Inside Voice

January 3, 2010
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You never knew that death smells like starchy white sheets and the dry paint on beige walls. You never knew that death lurks with youthful nurses and doctors with frowns etched into their concrete faces. Death speaks and its voice sounds like humming monitors and muffled cries behind the silk handkerchiefs that you gave Grandma for Christmas two years ago. Death disguises itself behind strained laughs that bounce off the room and touch the ceiling before falling back on you in silence; a deflated balloon, a deflated family.

“What is it, Stu?” she puts her hand on his. It is dry, chapped, with maroon beet-like circles running up and down his waxy arms. His knuckles look swollen. Maybe they’d always been that way, and you’d never noticed.

In a soft response, he mumbles like a child waking up from sleep.

“What?” she asks.

“I said, what do I have to do?” He is barely audible, barely understandable, his voice pale as if he is talking to another dimension of people none of you can see.

With blue eyes fading and thick grey eyebrows creasing her forehead like a canyon, she looks at him. “I don’t know.”

“What do I have to do?”

He doesn’t look back at her. It is too difficult for him to keep his eyes open for very long, not more than a minute at a time. His cheeks and chin are rough and unshaven. You try to reach back into your mind to remember if last Christmas his face had looked so pale. When your mind goes blank, you remind yourself that you had been sitting at the other end of the table with the other kids and there was no way to see him. A twinge rises in your chest.
After a while, Grandma dabs her eyes. “Lauren, how’s the new job going for you?”

“Oh, it’s going well. A lot more work than I expected, though.” A fake laugh, like a single can tied to the back of a car with string, clatters from across the room. You want to glare at her.

They chit-chat while a frail and desperate man lay in their presence, but you watch his limp arms and legs, his neck revealing formerly concealed bones and loose skin that falls down his body in rivulets. You weigh the same. One-hundred and nineteen pounds. The nurse told Grandma this when she came in earlier to check his fluid intake. Although you are no nurse, you know something is wrong when a 15-year-old girl and an 86-year-old man weigh the same.

Parted lips, pale and flaky like biscuits, reveal a dry desert tongue barely visible behind brown teeth. Piled tubes of mouth moisturizer had been visible on the nightstand upon entering, something you never knew existed. With desolate eyes, you watch his slow intake of air, the pause that follows each exhale, the strenuous work that breathing has now become for him.

And then his scream is your inside voice. When the chit-chatting becomes unbearable, his ghost legs rise a few inches off the bed, and he screams. But it is your inside voice that comes out, not the voice of a bellowing man.

The limp and shriveling legs collapse onto the surely uncomfortable mattress, disappearing into the blankets like they aren’t even there.

Grandma waits until the room silences once again to continue any conversation with her daughter, the deflated balloon settling over the room like a giant blanket that covers the family, suffocating you while you study small legs that look thinner than that of a toddler’s.
The nurse said that the mitts that look like boxing gloves, which lay on top of his thin torso, are to keep him from pulling off the tubes that run into his nose and wrists. The whole time that you have been here, he has not been wearing the mitts, but she had left before you could ask why, taking along with her a pretty face. In the back of your mind, you remember a family reunion where Grandpa had flirted with a pretty-faced waiter at that high-end restaurant, even with Grandma in the room.
Or had he? The memory is fuzzy. During this visit, you have already dug countless times into the depths of your brain with open, desperate palms to try to pull forth something more tangible that will make him more solid to you. If found, you would to mold these memories atop the frail bones that sit before you as your contribution, and you would make him more real, and life would come into him or that feeling in your chest would go away. But all the memories dragged from beneath the folds are thin and small, empty. They slip through your hungry fingers. Maybe they are ghosts and were never real at all, and you have just run out of excuses.
Grandma and Mom have apparently run out of things to pretend to laugh about. Now you all stare at him, a wilting man. Coughing as quietly as she can, Mom attempts to restrain her sound as if disturbing the silence will bruise this failing body before you even more.

“Who is that?” he asks in response. His eyes are still shut and his words are an echo.

“Who is that?” Grandma repeats. She emphasizes the last word as if she is talking to a child. “That’s Lauren, remember? She and Mary are here. They came a few hours ago.”

“Mary?” he says. His voice is a whisper, a sliver of smoke in a fog.

“Hi, grandpa,” you say stupidly.

He doesn’t respond. He sits there, eyes shut like a sleeping baby while Grandma and Mom get on talking again.

He probably forgot about you already. Your chest is full, but you know that you deserve it. Somewhere in a white-laced photo album, you have a picture of yourself sitting on his knee, wearing one of those turtlenecks you used to hate so much, looking down at a picture book he is reading to you. His glasses are slid down his face in the photo, perched on the bump in his nose, but you don’t know if he wears those anymore. He isn’t wearing them now. Your mind tries to go back to last Christmas again but you can’t remember and its all a blur. Your heart stutters. The feeling in your chest pushes up against the top of your skin as if trying to burst forth and reveal you.

“Bobby! Bobby!” he tries to yell again.

“Stu, what’s wrong?” Her hand is on his.


“Yes, Stu, what is it?”

He mumbles, a low whisper, a slur of words.


“I want to go.”

She hesitates. “Where are you going?”

Death’s humming becomes the only sound in the room for a while, until his voice slowly rises above it, trying to drown it out, trying. “I don’t know.”

Silence. Helplessness.

“Well…,” she has nothing to say. With her words come bits of emotion, both melted together like crayons that have been in the sun too long. “You just sit there now. Be a good patient.”

Grandma turns on the news so he has something to listen to, but the television seems to be featuring more advertisements than news. The low murmur of appealing voices controls the room for a while, distracting them, distracting him.


“Yes, Stu.”

“What do I have to do?”
You wish he would open his eyes and give you those memories, or tell you that it is okay that they are small. Open his biscuit lips and let the words flow like milk. But the room is silent except for Death’s humming monitors. The feeling in your chest rises above your head, drowning you in emptiness.

“What do I have to do? What do I have to do?”

He raises his ghost legs off the mattress, lays them back down, picks them back up. He tries to yell, but it is an inside voice.

“I want to go, Bobby.”

His legs rise and fall again, disappearing each time into the blankets, thin and gone.

“What do I have to do?”

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