Momma, Can You Hear Me?
In the mornings, when I reach from
under my covers soiled in cat fur, when I smack the snooze button
just one more time, that's when I see you, momma. Your hair is permed
in tiny ringlets cascading around your smiling face. Blue eye shadow
smeared beneath your arches, painted up pretty as if there's
someplace to go, somewhere you're looking forward to, your whites all
brushed and clean.
Then I remember where I am. The steady beeps of the hospital bed, wires crossing every pathway, creating a maze just to take a piss. I half expect the young nurse with her crusted red lips to waive a stopwatch, timing you as you try to undo your gown, fumbling with the tiny metal fasteners, barely making it in time to take a shit.
“Momma, can you hear me? It's Maggie,” I whisper, like I do every morning, right before the plastic tray table full of shrink wrapped edibles arrives.
Tubes run up her nose and out her ears like a ventriloquist dummy. But you're no dummy, momma. You're smart. Smart enough to know something is wrong. At least, I think you are.
“Let me help you with that.”
I snip the top of her juice carton and pry open the ends. Then she turns to me. Her wide eyes droopy from all the meds pumping through her shrunken veins, she feels hallow. The hospital's yellow lights have been sucking her dry the past two weeks, two days, three hours and counting.
“How are you feeling?” I ask, not because she's going to answer but because it makes me feel better. Makes me feel like I'm talking to my momma again.
“Good, good. I have to head to class now, momma. I'll be back after school, okay?”
Her hands are shaking, reaching toward mine. My heart races. She's never done this before. Never. My fingers glide to meet hers before she turns, grabbing remote control and clicking on the television. Hoda's laughter fills the room as the Today Show rumbles to life.
“I love you,” I whisper as I gather my purple tote and head out the door. “Bye.”
First Period is the worst. My mind's a scramble, thoughts of my mom strapped to that sterile bed flood my mind. No one understands. I'm 17 and everyone else is worried about their college apps, prom and stupid senior year. The nurses think I'm in my twenties, sometimes thirties, out of school and working. They don't believe me when I tell 'em I'm still in high school.
I've always been mistaken for someone older. I don't have wrinkles or anything. Just that I've had to deal with stuff a lot of kids my age don't have to put up with. For starters, my mom's been sick since I was 5. St. Mary's Memorial Hospital's 2nd floor is practically my second bedroom.
My first dad died before I was born. My second dad disappeared on us. Now there's Frank. He's a nice guy, visits my mom a lot, but I think he's getting weary of this MS bullshit.
MS is what my mom's got. Multiple Sclerosis. The Monster of Saneville. One minute she's lucid, knows who I am and where she is, and the next, someone's fried her brains real good & she can't tell you what year it is, nevermind what's happening to her. Snap snap, snap your fingers, that's all it takes and bam, she's back again. The Monster of Saneville likes to play tricks, likes to toy with your hopes and dreams and then licks your salty tears, nourished by your sadness.
“Earth to Maggie!”
It's time to change for PE. I'm standing front of my brown locker covered top to bottom in Star Wars stickers. The doors hanging open, my hand hovering over a pair of gray sweatpants.
“I don't really feel like it today,” I tell my friend Sadie. She's got long black braids with red tipped feathers woven into the roots.
She frowns, scrunching her nose ring. “Cramps again?”
“Something like that, yeah.” I sigh. No use telling her. “Could you tell coach for me?”
Twirling out of the locker room, Sadie laughs at me. “You've had your period for like 2 weeks now, you know?”
I make it through classes without one person asking me how my mom's doing. Everyone knows, but when they ask, it's like they're expecting the answer to change. “How's she doing today?” and I'll say “It's a miracle! She can walk, talk, eat and fly! Wanna see?”
The bus is running late. I'm standing at the street corner between school and home, and wondering if I should just walk to the hospital. It isn't too far, maybe a half hour walk. But my feet are already blistered from the crappy shoes I got on clearance.
Oh, great, it's Danny. “Hey.” I suddenly find my crappy shoes more interesting. The bright red laces twisting around the holes remind me of licorice.
Danny's dirty checkered KED slams into my shin “Where you going?”
I've told him a thousand times. He doesn't listen.
“Home,” I cry out and run in the opposite direction. My legs are wobbling. My heart's throbbing, wanting to explode. I stop in front of an abandoned post office, tears streaming.
Home. I'm not lying to Danny. My mom's hospital bed's been her home, and mine, for almost three years now. Week before my 14th birthday I got a rather unexpected present. A tiny box wrapped in newspaper clippings. The ink smudged my palms, raw from gymnastics practice. I killed at the bar the day before, my fingers worn and blistered. I thought I was getting a new leotard maybe or a mat so I could practice in the yard. But the box was way too small. Dainty.
