“Well,” the elfin gift shop volunteer reflected. “I suppose it depends.”
There are three basic types of hospital volunteers. She was the third variety, and so came around the counter to peer at Ecumena’s meager floral selection.
“Frankly, a nice houseplant provides a positive life force, and do you know, I read somewhere that a tropical like a spider plant can purify the air in the room?” “Verna” related, almost breathlessly.
“My wife wanted something more, ah, ornamental,” I smiled, almost apologetically. She patted me on the forearm. She understood, she’d fix me up, and there indeed were no wrong choices. I suddenly felt invested.
I barely knew Aunt Chrissie, was told I’d met her at one of Sarah’s uncle’s famous New Year’s parties with the special five-bean dip and the all-night euchre marathons and Bill’s three-bay garage bisected into four or five wholly autonomous bloodlines that had no desire to coagulate and Dick Clark or Ryan Secrest on a 21-inch screen waiting for the survivors to tire of beans and beef and competitive tension.
It was Sarah’s uncharacteristically impulsive notion to dress up the room, but she gave me uncharacteristic discretion to run with it. I ran away with it, if nothing else but for a 20-minute break from watching Sue and Frieda watch a comatose old woman mechanically aspirate. Frieda ironically had been in worse shape than Chrissie before the latter hurtled down the basement steps some three years ago. Every few months, Sarah and I bundled Frieda up for a schlep to Chrissie’s fourth floor room. Frieda was a sort of Greatest Generation Final Girl skirting Inevitable Death.
Frieda had suddenly become visibly distressed by her sister’s disinfected purgatory. A bouquet of anything, Sarah whispered urgently. As long as it didn’t exceed $30.
“Tea roses are a very nice choice – they don’t tend to get in the way of the nurses.” Verna leaned in. “prefer mums or carnations. Cheerful but basic – an uplifting force. Lilies of course can be breathtaking, but they can be a pollen hazard, if our patient is allergic.
“Tulips!” she then declared, pulling a small coral-striped pot from the glass case. “Peach and yellow and red! I could eat them up, like candy! What could possibly say spring more splendidly!”
In that moment, I could eat them, too. In that moment, I felt Verna had conjured the spray of confectionary blossoms like some business out of Bradbury or Wonka. Then, she pulled the pot back ever so slightly.
“Unless, of course, she doesn’t care for tulips,” Verna said gravely.
“Actually, my wife’s aunt is in a coma. This is more for her sister.”
“What a lovely, kind thing,” Verna murmured. So shines a good deed in a weary world, I mused. “Dear, though.” She displayed the price tag circling a salmon blossom.
“Yes,” I nodded, eagerly.
Sarah leaned toward my cheek. “How the hell much did you SPEND?”
“You said $30,” I managed. Sarah completed the kiss, confiscated the tulips, and placed them on the bedside table beside Frieda, sunken deep into Chrissie’s superfluous guest rocker.
“Chrissie prefers mums,” Aunt Frieda stated.
I raised her grimace with a remorseful smile. “All they had, with the holidays and all.”
“Mm,” Frieda acknowledged with disappointment, resignation, and expectations fulfilled. I studied the operational schematics of the Hill-Rom bed.
“I feel alive.” It was low and raspy.
I turned to Sarah. “What?”
My bride frowned. “I didn’t say anything.” Our eyes tracked simultaneously to Frieda, whose eyes were wide and locked on the bed. Her white hands gripped the bedrail, and Frieda rocked as if drifting on choppy waters.
“You heard her?” she whispered.
I nodded, once, as Sarah moved to lower her aunt into the rocker. Frieda continued to stare at her sister, whose head now was turned toward her. I joined Sarah, but nearly lost my footing easing Frieda the last few inches as I came level with the head of the bed and Chrissie’s smiling face.
It wasn’t a smile I liked.
“No pupil response, no response to stimuli,” Dr. Pell informed Frieda, endeavoring for HIPAA’s sake not to see Sarah and I. “As I’ve explained, the trauma your sister sustained has severely depressed her brainstem reflexes. In some extremely unusual cases, the brain of a coma patient may continue to function at some level, and it’s possible they may ‘hear’ sounds in their immediate environment.’
“What about smells?” I asked. The neurologist regarded me as if I were abusing a graciously granted privilege and indulging an elderly delusion.
“Highly unlikely,” he told Frieda. “Patients in an altered state of consciousness have exhibited minor reflexive behaviors such as sighing, coughing, twitching, swallowing, and facial movements. As well as unidentifiable noises or unintelligible speech. Are you certain what you heard wasn’t simply a random vocalization? It’s understandable to have interpreted it as a hopeful sign.”
Pell’s expression softened. “Look, you’ve had a stressful experience. Perhaps it would be best if you went home and got some rest. We’ll alert the family should anything change.” He nodded briskly and retreated toward the nurse’s station.
Sarah slung her bag over her shoulder, took a final glance at Aunt Chrissie, her head again centered on the pillow, that smile fixed on her lips until the next random reflex happened along.
