Bloody Knuckles

Elizabeth Brei

 

When you have a family member in hospice house, St. James Hospital doesn’t make you pay for parking.
I guess they figure you won’t be there that long anyway.


***

 

He had one month.

 

My mother told me over the phone on a Saturday night, while I was standing at the stove stirring vegetarian ground beef in a frying pan. I asked her what I should do. She told me to do whatever I thought I needed to, as long as I would feel okay with it.

 

This meant “Come home.”

 

When she put my father on, he said it was okay that I wanted it to all be over, that he had the same thought from time to time, when he dared to think about it. When I hung up with them, I took my food to my room. I stared at myself in the mirror. There were pink flowers in the corners of it, the sticky decals you buy in packs at party stores. I crunched into my taco.

 

The next night, I was on a train home.

 

***

 

My cousin Amber tried to warn me how Bobby looked before we went into his room, and she walked down the hall with me, very quietly. My sister-in-law’s family was in the room - two of her sisters and one of her friends - and they moved aside so I could stand beside his bed.

 

Brenda touched Bobby’s arm and told him his sister was there. He barely opened his eyes but he did lift his arm to wave. His gaunt cheeks and swollen stomach made the back of my throat burn.

 

As we walked back to the family room, Amber kept her arm around me, and I asked her if she thought it scared him to know we were here to say goodbye.

 

She hoped it comforted him.

 

***

 

Besides the family room, the hospice house had a kitchen and dining room. I wore slippers and pajama pants and avoided going into Bobby’s room. The nurses brought us blankets and pillows in case we wanted to stay the night. None of us wanted to but most of us did. I drank cartons of chocolate milk with a straw and watched VHS copies of Disney movies on a 42-inch flat-screen TV.

 

A nurse pulled my dad out of the room to talk to him; when he returned, he demanded that we rewind so he could hear “Colors of the Wind.” He missed it again when my mom told him Bobby was calling for him.

 

When he came back, he told us not to bother, so we just let it play.

 

***

 

Aunt Linda appeared in the doorway of the family room to tell us that Bobby wanted all of his family down in his room. We didn’t know what that meant, so we filed down the hallway and crowded in around him. His wife Miki sat next to his bed, and Pastor Peggy stood beside her.


She bowed her head in prayer, asking god to watch over his soul. My siblings cried. Aunt Karen put her arm around my shoulders. She was shorter than me so I leaned my cheek against her red hair and closed my eyes.
               

Aunt Linda is Catholic, and she led the room in the “Our Father.” I pressed my lips together.
Later, my dad said that if life were a movie, that’s when he would have died.

 

***
              

Miki told Bobby stories about their life together and asked if he remembered them. He held her hand and looked straight at her. He was so weak, his eyes – hazel, like his daughter’s, like our father’s, like mine – seemed to always be looking in separate directions. She talked like they were sitting side-by-side on their couch with Maggie and Molly in their laps. She talked like nothing was wrong. She was good at that.

 

It must come with motherhood.

 

***
               

In a strangled, high-pitched voice, he said he wanted sausage pizza. My mom ran down to the cafeteria to get him a slice. It didn’t seem to matter. He thought it was sitting on his lap already. The longer we sat, the angrier he became that no one would cut it for him.
               

I covered my face with my hands, and Aunt Karen rubbed my back. He asked Miki why I was crying. I left the room.

 

***

 

Everyone believes in heaven when someone is dying.

 

***

 

A Latino family crowded into the room around nine o’clock at night. My dad made jokes under his breath about mowing lawns. Amber’s brother Brendon snickered at them. I curled my arms around my legs and refused to give up my corner of the couch.

 

A woman asked my mother why we were here. When she told her it was her son, she tutted sympathetically and said her father was sick. She went home eventually to put her children to bed. Her father died in the night all alone.

 

***

 

The doctors said it would be before the night ended. Bobby looked at my mom and said, “Not today.”

 

Early on Wednesday morning, he went to sleep. He didn’t wake up again.

 

***

 

Julia was Amber’s baby and she was seven weeks old. I liked her because she smiled when I held her and sometimes fell asleep with her head on my chest and a tiny pink fist curled in my hair. When Amber nursed her, I sat with her and Aunt Karen in an empty room, looking at the ceiling so I wouldn’t stare at my cousin’s breasts.

 

Brahms’ Lullaby piped up over the intercom: Lullaby and goodnight, go to sleep, little baby. Aunt Karen looked up from her cell phone.


“A baby was just born.”

 

***

 

Chris brought my niece to the hospital. Caydence walked into Bobby’s room with him, frowned very seriously at her uncle in the bed, then tugged on her dad’s hand and told him she’d like to leave now.

 

He smiled at her and said, “Me too, monster.”

 

She sat on my lap in the family room and I read her stories, and she pointed out shapes to me in the picture book. When she was tired, she put her thumb in her mouth, her index finger hooked over her nose, just like Bobby did when he was younger, and let her eyes go unfocused.

 

Quietly, she told me when she grew up, she was going to have a white coat like the doctor’s so she could take care of Uncle Bobby. I didn’t say anything. Chris’s face crumpled, and he ran his hand over his shaved head, his shoulders hunched. Caydence slid off my lap to ask him if they could go home. He scooped her up and took her out without a word.

 

***

 

I had been there five days. My mother stood up and said, “I’m going home.” She gathered everything she needed – her purse, her keys, her cell phone – and walked right out of the hospital. Less than an hour later, my dad sent me after her, because “It will probably be tonight, and she shouldn’t be alone if it is.”

 

My sister Carianne texted me at three in the morning to tell me they thought he would make it till morning.

 

I turned off my phone and went to bed.

 

***

 

The clock read 11:15 when I woke up. My mom had already returned to the hospital. Outside my room, Chris was getting ready to make good on his promise to take Caydence to the library. I got up, put on slippers and picked up my purse. I told Chris that I was going back to the hospital. He said he’d be up later.

 

The sun was shining, and I played my music too loudly in the car. I heard my phone ring anyway. It was 11:30.

 

When I picked up, my dad asked me what I was doing. Then he said, “Bobby died about fifteen minutes ago.”

 

Chris didn’t cry when I told him, but I did. Caydence asked if she could go to the library now, so he took her. I sat on the couch for a long time before I got back into my car.

 

***

 

My mom was waiting for me at the elevator. She hugged me and led me down toward the room. It seemed like everyone was crowded just outside of it and they were all watching me. I didn’t go in to look at him.

 

It was just a body.

 

Miki had been at home with her daughters, and when she arrived, both of her sisters had to lead her by her elbows into the room to see him.

 

I sat outside with my dad’s laptop and emailed my teachers to tell them I would be gone longer than I expected. I thought about texting my friends. I asked my mom what happened now.

 

I curled up in a chair and wondered why we were sitting here waiting when the waiting was over.
***

Amber hushed Julia when she gurgled loudly.
Brahms’ Lullaby played over the intercom.
Miki punched a wall.

Euphemism Campus Box 5555 Illinois State University Normal, IL 61790