When Vulnerability Visited
“I am her oldest.”
The nurse nodded as she walked past me. I fidgeted in the chair next to the head of my mother’s bed. The room in Memory Care the facility my brother Jack and I decided upon was neat, almost homey because Jack’s wife Alice had taken control of all the furnishings so Mother would be comfortable. An extra soft silk quilt with her favorite rose pattern copied from a quilt I remember she and my dad had on their bed when I was a child extended all the way to her wrinkled neck, making her head appear abnormally tiny on her large pillow.
Mother’s eyes were glazed, set on the white ceiling and she remained still and silent as the nurse peeled back the quilt and lifted the soiled baby blue nightgown. Her nakedness was smooth, her breast flat balloons across a staircase ribcage.
The nurse mumbled.
“No, I’m sorry,” she said. “We should have had her in diapers all along.”
I snickered beneath my breath and wondered if Mother would find this ironic, sad or just hilarious if she knew who she was, or if she knew who my brother and I were.
I was young and his daughter – vulnerable as a coatless child in a snowstorm. I am totally dependent upon my parents, both of them – because at my age, they exist only as a pair – though if truth be told, being a girl, Mother is more important.
“We’ll make it, I promise.” The tone in his voice was strained as if fear coated his vocal chords, and since something woke me from a deep slumber, a foggy confusion fueled my emotions.
He bent down to meet me as I stumbled into the kitchen with a wide yawn. Unexpected, my appearance flustered him at first. The fluorescent light above the sink buzzed and shed a yellow glow. He took me gently by my shoulders and stared into my blurry eyes. I wore my white ruffled red flannel nightgown I loved more than anything because mom bought it, but the room was cold and I shivered. She wasn’t in the kitchen and when he led me into the TV room, she wasn’t there either.
“We will. Believe me.” His eyes were red and his throat rattled. I broke free from his grip without any resistance and climbed up onto the sofa and crawled into a warm corner where I always watch my shows. Gazing hazily around the room for a moment as my head cleared, I finally focused on the dark television screen.
“It’s not her fault,” he explained, his voice growing steadier with each word, but I still didn’t understand, even though his tone was beginning to calm me.
I wanted to ask what it was that wasn’t her fault, but remained silent as I sunk further into the corner of the couch. The hour was bathed in ghoulish light – as though all logic had been consumed by the night sky and would never appear again. My stomach was queasy, and I wasn’t sure if it was because mother was missing, or because I was out of bed at such an odd hour.
“It’s not fair to her, if you think about it. She says she needs more and that’s okay. You won’t have to worry. You and I will get through this. It’s you and me from this point forward.” He sat down next to me, his elbows resting on his knees with shoulders slouching forward. He stared into the brown carpet. His breathing was heavy and uneven. Finally he turned to me. “Do you understand?”
I wanted to say I did and would have had Mom been around, because first, she would have explained it better, making sure I understood and she would have smiled, signaling me that it wasn’t that big of a deal. Father never had enough patience unless Mom was around and even when she was, he didn’t explain things very well. She always had to go over it again so I could understand after he left the room. Of course we hid that from him; didn’t want him to feel inferior.
He rose to his feet, knees cracking as he straightened and began pacing back and forth muttering to himself beneath his breath. If he was making future plans he didn’t share them with me. It would have been nice to hear them so I could comment on their merit, since they seemed to include me, but the only words I understood were, “We’ll be okay. From here on out, it’s you and me.”
That stabbed me. He was fine as long as Mom was around, but who was he to think I would be okay with just the two of us. He turned and caught a glimpse of my expression, which must have revealed my fear, because he shuffled over and knelt in front of me again. “Trust me, Caley, we will be fine.” The wrinkles in his forehead deepened and he glared at me with blurry eyes.
I looked past him into the kitchen. Mom still wasn’t there and I began wondering what had awakened me. Why had I even wandered into the kitchen?
He reached out to me. “Come on, I’ll carry you back to bed. School tomorrow, right?”
I nodded. Wednesday, it was going to be. For all I knew, it might have already been Wednesday.
The tightness in my stomach had faded, but a sense of anxiety hovered as he lifted me into his arms and carried me down the dark hall toward my room. His neck was moist with sweat. The bathroom door was closed, but I could see the light escaping from under it.
My room was choked with darkness and it surprised me when I felt the bed. A cool breeze raced over me as he lifted my blankets high, and then spread them heavily over me. Without another word, as if he realized he had said enough, he escaped, shutting the door quietly.
I woke to sunshine streaming through my bedroom windows – full of warmth until memories of the night came creeping back. Slashing at my covers, tangled because I must have been wrestling with them all night, I finally freed myself and ran down the hall into the kitchen. I passed an open bathroom door. The house was silent.
“Morning,” Mom greeted. Her back was to me as she stood at the sink. She wore her faded purple robe and peered out the window into the wide, empty field behind our house. “Want waffles?”
I frowned, but she didn’t see me. “Where’s Dad?”