We watched Sarah’s remaining, conscious aunt wobble into her living room and bring up what appeared to be Grey’s Anatomy, as a huge gray cat leapt into her favorite chair. I turned the key, and we headed it back toward the main drag and home.
“It was the way she said it,” I finally remarked as we passed the Walgreen’s on Main. Sue pursed her lips as she stared out the front windshield.
“While I was waiting for you two, I read up a little. Some patients spontaneously cry or laugh or, get this, grimace. Scientists are thinking comatose patients are more conscious of their surroundings than we think, and may have a better opportunity to ponder on the meaning of life, their spiritual state, bigger questions.”
“If you were to come out of a coma, even if just for a few seconds, wouldn’t you be a little surprised to realize you’re still connected to the pre-coma world? ‘I feel alive.’”
The first spring drops exploded against the hood, the window.
“But it wasn’t like that,” I continued. “It wasn’t ‘I feel ALIVE.’ The emphasis was different. ‘I FEEL alive.’”
Sarah watched the droplets congregate into rivulets. “Maybe she wondered if she actually WAS alive.”
I slowed at the light by Torino’s Pizza. “Yeeeah, it wasn’t like that, either. There was a tone. Not hostile, exactly. ‘I FEEL alive,’ but with some stank on the ‘feel.’ Snarky, gloaty.”
“Maybe not gloaty. Passive-aggressive? Like, ‘Well, gee, I certainly FEEL alive.’”
“Who was she being passive-aggressive at?” Sarah demanded, dubiously.
“Maybe Chrissie was simply crowing at the inner voice telling her she was no longer among the barely living. But, and I hate to say it, I have to think she was speaking to Frieda. You said they didn’t get along.”
“Not even as kids. Chrissie had a severe allergy to animals, so they couldn’t get a pet. And Frieda had serious asthma ‘til high school. After their dad, Gene, died of liver cancer Chrissie’s junior year, Lucy was kind of rough on them, working widowed mom dealing with two teenagers constantly on each other. Chrissie married Scott Helgin at 18. Frieda got a job at Frelich and Sons Candy and got out of the house as quick as she could. Lucy fighting with Chrissie had at least kept her off Frieda’s back. Why?”
“It was the way she said it,” I repeated. “Not like she was surprised to be alive, or euphoric, or disappointed. More like she was rubbing it in. Like she’d won. Or Frieda’d lost.”
Sarah understandably hit it almost as soon as we got home, and I bee-lined for what we once optimistically called the basement “exercise room.” The scrapbooks were in a couple of bulk paper boxes near the commemorative treadmill. I started in the ‘50s, scanning paneled living rooms and kitchens, church chapels and lodge halls, aunts and uncles and cousins I knew from garage parties, reunions, funerals, Sarah’s half-remembered oral history.
I followed a progression of scrupulously labeled Arbuthnot reunion photos as the roster of Buddy’s siblings and cousins dwindled from 12 in the Eisenhower era to eight as Cronkite reported the daily Southeast Asian death tolls to five by the ‘80s. Sarah’s dad Buddy passed halfway through the Obama administration after standing graveside for his last brother, and Chrissie and Frieda now were it. The two constants from Brownie to Polaroid to Nikkon to iPhone, flanking the group as far apart as they could manage without requiring wide-angle. Chrissie big and broad and with a knowing smirk that passed for the life of any potato salad party. Frieda small and pale and vaguely anxious even in the bosom of family.
Chrissie’s home was easy to identify: Big Sister on her plaid padded throne, regaling kin on displaced dining room chairs and folded seats, dense sprays of puffy flowers placed around the room. Frieda usually parked in or near a corner, looking bravely miserable. In a few photos, Lucy’s fragile daughter appeared on the verge of tears, her cheeks and nose popping pink against the burnt oranges and muted yellows and avocadoes.
Frieda’s digs were tidy and spare, less populous. Buddy and Lois and Sarah, a couple of the brothers, mainly around a dinette table or on the porch. A few solo shots of Frieda in her own overstuffed chair, a large blue cat in her lap looking infinitely happier than his or he mistress.
I could have been watching Ted Lasso -- this was the pursuit of snipes or geese. Buddy and Lois had taken Frieda to “the Indian casino” over the Iowa line the day Aunt Chrissie took a header down the cellar steps. Chrissie’d rung off from her daughter Dawn minutes before her life alert device activated. Maybe Big Sis simply had been rubbing Frieda’s nose in the persistence of her own overpowering, overbearing, oppressive life force.
The patty melt at Gannon’s Courthouse Café is among my local Guilty Five, though it’s best enjoyed in the company of a beloved other or the wintry comfort of casual friends. Not so much Dawn Helgin.
