From his hospital bed, he could not feel the heat of the day, but he could see the wind tearing the last, wrinkled leaves from the silver branches of a tree and bending the top of an evergreen beyond. He thought he should ask her the day.
“Tuesday,” Helen said.
But what he had meant was the date.
Beyond the evergreen, three palm trees bent in unison beneath a blast, then sprang up, brushing and slashing at the sky with their fronds, and then he remembered. Almost time for her holiday bash. Was that it? In fact, there was Santa, a man dressed as Santa, napping on the hospital lawn across the street. She would be amused by that. “Santa,” he said, lifting what felt like his arm but turned out to be no more than a finger to point in that direction. But perhaps Santa wasn’t the right topic after all. He wished she had told him the date.
“Jesus,” Helen said, not looking at the Santa. “This is no time for jokes.”
“Name’s Harold,” Harold mumbled. It was an old joke, a reflex; if he had the strength, he might tease her that Jesus might be the guy in the next bed, but Helen suddenly stood and went to the window. She’d been sitting for hours, for days, next to his bed it seemed, but now she was standing with her back to him. What day was it anyway? he wondered. From the nibbling pain at his side, he knew he needed to straighten this out fast.
“Goddamn it,” Helen said, “I’m only doing this for you.”
Too late, Helen realized she should have smiled at him when he made that old joke about Jesus; turning back from the sealed window, she tried to smile at him now and was embarrassed to be caught by the wife at the next bed. Always there were visitors there, hovering, a wife, a sister, children, grandchildren, always ready to give Helen a sympathetic smile as if they were all in this together. The man there had been given a month to live, she’d overheard the wife telling a visitor that, as if one could ever know how long someone had left. “It’s warm out there,” Helen said at last. “Bone dry. No snow at Tahoe. It’ll be a smooth ride up.” She returned to her chair by his bed. “All I’m asking is a day or two, Harold. We can drive back whenever you want. We can leave your family up there and come back to the hospital. Just put yourself in my shoes, Harold. I’m just trying to do what’s best.”
She tried to smile again, but now a nurse was in the way, rushing in and bending over him, saying, “Hello, Harry.” Yesterday Helen had reminded this nurse that Harold was still a doctor in the hospital and should be addressed as such but here she was again, saying, “Of course, Harry,” almost giggling with helpful pleasure as she adjusted something on his drip. Yesterday, this nurse had also tried to talk to Helen about hospice, and Helen had roundly told her off for losing faith in Harold’s recovery.
“She looks fourteen,” Helen said bitterly as soon as the nurse had left off fiddling and drifted to the other bed. “You’d be better off with me. We’ll set you up…” When Harold looked as if he were about to speak, Helen stopped, but then he didn’t so she went on, “We’ll set you up in your La-Z-Boy. We’ll bring it to the head of the table.”
Again Harold tried to speak. “The catheter,” he began.
“I’ve asked Dr. Carey about that,” Helen said triumphantly. At least Dr. Carey had agreed with Helen on this. “Traveling to the cabin is fine. She’ll set you up with a portable catheter, make you comfortable. She said champagne is fine, brandy butter, it’s all fine. She said this party is just what you, just what we need to lift our spirits.” She laughed hollowly and then waited.
For some reason she did not remind him about the unveiling of his mother’s gravestone. It was the party afterwards that she wanted him to come for, she wanted the relief after the unveiling of a party in his mother’s winter cabin. The relief of his mother being gone. A year she had been dead, a year it would be, the day after tomorrow. For a year Harold had planned the unveiling, and for a year Helen had imagined the party afterwards, the party when finally she would have Harold all to herself. The first holiday party in years where his mother would not be there, poisoning the fun, making them nervous about what she would do next to grab their attention, smashing a champagne glass, swallowing a silver charm from the pudding, her charisma, her wit suddenly going too far, leaving her naked in the snow singing something from Carmen while Harold tried to pull her back inside.
Harold looked past Helen, out the window at the wind in the trees. “You go…” he said. He was thinking of a time when he was young and had a kite. A summer on Fire Island. He and Bill and his mother together. The kite was gray with pink ears.
Helen laughed again. “I’m not going without you. I’m doing it for you. You’re just being stubborn. Think about it. Bill and Ruth are bringing all eight kids, even Shoshana. Shoshana is interrupting her junior year abroad to come. Maybe she’s in the air already. How long does it take to come from Israel? You can’t let your brother collect his family from all the corners of the globe and then refuse to budge because of a catheter. I don’t buy it.”
