The muted light from the corner lamp cast a comforting glow across the darkened room. A white antique bed occupied the center, flanked by matching bedside tables. An Amish quilt hung on square pegs above the headboard, the wedding ring pattern standing in sharp relief against the dark red wall. It was a reminder of a happy afternoon spent shopping in country stores in Dutch Country, Pennsylvania.
At the foot of the bed was an armchair. Patricia Morales sat quietly, lost in her thoughts. A book lay opened on her lap, her limp hand marking the page. She had been reading, but her voice had long faded into silence. The still figure on the bed had fallen asleep.
A slight sound came from the bed. Patricia stirred, getting up to check. Satisfied everything was fine, she sat back down. Slowly, she focused on her surroundings. A place that had once held love and laughter, she acknowledged bitterly, now made her long for escape.
But where would she go? And how could she leave? She reached out and lightly touched her mother’s frail hand. She hated not knowing how much time they had left together.
Restless, she placed the book on the chair and walked to the open window. She spared a quick glance toward the bed, then slowly pushed the curtain open.
The bedroom Patricia was in overlooked the front drive. A maple tree partially blocked the house across the street. She stood quietly staring outside.
Their two-storey house was in a quiet cul de sac. She could still remember when they moved here, how excited her parents were. She was only five years old. Strange, she thought to herself, the things we choose to remember. The child that she was had loved running through the hallways and out into the wide backyard with its sloping hills. The house, and the yard, had been her playground.
Her laughter, her father would describe to friends, filled every room. So did the sound, he would add wryly, of her screaming tantrums. Patricia smiled sadly. She had been prone to tantrums. If only she could find release in one now. But she was too old for that. And there was no one there to wipe away her rebellious tears.
The front porch was added a few years after they moved in. She pictured her mother sitting there, reading a book on many a lazy afternoon. Sarah became a common sight in the neighborhood. Patricia’s playmates quickly learned that stopping to say hello to Miss Sarah meant freshly baked chocolate chip cookies and a glass of milk. Patricia had been very popular among her peers. That added memory made her smile.
The afternoon quiet was broken by childish laughter and the low murmur of voices. Patricia closed her eyes, willing the sounds from outside to distract her from her thoughts. It didn’t work. Taking a deep breath to steady herself, she opened her eyes again.
A toddler was taking wobbly but determined steps toward his mother. The mother stood by the curb, talking with a group of women. Patricia could see Donna, Sherry and Abby. She’d grown up with those girls. Their children would be among the circle of heads bent together over something on the ground. She couldn’t tell what held their attention from her vantage point.
Sherry glanced surreptitiously toward where she stood. Patricia drew back instinctively. She wanted to remain in the shadows.
It was an ordinary afternoon in their plain, nondescript suburban community. Patricia sighed and let the curtain fall back. Inside was anything but ordinary.
Her mother lay on the bed, dying.
They had just celebrated her birthday. Steven had brought a cake, their voices joining together to sing her a happy birthday. They had even started planning Sarah’s big 5-0. Steven had jokingly suggested some dancing. Sarah had cracked up, she could not dance to save her life.
The memory of Sarah’s laughter filled Patricia with fresh dread. Instead of the party, she had to think about her mother’s funeral.
The IV drip ticked quietly, keeping time with Patricia’s thoughts.
A nurse, Katryne, had taken possession of the guest room indefinitely. She was friendly and efficient, taking on the responsibility of making sure Sarah was comfortable and pain free. Her presence left Patricia free to simply sit and be with her mother.
It was during those times that Patricia missed her father the most. It had been three years ago, three long years when they had lost him. He had died suddenly, struck down by a distracted driver.
How inconsolable she was, she remembered. Only through her mother’s patience and strength had she slowly started to heal. Now her mother was leaving her.
Patricia pressed her fingers tightly against her eyes, willing the tears to stop. “Why?” She silently questioned the God her mother had always believed in. Why now? I need her. I still need her.
The stillness mocked her. There were no answers. She knew only the pain and frustration that haunted her every breath. She looked around desperately, drowning in her grief. The tears were relentless, but Patricia knew she would have to hold it all in. At least, she sucked in her breath, until her mother was gone. There would be enough time for tears later.
Sarah’s voice drew Patricia back to her mother’s bedside. Weak and hesitant, but still her mother’s voice. Patricia tried to smile as she took the frail hand.
