for the children, they mark, and the children, they know

There is a place where the sidewalk ends
And before the street begins,
And there the grass grows soft and white,
And there the sun burns crimson bright,
And there the moon-bird rests from his flight
To cool in the peppermint wind.

Sometimes she smiles in her sleep. The corners of her mouth turn up at the ends and the edges of her eyes crinkle in that familiar way. Like she has a secret that none of us will ever know. The hospital room is dark, only illuminated by the soft yellow light from the streetlights beaming through the open blinds and by the small sliver of fluorescent light creeping in beneath the closed door. It’s quiet but not really quiet at all. Nurses talk in the hallway, carts are rolled up and down the floor. The IV clicks as it dispenses liquid healing – or at least liquid numbing – and there is a constant beeping from some hidden machine that serves as a constant reminder of where we are.

It’s raining and for now we’re alone in the white tile room. It’s quiet and impossibly lonely, and I can’t help but feel like I’ve been here before, done all of this before, but somehow it is different this time, harder and more painful because it is her. And she is everything.

Morning light streams in through the window and I sit Indian-style on her hospital bed. Not because the hospital allows it, but because my mother insisted and in my world, Mom’s rules are the only rules. I’ve been living by them for the past twenty seven years and they’ve yet to steer me wrong. Well, I suppose there was that one time … but no matter. When she patted the space next to her and told me to sit with her a while, I didn’t hesitate a breath.

I feed her ice chips because she turns her nose up at the Jello and flat out refuses the beef broth. She hums “King of the Road” for an unknown reason and fusses with her blankets while she gets up the nerve to ask me for answers to questions her pain-medicine-fogged brain has forgotten since the doctor sat with us a few hours earlier.

“I’ll lose my hair.”

“We’ll get you new hair. Prettier hair.”

“I don’t want to be sick.”

“You’re only sick if you say it out loud.”

“We both know that isn’t true.”

“Do we? I think it’s pretty freaking true.”

“Don’t curse, Blair.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“It isn’t ladylike.”

“I know.”

“Oh, God, I’m my mother.”

I smile. And quietly hope that I am mine.

At home, Brian makes dinner. Only high-fiber, soft foods. And we both sit down at the table with her and eat it without complaint. The back door sits open because Mom is hot, and Brian and I wrap up in her over-sized sweaters and throw blankets across our laps. The phone rings off the hook. Well wishers bring food and cards and flowers. Smiling and graciousness are exhausting. Brian says it first, what we’ve both been thinking.

“This is going to suck, isn’t it?”

Always eloquent.

“Probably. For a while.”

“But then she’ll get better.”

“Then she’ll get better.”

It’s a statement. There’s no room for question. Because neither of us is willing to acknowledge any other possibility. Neither of us will tolerate the option of a world without Mom’s rules.

We sit curled up on the couch – all three of us squished together, Mom in the middle – as Brian reads aloud from a book we’ve both recently finished. It’s funny and we all laugh and then we get in trouble for laughing because laughing hurts. The book is cast aside, we eat banana pudding and talk about growing up. We make a list of ten reasons why our childhood was stranger than anyone else’s. (One of which is because Brian and I won a sack-the-pig contest one year for being the fastest pair to catch a pig, throw it in a burlap sack and drag it over a makeshift finish line. All for no prize money. Not even a blue ribbon.) It’s funny and we all laugh and then we get in trouble for laughing because laughing hurts.

Mom wants a milkshake, so we drive across town for one. Mom is desperate for a Diet Coke, so we make a trip to the grocery. We bide our time – waiting for the pain to stop, waiting for the fear to set in, waiting for the tears, waiting for everything to fall apart, waiting for her to get better. Because all of those things are inevitable. Of the few things we know, we know that much for sure. We wait for answers that might never come. We wait for her to ask for something else, anything to feel like we’re helping, like we’re fixing what’s broken.

She sleeps between us on the couch and we lay watching her as Johnny Cash sings gospel music in the background. We don’t know what we’re waiting for. But we know we’re waiting, will wait, for as long as it takes. Because it is her. And she is everything.

Let us leave this place where the smoke blows black
And the dark street winds and bends.
Past the pits where the asphalt flowers grow
We shall walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And watch where the chalk-white arrows go
To the place where the sidewalk ends.
Yes we’ll walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And we’ll go where the chalk-white arrows go,
For the children, they mark, and the children, they know
The place where the sidewalk ends.
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