169 Hours Left

Submissions open for Issue #1 & Launch Party
July 8, 2017
The Sedlec Ossuary
November 19, 2017

169 Hours Left

 

I

 

“Your mother only has one week to live.” This sentence came like a punch in the face. I looked over to my sister. She was looking at her feet, utterly defeated. I tried to reach out to her but I couldn’t. I didn’t want to, damn it.  We were 14 and 13 at the time and in the midst of puberty. Our mother had been ill since we were kids. Cancer can be a cunning and relentless disease.

“Are you alright, son?” the doctor asked with a soft and gentle voice. I turned my head and looked at him. It was a friendly face, not the kind of face you’d expect from someone who’s been working full days and weekends for over 50 years. “I don’t know,” I stammered. Despite my protest, tears started to well up in my eyes. The doctor stared at me for a solid minute and then turned his gaze to my sister. “And how are you, love?” he asked. I looked at my sister. Her fists were turning white from clenching them. Oh please, for the love of anything, I thought. Don’t make this already harder than it is. Somehow my sister knew what I was thinking and gave me the most hateful look. This unsettled me even more. I looked away, not sure what to do. The doctor saw our little exchange but didn’t say anything.

All of a sudden my sister stood up, took a step towards the doctor’s desk and pointed a finger at him. “You promised us she was going to be alright,” she said with her voice almost at its breaking point. “You…” she hesitated. The doctor leaned back into his leather chair. It cracked slightly. Folding his hands together, he asked “Well…? I what?” My sister was shaking with anger. He eyed her up for second, then said, “I’ve done everything in my power to cure your mother, but I’m not a miracle worker.” I saw that he was slowly losing his patience. He now had his hands on his desk, his fingers tapping its surface. My sister considered this a chink in his armor and took the opportunity. “I’m going to make sure that you pay for this. Mark my words,” and with that she stormed out of his office without looking back to see if I would follow. And, just as she did at home, she slammed the door, leaving me and the doctor alone.

The doctor slowly let out a sigh. “I’m sorry for my sister’s behavior,” I said softly. The doctor looked up and gave me a smile. “Don’t worry, she’s not the first to direct her anger at me.” There was a silence for a few minutes. Now that my sister had left I had no idea what to do or say to the doctor, so I decided to look down at my shoes. These shoes. I’d bought them with mum a month ago. A month ago. That seemed so distant now. I remember that we went for a drink in a café after buying them. My mother ordered two hot chocolates with extra whipped cream. She laughed so hard when I accidentally got some on my nose. Her laugh was sincere and warm. I smiled. In a week I’ll never hear her laugh again. My stomach started to sink.

“Does she really only have one week left?” I finally asked with a tight throat. “I’m pleasantly surprised she managed it so long, what with all the chemo treatments she’s been receiving over the last couple of months. But yes, I think she has one week, at most.” He scratched his neck. I let out a big sigh. “Well, I guess I’ll go to my sister now,” I stood up and offered my hand. “Thank you for taking the time.” He grabbed my hand firmly and looked me straight in the eyes. “If there’s anything you need, don’t be afraid to give me a ring. Your sister is welcome, too, of course.” And with that I left his office, stepping into the cold and white fluorescent world of the hospital.

The hallway lighting was harsh compared to the doctor’s office. My sister sat on a bench against the wall opposite me. A nurse was sitting next to her, trying to calm her down. Three mugs of tea on a tray were next to them on the floor. Probably on the doctor’s orders, I thought. “How are you doing, sis?” I asked as neutrally as possible. She didn’t look at me but shrugged her shoulders. The nurse stood up to give me a hug. I knew she meant well, but I didn’t feel any warmth in her embrace. I looked around for my father but didn’t see him. Maybe it was because I was too busy sobbing into the nurse’s shoulder. But then I felt the familiar pinch on my neck. Relief washed over me.

 

II

 

I didn’t go home that day. Instead, I wandered the white corridors of the hospital wing where my mother was staying. Ever since my talk with the doctor, I’d been avoiding my mother. Maybe it was because she hadn’t told us about how close she was to dying. How could she! I could feel my muscles tighten. She’s our mother for goodness sake! It should have been her who told us the news, not a doctor.

