UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
When Love Leaves The Room
The griddle is sizzling hot for pancakes — my son’s favorite. It reminds me of The Last Supper, because the role of Judas suits me well.
I take each stair one by one, wishing there were five-hundred more, a stairway leading out of this, and an escalator into a different reality.
Charlie sits on his bed with a duffle bag next to him. “I’m ready,” he announces with pride.
A solitary picture hangs above his miniature helicopter collection. That print has hung for twenty-five years. A mother kneels facing her baby with outstretched hands — waiting. Waiting for those first precious, wavering steps from a baby. I know the anticipation of a horizontal pajama-footed baby becoming a vertical shoe-footed toddler. It happened much later for Charlie. Many years later. Stride Rite didn’t carry the little white lace-up shoes in his large size. And that’s okay. My elation was unsurpassed when he wobbled for a fraction of a second. I bronzed his tiny socks instead. But now, his suitcases are packed and wait in our foyer like a sad song without lyrics.
His room echoes in the emptiness without his belongings; he’ll need those with him for comfort. Yet, I need him with me for comfort. We’re both about to embark on a journey, neither of us chose, but it’s crucial to travel. There’s a fist around my heart squeezing tighter and tighter.
“I made you breakfast.” I want to say honey or sweetheart, but I don’t. It won’t help his stoic front and I’m afraid if I hug him, my heart will melt into a puddle on the floor and I’ll slip and fall, unable to walk out the door.
“I’m not hungry. I’m ready,” he says.
This time his voice reflects some anxiety. I know with Charlie not to let a situation build. “Okay,” I choke out. There are so many things I long to tell him. How I never knew it was possible to love someone so much, how he’s my son but also my companion.
How I was the truly lucky one to be his mom. My husband left when Charlie was diagnosed. Sure, the prognosis at the time was pretty grim for any kind of normal life. The medical professionals projected his mentation in the severely retarded range. But projections suck. And they were wrong. No, he never made it into the mild range, but I’ll take moderate intellect anytime. I’ll take any kind of Charlie, anytime.
They say a parent loves a child unconditionally. They’re wrong. It is the child who loves the parent categorically. Charlie makes me feel like a celebrity every single day.
The duffle bag bumps on each stair as he descends. This is the final walk to an execution chamber. It is an assassination of Charlie and me, and what we shared, however trivial. Our American Idol nights and making homemade sundaes for desert. Our ice cream creations threatened to topple out of the bowls until we tamed them with our spoons. Sharing summer thunder as the sky blackened with rolling soot and when the autumn leaves fainted on the lawn leaving crunchy bodies of foliage. And snowdays. Storms beginning as a sprinkle of baby powder on the ground accumulating into a whitewash.
The spectacular, yet, the very ordinary seasons of our lives.
“I’m ready,” he repeats.
The pancakes have deflated and the butter took a suicidal slide off the white edges, pooling golden tears onto the plate. My eyes start to burn.
“Okay,” I manage.
~*~Every single radio station plays goodbye songs. I turn it off. Each traffic light turns green when I approach. I need more time. From my rearview mirror, Charlie sits in the backseat; his hand rests on top of the duffle bag. I can guess what’s inside: a few airplanes, some fighter jet DVDs, and a pillowcase. The dark blue pillowcase that smells like us. Smells like home. A small piece of what we had as a family of two, sewn into a rectangle.
As I turn onto the street, my stomach parachutes into my feet, a slow plunge brings queasiness to my entire body. Ahead a white house, with a red door. No signs to broadcast to the quiet residential neighborhood who lives here and why. Only a handicapped van parked in front gives away the occupants. New home, I should say; but the words won’t leave my lips in Charlie’s presence.
I pull next to the curb avoiding the circular driveway which offers an immediate path to the entrance. My stomach growls from lack of food, my mouth is dry and pleading for a small sip of forbidden water. A sorrowful knife jaggedly rips me open and leaves me raw and exposed, hemorrhaging emotions onto the street suffering a fate no parent or child should endure.
