saw the regret on his face . He stretched out his arms, but they did not reach all the way across the empty bed.