'What is it?' I remember asking mom. She shrugged. 'I'm not sure.' I gave her a puzzled look. 'But it's from you, right?' She held back tears. 'Sometimes mommy forgets. Just open it. Please.' I didn't understand, but I did as she asked, tearing through the Garfield comics sealing the edge. A set of keys, rusted and old, sat in the middle of the tiny box, tucked inside a wad of cotton. 'What is it? Momma?' Mom started crying. I knew something was wrong but I didn't know what. 'Momma, what's going on?' I asked, inspecting the copper colored set of keys. They weren't car keys. Those were big and silver. I knew 'cause I took them once from mom's purse to open a jar of peanut butter. Mom cried the rest of the evening. When my stepdad, Frank, came home, he told me mom wasn't feeling well and he was going to take her somewhere to get better. I tried to ask him what the key was for, but Frank was in a hurry, rushing here and there, packing bags and grabbing papers. I wish I knew then what I know now. Mom has a disease. Her brain gets these cuts inside that make her forget things, make her get angry and sometimes make it so she can't walk for weeks. She cocoons herself under the beddings, like she's trying to heal, but she never gets any better.
“Hey, Maggie! Come on. Why are you running from me?” Danny shouts. He's found me. His gray shirt's soaked around his pits and neck. Danny's a foot taller than me with long dreadlocks and a wicked smile. I try hard not to stare at him or else my cheeks would turn pink.
I lie, like I always do. I can't talk about her with anyone from school. They never get it. I just can't. “I'm just not feeling well.”
“So you go for a run? That doesn't make any sense,” Danny says, grinning. His cheeks curl up toward his eyes, a deep brown, warm and comforting.
My stomach flips. “Helps me think.”
“You know, you don't have to pretend around me.”
The old post office's got half a dozen boarded windows, spray painted black and red. I feign interest, ogling at the splattered shapes and swirls, some kid's midnight masterpiece on cork. “I'm not pretending, Danny.” I fold my arms. “I just don't wanna talk about it, okay?”
He frowns. “I've seen you.”
I sigh. “So?”
“My sister's at St. Mary's you know,” Danny starts, leaning against the brick wall. “Maybe you know her.”
“She a nurse or something?” I begin, then quickly change the subject. “No, wait, why would I know her?” I bite down on my lips, hoping this would just go all away. I can't talk about this, I can't talk about my mom with Danny, with anyone. My lungs are gonna pop. “Listen, I gotta go.”
I duck underneath Danny's sweaty armpit, holding my breathe and closing my eyes. I make a run for it, again. Two blocks later, I turn around and smile, relishing in the quietness. Danny doesn't follow me this time. No, this time I'm free, free from school, free from lying, from all the pretending... Danny's right I suppose. I do pretend. All day long. But he doesn't understand, I have to.
I don't have any other choice, not really. No one actually wants to know the truth. Trust me. I've tried. It just makes them sad, uncomfortable, fidgety. People look away when you tell them the truth. They change the subject like a remote, like they can just flip through my life to a more pleasant channel. I wish.
“Mom's really sick. It really sucks.” “Oh, I'm sorry... Want to come to my sleep over?” “I can't. I just told you. My mom's really sick. I have to go visit her.” “Oh, I'm sorry... Umm, later?”
“Mom's really sick. It really sucks.” “Wow, I didn't know... Let's get some coffee!” “I can't. I just told you. My mom's really sick. I have to go visit her.” “Oh, I'm sorry... Umm, later?”
“Mom's really sick. It really sucks.” “Fuck, Maggie. You sick too?” “No. I just told you. It's my mom. She's really sick. I have to go visit her.” “Damn. Hope you don't catch it.” “I hope I don't either.”
“Momma, can you hear me? It's Maggie, your daughter.” Two turkey meatballs rest on top a pile of brown mush. I think it's supposed to be spaghetti, but I've never seen pasta so limp and squishy before. “Are you hungry?”
She lifts her bony finger, her old wedding ring dangling at the base, as she points to her plastic fork. Dad's been dead over 17 years now, but for whatever reason, she still wears his ring, the one with the sapphire center nested atop a golden halo. I help unwrap the dinner tray, unfolding and tearing back the tinfoil topped applesauce.
My phone buzzes. “Shit. Frank says he's gonna be late.” I'm fretting, hands nervously flipping through his texts. I've missed 5. Damn reception. 'Maggie, sorry, working late.' 'Be there in an hour.' 'Project's launching tonight.' 'Sorry, can't make it.' 'Love you, sweetie.' I sigh. “Guess it's another girl's night, huh, momma?”
Three hours of crime show drama and my nerves are a wreck. Every time a nurse pops in, I jump. “You should probably get some rest, sugar plum,” says the older nurse with purple sacks under her eyes. “She ain't going anywhere.”
“I know.” I always know that. She's being held hostage by the Monster of Saneville. My mom's in a cage and her prison cell is white, sterile and looks nothing like the rest of the world. I'm just a shadow passing through, hoping one day to unlock the door. That one day just never seems to come soon enough.
“Thought I heard your voice.” Danny's standing in the doorway, cracking a wide grin. He's taken out his contacts, wearing instead a pair of thick black frames. “Mind if I come in?”