“Are you thinking of your father?”
Patricia nodded. “I miss him. Especially now.”
She looked around her. Too many flowers, she bit her lip. It looked too much like someone had died. Again, she struggled against the tears.
“And I can’t help but worry.” Her words hung in the air between them.
Patricia looked down, ashamed. She knew she lacked her mother’s strength.
Sarah had never tried to hide how bad things were from the start. When the doctor had sat them down and explained that the cancer they thought she had beaten was back, Sarah did not cry. She asked the doctor all the right questions. He explained how it had spread to the endocrine glands and lungs. She asked if there was hope. At the look on his face, Sarah thanked the doctor graciously. Then she had taken Patricia’s hand and they had walked out together.
In the weeks that followed, Sarah had shown the same strength. She made all the calls that were needed. Her lawyer, her pastor, friends and family back in the Philippines.
Patricia had taken a leave from her job. They spent each day together. And at breakfast, like clockwork, Sarah would talk about the future. Specifically, Patricia’s future. Her mother was willing Patricia to look forward to something. She’d played along, easing her mother’s worry over her.
She’d never seen her mother cry. Patricia knew she needed to show the same strength now. It wouldn’t be so hard if her voice did not threaten to betray her.
Sarah smiled sadly. She could hear the pain in Patricia’s voice.
“Part of me is glad Luke didn’t have to see me like this.” Patricia had to bend closer to hear her.
“Patty? We’ve lived our lives believing that it doesn’t end here. Why is it so hard for you to keep believing now?” Patricia did not answer.
She looked around her mother’s bedroom. Despite the comforting familiarity of her mother’s personal things, there was no escaping the odd, sick smell of a hospital room.
She traced her finger along the cracked paint of the chair her parents had purchased from a furniture store in Hickory, North Carolina. She sighed. The colors and patterns could not hide the trays of medicine and medical supplies that occupied the bedside tables.
Sarah tried to raise her head to get a better view of her daughter’s face.
Patricia forced herself to concentrate.
“Maybe because it’s not ending in happily ever after. Or what I planned to be my happily ever after.”
Patricia brushed Sarah’s hair from her pale forehead. “Mom, are you scared?”
Sarah swallowed hard. Her mouth was so dry these days. “No. Not when I really think about it.” A slow smile filled her face.
“Patty, remember Lucy and Aslan? At the end?” She sought her daughter’s eyes anxiously. “You’ve always loved those stories.”
She was right. Patricia’s father had read her the Narnia books when she was a child, stirring her childish imagination as he described the kingly Aslan and the brave children who helped defend Narnia. Since Sarah had gotten sick, she had started reading the books to her. In a way, Patricia acknowledged, it brought her father back to them.
As Sarah got weaker, she clung to the image of Aslan and Lucy. She made it her own personal homecoming. She gently explained to her daughter why she did not want anything else read to her. “The Bible is for the living, for when I was able to live it out. I know all the promises by heart. I talk to Him every minute now, expecting to see Him soon. Narnia gives me a picture to cherish.” She smiled joyfully. “That picture will usher me home.”
That conversation happened weeks ago.
“I think He’ll come carry you home.” Patricia tried to smile.
Sarah paused and took a deep breath. “I know.” Her tired eyes searched Patricia’s face. “I hate leaving you alone.”
Patricia closed her eyes against the worry in her mother’s. The pain was all too real. But there was quiet acceptance in her mother’s eyes.
“Do you think God made a mistake somewhere? “ Patricia tried to smile.
It had been an ongoing joke between her parents, Luke asking this same question every time Sarah got frustrated over something.
Sarah tried to smile back. “I wouldn’t dare think so now, would I?”
Patricia found herself laughing. “Not right now, no. But maybe you’d like to ask Him face to face.”
Sarah smiled. “I do not want to leave you. Not yet. But I still believe, somewhere inside, that God knows what He’s doing.”
Patricia took both of her mother’s hands in hers, “I’ll be fine. You keep saying I take after you.”
Sarah squeezed her hands weakly. “You take after your father too.” There was a strange look on her face. Patricia leaned closer, trying to read it. Regret? A longing of some sort? Then it was gone.
Sarah sighed softly and closed her eyes.
Patricia rested her head by her mother’s arm. She’d seen a lot of expressions cross her mother’s face as they talked. Hope, sadness, joy, and pain intermingled. But never fear. She knew Sarah would be just fine. She wasn’t so sure about herself.
