The television channel Erin hoped would lull her to sleep had almost done its work. “In Bethlehem,” a soothing British voice narrated, “hundreds of people passed by a portrait of Jesus today to watch real tears fall.” The faithful, she learned, were equally divided on whether the tears were the result of grief or hope. She couldn’t form her own opinion without her glasses, so she turned her head away from the screen and her body began drifting away.
A shrill, mechanical sound pulled her back to full awareness. Erin groaned from the fold-out chair beside her mother’s hospital bed, recognizing the alarm from one of the machines in the room. That’s the third time in the past hour. She closed her eyes against the inevitable overhead lights as someone fluttered into the room.
“Let’s see what our problem is.” The night nurse, a thin woman with impossibly large breasts, leaned over Erin, pushing a series of buttons to silence the noise. Neon pink cartoon kittens decorated her top. Erin forced a smile, feeling the pull of dry lips that hadn’t seen chapstick in weeks, as the woman replaced an empty IV bag with a full one.
Our problem is that we have kidney failure, diabetes and no circulation in our feet. Her mother’s mouth was open, a quiet snore escaping every few seconds. At least one of us can sleep.
Erin could just make out the clock across the room: 3:02. Another hour until the aides took the patients’ vital signs. Breakfast trays were delivered two hours after that.
Her mother moved suddenly, restlessly, and Erin held her breath. If the pain returned, she would have no relief until the doctors made their rounds later in the morning. No moans came from her body and Erin’s neck muscles relaxed.
Barbie Nurse returned, asked if she could get them anything. Erin thought of a sci-fi movie she’d seen where a woman’s brain had been implanted into a new body. One new body for my mother, comin’ right up. “No thanks.”
She felt like she was in a sci-fi world of her own, living on a starship or a moon. A world sanitized from even the smallest hint of the natural. Recycled air left a taste of emptiness in her mouth that she couldn’t brush or rinse away. The change between daylight and darkness through the windows told her days were passing. But the stark white walls and florescent lights kept the patients and their families in a time warp, a never-ending now full of uncertainty, and for the sickest, pain.
Her mother was one of the sickest. No one had come right out and told Erin that—“Hang in there,” and “As long as there’s life, there’s hope” were what they said—but the doctors had other ways of letting her know they weren’t optimistic. One hugged her; another awkwardly patted her on the shoulder before he walked out of the room. Amputating the foot would slow the infection, they’d explained, but her mother’s body couldn’t heal unless it started absorbing nutrition again.
Erin squirmed, trying to adjust her body into a tolerable position. At one level, she appreciated the hardness of the chair: why should she be comfortable when her mother was wracked with pain so bad the drugs barely touched it? At another level, though, she wanted nothing more than a restful night in her own bed.
She pushed her face into the pillow. The stale scent of bleach and antiseptic invaded her nostrils and she fought the urge to gag. She turned her head to see an ethnically-neutral Jesus staring down at her from a plastic cross. The crucifix was crooked, its end slanting toward a laminated sign that read: Prevent Falls: Ask Us For Help Before Getting Up.
She remembered the first time she’d ever seen a crucifix. Seven or eight, she’d been in a hospital then, too, watched by a cousin in the waiting room while her mother visited some distant relative. She was playing with a stuffed dog, scooting around the maze of chairs and tables, pretending it was a lost puppy looking for home. The puppy was climbing over a table when she’d glanced up, straight into the face of an anguished wooden man. She’d screamed and run to her cousin in terror, the cherished dog forgotten.
The carving she’d seen that day was of someone who had truly taken on the sins of the world, whose every atom was crushed by the weight of being forsaken. This Jesus on the wall was nothing like a savior. His slight frown—caused by a headache, perhaps, or a long delay in traffic—made the crown of thorns seem like nothing more than a decorative hat. Hearing her mother sob when the nurses changed her bandages, Erin preferred the Jesus who understood agony.
A click from the machines caught her attention. The hours she’d spent watching them had taught her to distinguish one pump’s sounds from another: this time it was antibiotics shoving their way into her mother’s veins.
She gave up on sleep and put on her glasses. She tried to be quiet as she lowered the foot rest. The chair squeaked and she grimaced. She needn’t have worried. Her mother rarely woke without effort these days.
On the bedside table, a Gideon Bible sat open. Psalm 22, her mother’s request. Not for the “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” part, but for the words about pain: “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of my bowels. My strength is dried up like a potsherd; and my tongue cleaveth to my jaws; and thou hast brought me into the dust of death.”
Erin knew the Bible. Her earliest memories were of church and her Baptist preacher uncle. His sermons were vivid: God’s wrath was like a tsunami wave; the sinner an unfortunate soul standing on the beach, his back to the sea. She was in grade school when she noticed that he looked at her mother any time he talked about the consequences of sin; high school when she realized she was her mother’s consequence. No one ever spoke of Erin’s father. The Father God of her mother’s prayers was enough.
Erin turned back to the television, this time muting the sound. The remote had raised letters and she traced the numbers with her fingers. She flipped through the channels, pausing only on the Private Pleasures infomercial and the early morning faith preachers. The two were hard to tell apart—the preachers were selling God as if a commission came with each new convert. She wished she could see God the way they did, the confident men and women who said He would heal anything if a person believed hard enough. At this point, she didn’t even have enough faith to believe a perfect love life was only the right sex toy away.
When she was 12, a friend’s family had invited her to a healing service, like a spectator at a sporting event. People with crutches and in wheelchairs lined the walls, waiting for a chance to join the healer on stage. The woman would hold her hands out toward each person and pray for them in a loud, commanding voice. Two men stood behind the sick people like bodyguards. When the healer touched the people, their bodies would tremble, and then fall backwards into the men’s waiting arms.
