"What happened today?" Carol chirped, dreading the response.
"More tests," her waif mother confessed, a bleak smile fluttering along her blistered lips, "I don't know what's left to test."
Carol knew they'd think of something; their imagination, if not their skill, was infinite.
"Side effects?" the younger woman asked reluctantly.
Carol focused her eyes on her knitting to avoid the sight of her mother's thin bruised arms. Hovering above the institutional sheets, she sensed a ghostly presence--perhaps from the last one.
Perched forward on her chair, the young woman longed to voice how terrible her mother's illness was, how the pain wasn't worth it. She wanted to assure her that life would be better soon but her lips remained sealed.
From time to time Carol glared in disgust at the uneven stitches. It was her first attempt at knitting since childhood when she had offered aborted scarves to parents and aunts as love tokens. Once the novelty had worn off, the young girl had found knitting boring: always having to count.
"I thought you loved counting," her sister Bernice, skilled with her hands, had chided.
"Not this kind of counting," the child growled, passing on her wool, needles, and pattern books, to her accomplished sibling.
"You do other things well," her mother assured her, hurrying on with her cleaning to avoid a request for examples.
Back into knitting as an adult, Carol felt obliged to make something useful and sturdy. The attempt, a sweater, the back section ripped out and re-knit several times, was discouraging. To the sympathetic nurses, who avoided the only topic of concern, Carol replied she was knitting a sweater for her husband or nephew. Once she had suggested she was making a shawl for her mother but only once. Here it was imprudent to use the future tense.
Knitting was only a diversion. Sitting by the white shape, thin as a snake under the hospital clean sheets, Carol waited and comforted. But no, not comforted, that was her problem. She couldn't comfort. When it was her turn to speak, she remained silent.
To the scrape and click of needles she relived scenes from her childhood: chased home by a dog, her mother there; falling off her bike, blood staining her white sock, mother behind the door waiting. Ready to hide the ugly gape behind gauze, to call the school, making comforting jokes at the dentist and explaining the lost book to the librarian.
Carole's forte was numbers not words. Spurning family advice, she had become an accountant. Her round, gardening mother had worried between soups and stews what accountants did "exactly." She wondered aloud whether it was natural for a young girl to enjoy "fiddling with numbers."
Her mother failed to appreciate the warm predictability of numbers. She was too strong and sure to need the crisp edges and sharp resilience of statistics. Carol did. She admired their stoicism. Numbers could be ignored or slighted, from them no word of complaint. From them no cries cutting the flesh of warm sleep.
"Did you see the doctor today?" Carol finally asked. Weren't doctors supposed to know something, some secret code to cure, to ease pain? Instead of offering assurance, they skulked along the halls, hiding behind procedures and whispering uncertainties.
"No, he didn't come."
"Maybe you were asleep."
"No, he wasn't by."
The younger woman glanced at her watch. "It's almost eight," she reported, stuffing her knitting into her canvas bag.
"You don't have to leave right at eight."
"The sign says, 'Five to eight.' "
"Her family stays later," the old woman hissed, indicating the silent cubicle opposite.
Carol shrugged. Maybe they had nowhere else to go.
"They come to see her every day."
"Maybe they don't work," Carol snapped. "They're immigrants; maybe only the father works."
"So where is Tom on weekends?" her mother responded angrily. "You shouldn't have to do everything."
The old woman forgot how on his rare visits her son Tom hung furtively by the door glancing at his watch. Then after nodding impatiently at the details and stuffing hospital gift store magazines or candy towards his mother, he disappeared. The frail old woman didn't guess that late at night her son phoned Carol to insist she transfer their mother to a single room.
"Who's going to pay for that?" his sister grumbled, not admitting she'd already tried. Carol shrugged. A friend at work had said that hospitals scared men. It was something psychological.
Would her son Bobby come if she were sick, Carol wondered. It would be better if he didn't. She refused to have him—even as an adult—venturing out in the rain, sitting by the hour in a draughty hospital room while she lay dazed, dragging his chair along the ground to drown out frightened whispers, raising his voice in cheerful news to cover the silences.
"Eight is just a guideline," the older woman insisted, her delicate hands kneading the rough sheets.
"Next time," Carol lied, cajoling her voice to rise. "Tonight I have to run, Bobby's home alone. He won't do his homework if I'm not there."
"You're right, better go," the watery blue eyes followed her visitor's flight around the room. "Don't come by tomorrow. It's too far for you to drive every day."
"Don't be silly. This time of night it only takes half an hour to get home."
But could that be true? The nightly rejoinder sounded false. The hospital room was a world away from Carol's small safe house: the chipped kitchen table, the collapsing sofa that should be replaced but wouldn't be, the air comfortable and warm.