When Harold still said nothing, she looked back out the window at the tossing trees. It was unnatural, she thought. After thirty-two years in California, she still found the seasons wrong. Today the wind was actually warm, a warm wind that refused to let the cold of winter start. She wanted to take that blue sky and shake it, shake it like the snow globe Harold had given her just a few weeks ago for her collection. To get you into the holiday spirit, he’d said, in his generous way. He hated Santa, he hated Christmas, he hated blind Christian hegemony – together they’d moved away from any semblance of the religious practices of their youth – but every year he’d given her a snow globe for Christmas because he understood her nostalgia for the joy of childhood holidays. They’d gone to a play that night, getting out their season tickets without looking at what was on, but when the play turned out to be Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? he’d insisted they leave at intermission. She’d never seen the play before and all he would tell her was that the madness of it continued, that it had something to do with having children or with not having children. He’d given her the snow globe afterwards, in the car, straight from the bag from the store where he’d bought it earlier that day. Go ahead, he’d said, play God, shake it. And when she’d shaken it, it wasn’t snow that lifted up but a flurry of little kites with tiny tails. It was something entirely knew to her collection. As good as the one with umbrellas falling around the Eiffel Tower. He’d kissed her warmly in the car. Then he’d told her about his diagnosis, that the cancer had already spread, though he wouldn’t tell her more.
“I’ve already ordered the beef from Magnani’s,” she said unsteadily.
His eyes rolled from the window to his morphine drip sailing at the top of its pole. The kite had belonged to him but Bill had flown it, and it got caught in a pine tree, and his mother had made them leave it there, stuck in a tree on Fire Island, because she was in one of her moods; and when he asked months later if Santa could bring him a new kite, she’d yelled at him because they were Jewish and Santa didn’t come to their house. He should tell Helen about the kite. He’d never told her that story about his mother and the kite. He used to call Helen, “my sweet kite,” he used to tell her that he’d hold her to the earth while she sailed free above him. He opened his mouth to speak, but a little mouse stopped him.
“But you can weigh in on the side dishes,” Helen went on, regaining her footing. “I was thinking mashed potatoes but then I saw a recipe for potatoes mashed with parsnips. They have nice parsnips at the Berkeley Bowl. We haven’t had parsnips since…”
The mouse had little pink ears like his kite, but it had real teeth and claws, and it had finally eaten through his skin and was inside now, trembling and gnawing.
“I’ve asked Dr. Carey,” Helen tried again. “I’ve got the equipment…”
Now that one had gotten in, he could feel a stream of them slipping in. He could feel them in his veins, his organs, nibbling, gnawing. His liver, his kidney. He had to tell Helen something fast. Why couldn’t he remember? The words. Were they leaking out the mouse hole? At the mouse house, Helen’s face loomed and he knew he had to say something, to convince her that she would be fine, that she had never needed him as much as she thought, and he felt his mouth moving and thought he said, “Helen.”
But Helen had turned from him to the commotion around the next bed.
The man there wanted to get up. “Where’s my Gucci bag?” the man asked.
“It’s right here. Everything’s okay,” his wife said soothingly, and then they surrounded him, two teen-aged boys, a girl of six, a skinny young man with a tie on, lifting his tubes, swinging his legs to the edge of the bed, closing his gown in back, heaving him up and into his wheelchair. Helen though it was ghastly. But at last they were setting off, all of them attached in some way, wheeling his oxygen, holding up a tube, jingling like a sleigh – his wheelchair had been hung with bells and holly – and as they passed, the wife said to Helen, “Harry started that, calling their catheter bags Gucci bags which is a hoot, your husband’s a hoot. Thank God Robert’s had Harry, that they’ve had each other to laugh with at the end, you know?”
“God better have a sense of humor,” the man called Robert said to the young man with the tie who was pushing his wheelchair.
“Robert said he’s not going to heaven unless Harry gets in,” the wife said to Helen.
“Damn straight. If humor doesn’t count for something, I’m not sure how I’ll get in,” Robert said and lifted his hand to swat at the bells attached to his IV pole.
The wife looked back at Helen. “Don’t listen to him,” she said. “I have full faith that we’ll all be reunited some day, all people, no matter what we believe,” and she smiled her sympathetic smile at Helen again, before turning with her family out of the room, the sound of their sleigh bells and laughter slowly fading as they moved together down the hall.
