The Time We Lived
I hate hospitals. I’ve made it my New Year’s Resolution to never come in one again—except that’s not going to happen. As long as mom’s here, I’ll be here too.
Ugh. The smell of all the chemicals—formaldehydes, antiseptics, sterilizers, and what not is overpowering. Match that with the bleak fluorescent lighting, and you’ve got enough of a sensory overload to make you go crazy. What bothers me most though are the patients.
I know, that’s horrible, but it’s awful turning the corner to the ice machine and running into some decrepit old woman slumped sideways in a wheelchair with a thread of saliva dribbling off the edge of her chin. Old men shuffling down hallways with walkers shaking so badly that you’d think they were going to collapse right then and there. Or the people who get rushed in on gurneys with a flock of doctors surrounding them, screaming “Get me an OR—STAT!” while trying to stifle the blood spurting from various gashes, gunshots, or wounds.
But what’s worst is the crying. You can’t go a day in a hospital without hearing sobs escaping from at least one room. Sometimes it’s just quiet sniffles behind pulled curtains; other times its full-blown wails streaking through the corridors, only slightly muffled by a closed wooden door.
“Hey mom, how are you feeling?” the girl looked up from her journal as she heard her mother stir.
“Still a little tired, but good.”
“That’s good, did you want me to call Dad and let him know you’re up?”
“Oh, no, Sarah. Don’t bother your father. He’s been busy at work with that merger coming up. He’ll check in when he gets a chance,” her mother touched the end of a lily petal in the bouquet laying beside her bed. The arrangement had five blooming lilies erupting in pink and orange set off quite nicely with some daffodils and baby’s breath.
“Are you hungry? Do you want me to go grab something for you to eat?”
“No, I’m alright,” her mother continued absently stroking the bouquet.
Sarah looked at her mother. She seemed so different now than she had before coming in. She was still beautiful, with her luminous blue eyes and Romanesque features, but it was a ghost of the woman she had been. Before the cancer had hit, her cheeks were vibrant with color and her hair tumbled around her face untamed. Now her cheeks were sunk in, and what was left of her hair was limp and frayed.
She used to look like me, Sarah thought, remembering how sick she got of hearing that comment from family members. Now she’d give anything to hear that again. Anything that would mean her mother was better.
“What should we do then?” Sarah spoke briskly to snap her mother from her reverie. “Should we watch tv, read, or go exploring?”
Her mother’s eyes lit up, showing a spark of the life that was hidden deep beneath the cancer. “We could go out for a little bit, I wouldn’t mind getting out of the room for a while.”
“Knock, knock.” A deep voice called into the room, interrupting their plans.The girl stiffened as he made his way to the bed. She didn’t trust him. He spoke in big words she didn’t understand, and said there was nothing to worry about. He was an overeducated liar.
“How are you feeling today, Mrs. Blake?” he asked flipping through his clipboard.
“She’s fine,” Sarah jumped to her mother’s defense, earning a confused appraisal from the doctor.
“Sarah!” her mother admonished before replying to the doctor. “I’m fine, we were just about to go for a walk, actually.”
“I’m sorry to interrupt, but unfortunately, we’re going to need to run a few more tests. After that you may be a little worn out. It might be best to put off the walk until later.” He set the clipboard on the table next to her mother, carelessly breaking the stem of one of her lilies.
“Of course you do.” Sarah tossed her arms in the air as she stalked out of the room. “I’ll be back in a minute. I need some air.”
She fumed the whole way down the elevator and out to the small garden behind the hospital. “Damn it!” Sarah slapped her hands against the wooden bench she plopped into underneath the big oak tree. Mom ‘s never going to get any better, she thought. Every time she got any piece of her old self back, the doctors had to steal it away again. Just like when we first found out about the cancer, she went in laughing and came back broken.
Sarah stayed downstairs until the lamppost beside her flickered slowly to life.
When Sarah arrived back at her mother’s room, the lights were dimmed and the doctor was nowhere in sight.
Good, she thought as she made her way over to her mother’s side. Her mom was sleeping quietly on the bed, a small smile playing on her pale lips. Sarah wondered how much blood they had taken this time. How is she supposed to get better if they keep taking everything she needs, she wondered, studying the IV in her mother’s skeletal hand.
Tears welled in Sarah’s eyes. She averted her gaze and her sight fell on the flower the doctor had crushed. She picked up the frail blossom and studied it. It really was beautiful; burnt orange with chocolate-brown speckles dotting the petals. It was so delicate that scars marred anywhere she pressed too hard.
