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Jackie slept in the makeshift bedroom that was once her living room, now redecorated with oxygen tubes, IV bags, and beeping monitors. The medical bed sat in one corner where the china cabinet used to stand. Next to the fireplace, there were two chairs. Sitting on the left was the end-of-life nurse, Dana, assigned to Jackie soon after her diagnosis. Mel, her husband of 43 years, sat on the right.
“When do you think she will go?” asked Mel.
“It is hard to say--death has its own plans. I wish there were something more I could tell you,” Dana said unconvincingly.
He received this response every time he asked, but he kept asking anyway, hoping for new insight. He realized he should update the kids on their mother’s situation. Today marked two weeks since the last check-in. Mel grabbed his phone, calling both sons, Jamie and Patrick. They didn’t pick up. He tried again, but no answer. He left voicemails followed by texts: “hey, call me when you get a chance. it’s about mom. love, dad.” The boys had successful careers of their own, as Jamie was a bigshot lawyer at some firm in the Northeast, and no one knew what Patrick did, but it had to do with the stock market and Wall Street. After the boys graduated from school, they distanced themselves from Mel and Jackie, only calling on holidays and birthdays. The last time the four were in a room together was at Jackie’s mother's funeral two years back, before anyone knew she would fall ill.
“Dana, I’m leaving--need to clear my head.”
“Ok, I’ll make sure to call you if there is any change in her status,” she responded without looking up, fiddling with some game on her phone.
Mel left without saying anything. He didn’t know where he was headed, but he should leave the house anyway. He drove by places filled with family memories: arcades where birthday parties were celebrated, the pool where Jamie and Patrick learned to swim, and the place he first met his wife--the roller rink. He stumbled upon a park he had never visited. It was small, spanning the size of half of a football field, trimmed with oak trees and stone paths meeting at a playground. He decided to walk along the trails, taking in the sounds of birds and children playing. The background provided a distraction for Mel, drowning out his anticipatory grief.
Checking his phone, Mel noticed Patrick had replied: “ok, i get off work at 7.” He checked his watch; it was only 4:28. He felt tears rolling down his cheeks. He hadn’t wept like this since the diagnosis, but the idea of Patrick and Jamie missing the opportunity to say goodbye hurt him. Jamie called.
“Hey, Dad, how’s Mom,” Jamie asked, unconcerned.
“Well, um, she’s the same, I guess. I don’t really know, Jamie. We can’t tell how much time she has left,” Mel said, his voice shaking.
Jamie cleared his throat, “You wanted me to call you.”
“I, uh, I think you should come home to see her, maybe say goodbye, uh, or, you know.”
“I have work, Dad. I would need to hold off on a couple of cases.”
Mel understood. Jamie wouldn’t be coming for his mother, at least not soon. He didn’t expect him to, just hoped he would. Dana texted Mel: “she is up and asking for you.” He rode home in silence.
“Melvin, I’ve missed you,” he heard as he opened the living room door.
Jackie’s memory had been impaired by chemotherapy treatments and surgeries to remove the masses, killing her brain. She couldn’t recall life events or dates anymore. She was still Jackie, though. She knew she had children and a husband, although it seemed as if she thought everyone was about 15 years younger than they were.
“I missed you more, Jacqueline,” he smiled.
“Where were you, Mel?”
“I was just getting some fresh air, Dear.”
“Oh, that’s nice,”
Dana said it was time for Jackie’s bath. Her body was too frail to clean herself, so Dana sponged her down two days a week. Jackie was embarrassed about her body. Her emaciated frame showed her weakened bones even more. Mel didn’t care. He still remembered her as the plump woman he married.
“Jackie, whatcha want for supper?” he called from the once living room.
“A milkshake. Vanilla. No cherries or whipped cream,” she replied.
Mel got to work. He would make the finest milkshake Jackie’d ever laid her lips on: French vanilla ice cream base, a dash of cream, and a long pour of whole milk, all served in a beer mug. She hardly ate throughout her battle with this disease, but milkshakes sounded palatable. Dana rolled her into the kitchen, placing the stein and tray upon her lap. Jackie let out a chuckle. They all knew she would merely taste the drink before she felt full. The gigantic dessert made her laugh, and that was all they needed. Patrick called at 7:03.
“What do you want, Dad,” he asked.
“Hi--Patrick, how are you doing?” Mel responded, irritated. He could hear Patrick’s eyes roll on the other side of the line. “Your mom’s not getting any better. You need to come to see her soon, Pat”.
“Maybe I can head down for the long weekend next month,” not realizing the odds she would be alive in thirty days.
“Can you make it any sooner, maybe?”
“I’m just so caught up with work. I’m sure you understand.”
Mel could not understand why both of his children prioritized a couple of work days over their fading mother. “God, would you please come see her. Tonight? Tomorrow? Now?”
“Fine. Let me see if I can work something out,” he answered.
“Make sure Jamie gets here soon, too--this is the time you two have to say your last words to your mom. Make it count,” Mel said.
Patrick told Mel he had called Jamie and explained that the two had decided to make the three-hour drive to their mother that night. Relieved, he surprised Jackie with this information. She was even more excited about this than her milkshake.
At 7:45, Dana changed Jackie's clothes, brushed her hair, and got her ready for bed. Her shift ended at 8:00. Before leaving, she turned on Jackie’s favorite trivia game show. Mel and Jackie played along with the contestants. It was an activity that didn’t require an able body, something they could do together.
“Tired, Melvin?” She joked as Mel began to nod off in his chair.
“Nope,” said Mel, startled and dazed. Mel kissed Jackie on the cheek.
“Make sure you wake me when the boys arrive--I know you want me to get my rest, but I want to see my babies, Mel.”
Jackie dozed off just after ten. In one hand, Mel flipped through a cookbook, and the other hand clasped Jackie’s hand. Patrick sent a text saying he picked up Jamie around 8:30, so Mel had a few hours to spend alone with his wife. He found a recipe for homemade ice cream and thought about sharing it with Jackie but let her sleep instead. He decided to climb into the bed with Jackie, just holding her and taking in the smell of her thin chemo hair, the wrinkles flanking her tired eyes, and most of all, the warmth of her body.
The doorbell chime woke Mel up. He ran to the door. Patrick and Jamie stood there. They entered the home and headed straight for the living room. There the shell of their mother lay. Mel carried the fireplace chairs to the bedside and grabbed a third from the kitchen. Her chest bobbed lightly, her breathing slowing down. Mel tapped his wife. Her eyes slowly opened, squinting at the outline of three men. She began to cry, holding out her arms. The boys went in for a hug.
“Thank you, thank you, oh, thank you,” she sobbed. “I can go now.” So she did.