Caroline could barely hear her own words. (Had she said them?) The oxygen hissed up her nose through the plastic prongs. The pull of the Vicodin lured her toward sleep. Sam didn’t look up from his Spirograph, but Caroline knew that that didn’t mean he hadn’t heard her.
“Bug?” she said again. This time she detected a slight hesitation in the whirring of his pen. The symmetric designs stopped spilling onto his spiral-bound notebook.
“Do you like it?”
Sam held up the latest in a series of Spirograph art projects that had consumed his free time ever since Katherine the Play Lady had introduced him to the thing. Caroline tried hard to concentrate on the cheerful motif. There must be some geometric equation that she could teach Sam about buried in that innocent blur of blue and red. Cycloids maybe. Or the Bachristochrome problem perhaps. But she was too tired. It was too far away. And it hurt too much.
“I love it.”
Was that a thought? Since when did thought take such effort? She gulped for air. She wished the nurse would come and suction her. Turn up the oxygen. Do something to make it easier to breathe.
Sweat poured down Caroline’s face. A nurse mopped her with a wet washcloth and spooned ice chips between her lips.
“Here comes another one,” she warned, eyeing the monitor.
Caroline gripped the nurse’s hand and panted like she’d learned in Lamaze class.
“He’s crowning,” the obstetrician said. “And he’s got a lot of hair.”
Caroline looked up at the convex mirror hung on the ceiling and confirmed the dark wet head emerging from between her legs. Another cramp. Another push. A heave. A sigh.
A quick toweling off, then a baby placed in her arms.
“Is there anyone you’d like to call?”
The nurse’s voice sounded far away.
“No thanks. It’s just me and Sam.”
“I’m sorry, Ms. Fletcher. There’s nothing more I have to offer you.”
The words hung in the air like a body on the end of a noose. Swinging, twitching. Not quite dead. But there. Now. Yes. Quite dead. Hanging. Swinging.
The meeting seemed to be over. There were no more words in the air. Just the ones that were already hanging there.
Caroline didn’t have any more questions and the doctor obviously didn’t have any more answers. And so she sat there. Saying no more words. The doctor got up and left the room.
Caroline rocked, stroking Sam’s sweaty head. A breeze blew every few seconds from the small desk fan as it swiveled back and forth like a sentinel.
His body felt heavy with sleep. Caroline began to sing to him.
“Ask me do I love you. Do I?”
“Yes. Yes. Yes,” Sam’s drowsy voice answered. Not asleep yet. She kept rocking, enjoying the warmth of him in her arms. Then some more song.
“Ask me do I need you. Do I?”
“Yes. Yes. Yes.”
Going. Going. Almost gone. But not yet. She could wait.
“Ask me will I miss you. Will I?”
No answer. Caroline lifted him carefully into the single bed and then climbed in beside him.
“Yes. Yes. Yes,” she sang, then kissed his damp forehead and closed her eyes.
The office nurse wore purple scrubs and held a thick folder in her hands. Caroline knew it contained every x-ray, mammogram, ultrasound and MRI that she had ever endured. She took a breath and pushed up on the arms of the chair, steadying herself for the long walk down the hall. Caroline looked at Sam, sprawled out on his stomach on the floor, his National Geographic Dinosaur Book opened up in front of him.
“He can come, too, you know,” the nurse said. Her name pin just said Tracy, RN.
“He’ll be fine. He’s used to this,” Caroline explained between breaths. Tracy shrugged.
“Let’s get you weighed.”
Caroline started onto the scale, but Tracy held up an arm like a Jersey barrier.
“Take off your shoes and leave your pocketbook on the chair,” she instructed.
Caroline sighed and laid her pound-and-a-quarter purse on the chair, then placed her half-a-pound-each shoes beside the scale. Tracy flicked the weight with a manicured nail.
“99 ½,” she announced, recording the number in the chart.
Caroline stepped off the scale, defeated.
Sam’s chubby hands could barely reach the edge of the hammock. Sweat beaded up across his freckled nose with the effort of pushing her.
Light. Dark. Light again.
The sun sliced through her eyelids and seared into her brain despite the dark glasses and wide-brimmed hat. She forced herself to lean over the edge of the hammock.
She loved making Sam laugh. That soft high baby laugh. Like he’d just been tickled. Like Caroline had done with her voice what her body was no longer capable of.