“You’re always welcome,” I scoffed. “Yeah, right.” When it really matters doctors always come short. My hands were white from clenching them. Okay, okay, just take a deep breath, I thought. I closed my eyes and let my lungs slowly fill with air. The hospital had a hint of bleach, ethanol and…something else. Something sweet, but not the kind of sweet you’d expect. I opened my eyes, which I instantly regretted. A flash of icy light blinded me. The fluorescent light seemed harsher now that it was evening. I looked around the corner and down the hallway with squinted eyes. There was nobody around.  “Where am I again?” I mumbled in confusion. I must have walked this way dozens of times before, I thought.

Suddenly a lack of energy and dizziness overcame me. I covered my face with my hands, God, I’m tired. I leaned against the wall and let myself slowly slide to the ground. The floor felt as cold as the lighting was harsh. I rested my head against the wall and looked up. The coldness surged through my palms. I liked it. It reminded me I could still feel something. In a clear moment, the outlines of what appeared to be a sign appeared before me. And then there it was, right in front of me, the map of the wing.

A little red dot on the top left showed me where I was. Narrowing my eyes, I could see that I was in hallway 5 out of the possible 7. The wing was built in a shape of an “I” and both sides had three hallways each, with the last hallway on the far end of the wing. From left to right, the hallways were numbered from H1-7. Hallways 1 and 2 were where the doctors were. The other hallways were reserved for regular and recovering patients, and hallway 7 was predominately occupied by terminal ones.

Hallway 5. Close to mum. I just needed to go straight down this hallway, take a left turn, pass the reception desk, and go through the doors. But the thought of passing the desk and facing the nurse behind it put me off. I knew they meant well but, in the end, it was just a routine for them. We’re not special. We’re just another pair of children with a terminal parent. I closed my eyes again and became drowsier.

 

****

 

The coldness seemed to seep away and the familiar call of sleep put my mind at ease. “Dinner’s ready!” a feminine voice shouted, followed by an almost distant echoing laughter. Suddenly a room appeared, entirely constructed out of marble and shone as bright as the sun, yet there were no windows. I blinked, or what seemed like blinking, because the room disappeared for a moment. When it appeared again, three silhouettes were sitting around a marble table. Its surface was decorated with a tablecloth and several dishes were laid out. None of the three figures ate or even moved.

All of a sudden, the figure at the end of the table broke out of stasis and beckoned me with its elegant fingers. I was slowly drawn to the table, without moving my feet, towards an empty chair opposite of the now animated figure. As I sat down in the chair, the two other figures started to move as well and the one on my right offered me a plate. I looked at it and saw that it was filled with food that I recognized. But before I took it, I looked at its blank face, which slowly revealed itself. It was my father. Intuitively I looked at the figure opposite my father. My sister’s face was revealed. That must mean that the third person… but before I could turn to it, a sudden flash of light blinded me.

When I could see again, I saw that all the dishes were gone and so were my father and sister. At the end of the table, where the third figure was before, sat a beautiful woman covered in white sheets, a thin white veil concealing her face. I wouldn’t have recognized her if she hadn’t spoken. “How was dinner?” the mysterious woman asked with a soft voice. A shiver ran down my spine. “I didn’t get the chance to eat any of it,” I responded, trying to figure out whose voice it could be. “Mum?” I carefully inquired. She laughed a warm and sincere laugh, just as my mother would. An urge to hug her overcame me, but I couldn’t move. My legs felt as if they were cast in concrete.

I reached my arms out to her. “Please help me,” I said. She looked at me with such affection but shook her head slowly. “You have to let me go,” she almost sang. She appeared somewhat translucent now. Reality started to penetrate my dream. “No!” I cried. “Let go and see me while you still can.” “Please,” I cried. “Don’t do this to me!” She smiled that warm, warm smile again. She took off her veil with care and two eyes were revealed, wreathed in light, while the rest of her contours continued to decline. A sense of dread rose from the depths of my stomach. These were not the dark chestnut eyes that belonged to my mother. Before I could think of anything else, a sudden flash of light made me avert my eyes. This time everything stayed dazzlingly lit.

