Cool air wakes her abruptly. The neck of her oversized cotton nightgown has fallen, revealing a mass on her chest that protrudes like an awkward third breast. She is hardly aware of it but for a familiar lethargy that lingers within her. She looks down at a pair of hands, liver-spotted and sagging over bone. A television announcer shouts intrusively, crescendoing and quieting, pulling her attention in dizzying directions. She wishes for silence so that she can sleep.
A lamp in the corner of the room casts an ethereal glow over the robins-egg blue wall. In front of her arm chair, where she sits most every day, stands an antique chest of drawers. Spread over its top is an intricately knit lace doily displaying a lone, cream colored porcelain vase embellished with a triad of flowers in pink, yellow and blue. Tucked neatly in its gold-rimmed mouth is a pink silk rose. Her cloudy eyes take in a collage of photos in a cherry wood frame above the vase. A cherubic baby boy with hair bleached by the sun stands in a chair puffing out his cheeks in an effort to extinguish the flames from two candles on top of a beautifully ornate white cake. Behind him stands a slender woman with china-doll skin and long, raven hair falling gracefully around her shoulders and cascading down her chest.
She’s so pretty.
“Maemie, your medicine is here,” croons a nurse.
She cringes at the shrill squeak of wheels on a cart followed by the slow pour of water over clinking ice. She takes in the round nurse backlit by the glaring fluorescent lights in the hall. Her gaze drops to study the hands again. On the left hand is a sapphire ring fully enclosed by clusters of small, chipped diamonds. She thinks it is a glorious ring, and a smile touches her lips though her head shakes unremittingly. Above the thin, aged hands appears a small, white paper cup containing several pills held by a shockingly black hand.
“Maemie, how are you doin’, Sweetie? You’ve been so quiet lately, haven’t heard a note of your hummin’ for weeks! And, I’m so sorry, I know you prefer to be called Mae, but I just love your name,” drawls the nurse.
She tries to speak, feeling that it is impolite not to speak when spoken to. All that leaves her lips is a string of unintelligible, stuttering sounds. She blinks back tears, and her face falls. The kindly nurse looks into her cataract-covered eyes.
“Your dinner will be ready in just a bit, but we like to get these meds into you first. Can you take these pills for me, honey?”
Her head bobs furiously as she makes an effort to pull herself up and away. The atrophied muscles refuse to obey her. She loosens her grip on the chair’s arms, giving in to her exhaustion.
“Oh, sweetie, I’ll get you through this. I need you to tilt your head back like you’re watching a flock of geese fly off and open up your mouth for me, Ok?”
The nurse places a pill on the back of Mae’s tongue then presses a small clear Dixie cup to her lips, “Mae, I need you to take a drink of this water. Swallow for me.”
Her heart pounds loudly in her ears as her throat tightens around the pill. Rivulets run down her cheeks. Her eyes search before she feels the nurse’s coarse, cold hands stroke down her throat willing the pill to move. She hears her heart settle back into its resounding pattern and her body relaxes.
“Good job, Mae. I know it’s a struggle, honey, but you are doing fine. I’ll be back in a bit with your dinner, and we can fight with it together, alright?”
Again she looks down at the hands admiring the sparkling blue of the stone within the ring. In her, a girlish giddiness swells and subsides. The rhythmic ticking of the wall clock blends with a cacophony of groans, coughs, blaring television channels,and the occasional far off gurgling, creating a flurry of panic in her mind. A shadow appears over the hands. She raises her bobbing head to meet the deep, brown eyes of a woman that smells of roses and honeysuckle.
Her mind grabs and releases snapshots of those brown eyes in rapid succession. A baby softly breathing through puckered lips tucks a tiny hand under her chin, their eyes meeting to drink in the quiet moment. A small, chunky girl, dirt-stained and giggling, runs the cool hose water over her toes with an impish grin. A young lady in a newly sewn dress, meticulously stitched over weeks by nimble fingers, leans in to kiss her on the forehead before excitedly running down the front steps for her first dance. A grown woman with raven hair offers a reassuring squeeze on her hands as they insert a needle for what is to be her final chemotherapy treatment.
Her eyes lock with those familiar brown eyes and warmth fills her chest like the first breath of spring after a long and sleepy winter. A trickle of tears slowly etch their way down the creases and ridges in her face. Her heart races to catch up with the moment.
She longs to tell the woman before her that she thinks she is beautiful, but all that escapes her lips are a chain of disjointed consonants. Her hazy eyes continue to pool with tears, and her lips quiver, forming a smile as she looks up into a face she knows is somehow indelibly linked with her. She feels the touch of soft, warm skin and looks down at the pair of old, time-worn hands covered by the youthful hands of the woman in front of her. Comfort travels through these hands and briefly she recognizes that the weary hands beneath are her own.
With nothing left to remember, she closes her eyes.