More giggles. Like a natural antidote to the looming headache and swirling nausea that seemed so incongruous with this beautiful day.
“Gotta go, Mom.”
“No. I mean I gotta go.”
Light. Dark. Light again. Momentum slowing, now lost.
Caroline sat in an office with framed degrees crowding every inch of wall space. She squinted, trying to discern each medical school and residency. Sam looked up from his Spirograph and followed her line of vision.
“Knowledge is power,” he stated matter-of-factly before returning to the toy.
“What, Bug?” Caroline’s voice rasped and her throat hurt from yesterday’s intubation.
“Nam et ipsa scientia potestas es. That’s Latin for knowledge is power.”
Caroline knew that Latin was somewhere in their home lesson plans but she was pretty sure they hadn’t covered it yet.
“How do you know that?”
“I’m teaching myself Latin.”
“What else can you say?”
“Fac ut vivas.”
Sam climbed carefully onto her.
“It means get a life.”
The irony made Caroline laugh until she cried.
“Sing me the one about the black kids again,” Sam said, fighting sleep from under the covers.
“What black kids?”
Caroline dragged herself back toward consciousness.
Sam sang groggily, “Little brown brother oh little brown brother. Are you asleep in the dark?”
Despite her endless fatigue and aching bones, Caroline smiled.
“Bug, that song’s not about black children. It’s about two seeds.”
“Yeah, remember? One becomes a poppy and one a sunflower?”
Caroline lay in the dark listening to Sam breathe. She hurt. The digital clock next to her bed read 4:30. If she took a Percocet now, she wouldn’t wake up for Sam’s music lesson.
Sam suddenly flung the covers off his body and sat up cross-legged, looking down at her. She could feel him staring at her, even with her eyes closed.
“Remember when we learned about capillary action by putting celery stalks into water with food coloring?”
Caroline nodded and tried to smile in case Sam could see her face in the dark.
“And remember when we extracted DNA from split peas using liquid Tide and Adolph’s meat tenderizer?”
“You have a good memory.”
Sam traced an outline in the air around his mother’s face.
“I hope so.”
“Ms. Fletcher, do you know why I’m here?”
Caroline tried hard to concentrate on the stern voice demanding answers. A nun? A principal? A gym teacher?
“One of the doctors was concerned about your son, Samuel.”
Caroline sat up fast, the move sending her heart racing and drenching her in sweat. The room spun out of control.
A nurse appeared (who had called her?) and pushed her gently back into her pillows.
Caroline tried to call to him again but it was like that dream where you’re trying to yell to wake yourself up but no words will come out.
“I understand Samuel hasn’t been in school for almost two years.”
Caroline fought to stay awake, sweeping the room for her son.
This time she heard her voice.
“What’s she saying, Nurse? Is she hallucinating?”
Caroline clawed at her sheets.
“Can I help you?”
A voice crackled like electricity from the intercom above Caroline’s bed.
“Sandy. Get Ms. Fletcher’s son from the playroom, will you? And… she can use another morphine.”
Caroline woke to a nauseating stench. It was a sickly sweet smell. Honeysuckle. Was it her funeral? The room was silent and felt dark. Caroline was afraid to open her eyes.
Her sister Sue. When had she come?
Caroline tried to open one eye but gave up. She wanted to give up breathing. She almost had. Each one was so slow. Deliberate. Full of effort. Not pain. Just work.
Bug. Her heart ached at the sound of his voice. So sweet and soft. But she couldn’t answer.
“Mom. Don’t go.”
Caroline felt a weight on her chest, heavy and warm.
“Sam, honey, don’t hurt your Mom.”
A fan somewhere whirred, pushing fetid air around. Caroline thought about a hammock. A breeze. A clear day.
A laugh. A dream.
“Just one more song, please.”
“And then you’ll go to sleep?”
A warm weight. Heavy on her chest. So hard to breathe, much less sing.
Carolyn Roy-Bornstein’s essays and short stories have appeared in many journals and anthologies including JAMA, The Writer, Brain,Child, Literary Mama, Kaleidoscope, Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, The Examined Life and Chicken Soup for the Soul. Her flash fiction won third place in a Writer’s Digest Short Short Story competition. Her new memoir CRASH!:When Grief and Gratitude Collide will be published by Globe Pequot Press October 2012. Read more at www.carolynroybornstein.com.