That was the last real conversation they had.
Her mother had been bedridden for three weeks now. Patricia knew time was running out. The only thing left to do, she knew, was to make her comfortable. Sarah hadn’t been eating, falling in and out of a light sleep. Patricia had clung to her mother’s weak presence, begging God for more time.
Two days later, Sarah slipped into a coma.
How fast this chapter was ending. Just three months ago, they were sitting in the doctor’s office, waiting for the test results. Patricia could still picture the office— the green paint on the walls, the plain white curtains and fake plants on the corner by the window. Frames covered one wall. A huge, imposing oak desk was positioned before it. There was a tray of paperwork on one side of the desk, while a picture frame was on the other side. She remembered leaning over to look when the door opened. The doctor’s words erased everything else.
Sarah’s last days! Patricia’s eyes roamed her mother’s beloved face. Her mother had lived well. Now her journey was coming to an end. Patricia knew she would have to carry on. But how, she asked the quiet room, could she carry on without her mother?
In the end, Sarah’s death caught Patricia by surprise.
Patricia had been reading the Psalms out loud, more to comfort herself than for her mother’s sake. Sarah lay so still on the bed. Patricia’s eyes misted. Brushing at the tears impatiently, she pulled the armchair closer. In a softer voice, Patricia started reading again. She finished several verses, then stopped. Her throat was parched.
Patricia stood up and stretched. She’ll read again later. She just needed a drink.
Walking to the door, Patricia called down the hallway to the nurse. Katryne’s head popped out her bedroom door. “Hey, Honey.”
“I’m heading into the kitchen for a drink.”
“Sure, honey. Take a break. You deserve it.” She took note of Patricia’s tired face. “Let me take care of Sarah. You do everything as it is.” Giving Patricia’s shoulder a slight squeeze, she walked towards the bed.
Katryne stopped suddenly. “Patty?”
Patricia turned. “Mhhmmm?”
“I wish all daughters were like you. Girl, you take care of your mom like nothing I’ve seen in my 57 years on God’s earth.”
Patricia turned her face to hide her sadness. “Thank you, Katryne.”
Moving on into the kitchen, Patricia poured herself some iced tea. Leaning against the granite counter, her empty eyes surveyed the room. It was spotless, a quiet testament to her need to keep busy. The counters were scrubbed, the granite wiped clean and shiny. Chrysanthemums bloomed on the kitchen windowsill. Steven’s thoughtfulness lifted Patricia’s heart.
Her empty stomach growled. Patricia realized she hadn’t eaten all day. There was left over pho in the fridge. She hesitated, thinking of her mother. It would only take a few minutes, Patricia told herself firmly.
She popped the soup in the microwave. Once hot, Patricia added the vermicelli, bean sprouts and basil leaves. Carrying the hot bowl carefully, she sat down at the kitchen table. A week old newspaper lay there on the tabletop.
Patricia opened the pages. Maybe, she thought to herself, the state of the world would help her find something to be thankful for. She smiled grimly. Or at least take her mind off of her own troubles. She started eating, hoping the soup would warm the iciness inside.
Footsteps were coming briskly toward her. Katryne. But she would never leave Sarah alone. Unless—Patricia’s heart stopped.
Pushing past the kindly woman, Patricia started running to her mother’s bedroom. She came to a stop at the door. Death had hallowed the place. She could feel its solemn presence. Hesitantly, she walked toward the bed.
Her mother lay on the bed exactly the way she had left her. Only her face had changed. There were no painful creases now, no dark shadows under her eyes. A half smile was frozen on her lips.
Patricia lifted trembling fingers to her mother’s face. “Please.” Her broken plea hung in the air. “Mommy, please.”
Katryne came up beside Patricia, her strong arms enveloping the sobbing girl.
“How can I,” her stricken eyes were fixed on Sarah’s lifeless body, “say goodbye when she can’t even hear me?”
Katryne drew Patricia close. “There’s no more pain for her. Shhhh. She’s happy now.”
Patricia pushed Katryne’s arms away. She sank down to the armchair. Lifting Sarah’s limp hand to her lips, she kissed it. She was gone.
Patricia pushed against the darkness threatening to overcome her. She had to prolong this moment. There were still a lot of words left unspoken.