Friday, April 12, 2013

Flash Fiction by Rick Hartwell

End of the Line

I question what the phrase deathwatch truly means. I do not want to watch anything. I want to occupy my mind and hands in order not to focus on the suffering my mother, Tina, is going through.

This on-again off-again aspect of the life of a terminal patient is extremely taxing; obviously on her, but also on those around her. Poor Jaime, Tina’s granddaughter; she is so confused and constantly questions the when of her Bonnie’s death. I question it too, but more because I am not so certain it is as immanent as many think. I wonder who is correct?

My prominent experiences with death have been after-the-fact, when notified by a relative, or in Vietnam. There, at least, death was more abrupt, although certainly not cleaner. Here, in hospital, death is clean and antiseptic and neat, but it is anything but abrupt, except perhaps in the emergency room.

I find that I am turning very inward and I do not wish to appear cold or unfeeling to Sally, my wife. However, I truly do not know what my role is in all this. Sally has taken charge of the myriad details of apartment, mail, Social Security, Medicare, and all; so often seeming to be women’s work, as they do it better than us, men. I would probably let most of these aspects pass without due attention. All this is fine with me on another level; Tina and I have been estranged for countless years.

This would definitely not be the environment of choice for the end of my life. Most people would probably select to be surrounded by their family; but, why? Why inflict this prolongation on those you love and who, presumably in most cases, love you? Perhaps it would be more interesting and satisfying to be surrounded by one’s enemies and antagonists, some of who might be family anyway. Make them suffer as they wait, or perhaps allow them to gloat. At least in that manner someone is pleased by death.

I enter again into that tomb of acrid smells: the slightly pungent whiff of excrement and urine, mixed with antiseptics; and, the moldy mustiness of age and impending death. This concept of impending death continues to haunt me.

I recall Annie Dillard’s phrase, “this terminal bus,” and how well it captures the essence of the Rehabilitation Center to which Tina was moved. The smells and sounds and general attitude are, indeed, those of a bus and a bus depot. It would be easy to make the comparison with Dillard’s metaphor and this end of the line. There are so many stories buried within this emotional quagmire.

I was struck by the fact that Tina has spent most of her life cataloging, in one form or another, her displeasure of people. It has been one long, sustained put-down after another. Rarely, perhaps even never, have I heard from her a sustained praise of anyone, except, or course, her eldest brother. My mother has constantly and consistently played off one son against the other; regaling my with all of my brother’s faults and failures, and him with mine; comparing my two wives, unfavorable to Sally, whenever it suits her purpose of the moment. Even Jaime, her sole granddaughter (of all people!) has not escaped her sarcasm and vitriolic bitterness with life.

In her lucid moments, Tina seems to acknowledge that her life is culminating (or devolving?) to its current state, inevitably driven by the life she has led. And then, again, she seems to recant that by lashing out at those around her, even those who are striving hardest to assist or comfort her.

Am I defensive? I suppose so, and yet I wonder why? At what point is a parent, a parent? Or, to draw this even closer, at what point is a mother, a mother? Is it biology alone? Is it emotional attachment? Is it early, or even late, nurturing? In my case, is it the recollections of childhood, dimmed and warped by a hundred thousand million synapses over a lifetime, which may or may not have been accurate? All this, or course, begs the issue of reality. Are my memories the reality? Is reality lost due to the lack of an impartial observer? In Tina’s life, has there ever been an impartial observer? The concept of filial obeisance does not seem to take in me. My soil is not fertile for its seed, or perhaps the timing has always been wrong.

Two more rehab facilities and one hospice later, my mother died. Only her spurned daughter-in-law was by her side, which says much for Sally, nothing for Tina. Neither of her sons was there, which says much that I leave to others to translate. I made the obligatory phone calls to those family members who had not participated in my mother’s deathwatch.
Rick Hartwell is a retired middle school (remember, the hormonally-challenged?) English teacher living in Moreno Valley, California. He believes in the succinct, that the small becomes large; and, like the Transcendentalists and William Blake, that the instant contains eternity. Given his “druthers,” if he’s not writing, Rick would rather still be tailing plywood in a mill in Oregon.

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