Carol flattened the bed sheets, and piled the magazines on the small cluttered bedside table.
"Is it still raining?" the left-behind voice asked, pulling the conversation thin as gauze.
"Looks like it."
She had always dreaded January, a dark month of rain and decay. Other years they had escaped to sunnier climates; this year they were trapped. Turning away, she hurried to make everything matter of fact as if she were just closing the account book at the end of the day.
She approached the bed and kissed her mother's cool, soft cheek. The fragile body trapped like a moth under the thick covers: nursed by a changing parade of women in uniform, cajoled by curious interns, tortured by tests that promised to benefit but never did.
Make it all business as usual. Pretend this is home—set the clock, check the back door, put out the cereal for breakfast.
"Bobby will be wondering. I must get going." Escape, quickly.
"Thank him for the picture."
"Anything I can bring you?"
Let me bring food, Carole thought. Let me bring platters of tempting delicacies to fatten you up. You who spent your life struggling to become thin and stiff, acceptable to the world of magazines, all to no avail until now.
If only to see her fat again. Moving firmly about the house, planning what bulbs to plant in the spring. But Carol had used every trick to entice her mother to eat--like she had when the children, young and defiant, refused food. Now, though, she cajoled with desperation, ignoring all rules of good food and bad food, defying questions of calories or nutrition. Food, any food. "Thanks, dear, I'll put it in the drawer for later." Candies, cream puffs, take out junk food, fruit, milk shakes, small portions, trays of food, and baskets of food. All discovered the next day, abandoned in the drawer or decaying in the wastebasket.
"I'm just not hungry, dear," her mother simpered. The daughter's head roared, "Never mind, eat." Her anger churned until she shook, and still her mother got thinner and thinner, the bones pressing to explode the translucent skin.
Carol's eyes betray her at every visit, her hands hide in busy tasks. It is all she can do to maintain a patter of interest. Pretend the visits are a pleasure.
No use coming when the soaps are on; her mother won't even glance at her. "I wonder if Betsy will get a divorce," the patient had asked anxiously the first afternoon. Carol, assuming Betsy was a nurse, discovered instead a world of characters whose lives were in the balance. Whose existence had a reality greater than the children, the grandchildren, and the world beyond the hospital walls.
Finally escaping the hospital, tucked in her car, the windshield wipers slapping ineffectually against the onslaught, Carol drove carelessly through the night. She was the reluctant courier between the two worlds. Ascending now, she struggled to wipe the aftertaste of the institution from her mind—to cram close the cover, to forget. Moving quickly home hopeful to find Bobby dragging about the house complaining about homework, Sandy late back from her school dance, the kitty litter box disgustingly smelly, the dirty laundry spilling over the sides of the hamper. Back home, where on holidays, her mother arrives laden with chocolate cookies and lemon cakes, always too many, always eaten. Where her mother argues that her granddaughter Sandy is too young to date and Sandy swears and there are tears and slamming doors. And then sometime later everyone apologies.
And why shouldn't her mother come home. The hospital isn't a prison. Her mother is no criminal. With help she could escape.
Yes, Carol snaps upright. I'll go back and get her now. Leave the car running, slip up the stairs into mother's room, bundle her bones in my own coat. We'll sneak down the stairwell, hiding in the corners if a nurse comes. It wouldn't be a problem; there were hardly any staff.
Bring her home, put her, where? There was no extra room, no room ready for an invalid. But surely the den would do, pull out the hide-a-bed. Take the TV out. Or better still leave it; leave it there for her to see the soaps. And then in the morning, bring in some toast.
She'd stop and pick up white bread; her mother refused to eat bread full of seeds. And homo milk for her mother's coffee. She hated skim.
Bobby would run around pleased. "I'll take up the tray," he'd cry. It would be fine. The day would be fine. But night followed day. What if her mother started to gag? If she choked, who could help?
Trapped in the car, heat vibrating off the engine, rain thrashing the metal carcass, tears burn her face. "Hold it, Carol," she mumbled, tightening her jaw. Things are just piling up. It's the season. As her mother always said, "Ride it out, January is the worst."
Pushing beyond the speed limit, she crouched forward to escape the black carpet rolling after her. She was impatient to escape the car and run across the lawn through the harsh, cold rain. Frantic to burst through the bleak January evening back to the strong sunny morning and shout, "Mother."
But now it was she who was mother. She who would describe January as the worst. She who knew that the other months, named and reliable in the past, were merely speculation.
BIO: Melodie Corrigall is a Canadian writer whose work has appeared in Halfway Down the Stairs, Toasted Cheese, This Zine Will Change Your Life, The November 3rd Club, Other Voices, Blue Lake Review, Subtle Fiction, Free Fall and Speech Bubble. http://melodiecorrigall.wordpress.com