I need another minute, a day, a week, a few more months with him. I want him to fully understand how much I love him, why I can’t explain this to him, and the only thing that matters is that he is protected. Cared for and safe. Dear God, let him be safe.
He’s the underdog prize fighter inside the ring with nobody left in his corner, not a single sole in the crowd cheering for his victory in life.
“Charlie.” The tears leak and my resolve to cork them has almost left.
“It’s okay, Mom. I remember.”
“Charlie.” I can’t turn around. I force my shaking hand to kill the ignition. “This is what we’ve been talking about. Some kids go to college, some kids go to work. But all kids when they get old enough move out. They need that big word we talked about — independence.
The front door opens and an aide is looking out. I wave her off. The stupid welcome sign swings in the door. Unwelcome. This tumor is unwelcome. I’m handing over my disabled son to the state and a bunch of strangers. In case.
In case, I’m so incapacitated I won’t recognize his beautiful face.
In case, I die.
The doctors rant their warnings—A.S.A.P. Stat surgery. There is no A.S.A.P. or stat in a retarded world. He needed time to adjust, transition, understand as much as he could that his mom loves him. I know those months were critical for successful treatment, but those months were more critical to Charlie for a successful future. ‘Russian roulette,’ the neurosurgeon said. Maybe. But Charlie’s life depended on this, because it might be his permanent residence. So, we visited, a lot. We talked about the move, a lot. We visited more. We decorated his new room. We met each and every staff person. I called a meeting with his sheltered workshop mentors. They assured me this was a good home. No infractions from the state. I did everything I physically could to prepare him.
I push open my car door; it’s heavier than a concrete wall. “Charlie, don’t forget to--”
“I know, Mom. Brush my teeth with toothpaste. Make sure I wash when I shower and not stand there and play with the water. And…” He squints, his eyebrows cock inward. “And…and…”
The simplest of things he can’t process. I don’t care if he remembers to clean, I don’t want him to forget me and this special bond we have. The seconds tick as though someone is finger-forwarding the clock. I was supposed to report to Admitting twenty minutes ago.
“Charlie.” My throat shuts. My arms open and Charlie clutches me. He knows. Sobs pound inside me begging to be set free. Rational reasoning leaves and thoughts of my key slipping back into the ignition would grant us more time. A simple dinner, a drive-thru burger. No pickles, he hates pickles, did I forget to tell them? My typed list of his likes and dislikes was seven pages long. I can’t remember if I put the pickles on there.
“Charlie,” I try to say, but it is the faintest of a peep. I wrap my arms around my son. The son who has made me so proud and the man he’s yet to become, no matter what his limitations are.
“Charles,” an African-American woman shouts from the front door. A colorful band wraps around her head, a multi-hued authority. Her earrings graze her shoulders, because her fatigued lobes no longer have the strength to allow them to bounce. “We’re having pizza for lunch. Come help us, okay?”
If I had glue I’d pour it all over me and adhere him to my body. She strolls up the walkway and pops open my trunk, and yanks out his belongings. It is as excruciating as if she strips off pieces of my skin.
In juvenile regression, I want Charlie to object, have a meltdown, scream ‘no.’ But I’ve taught my son well; he’s being brave and accepting what I tell him as truth. In the house window, the curtain sways, a head appears. Could be the Caseworker. House manager. Nurse. They’ll gawk at our goodbye, and secretly be grateful it’s not them dealing with this catastrophe.
I tilt Charlie’s chin and lean in and kiss his lips softly. I haven’t done that since he was a baby. “I love you, Charlie. Really, really love you.” A rope tightens around my throat, cutting off my air, causing a stabbing pain. Even with the impending surgery, I’m certain nothing hurts more than this.
He moves away and hoists his duffle bag waist high. Like a soldier called to war, to serve for a better good, he marches away. He didn’t enlist; he was drafted. Without looking back, he waves one hand. “We’re having pizza.”