The next thing I knew I was staring up at the fluorescent lighting of the hospital again, but this time I was flat on my back. I blinked a few times and remained on the floor for a few seconds, when I sensed that sweetish smell again.  “Are you alright?” someone asked. I saw a head appear above mine, but I couldn’t see its face. I was still seeing specs of light. “Let me help you,” and with that two arms went under mine, lifting me up. When I was on my feet again, a familiar face looked at me. It was the nurse who comforted my sister. She smiled at me with a worried look. Still disoriented, I nodded. “Yes, I think I’m all right.” She eyed me for a second. “Your mother has been looking for you,” she said. “Your sister and father are already with her.” She put an arm around me and started walking. “Let’s go to them shall we?”

We went down the hallway and took a left turn. The nurse behind the desk nodded a greeting and smiled at us. I produced a timid smile as we went through the doors that flung open, just as you would expect automatic doors to do. Hallway 7, or the terminal area, only had 4 rooms in total. The nurse guided me to the room on the far left. As we approached it, I could see that the door was slightly open. A small ray of light managed to escape into the hallway. She slowly pushed the door further open. It creaked slightly and we stepped inside.

 

III

 

The room was dimly lit and the curtains were closed. It was slightly bigger than the other rooms beyond the automatic doors and the desk, and was equipped with all the necessary comforts, ranging from a small fridge to a massage chair. The bed was placed in the center of the room against the wall. Opposite the bed was a couch with a small wooden wardrobe next to it. Two armchairs and a table in front of the window completed the room.

The bathroom was also bigger than average, and, exclusively to the terminal ward, it had a bath that could be opened from the side. My mother’s mobility had severely weakened over the course of a few months. At first her problem could be temporarily solved with crutches. But when the day arrived when she no longer could get out of bed by herself, a wheelchair was necessary. My mother didn’t like it at first. The idea that she would become dependent on it angered her. But her anger subsided over time when she realized its usefulness. This week she rarely got out of bed. The only time she did was for her daily exercise and shower. Her wheelchair was folded and set in a corner.

“I think you’ll be fine now, so I’ll be off,” the nurse said softly. She reassuringly pinched my shoulders and quietly closed the door behind her. Everything was silent for a few minutes, apart from the occasional soft beep. I heard snoring and recognized it as my father’s. In one of the armchairs he was fast asleep, his arms crossed and his head slightly tilted, resting against the headrest. After the news of my mother’s short time left, my father started organizing and planning like a madman, preparing for when the inevitable would happen. I felt sorry for him. My sister was sleeping on the couch with her back facing me. A blanket was covering her. I could feel a slight annoyance creep in, but I ignored it.

When I turned around to face my mother, I saw her looking at me. I had just assumed that she was also asleep and didn’t want to disturb her. She gave me a melancholy smile and beckoned me to come. I slowly made my way to the bed. When I was at her side, I could see how tired she was. Her eyelids were puffy and the skin under her eyes dark. Her once full and red lips were now pale and cracked.

Only her eyes reminded me of my once healthy mother. Dark chestnut eyes that scanned my face. “Are you alright sweetie?” she asked. “I haven’t seen you since you and your sister went to see the doctor.” A sudden anger filled me. “No, of course I’m not alright,” I said bitterly. “You’re going to die soon and leave us behind.” Tears welled up as I averted my gaze. “How could you… How could not you tell us in person?” I asked, sobbing. Her soft hand touched my cheek, wiping my tears away. Her eyes were wet and her lips quivering. “I couldn’t do it,” she said with a trembling voice. “How could I tell my own children that I’m going to leave them? What mother wants to tell her children that?” she asked. I felt a surge of guilt. I didn’t mean for her to break down.