Sarah dropped the flower in the wastebasket and looked back at the bouquet. It was ruined. With the lily gone, the arrangement had a gaping hole in the middle of it. Sarah tried to rearrange the blossoms to fill the empty spot, but no matter what she tried, it wasn’t as beautiful as before. She was about to give up when the phone rang.
“Sarah? How’s mom doing,” her father’s worried voice sounded on the other end of the line.
“Alright, I guess. They did more tests today.”
“I thought they might. Can I talk to her?” Sarah heard the sounds of papers shuffling in the background. It was going to be another late night for both of them, it seemed.
“She’s asleep right now. Do you want me to wake her up?”
“Oh no. Let her sleep. Just let her know I called, ok princess?”
“Sure thing,” Sarah couldn’t help but notice how relieved her father’s voice sounded. “Mom got some flowers. Did you send them?”
“The doctor broke one of them today.”
“I’ll have to get her some more then. But, I have to go princess. I still have about thirty pages of this merger I have to go through before I leave tonight. Let your mother know I called when she wakes up. I love you both.”
Sarah had just lowered the phone onto its cradle when her mother’s eyes fluttered open. “Was that your dad,” she asked, her voice raspy from sleep.
“Yeah. He wanted to know how you were doing. I told him you were ok, but the doctor broke one of your flowers.”
“Why would you go and do that?” Her mother chuckled slightly, and sat up to examine her damaged bouquet.
“Did he say if you were getting any better?” Sara ignoring her mother’s question.
“Not really.” Her mother sighed. She affectionately tucked Sara’s bangs behind her ear. “He said he would let us know as soon as possible- he’s really not as bad as you make him out to be, you know.”
“You keep telling yourself that,” Sara said, tears welling up in her eyes.
A sad smile crossed her mother’s face. “Don’t cry honey, I’ll be ok. I feel much better today. If the doctors don’t do the tests, they won’t know what needs to be fixed. They just need to make sure everything they’re doing is helping.”
“I guess,” Sarah said petulantly. “I just wish they’d let you go home. I hate it here.”
“I do too, but we’ve got to make do with what we have.” Her mother patted the bed space beside her. “Now come sit up here with me. You’re not too big, you know. You’ll always be my baby.” They fell asleep before the nurse came in for her rounds.
Sarah woke the next morning to sunlight trickling in through the blinds. It set hues of gold dancing across her mother’s face, covering her in a natural halo.
Careful not to disturb her, Sarah snuck out of bed and out to the cafeteria to grab some breakfast. She returned to find her mother looking sadly at the wilting bouquet.
“They need water,” she said as she tried to touch up the sprigs of baby’s breath. “We forgot to give them some yesterday.”
“I’ll get some for you.” Sarah grabbed a styrofoam cup from the bathroom sink. “We should just get you some plastic ones,” she joked. “They would last longer.”
“Don’t you tell your father that,” her mother gently scolded. “I don’t want plastic flowers.”
“Why not? What’s wrong with them?”
Her mother’s fingertips brushed against a soft green leaf. “They aren’t real.”
“But they last forever.” Sarah looked at the withered flower in the trash can. “They won’t break or die.”
“True. But they aren’t really alive, either.” Her mother said, placing her hand in her lap. “They don’t have the same brilliance or beauty. They’re just an imitation.”
“But they die.” Sarah said stubbornly. Her stomach tightened as she looked at her mother’s frail figure. Her nose pricked and she fought back tears. “They’re pretty for a week and then they’re gone.”
Her mother rested her head back against the pillow, and Sarah realized how tired she really looked.
“You can’t be afraid of death, Sarah. Otherwise you’ll miss out on all of the truly beautiful things the world has to offer.” Her mother gazed out the open window. “It doesn’t matter how long things last, it matters what they give while they are here.”
“It matters to me,” Sarah grabbed her mother’s hand.
“Then I did a good job.” Her mother squeezed her hand in a feeble pulse.
When Sarah’s father reached the hospital he found her in the room gazing vacantly at the lily bouquet on the desk. Tear stains streaked her cheeks, as she absentmindedly twirled a wilted lily in her fingers.
“They were so beautiful,” Sarah whispered softly. “The doctor broke them.”
“He didn’t mean to, honey.” His voice was haggard as he put his hand on her shoulder.
Soon, the crying pervading the hospital came from room 216.
Two weeks later Sarah replaced the withering flowers on her mother’s gravestone with a dazzling bouquet of fresh lilies. There were seven of them in total, with splashes of daisies and roses exploding from the vase, brightening the entire area.
“They won’t last forever.” She knelt down and tenderly touched her mother’s tombstone, as she whispered.
“But they are alive.”