A short story.
After the accident, my mother showed up in the better lit hallway outside of my room in the ICU. I hadn’t seen her for almost ten months.
Hi Son—she dragged out the i—how ya feelin? She rubbed my arm too softly, like one might pet a cat. Her shirt was a red and blue paisley pattern and her hair spread out lighter than its usual chestnut brown.
I’m alright, I said.
She drove me the three-and-a-half miles to my apartment from the hospital three days later, after they scanned my head one last time and plucked the tubes from the crooks of my arms. The sun was too bright and I bowed my head most of the ride, clutching my tender, swollen wrist.
Your little sisters are really into ballet now, she said, part of a scatter of recent family trivia she was listing off.
The last burst of morphine was just starting to break over me, mixing with the warm sunlight on my arms and chest.
A lot of people were prayin for you, you know. She turned and smiled, her teeth whiter than I remembered. I was prayin the whole way up here. And people kept sending me texts about prayin too. You should see our new church—you remember the Richardsons? They’re there now.
Ah, really? I responded. I attempted to nod toward her side of the car, but my headache shot a spike through my brain, so I stopped.
I spent most of the day propped up on a couple of green and white pillows in my bed, half-watching tv on my computer. The morphine wore off within a few hours and the pain in my arm and head started getting worse, first washing quietly over my skin before digging into my bones and skull.
I’m gonna go to the store tomorrow and grab you some food and stuff, she called from the main room of my apartment.
Thanks! I half-yelled from my room. More aches. I took some Tylenol, wondering why that was all they had prescribed me during discharge, and slid down over the pillows and sort of under my blankets and tried to nap.
She walked into my room, tall above my bed on the floor, crouched to sit beside me and stroked my unwashed hair.
How you feelin?
Ok. Sorry—can you not touch my head? I have a headache, I said.
Oh, ok—sorry. She retracted her hand and arm back into her lap.
I woke up later, after it had gotten dark. I could hear her in my bathroom, rustling and running the water, then turning it off and squeezing out what sounded like a rag or sponge. I pulled myself up, over the side of my bed and to my feet, head pounding. She was sitting side-saddle over the side of the tub, scrubbing the rim and down to the basin.
Hey—how you feelin? She looked up at me sort of startled, like a child out of an elaborate daydream. I cleaned your bathroom for you—thought that would help a bit.
Oh wow—Thanks. It looks great. I managed a smile. In the mirror I looked awful; purple and blue were splashed across my left eye and down my cheek and my hair was greasy and pressed down to my scalp.
You should be resting, she said.
I’m fine. I slept for a few hours—I’m just hungry.
I left her and walked into my kitchen and pulled out a large bag of pretzels. She followed me in, fluffing the pillows on my couch in the other part of the main room.
Here, come sit down and I’ll get it for you. I’m gonna clean this kitchen later, so you don’t have to worry about it when you’re getting better.
I plopped down on the flowered couch, splaying out my legs and leaning in on my unharmed arm.
Man, she said quietly. God was really watching over you. She sniffled and a small, thoughtful smile flickered across her face. I didn’t respond. I thought of the last time we had spoken—over the phone, long after I had moved to school, after she and my dad had stopped sending money and instead sent Bible verses typed quickly into emails at odd times of the day and night.
We can’t help you anymore, they had said. In my memory they recited it in unison, although I know it hadn’t happened just that way.
Here we were, already together for more time than we had been in the past three years, and she had already begun to clean my house and had given me money for rent.
We sat and slept around the house for four days after that, as my headaches began to recede into dull, tense waves and my wrist stopped protesting against the thickness of the bandages. She spent an hour hypnotically sorting through my unwashed dishes and three hours more washing, drying and folding my acres of laundry, stacking it in neat, clean piles beside my bed as I slept.
I expected some sort of confession or outburst or something—for her to suddenly fold down onto her knees beside my mattress, sobbing and pleading with me to forgive her, to understand her faults, to give her a second chance.
I was left disappointed on Tuesday, as she wiped down the cabinets and swept the floors.
On Wednesday, while she dusted my bookshelves and closets and ceiling fan.
On Thursday, when she returned from an hour out of the house, breathless and tugging crinkled bagloads of sliced bread and orange juice and energy bars.
It was Friday night and she wished me goodnight with an attempted kiss on my forehead and returned to her resting place on the couch. She was leaving in the morning and most of the day she had been calling back home, telling my father when the girls needed to be at dance practice and when my brother was supposed to be at the park for soccer, then asking me several times which friend of mine was coming to take care of me as soon as she left.
The answer I gave her was Sara, a girl I worked with.
You sure you’re gonna be ok? She said, worried. I want you to call me every hour so I know you’re still alive.
It was after saying goodnight, late on Friday night or early Saturday morning, when I was almost asleep, away from headaches and the striking pain in my arm, that I felt her sit softly once again on the end of my bed.
She was crying. It was dark but I could hear her trying to breathe through it, the outline of her hair shaking softly in the moonlight.
I just—wanted to share what Jesus is doing in my life, she said quietly.
I’m sorry for always tryin to be a perfect mom and being focused too much on making the perfect family. God’s put it in my heart that I need to focus more on him and not worry about the other stuff. I just want you to be ok.
She was crying harder.
I just don’t want you to go to hell, son. You’re breakin my heart, living like this.
I struggled up onto my pillows. I wanted to hug her—I would always want to just hug her. I saw her petting my head like she had, her eyes like I remembered.
I’m gonna be ok, Mom.
I didn’t reach out to her.
You almost died—did you think about that?
I always hoped that one day feelings and differences would fade in the sun, in time, as she grew older and more used to things.
I can’t give you what you want, I said. I’m happier here than I ever was back then.
Happiness isn’t what life is about, son. Jesus is the only way to true happiness.
It’s not even that I’m happy—it’s like I’m free from that guilt, I said. I can see the way things are—see the world for what it is, you know? I’m sorry—I can’t give you what you want.
Ok. I pray for you every day, you know.
She lingered for a moment, taking a small, quiet breath, and left the edge of my bed and my room, closing the door behind her.
The next morning she folded her blanket over the couch and hugged me tightly, resting her face against my neck.
I love you, she said. Her eyes were wet, as if they had never dried.
I love you too, I said.
She drove away from my apartment and the four hours south back to their house. I stood on the porch for a moment, then went inside and quietly closed the door.
This story was originally published in the spring/summer 2011 print edition of The Fine Print. (Read it via our online print edition here.) We will continue to print at least one piece of creative writing in each print edition. Submissions and inquiries should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.