“Please mum, please don’t cry,” I said wiping her tears away with my shaking fingers. I held her like I would never let go. I could feel all my muscles tighten before resting my head on her shoulder. Her once lovely curly hair was now thin and brittle, but her smell comforted me, and I closed my eyes. She put her hand on my head and gently stroked my hair. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I’m so sorry.” I could feel my eyes burning and my throat tighten. “I love you mum. Promise you’ll watch over us?” I asked while burying my face deeper into her shoulder. “I will sweetie… I will,” she whispered. I don’t know for how long we held each other, but it was still dark when my father gently tapped me on my shoulder. He guided me to the armchair he slept in and put a blanket around me. “Get some rest,” he told me. “You’ll need it.” And with those words I let myself fall into nothingness.

 

IV

 

I woke up to a delicious smell the next morning. Breakfast! Good! I thought—I was famished. I got out of the armchair and stretched my aching body. The time in the hallway didn’t do me any favors. Looking around, I found my mother’s bed empty. Strange. I didn’t hear the shower and the wheelchair was still folded. She couldn’t have gone for a walk. My father walked in to see me murmuring to myself. “Good morning,” he said with a smile. I looked up and asked, “Where’s mum?” “Easy there. She’s having breakfast with your sister. I thought I’d pick you up after she was settled in.” I sighed with relief. “But first,” he added, “go clean yourself up. You look like a mess.” I ran my fingers through my hair. A greasy thickness warmed my hand. “Yeah, you’re probably right,” I smiled. The breakfast room was opposite my mother’s and it was just like the kind you’d find in any hotel. My mother and sister were seated near a window. I smiled and waved at them. My sister, as usual, didn’t respond and my mother gave her a stern look. I took the seat next to my sister and my father took the one next to my mother.

Before I could speak, a nurse, the same nurse in fact, brought me a plate with warm croissants and winked at me before leaving us to our breakfast. “Aren’t the nurses here nice?” my mother asked, sipping her orange juice. “Yeah,” I said somewhat distantly, still eying the nurse. That was the third time she’d helped me. I shook the thought and inquired after my mother’s health. My father and mother exchanged a quick look. “Much better than yesterday,” she smiled. “Maybe because the sun is out,” my father said with his mouth still full. “Hey, watch your manners,” my mother said, nudging him. He smiled. My sister was toying with her cereal. “So, how are you, sis?” She stopped for a second and looked at me. “Like you care,” she said. “Hey! Watch your tone, young lady,” my mother said. This seemed to startle my sister and she apologized to my mother. “Not to me, to your brother.” She pointed at me. My sister turned to me and said, somewhat reluctantly, “Sorry.”

After a few seconds of silence, my father attempted to lift our spirits. “Alright then you two, your mother and I have decided that we’re going to watch our old home movies.” “Home movies?” My sister looked up. For the first time since being at the hospital, I detected a smile on her face. “I thought you two would like that,” my father grinned. My mother smiled. “With popcorn and all?” my sister asked excitedly. My father gave us a broad smile. “Yes, the whole package.” My father put an arm around my mother and held her for a moment. My mother touched his face and softly kissed his cheek.

 

V

 

That day changed our lives forever. When my sister and I walked into my mother’s room, after getting the popcorn and sodas, there were no chairs set up and no beamer. Instead, our three suitcases were in the middle of the room. Our father walked in behind us and told us we were going home. There was no point in asking why because his eyes said it all. The doctor’s prediction had been too positive. He put his arms around us and pressed us against him. “Where’s mom?” I asked softly. “She’s on her way home, in an ambulance and…” Before my father could finish his sentence my sister interrupted him. “But why aren’t you with her?” “This is not the time sweetheart,” my father said with a sigh. I gave my sister a cold look. “And you aren’t helping either,” he said, pinching my neck. “What I was going to say,” he resumed, “was that your mother has been accompanied by her assigned nurse.” “The same one who brought me breakfast this morning?” I asked, feeling somewhat foolish. My father nodded, “The very same. She’s been keeping an eye on you two for the past couple of days.” He released us from his embrace and walked over to the suitcases. He picked one up and beckoned us to do the same.

We took a final look around the room and left, leaving the terminal area with its harsh fluorescent light behind. The time seemed to fly by because the next thing I remember we were already halfway home. Outside, everything was a blur. We drove past the familiar meadows and entered our town. A few minutes later we arrived at our house where the ambulance was still parked out front. My father pulled up the driveway and turned the engine off. My sister, who’d been sleeping the entire time, woke up. When she realized where we were, she jumped out of the car and ran inside. My father and I stayed a bit longer. Silent for a few minutes.

