My aunt Pat and I are the only ones in the cold and dimly lit viewing room. Pat had arrived too late to be there and I had been busy at work. At least my dad and uncle, her two sons, had been with her. We cross the empty room and the heavy scent from all the cut flowers bleeds into my consciousness, momentarily distracting me from what we came to see. Pat is calm, even stoic, having anticipated this day for a while, as she looks at her mother from too far away to touch her. I go right up to her but I almost don’t recognize her. She looks deflated, as if all the air had been let out of her, which, I realize, it has. Her makeup was put on so heavily that she looked made of wax. I lightly touch her colder than usual hand and lean in to kiss her stiff, unsmiling cheek. It was like cold, unfeeling stone. The tears break through and blur my vision and the sobbing steals my breath. Why did I leave her alone?
The window is fogged over with condensation so you can’t see if it’s still snowing like it was when you drove down. It’s always uncomfortably warm in her room. She gently squeezes your hand, drawing your attention back to the photo. You pick up the microphone tethered to the hearing aid in her one working ear.
“Who is that on the left, next to Justin and Spencer?” She tries to look down at the photo but the neck brace stops her so she brings the photo right up to her thick glasses and squints. After a concerted effort she says “I can’t see so well” and gives a little laugh.
She can’t see, hear, or move well but she never complains. You are in awe of how happy she always is in spite of her conditions. She inspires you to not let the little things (like sight, hearing, and mobility) get you down. As long as you love and are loved, that is what matters. She is definitely loved and her frail hand in yours squeezes again to show she loves you too.
You sit hand-in-hand, saying nothing, while looking through more family photos she can’t see. The heat and the chemically sanitized scent of the home start to get to you so you stand and use your prepared excuse. “I have to work tonight and with the roads so bad I had better head out.”
Her hold on your hand weakly tightens and there’s a look in her eyes you’ve never seen before but is somehow familiar. Is it a hint of desperation as she speaks “Do you have to go?”
As I’m driving through the swirling whiteness I see her eyes glowing with accusation, coming out of the storm of my emotions. Realization finally hits me in the gut. I remember that look in her eyes. It’s how I felt at the end of every visit while I was in prison. An involuntary sense of abandonment and loneliness.
Why did I leave her alone