CSI is blaring in the background. Another dead prostitute. “Okay.” I cave in. No one visits my mom, no one except me and Frank. Wonder how mom will react.
“Danny, this is my mom.” I wave to her. “She can't talk, but she'll know you're here.”
My mom smiles, waving her finger at the door. Danny scoots by the nurse who's changing out mom's medicine bags and plops himself in the comfy green armchair next to the bed. “Good evening, Mrs. Wilkerson.”
“Making Maggie watch that crack TV, again?”
She nods again.
“You know it makes her jumpy.”
I twist my head toward the bloody crime scene dotting the screen. “How do you know what we watch together? That's between me and my mom!” My face is red. “Have you been spying on me?
Danny leans back into the chair and laughs. “I don't spy, just like you don't pretend, right?”
My mom laughs. She laughs. She's laughing!
“Momma!?” I cry, grabbing her hand. She's enjoying this. She's awake. “It's Maggie, your daughter.”
“She knows who you are,” Danny says quietly.
My tongue clicks against my teeth. “No, she doesn't! You don't know anything, Danny. You think you know, everyone thinks they know things about me, about momma, but no one does!”
Mom points to Danny's left hand.
“Why does she keep looking at you?” I yell. “Have you been here before, have you visited my momma?”
“You leave at 8:15pm, every night, even on the weekend. When your stepfather leaves, usually by 9, sometimes earlier,” Danny begins, unfolding a piece of paper, “that's when I come watch over her.”
“I, I don't know what to say.”
“I know you don't. You never have.” Danny reaches across my mom's white blanket and grabs hold of my hands, clammy and wet. “So I've done it for you.”
“Done what for me?”
He nods. “Just read.”
I carefully unfold the yellow lined paper. There's more than one, several pages tucked inside one another. “A letter? For me?” Not one letter, but several. More like a journal.
'Dear Girl Who sits in front of me. Your hair smells nice today. Like a Mounds bar. I like it 'cause I like coconut. Now you're leaving. I think you're crying too...
Dear Girl Who runs in front of me. You're always in a hurry. You won't talk to me. Now you're leaving. Maybe next time...
Dear Girl Who lies in front of me. I followed you today. You act like you're alone, but you're not alone. Now you're leaving. I'll wait for you...
Dear Girl Who cries in front of me. You seem to like the summer better. You're smiling more, but you keep running from me...
Dear Girl Who doesn't know in front of me. You think I won't understand, but you act like you do, so you leave. Will you leave this time? Maggie, it's me, Danny. Your friend. Can you hear me?”
I choke, rereading the letter three more times, trying to decipher Danny's message. He talks first, breaking the silence.
“I lied, sorta,” Danny says quietly. “My sister is here. But when you asked if she was a nurse, I should'a said something. She's not a nurse.”
“A doctor then?”
He shakes his head. “A patient.”
“Oh.” I don't know what he expects me to do. No one likes to talk about this kinda stuff. “I'm sorry.”
“I don't need your apology.” Danny grits his teeth. “I need a friend. And so do you.”
“A friend for what, exactly?” We're yelling atop of momma. She's closed her eyes now, sleeping, the medicine kicking in. I lower my voice. “You wanna cry on my shoulder about your sick sister? Want me to cry about my mom? I do, all the damn time and I'm sick of it.”
Danny whispers back. “I want you to stop pretending the rest of the world doesn't matter to you, Maggie!”
“Of course it matters.”
“Does it? All you care about is your mom right now.”
“And? So what?” My gut is burning. “That doesn't make me wrong. It doesn't make me broken.”
“No, it makes you lonely.” Danny lifts himself off the comfy chair and circles mom's bed.
“Maybe we can be lonely together?”
I cry. I cry in front of Danny. My lips taste extra salty as I lick away the stale tears. “No one else is losing their mom, not now,” I wail, wiping the blanket of snot from my face. “It's not fair!”
Danny grips my shoulder tight, holding me up. “You're right.”
“What?” My lungs ache.
“Plenty of people lose their parents, one parent, both. But no one is losing YOUR parent right now. Only you.”
I shake. “I don't understand...”
“Yes, you.” Danny turns me around, his eyes locking with me. He's blurry, the tears staining my vision. “No one else is losing Felicia right now either. Just me and my dad.”
“Is that your sister?”
“Tell me about her.”
Danny waves toward the doorway. “Better yet, why don't you come visit with me? We can take turns. My sister today, your mom tomorrow. We can visit them together. You and me.”
I stare at my mom, sleeping unsoundly. The beeps of the machines. The churning of the liquids, pumping into her veins. The screams of murder victims bouncing from the TV's blue light. Every night, for three horrible years, I've thought only about her, about missing her, losing her, needing her. Maybe it's time I worry about someone else, just once in a while. Maybe that's OK.
“I'd like that,” I say, rubbing my mascara on Danny's sleeves. “Felicia. That's a pretty name.”
Danny grins. “Maggie's even prettier.”