In their absence, Helen heard the silence of the room, a sickening silence, a whirring, a ticking, as if mice ran in the walls. In the cabin, sometimes, there were mice. They ate a tunnel through the bread one year. If Harold refused to budge, she’d have to deal with the mice herself, and sit at the head of the table, carving roast beef with the candles all lit, and say what? They would ply her with questions, and what would she say? Harold had always been the healthy one, the tough one, the stoic, ever since her parents’ funeral, all those years ago, Harold, not even married to her yet but flying all the way to Milwaukee to sit there at the wake like a tough Midwesterner, trying to cheer everyone. She saw again the foil-wrapped lasagnas and cakes left overnight on the porch by parishioners. Snow all over everything. No, too early for snow. That was her grandmother’s funeral, most funerals it seemed; at her parents’ there’d been rain, of course, that week of torrential rain, blamed for the car accident. So much rain that snails left their trails on the foil-wrapped food left on the porch, which Harold pointed out, making her laugh, everyone laughing, the house full of stunned, wet, laughing Midwesterners who were nice. Just so nice, Harold had said, even though he’d feared being in a room with that many Catholics. “Take comfort in your parents’ faith, Helen,” Father Marek had said, Father Marek who’d been a young priest when he’d first passed through the parish, when she was a teenager and susceptible to crushes on young, Polish priests. “Our Father,” Father Marek had nudged her, “who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name…” and she had tried with him for a minute to find comfort in thinking of our Father, all hallowed, up in heaven until Harold reminded her that there were other ways of finding comfort.
Making love on her parents’ bed, for instance. That had been comforting.
“Ignore them,” Harold had said, when her cousins caught them coming out of the bedroom and called her crazy. That’s what he always said. “Ignore them.” He didn’t care what other people thought. He didn’t care about having children. People always blamed the woman, but he was the one. That was the deal. No children. Children only brought out the craziness in parents, he said, and she had believed him; she had believed that it was better to love only each other. But now? How could she bear her own holiday party, all the children tearing her beautiful wrapping paper to shreds, ravishing her roast beef, Bill sidling up to her to say as he always did, as if this were a revelation, that his mother had been wrong, that Helen wasn’t a crazy shiksa after all? Would she have to stand there, trying to feel complete, while Bill stood there smirking about his generous, fecund, respectable life? No, this time she would say…
“Is it time?” he asked.
“For what, dear?”
“You’ve got to come. You can’t do this to me,” she said.
It was time. He wanted more morphine, but it wasn’t time yet. Was it time yet? There was a family of mice named Bill and Ruth, and Shoshana, and Bill had eaten almost all his insides out but where was his mother? His mother needed to be here. He needed to make sure that his mother was all right. Had he not promised? To live a long life since there would be nothing after death. Or was that Helen whom he’d promised to stay with until the very end?
“You promised,” Helen said, not knowing what he’d promised anymore. As his eyelids fluttered, she realized the damned nurse had given him more morphine in his drip when he didn’t need it yet. They should give it to him only when he was in pain. He would tell her when. With morphine, he couldn’t tell her anything. With the morphine, he was drifting away, further each time, leaving a rope, a string, a thread between them. She had told him when he came around, last time, that she wasn’t ready for a thread. They had not planned for a thread. If he would just say yes, just nod, she could whisk him away from all this, get him alone. So he could remember why he needed to stay here for her.
“Please,” she said, “just tell me what you need.”
He struggled, his face a mass of struggling wrinkles. “My kite…”
“Your kite?” she asked.
After a while he said, “I want…”
“Yes, just tell me what you want.”
“Do you want to see Bill?”
He said something that sounded like “fly.”
“Do you want to fly to Tahoe? Would you like that better than driving?” she asked, unable to stop herself. When he said nothing more, she followed his eyes to the window. Outside, beyond the whirring of the room, the wind had stilled and the trees stood to attention, as stiff as plastic trees beneath the blue-domed sky.
Author Bio: Monica Wesolowska is the author of the memoir Holding Silvan: A Brief Life. Named a “Best Book” of 2013 by The Boston Globe and Library Journal, Holding Silvan is forthcoming in German and Polish. A long-time teacher of writing at UC Berkeley Extension, Wesolowska has published both essays and fiction in many other venues including The New York Times. Read more at www.monicawesolowska.com
Artwork: B. Ellis Williams is a poet, visual artist, spiritual counselor, occasional philosopher, aspiring psychopomp, and priest-in-training. He holds an MFA in poetry from St. Mary’s College of California, and presently studies and resides at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.