Friday, October 5, 2007

Chapter Thirty-One: The Vigil

Compass and Mark semi-dozed in the hallway for a few hours, taking turns to awaken with a jolt every time there was a loud noise or a gurney went banging past, which was often. It was all so unreal that Compass often wasn’t sure if she was awake or still asleep. At one hazy point during the night, she might have watched a family being told that someone was dead, she wasn’t sure. There was a lot of very real-seeming grief and tears, but she vaguely remembered a penguin which made her think maybe it was a dream. At one point, banged in the shin by an old man’s portable IV coat-rack thing, she woke to find Mark eating Cheetos, mechanically, one after the other in a kind of robotic rhythm that both freaked her out and put her back to sleep.

They had gotten to the hospital around 12.30 or 1 in the afternoon, Compass estimated, then stayed all that day and through the night. It was now Sunday morning. Compass had managed to convince Mark to go home, take a shower, get some shut eye. He was clearly desperate for sleep, but he didn’t want to leave her. Compass was touched but assured him she’d be OK on her own. He finally agreed and left, returning 45 minutes later with a giant vanilla latte and a cranberry-orange scone from Tully’s. On seeing the steaming coffee and little paper bag, Compass, finally and for the first time since the drama began, burst into tears.

She didn’t like Starbucks coffee. It tasted burnt. She’d never liked it. There were two Starbucks in the hospital, probably two or three more within a 10-block radius, but Tully’s was far less ubiquitous, and the nearest was a several-block walk away. She clutched the coffee in one hand and the scone in the other and wrapped her arms around Mark’s neck.

He didn’t try to tell her it’d be all right. He didn’t make soppy little ticking noises, meant to be soothing, he didn’t pat her head or her hand, he just held her tight and let her cry. When she let go, so did he, cupping her face and wiping her tears away with his thumb, a gesture that’s every bit as sweet and romantic in real life as it is on TV. Then, ever the Boy Scout, he took her coffee and handed her a wad of Tully’s napkins to blow her nose. When she was down to those last hiccupy little sobs, he led her back to her chair and sat her down.

“You OK?”

Compass nodded. She was, for now. He set her coffee on the table next to her, gave her a sweet kiss on the top of her head, and left. Compass wasn’t hungry, but she drank the coffee and ate the scone, feeling cared for. She hadn’t been allowed in to see her mother since Mina was admitted. Compass felt like she ought to kick up a fuss about that, but, though she felt like a huge coward, it was a relief. She didn’t want to see Mina unconscious in a hospital bed, looking wan and vulnerable and horribly sick. She also didn’t want to see Mina awake in a hospital bed, angry, vengeful and horribly sick.

She got up and threw away her empty coffee cup and brushed the crumbs from her clothing. Her neck was stiff, her back hurt and she would have knocked over a Walgreens for a toothbrush and some toothpaste. She was considering asking a nurse if they had such things when a doctor approached her.

“Miss Jones?”

“Yes.” Compass tried to read the doctor’s face, but the woman’s practiced, dead-pan expression gave nothing away.

“Your mother’s awake. You can see her now, if you like.”

“How’s she doing?”

“Reasonably well. The pain is under control, and she had a little bit to eat this morning.”

There were so many questions that Compass wanted to ask, but she was ashamed to admit that her mother had told her nothing, hadn’t already entrusted her with the information.

“Is she in a lot of pain? Normally, I mean?”

“She has medication to help control it, but I understand she’s been cutting the pills in half to stretch them out a little longer.”

Compass wanted to be sick. The scone rolled in her stomach like fresh lava.

“I had no idea,” she whispered. She sat back down in her chair.

“There’s a lot you should know, Miss Jones, about your mother’s condition and possible treatments. Why don’t we make an appointment to talk.” She reached into a pocket of her white coat and brought out a business card. Compass took it and stuffed it into her backpack.

“Where’s my mother now?”

“Room 1117. Why don’t you follow me.”

As Compass stood up, she noticed, lying in the shadows under a chair on the opposite side of the hallway, a stuffed penguin.

They wandered through a maze of corridors, and Compass would have sworn they passed the same nurses’ station at least four times, but finally they came to room 1117. The doctor held out a hand, and Compass shook it.

“Call me when you’re ready,” the doctor said, over her shoulder, and briskly walked away.

There was no window in the door. Compass had hoped for a window so she wouldn’t have to walk in blind. She took a deep breath, felt the scone settle a little, pushed open the door and walked in.

The room was full of streaming sunlight. People were laughing. Before her eyes adjusted, Compass wondered if she’d somehow walked out of the hospital and into a picnic. Gradually she was able to focus and saw nurse Linda sitting companionably on the edge of Mina’s bed. Linda was holding Mina’s hand, something Compass hadn’t dared to do since Mina declared her daughter was old enough to cross the street without help. “Without clutching at me,” as Mina had put it.

They hadn’t noticed her come in, so Compass stood for a moment in the shadowy alcove of the doorway, watching. Mina, propped up with giant pillows, looked thin and pale, but she was laughing and chatting, and even from across the long room, Compass could see her eyes sparkle. Linda said something, and the two women laughed, leaning in towards each other so their heads almost touched. Then Mina’s laugh turned to a strangled cough, and as she fought to get her breath, Linda expertly poured her a glass of water and held the straw to Mina’s lips.

