by Veronica Montes
They speak in whispers across the tiny, still form of Lana’s mother. “You have to reposition her every two hours—even through the night,” the hospice nurse cautions, “or the wounds will get worse.”
Lana looks at the complex arrangement of pillows surrounding her mother. “I don’t…okay,” she says. She pulls out her phone and takes a picture to use for reference. She sets her timer for 2 hours.
“The one on her spine is very bad,” the nurse says. “I can almost see bone.”
Lana nods as if she understands, and then for no reason repeats the words: “You can almost see bone.”
“Yes,” the nurse says. “I’m so sorry.” She has a slight Filipino accent, the same as Lana’s aunts and uncles. She gathers her stethoscope and blood pressure cuff, her thermometer, her tablet. “I’ll be back tomorrow evening to change the dressings.”
It seemed to Lana that all of the filial ministrations she was now performing—all of the cleaning and soothing and dispensing of medicines—should inspire the same kind of tenderness she’d once felt while caring for her children (one boy, one girl, both away at college). And so she waited for her shoulders to soften, she waited for her heart to warm. When nothing happened, she thought back to what had been given during her own childhood: forehead kisses, quelled fears, food as love.
But still she felt nothing.
At three in the morning on the second day, after spending twenty minutes maneuvering her mother into what she hoped was the correct position, Lana slipped back into her own bed without waking her husband. She remained awake until five, and it was then—when she climbed out of bed and fell to the floor—that Lana realized she had become, somehow, unmoored. She rested on the carpet for a few minutes, and then got up and crossed the hall to her mother’s room.
On day 6, under the tutelage of the nurse, she learned new words like “debridement” and “exudate.” She donned a pair of nitrile gloves and served as an assistant, dutifully handing over gauze and saline, long swabs and cream. The room smelled of bleach.
“You should get some help,” the nurse advised. She assessed Lana’s face. “You look so tired, naman,” she added, her accent thickening. “You can’t take care of nanay if you’re not taking care of yourself.”
“Sige, sige. I’ll try,” Lana said, finding comfort in the way they exchanged bits of Tagalog. She tried to imagine scenarios in which help might suddenly appear. She shrugged and stared at her mother, and her mother stared back.
Only after the nurse had gone did Lana realize there were things she needed to discuss. Such as how strange it was that her mother was still here when the doctors at the hospital told her, repeatedly, that she would not be coming home. Or how excruciating it was when relatives visited, but only stayed for a few minutes, citing lunch dates or dentist appointments. She wanted to ask: why don’t I feel anything. And: how do I wash her hair when she can’t get out of bed. And also: can you please throw me a rope.
Lana discarded most of the ideas that crossed her mind on the nights she didn’t sleep: no, she would not ask her feckless younger sister for help. She would not research nursing homes. She would not rethink her current beliefs about the power of prayer or crystals or oracle cards. But her mind did circle back again and again to the baby monitor.
On day 10 she decided to fish the old thing out from a basket of swaddling blankets that had migrated through the years to the back of their absurdly large linen closet. “Look,” she said to her husband. She held up the transmitter, the receiver, the tangle of wires.
He smiled the sad smile he had been offering the past few weeks. “An ancient artifact,” he said. “Need help?” he added, without really meaning it.
Still on her knees in the hallway she answered—also without really meaning it—”No, I’m good, thanks.”
She wanted to believe that the monitor might help ease her mind, that it might help her rest between the nurse’s prescribed 2-hour repositioning sessions. Instead, she lay curled like a shrimp on her side and stared into the darkness, listening. At first she couldn’t make anything out, but then, through the light static, she heard the sound of her mother’s breathing, its maddening persistence, so stubborn and contrary, defying all logic, all sense, coming and going in waves no matter what the doctors said, coming and going, coming and going until Lana felt her own chest rising and falling in rhythm, each breath connecting mother to daughter like the cord that had first bound them fifty years ago, a declaration of existence, haunting and deep like a blue whale’s song.
Originally published in Mom Egg Review. Click here to read Veronica Montes’ reflection on writing about caregiving.
Veronica Montes is the author of the award-winning chapbook The Conquered Sits at the Bus Stop, Waiting (Black Lawrence Press) and Benedicta Takes Wing & Other Stories (Philippine American Literary House). Her second chapbook, I’m Not Lost, is forthcoming from Ethel. Veronica’s fiction has been published in many journals including Wigleaf, SmokeLong Quarterly, jmww, Bamboo Ridge, and CHEAP POP.