A Smile in the Dark

I looked forward to your doctor’s appointment in Lexington the way I looked forward to school trips to the circus. I couldn’t wait to go to Toys’R’Us and the mall. I only liked the mall because I could ride the escalator, though. When you’re six, or eight, or even ten, moving stairs are pretty cool. I always knew we’d stock up on Dunkin’ Donuts to snack on during our three hour drive home. And if it was close to Christmas, we would watch for houses with lights up. You’d look out one window and I’d look out the other. We’d point the nice ones out to each other and smile in the dark.

You had to keep your urine for 24 hours before your appointment. The red collection tank always reminded me of a miniature gas can. You kept it under the bathroom sink. You hated even looking at it.

Those appointments to you were far from the day trip they were to me. To you, they were an unwanted necessity, vital but dreaded.

You sat on the exam table. I sat in a swivel chair, the kind the doctor always sat in. When he came in, he didn’t make me get up. His white coat looked pristine and precious and he wrote with a fountain pen. He had to be important. No one unimportant uses fancy pens like that. He explained your kidney function had fallen below ten percent. He spoke about dialysis. I had never heard that word before, but it made me shutter inside. I felt tears welling up in my eyes. I turned my back to you so you couldn’t see.

I remember getting in the car late at night to see your doctor. We did this when you had infections. You seemed to be prone to them. Infections meant a cloudy bag. It meant pain for you. It meant midnight prayers.

I’d see you on the couch and hear you cry. I’d slip in the chair across from you. I didn’t have to be quiet. The disease that took your kidneys also took your hearing. Still, I was as quiet as I could be. I didn’t want to intrude on your time with God. I just wanted to sit and pray. I just wanted to be with you. I still just want to be with you.

You were late picking me up from work one day. Ten minutes went by. Twenty minutes went by. I sat on the sidewalk and watched for our maroon station wagon to pull up. Fear nipped at my heels. Something was wrong. Our car finally pulled up. You forgot I was at work and had been waiting at the school. You apologized. I said it was ok, but I was angry. I wouldn’t get to eat before class. I made you feel so bad you almost cried. Instead of going home, you bought me food and waited in the hot sun for class to end. I felt knee high to a grasshopper when I saw you still sitting there. You were tired and you were weak. Yet, you waited for me because you loved me.

Looking back, I think I was angry because you were sick and that day made me realize just how sick you really were. That was the day I realized I would eventually lose you.

I walked from the hospital to the school and waited for my class to end. I could have just emailed, but I needed to get away from the nurses and doctors and family. I needed a break from the nightmare you woke up in. I needed space from the chaos on the seventh floor. I walked down the hallway and spoke quietly to my professor.

My mother had a stroke.

My favorite place at the nursing home was the stairwell. It became my escape. Those walls heard my silent screams and held my fearful heart. In that stairwell, I could be broken. Most days, broken and breathing were the best I could do. You didn’t stay there long, three weeks maybe. You were sent to the hospital for observation. There were noises in your lungs.

You stayed two days.

I can still relive it. I can turn and twist it over in my mind. I see the nurse as she listens for a heartbeat. I watch as she feels for a pulse. I see her shake her head and watch me take a ragged breath. I rewind to feel the cool floor on my bare feet. Most people would know better than to walk bare foot on a hospital floor.  But to me, it was no longer a place for sick people. It was home to us: you, me, and dad. Dad was who I was going to. I had already sent someone else to tell him, but I had to go. He was at the end of the hall in the waiting room. He couldn’t stand to see you take your last breathe and I couldn’t bear not to.

I’m not sure you knew I was there. I like to think you did.

I don’t go to Lexington for your appointments anymore. You don’t need them. You’re in perfect health. I go now to shop, to eat, to just get out of town. Toys’R’Us is on the agenda for your grandson, of course. He’ll turn two soon. Now, the mall is a must for me and not only for the escalator. Dunkin’ Donuts is a can’t miss, too. I love their coffee.

And if it’s near Christmas, I look for the same lights I saw as a child and smile in the dark.

I know somewhere you’re smiling, too.

❤ Like Baby Bear Soup

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