It took a moment, a long moment when Compass didn’t even realize she was holding her own breath, but Mina got it under control and was able to take a few sips of water. Linda rubbed her back; big, circular motions designed to soothe and calm. She didn’t panic, she wasn’t afraid, she knew what to do. Compass had frozen in the doorway, unable to move, as her mother struggled to breathe.

I should go, Compass thought. Now, before they see me. Linda can take better care of her. Mina loves her. She stood a moment more, trying to decide if leaving were the kind thing to do or the cowardly.

Then Mina spotted her, and all the light went from her face.

“My daughter is here,” she said to Linda. “Hooray.”

Linda stood up, all business now. Compass felt like she did at a classmate’s sixth birthday party when she’d announced to all the kids that there was no Santa Claus. Mina, she suddenly remembered, had told her to tell.

“I’ll leave you, then,” said Linda, and she gave Mina a kiss on the cheek, pulled up the blankets and smoothed out the pillowcase. She made sure the water was within easy reach, even pointing the straw towards Mina. Then she smoothed out her white skirt, brushed past Compass without a glance, said, “Don’t tire her,” like a threat and left.

Compass walked to her mother’s bedside, perched in the spot where Linda’s butt rumple would still be if she hadn’t smoothed out the blankets.

“Don’t sit there; the sun’s in my eyes,” said Mina, sharply, and pointed to a chair on the other side, some distance away.

Compass wanted to say something, but she didn’t know what. The picture of Mina, chatting happily with the nurse, was fresh in her head and she was afraid that anything she said would be petulant and accusing. They sat for a moment, Compass looking at her mother, her mother glaring fiercely at the television that wasn’t turned on.

Compass got up to get a glass of water from the sink. She didn’t dare touch the pitcher of ice water that Linda had undoubtedly fetched specially for Mina, but she figured tap water would be fine. She reached for one of the cups next to the sink, but Mina wasn’t having it.

“Those are for the patients,” she snapped.

Compass counted to ten, then put the cup back down. She wondered which wire attached to her mother she could pull. Was there an assortment of possibilities here? The black wire for a quick death, the green for a slow one; red for a hot death, blue for a cold? She smiled at her mother, lips closed so no teeth would show, the same way one smiled at a territorial dog.

“How are you?”

“That was Linda,” said Mina. “The nurse. She was here all night. With me.”

So was I, thought Compass, though she didn’t say it. “I met her when we came in. She . . . she was very worried about you.”

“You brought me in?”

“Mark and I, yes.”

Mina looked confused. “Linda didn’t tell me.”

“How did you think you got here?” Compass sat down in the chair, resisted the urge to scoot it further away and scooted it a hair closer instead.

“I didn’t think about it,” said Mina. There would be no thank-yous from Mina, no chance for Compass to explain that she had been worried about her mother, had stopped to check on her and found her unconscious on the hallway floor. “Linda says you’re checking me out today.”

“I guess so,” said Compass. “The hospital says they can’t-”

“Yes, well, whatever.” Mina gave an airy wave of one thin hand. “Never mind that I can’t even get up and down the stairs, just take me home and dump me like dirty laundry for someone else to take care of.”

“I can’t do that. You can’t take care of yourself, not until you get some strength back.”

“Well, I’m not going to stay with you in your cat-infested hovel. I’d rather die.”

“You don’t have to.” Compass took a deep breath, launched into it like she was diving into a shark tank. “Arthur and Ginny are on their way here. There was a ferry breakdown or something, but they’ll be here soon.” Mina’s face went even paler with shock, but Compass ploughed on. “They’re taking you back with them. They’ll take care of you until you’re strong enough to take care of yourself.”

It was a fait accompli. All details handled and settled on, and Mina was too weak to wiggle out of it. Compass leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms to indicate how much this was the plan and how unalterable it was. It was the only plan that made sense, and Mina might fight it, but it was how it had to be. Mina's face turned to stone.

“Get out.”


Mina lay back against her pillows and rolled over to face the window, away from her daughter. Compass sat for several more minutes, but her mother had nothing else to say. Finally Compass got up and left. She found a seat in the hallway and stayed there until Arthur and Ginny arrived. She hugged them, waved away all their questions and concerns, and finally fled. She felt terribly guilty, dumping the burden on them, but staying in that hospital with her poisonous mother for one more second was simply unthinkable.

She walked home, fed her anxious cats, then curled up with them on the couch.

“Hey, Mom, I have a new boyfriend,” she said to the air. “He’s really sweet; I think you’ll like him a lot. He’s an entomologist; he studies bugs. He’s really smart. And he’s cute, in a geeky way. Tall, glasses, he has that air of a pocket protector, you know what I mean? You’d like to meet him? I’d like for you to meet him. Remember when you were so sick? He helped me a lot then. He helped me get you to the hospital, and he stayed with me all day and all night, and he brought me coffee and a scone. He eats Cheetos, but he manages to get all the orange off his fingers, so that’s OK.”

She went on, describing her boyfriend to the patient air and to the cats, who seemed happy for her, until she finally fell asleep.


NuclearToast said...

Ok, I want to smack Mina into next week, but part of me hopes there's an upcoming bit where Compass finally gets to take her down 3 or 4 hundred pegs. That would be satisfying.

Ash said...

Oh man! I feel so bad for Compass. I like it when Mina is mean in a bitchy-funny-mean way, but this is just too mean. I can't wait to hear what happens next!