The men would lay them on the ground where they convulsed for a moment, until the woman ordered her helpers to pick them up. Putting a microphone in front of their still trembling mouths, she would ask them what they felt. Most said electricity going up and down their bodies; other just said a warmth. All put their hands in the air and praised God.
Erin had seen one of the people from the line after the service, a little boy in a wheelchair with oxygen strapped on the back. He fell getting into his parents’ car. She’d watched him, his body sprawled across the blacktop like road kill, until another car obstructed her view. On the way home she’d asked her friend’s father why the little boy wasn’t healed. “The Lord has His reasons,” the man said. When she’d pressed him on what they might be, he shook his head. “Some things aren’t for us to know.”
Looking down at her mother’s sallow face, Erin prayed quietly, as she always did, for a miracle. A nun walking by had overheard her one day. The woman’s face, surrounded by her traditional habit, seemed disembodied, a vision straight out of Dickens. “Ultimate healing only comes when we go to be with the Lord,” she’d intoned. Her message delivered, she turned and walked out of the room.
Erin had raised her middle finger to the woman’s back.
Part of her wanted to rail against God, hurl insults at the universe, but the Baptist in her simply accepted that things were the way they were supposed to be, fate and predestination walking hand in hand. God knows best, all things work together for good, whatever will be will be. The thought that an entire religious philosophy could be summed up by a Doris Day song made her want to wake her mother, share the absurdity. She pictured her mother opening her mouth wide and laughing the way she had before the pain had driven who she was away.
Erin knew it wouldn’t be long before death came to take the rest of her. Fluid had already possessed her mother’s body, causing her arms and legs to swell into those of a monster. Once the skin was stretched to the breaking point, the wetness had begun oozing out of her pores. You could watch it seep out one giant drop at a time. Sometimes blood would be mingled in. “Weeping,” the nurses called it. Their voices were casual, offhand; they saw people sweat blood every day. The toxins have to go somewhere, they’d told her, shrugging.
Her mother had a different explanation: “My body’s grieving for itself.”
The wetness meant her mother had rubber sheets which still had to be changed frequently. Erin could always tell when the nurses came in to do that job because they wore gloves. She’d originally thought they offered some kind of extra protection for the patient, but one of the nurses had confided that the toxins crying their way out of her mother were so strong they could actually scald the workers. “You really should wear gloves, too,” the nurse had said. “Make sure you don’t get burned.” Erin kept the gloves on when the workers were in the room, but when she was alone with her mother she removed them. She wondered if the slight sting she felt from touching a wet arm could serve as some kind of offering, an agreement with God that might ease some of her mother’s suffering.
During the brief periods her mother was awake and not doped up on so much pain medication that she was out of her head, Erin talked to her, asked her to fight if she could; told her it was okay if she couldn’t.
When a priest, sent in the room as part of his duties, had asked her mother if she were afraid, her mother simply shook her head and smiled. “What’s to be afraid of? I’m going home.”
“I’m afraid,” Erin spoke without thinking. The priest’s expression was first shocked, then pitying; her mother merely looked embarrassed. Erin stared out the window while the two made small talk about how their beliefs were more alike than different.
A framed print near the door announced, “I go to prepare a place for you.” Erin stared at the words, willing herself to take comfort or be assured. Nothing.
It was like the night she’d invited Jesus to come into her heart. Twelve then and caught up in the words of the Youth Rally evangelist, she’d walked to the front of the church, ready for the beauty and light she’d heard about. When she opened her eyes to the same world she’d seen before, she worried something was wrong, that not even God wanted a little girl with no father. Heat had crept across her face and neck, turning her as red as the roses on the pulpit.
Erin said aloud, “Lord, I believe; help Thou my unbelief,” more strongly than she’d intended. Her mother stirred slightly at the noise and Erin went to her, stroking her hair and whispering, “Everything’s okay,” until her breathing became even again.
When two aides came in to help her mother turn over (“Can’t let those bed sores bite!” one always joked), Erin walked out into the hall. The ward’s slogan was “Dying with Dignity,” but she didn’t see how dignity had much place here. Dying was horrific no matter how you did it.
The moonlight threw shadows over the empty waiting room. Erin went to the chair most covered in darkness and sat down. A breeze outside caused the electric lines to shiver and dance.
She watched a bird, a dull brown sparrow, light on the windowsill. It stood motionless for a long minute, surveying the night. Then it lifted its wings and flapped them back and forth, slowly at first, but speeding up until Erin couldn’t believe it wasn’t being carried away by the force. The motion made its drab feathers glow in the moonlight.
As suddenly as the bird’s display began, it was over. Erin waited, watching for another bird or some sort of explanation, but nothing more happened. It remained on the sill for a moment, motionless, then flew away. She remembered the words of an old Gospel song: “His eye is on the sparrow and I know He watches me.”
Her mother was awake, with an aide tightening a blood pressure cuff around her arm, when Erin came back into the room. The veins that stood out on her forehead spoke of pain, but a smile lit up her face when she saw her daughter. Taking her mother’s outstretched hand, Erin settled back into the chair by the bed. With her eyes closed, she could almost believe the machine’s quiet whooshing was the sound of beating wings.
Elizabeth Burton lives in Central Kentucky and is a fiction writing student in Spalding University’s MFA program. She holds other graduate degrees from the University of Texas at Austin and Stony Brook University. Her fiction has appeared in Roanoke Review, Waypoints, and Kentucky Review, among others, and is forthcoming in Chautauqua. Her work has been nominated both for the Best of the Net anthology and for a Pushcart Prize.