Friday, January 13, 2012

A Quiet Conversation

I'm not sure why these stained glass windows inspired such a depressing story. They're beautiful.
St. Chapelle, Paris

For the duration of the visit, Jacob’s eyes remained downcast, locked on his mother’s frail hand as it worried the thin blanket covering her lap. They were the hands of an old woman now, with liver spots, pronounced blue veins, and arthritic twists of the knuckles. They weren’t the hands he associated with his mother. Those were strong, red, and coarse from years of scrubbing and cleaning; hands that were never idle. Punishing hands that he’d sometimes feared.
Now the skin was so thin that Jacob thought a rough paper towel might scrape them open.  They clasped and rolled at the knit hospital blanket; picking at its worn threads and then dropping them.
“I wonder if anyone will speak at my funeral,” his mother said. Her voice was as foreign to Jacob as her hands were. The strained whisper of her vocal cords made her sound like a whole different person. Not the no-nonsense mother who’d yelled his name across the neighborhood when it was time for him to come home for dinner.
He kept his head down and nodded. “I’m sure they will.”
“Will you speak, Jacob?”
Jacob’s shoulders instantly tensed and froze. He held his breath with the childhood reaction of a schoolboy. If he were completely still, maybe the teacher, or his mother in this case, would pass on him and turn her attention to another child. But alone in the room, his mother had no one else to focus on. Jacob’s mind raced back to that morning, and the moment he turned the ignition in his car and backed out of his driveway. He undid the sequence of events leading to his arrival at the hospital and stayed instead at home, perhaps doing some yard work or home repair instead. He shouldn’t have come.
He exhaled finally and nodded his head. “Sure I will,” he said softly.
He felt his mother’s stare penetrate the top of his head. Her hand was still. She waited for him to look at her. In his youth, she would have reprimanded him until he did. He heard that voice now in his head, “Look at me when I’m talking to you!”
He raised his eyes and let them quickly glance off his mother’s face. Unlike the betrayal of her hands and voice, when he looked at her face he still saw the same stern woman beneath the years of age. She wasn’t going to tolerate any more nonsense. He swallowed and nodded again. “I will, Ma.”
Her eyes pinned his into place and she straightened herself ever so slightly in her hospital bed. She cleared her throat and spoke out, more forcefully than she was used to lately. “And tell me what you’ll say,” she demanded.
Jacob’s eyes widened and he leaned back defensively. He chided himself for being as submissive with her now as he had been as a child. She had a hold over him that he’d never outgrown. No matter how old she got, how incapacitated and weak, she was still very much in charge when it came to Jacob.  His mouth worked mutely. No sounds came out. He was at a loss and she was staring at him expectantly.
He shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know, Ma.”
She dropped back into her pillow and grabbed ahold of the blanket again, clenching it in her weakened fist. She looked off toward the hospital room door and watched the blur of nurses and doctors passing by. Her voice was shaky and thin.
“Well, you’d better figure it out.”

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