Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Beauty in Twilight

I woke at 4:00, snuck downstairs, and showered. I finished packing a few belongings, a pair of shorts, underwear, a few t-shirts, the sci-fi paperback I'm reading, my iPhone charger in a Puma gym bag, and left, walking to the Metro station to catch the train and a 7:00 a.m. flight to Florida. I bought the ticket just a few hours earlier, the night before.

The line to get through security was long. I was glad I got an early start. The flight was without incident, and I soon found myself gliding over immaculately-preened golf courses and lawns and housing developments perfect in their geometry. When I got off the plane at Palm Beach International Airport, I thought I was already at the hospital. Row after row of silver-haired octo- and septuagenarians waited in their wheelchairs to board the next flight. The carpet is a faded teal and the walls were a watered-down magenta, colors that reminded me of illness.

Aunt Jackie picked me up at the airport and immediately took me to the hospital. My mom was going to be discharged today, good news. But all this wouldn't happen until after 7:00, because there wasn't a day nurse available to hook my mom back up to the tube and machine she needs at home, so we would have to wait for a night nurse to meet us at the house.

We visited for a few minutes. Jackie ran downstairs for something to eat and came back with half a ham and cheese sub from the cafeteria downstairs which hit and sat in my stomach like a rock. After awhile, it was agreed we'd let my mom rest in anticipation of what might be a long first night home. Jackie went back to work. I had a paperback and my sunglasses so wandered off into the hot, South Florida morning. I aimed for the water and crossed the nearly-deserted Flagler Drive.

In Florida in May it is already stiflingly hot and humid. The sky is not blue, but white, the heat strangling the blue from the sky, squeezing the life out of it. There can be a warmth on your skin that feels good, that warms bones or wraps you up in something healing, restorative, but the heat in Florida pinches and stings, it conspires against you. I have long hated the heat for it, perhaps with malice unfair to a concept or something elemental.

I met a man with a fishing line in the Intracoastal, his bucket of bait and tackle, a box of lures and filament, in a metal shopping cart. I asked him if he'd caught anything. "Nothing yet." He didn't seem optimistic. I've long thought of fishing as just an excuse to look out on the water.

People are drawn to water, and everyone is searching for something different in it. I didn't know what he was looking for. Or what I hoped to see, for that matter.

I sat on the sea wall and read my book. I lied down, putting my head on my paperback and my eyes in the only shade I could find under one of the random pergolas on the side of the road. I tried to sleep, but couldn't. I listed to the water lap against the concrete sea wall. A fire ant bit my toe. Twice. And I gave up.

I decided to walk to Starbucks on Clematis, almost a mile in Tevas. I arrived twenty minutes later to find it closed, the victim of a global cyber-attack. You can't even get a cup of coffee these days without a computer network.

I called Elise on the walk back and listened as she told me about her cycling instructor. When I got back to the room, my mom was watching the Food Network, no slight irony left on anyone. She searches for small pleasures now, even a sip of grape juice or lemonade is better than just ice chips. No one would argue with that.

I walked to refill her ice from the family kitchen, grabbing a few Saltine crackers and finally getting a much-needed cup of coffee. I passed the door to the adjacent room. It was wide open. Inside, the lights were off, and an old woman was sleeping or dead, her head tilted back, a few fine wisps of ash-colored hair splayed on the tissue-paper pillowcase, her mouth frozen in a soundless 'O' pointed to the ceiling.

When I returned to the room, we passed the last few hours, talking, dozing, watching cooking shows and the news. I talked to the kids. Pete had a field trip to the Natural History Museum and learned about gemstones.

Across the hall, a woman started to wail. There was pain and fear in her cries. It lasted for several minutes, then stopped, though I heard no one come or go or otherwise respond to her cries.

As 7:00 approached, we started to gather our things in anticipation of leaving the hospital and going home. Around 7:30 two burly EMTs appeared at the doorway with a gurney and asked if we were ready. Mom said she was. They grabbed the four corners of the sheet she was on, pulled them tight, making a sort of hammock out of it and lifted her out of bed and to the gurney and with little fanfare, rolled her out.

I had to nearly run-walk to keep up with the gurney. The lead EMT didn't seem to be walking fast; it was almost as if the gurney gave him extra speed, as though it were pulling him along and left me struggling to stay in its wake. We navigated shiny, newly-waxed halls, down an elevator, through mechanical doors, from the chill of constant air conditioning to the warm South Florida dusk, the heat and humidity, again, like walking into a wall.

I won't soon forget the color of the blue of that dusk, the streets, the cars, the trees, even the Burger King across the street all a fishbowl blue, and my mother's face, looking at the clouds and the sky, seeing it all for the first time in more than a week. You could already see she was more tranquil, a relief. And her face didn't look like it was now, but as it had once been, beautiful in repose.

Then, she was wheels up in the gurney and into the back of an ambulance. I sat next to her and she reached and held my hand. I saw my reflection in the back window of the ambulance as 95 northbound sped by. We raced from Palm Beach Lakes to Jupiter at 90 miles per hour; I had never made it that quickly from downtown.

I never will again. 

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