I peered hesitantly into the TV room. The ghoulish light had been wiped clean by the strong sunshine. After my waffles, she stood by the front door and watched me as I climbed onto the school bus. She had said nothing of the previous night. She seemed no different.
I didn’t want to go to school for fear of what I’d find upon my arrival home but found I concentrating on our current reading project wiped clean the angst of the previous night.
“You know what is going to happen?”
These words came from a troll that popped out from under my bed, singing with a screech that obviously no one else ever heard, with eyes that glared like red beacons who bounced about the room with the agility of a tumbling gymnast. His perpetual motion hypnotized me - from the edge of the bed to the windowsill, all the way up the wall to the ceiling, all fours scurrying, where he hung upside down, mystically attached, his red wiry hair flopping toward me like a hot flame. He emitted a glow of his own – he scorched the darkness in my room.
I am dreaming. I say it out loud. “I am dreaming. Having a nightmare!”
“If you get out of bed, Mommy will be gone in the morning. If you dare tell anyone about me, she’ll be outta here. Gone! Better watch out! Life without Mom! Think of it.” He scrunches his mouth, makes his eyes into thin slits – laser beams from them shooting across the room, ricocheting off the walls – a fine light show, if I understood what was happening. “Only you and that numb cumquat of a father.”
And throughout the night I trembled in fear, confused and huddled in the corner of my bed against the wall just as I had crawled into the corner of the sofa earlier – but found no comfort, only terror, afraid to leave even though I had to go to the bathroom and bounced around trying my best to hold it until I couldn’t any longer and finally peed in my bed. How I wish I had gone earlier before going to bed. How embarrassing. I am no baby.
And the troll laughs his fool head off – woody woodpecker hair, red lips flailing like a mad man, getting such a kick out of it, rolling around the floor from wall to wall, that I hoped he would pee himself. Of course then I would be blamed for that too.
When I get up to change the sheets, because they are soaked and smelling like rotten bananas, he hisses. “Oh, no you don’t! Baby, baby! You have to sleep in that pee or your Mommy will leave!” The troll wouldn’t leave me alone, even after I turned on my bedside lamp.
Each time I got up enough nerve to talk to it he disappeared, so I would mumble away, but as I grew too tired to talk and began to fall asleep, he appeared again.
“Are you more afraid of Mommy being gone – vacating the house, or being left with the dolt?”
“You are a dolt!”
“What is a dolt?”
“No your Daddy is.”
And night after night we tangled – he vanishing when I went on a long narrative telling him how much I hated him and reappearing as soon as I ran out of steam and shut up.
Being threatened night after night with waking to a life without my Mom, night after night holding my bladder until I burst until Mom finally stopped giving me anything to drink after dinner. She began coming in to take me to the bathroom before she went to bed, but it didn’t help. All the doctors to whom she dragged me were befuddled. I never said a word about the troll. How could I?
“You can’t go,” she said, her voice firm, her stare stone-like, her cheeks red.
“I can’t believe this.” I couldn’t. All of my friends were going to Debbie’s party.
“You know very well why you can’t go.” Her stone expression softened, but it made no difference.
I felt a total betrayal from the one person who had always been in my corner. “Please!”
“No. I feel it best. It may very well happen and what will that do to you?” She grabbed me by my arms and shook me. “The only way I could feel comfortable sending you is if you wear diapers.”
I raised my arms with all the force I could muster and escaped her grip. I realized for the first time how embarrassed she was of me. How angry she was with me. What I had taken for empathy and worry was in fact her panicked attempt to get me cured so I would no longer be a humiliation.
I wanted to tell her about Troll – we were on a first name basis by then – explain that he wouldn’t dare show up in a roomful of girls. This betrayal fused an anger that raced up my spine in a molten heat and poured into my cheeks. “I hate you!”
With those three words I leaped into adulthood and that night while stuck in my room as all my friends spent the night at Debbie’s, Troll failed to show up for the first time in a year and never appeared again.
The nurse left us alone. Just her wet breathing filled the air sounding like the electric fan she used to place at the foot of my bed behind a bowl of water to cool off the scalding summer nights.
This woman who was tough, who was loving, who always seemed confident in her decisions no matter how outrageous our reactions were, how spiteful we were, had slipped out of her body sometime in the middle of a dark night without saying goodbye, without allowing us the chance to express our gratitude. Early onset and a quicker decline the doctor had ever experienced felt as though she had abandoned us on purpose.
She caught her breath and there was silence. Her gaze still bore a hole in the ceiling.
“I never got the chance to thank you for getting rid of the Troll…”
She hacked with a whistle that I could’ve sworn was a laugh.
After receiving his B.A. in English from Colorado State University, C.W. Bigelow has lived in nine states before currently living in the Charlotte NC area. His short stories and poems have most recently appeared Full of Crow, FeatherLit, Curbside Splendor, Literary Juice,The Dying Goose, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Five2One, Poydras Review and Potluck.