~*~I know how late I am. They won’t understand I couldn’t leave the pancakes out, and the garbage full, and the washing machine soaking clothes. The hospital overhead page blares. Shoes squeak on the linoleum the way nails gouge a blackboard. Happy people bid each other a good afternoon. Most carry a Styrofoam lidded cup of caffeine. My head pounds. Throughout the admission process I focus on the walls, the floor, the ugly ceiling. Staff whisper, ‘brain tumor—delayed treatment.’ One calls me a crainy. At first I thought she said crazy, and then I realize she means craniotomy. I want to tell them it’s a heart problem. And it is.
In pre-op they peel away my identity like a ripe banana ready for consumption. Jewelry and clothing are removed and sealed. The bag boasts Patient Belongings. I think they should name it more appropriately, ‘brain tumor woman’s stuff.’ As I slip into the white and blue hideous Johnny Coat, my ass hangs out. I tie, retie, but still I’m exposed. A reminder—we all have assholes; we just need to make sure we don’t act like one.
After all, it comes down to broken body parts. Here in the human repair shop we wait, look for a smidgen of compassion which equals a listening ear or a moment of time. Inside, I burn to tell someone my story. I need a person to know about Charlie, my sweet Charlie. I hope my story will make me a somebody here, pray they’ll try harder to keep me intact because I’m a special boy’s mom.
They inject me with something. I still want to tell them, but they hustle about, too busy. It’s my fault; I was late.
The neurosurgeon may be brilliant, but must have been expelled from bedside manner school. I try to explain about Charlie, my tongue keeps fainting inside my mouth, my eyelids close like a broken window shade. He says Charlie’s too old to live at home and should have been placed years ago. Placed. A nasty verb. Nobody deserves to not live in their own home. We’re a disposable society. Elderly parents, too much care? Here you go, Nursing Home. Retarded, Autistic? Here you go, Group Home. The names are quite fancy. Residential living. Community Experience. Hell, they should cohabitate the throw-away old people with the throw-away handicapped people and mix in the abandoned animals stuck in a shelter. I’d bet they’d all have one hell of a time.
~*~The OR is cold and silver. They’ll cut open my skull, while my son is forced to sleep in a strange bed. The sterile room is unimpressive. Regular people with specialized training. Underneath all those years of schooling and all those hours of experience are ordinary people with ordinary lives. They take out their garbage, spit bubbly foamed toothpaste in the sink, and use a plunger on a clogged toilet.
A masked nurse smiles. At least I think she did, because her mask moved up and her eyes crinkled. “We’re almost ready to begin. Anesthesia is on his way. We’re running late.”
~*~“Charlotte, open your eyes.”
Someone shakes me. My head pounds.
“Is she awake?” A deep voice echoes.
“On and off.”
“Not a word. Eleven days post-op.”
~*~“Charlotte, there’s someone here to see you. Open your eyes again.”
Cold stings my lids. Blurry figures.
Something crashes against me, shaking my head, throbbing pain shoots through my nostrils. My stomach bounces on a turbulent raft. He squeezes me with such force it compresses my chest and I can’t breathe. Each inch of my body recoils from the contact. A dark-skinned woman stands with a printed fabric on her head.
“Mom, I wanna go home.” He puts his face near my ear. His breath smells bad and his hair is slick with oil. He must be very tired because the skin under his eyes are swollen and gray. I’m tired, too.
“Mom, no, open your eyes. I was independ…I’m done now.”
There are more muffled footsteps. A man in blue scrubs speaks to the fabric head. “Unable to speak. Should have come in sooner. Poor prognosis. Hospice.” More whispers.
“I thought it might help him to adjust,” Fabric head says. “He’s uncontrollable.”
“Mo-om!” he bellows.
“Come on, Charlie, it’s time to go,” she says stepping away from the man. “I’ll get you a burger with extra pickles.”
A claw vises around my shoulders. A forceful extraction occurs.
The boy stiffens. “No,” his voice screeches. “Get up. Please, get up.”
The room blankets with a calm. My eyes close and shut out the sounds and the lights. The darkness of sleep keeps all the pain away.
Catherine DiCairano’s fiction has appeared in Word Riot, The Shine Journal, Bewildering Stories, On the Brighter Side and The Chick Lit Review.
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