“How long have you known?” I finally asked, looking at him in the rear-view mirror. He sighed and looked back at me. “Only since yesterday,” he said. “Yesterday? But she looked fine then. I mean, not any worse than usual.” My father opened the car window. “I thought that, too, but when the doctor came in to check her vitals, it seemed that too much fluid had been building up in her stomach,” he said staring out of the car window. I wondered whether it was the same doctor who told us the “news,” but I decided that it wasn’t relevant. “Let’s go to her then,” my father said.

 

VI

 

We entered the living room and found my mother on the chaise lounge. She was covered in blankets and a stack of pillows supported her head. A heart rate monitor was beeping away. The nurse was dabbing a wet cloth on my mother’s face. She looked terrible. Her skin was dry and shockingly white. My father pushed me gently towards her and the nurse looked up. She gave me a hesitant smile and resumed her work. “Have you seen my daughter?” my father finally asked the nurse. She looked up again. “Yes, I think she’s in the garden,” she answered. “Poor thing, I tried to calm her but she was very upset.” My father stroked his beard. “She probably went to her bunny,” my father mumbled. “I’ll go get her.” He pinched my shoulders and left.

For the first time, I was a stranger in my own house. I just stood there, in the middle of the room, staring at the sickly being who had taken my mother. The nurse noticed this and asked me if I wanted to help her. I nodded. She gave me the wet cloth. “I’ll make us some tea,” she said, walking towards the kitchen. I gently tapped the edge of the moist cloth on my mother’s forehead. She opened her eyes and looked at me. They were glazed. The strong and lovely chestnut eyes were gone. She tried to smile but it was more of a half-smile. “I’m here mom,” I whispered. Her lips were so dry that I dipped the cloth in the bowl of water next to me and moistened them. She licked them greedily. I repeated this action a few times. When my sister and father returned, I passed the towel to my sister. She took it without a word, giving me a quick nod. My father settled himself in a chair near the chaise lounge and watched. I went to the kitchen and sat at the table with the nurse. We both drank our tea in silence. The day slowly went by and my mother’s condition worsened. She was coughing repeatedly and gasping for air. I knew the time was drawing near.

The afternoon went over into the evening. I was taking a break in the garden after an exhausting few hours of caring for and talking to my mother. She hadn’t spoken a word, which filled me with dread. I hoped that she’d be able to talk before she passed. I heard my father calling me. It was distant at first, but then I realized I was deep in thought. When I entered the living room my sister was in tears, holding my mother’s hand. I saw my mother’s mouth moving and my sister leaning in, a bit closer with every word. I assumed that my father had already said his goodbyes. It was my turn and nervousness overcame me. The idea of never seeing my mother again seemed surreal. I walked over to the chaise lounge and kneeled next to her.

She gestured with her hand and I gently took it. Its coldness made me shiver. She tried to clear her throat but that made her cough again. After a few terrible minutes, she regained her breath. “I love you very much sweetheart,” she said with a raspy voice and squeezed my hand. I felt tears roll down my cheeks. “Whatever you do in your life, know that I will always be very proud of you.” I leaned over to kiss her forehead. She gave me a little smile, filled with warmth, like a candle ready to be extinguished. My father and sister joined us. “It’s time,” my father said. I looked at him, confused. “Your mother doesn’t want her children to see her die.” “What…?” I asked, looking at my mother. She gave us a little nod and her eyes became wet. My sister didn’t agree and started to protest, but my father put his strong arms around us and pulled us away from our mother. I felt some resentment. I wanted to be with her when she passed. But the harder my sister and I resisted, the stronger my father’s grip became. He brought us to the stairs and told us to stay there. With that, he left. An excruciating ten minutes went by before we heard it. A beep, a very long beep. We looked at each other and without hesitation hugged.  That day we lost our loving mother. A strong woman who battled cancer ever since we were little. A fierce Amazonian. My mother.

 

THE END

In remembrance of my loving mother

Amal Admiraal 12-5-1962 – 26-5-2009