Sarah’d let me off the hook when Chrissie’s daughter invited her out for deets on her mom’s momentary resurrection, but admitted welcoming a “buffer.” Dawn Helgin was a lot -- she boiled God and country and the culture down to easy, vitriolic morsels, interspersed on Facebook amid an ongoing eulogy for her comatose mother complete with tasteful hospital selfies. I plied my journalistic skills to pry her open like an adolescently narcissistic mid-life Facebook drama queen.
“She’ll wake up,” Dawn declared. “When she had her stroke a couple years back, we thought it was nursing home time. But the therapists had her talking and walking in a couple of months. Mom was bound and determined to outlast us all, at least Aunt Frieda.” Sarah’s cousin snorted. “Poor little freak – you remember her little performance at Grandma’s funeral? Mom handled the arrangements, bought all those flowers Grandma Lucy loved, and Aunt Frieda had to make it about herself, sniffling and turning on the waterworks and nearly collapsing by the coffin. Jesus.”
“I worry about her now your mom’s not across the alley,” Sarah said, diplomatically.
“They lived next to each other?” I piped, nearly spitting thousand island and caramelized onions.
“Yeah, that crappy neighborhood by the library,” Dawn grunted. “It’s really gone downhill, if you know what I mean.” It was pretty much what she always meant, and I double-downed on my fries. “We dug out Dad’s old .22 for Mom, just in case one of the…you-knows…broke in or something. But it gave her the willies, and she stowed it in the basement. Doctor said she can’t do stairs any more, and I told her she at least needed to keep it in a kitchen drawer. But try telling old folks anything. I don’t know what the fuck she was doing on the basement steps the day she, you know...” There were hand gestures, like a morbid hula.
It was about three days later, with no encore from Aunt Chrissie. I had a meeting downtown, so I detoured to the library and the currently dormant house across the alley from Frieda’s.
The gate around the side was unlocked, so I peered through the kitchen door into the house. The scrapbook photos absolutely did Chrissie’s digs justice. I scanned along the low prewar ceilings to either side of the hallway. I spotted it almost immediately across from the basement door.
The backyard was overgrown save a foot of crusted-over dirt and clods along the rear chain-link. But the foundation was free of vegetation, and squinting through the basement casement, I could make out a trio of metal storage racks anchored to the cinder block wall. A wolf spider the size of a corgi crept from the blackness under the center shelves, and I fled across the alley.
“I’d have probably been tempted, too,” I admitted cautiously. I wouldn’t have been, or hope to think I never would. Then again, Frieda had 20 years on me, and some 70 bad ones.
Gene was lazily pawing my thigh as he purred, extended to luxuriantly full-length on my lap. I was nursing a decadent slab of Texas sheet cake and a mug of brown weakness from a jar of black gravel that might have been two days or 10 years old.
“It was the way you said it.” Frieda’s veined hands tightened about her Sanka.”I mean about Chrissie’s love of mums. It wasn’t a fond memory. Was it?”
“I don’t know if Sarah told you, but Chrissie was short for Chrysanthemum,” she began, quavering slightly. “Mom always had a big patch of them in front of the house and along the back fence. Chrissie’d pick ‘em and keep ‘em in our room.”
“When you think she figured out what was causing your asthma, your problems?”
“Oh, I think pretty quick.” Her timbre was building. “She had to share a room with a whiny, weak little sister, who complained constantly because we couldn’t get a dog or even a cat. Chrissie hated people thinking she was weak, and when she found my weakness, she hated me more. Mom and Daddy were too busy to realize, and Chrissie started bringing them into the house. Then Daddy died, and Mom was too busy and exhausted dealing with us to worry about keeping up the garden. I think it made Chrissie hate me more.”
“And when your mom died, your sister packed the funeral parlor with mums, not as a tribute like Dawn thinks, but to punish you. When I studied Sarah’s scrapbooks, I realized why you always looked so physically miserable at Chrissie’s house. Grief wasn’t the reason you seemed so broken up at Lucy’s funeral. You were probably on the verge of an allergic attack.
“Then, what, three years ago, Chrissie decides to rub salt in the wound? The fence between you clearly hasn’t been moved or updated in years, but there’s bare dirt all along the fence line. When’d you dig up the flowers? After Chrissie’s coma, before the mums could fully bloom?”
“She wanted me to move,” I had to strain to hear her. “Gene gets out, but always comes home, but Chrissie throws a fit if he wanders over there. When she put in the chrysanthemums, she knew the pollen would blow right over.”
“So the day you went with Sarah’s folks to the casino, you paid her back. Was she gone when you let Gene in?”
“Had a doctor’s appointment. We had a copy of each other’s keys in case something happened.”
“Something happened. When she got home and found Gene, I guess she had it, too. Your dad’s gun was in the basement, right? You wouldn’t notice the bullet hole in the hallway molding unless you were looking, and who’d have thought Chrissie would go cat-hunting, anyway? But somehow, she gets down the stairs, locates the handgun, and climbs back up. And there’s Gene waiting patiently for her. She’s probably already having an allergic attack, eyes swollen, maybe dizzy or weak. She lines up the shot, but maybe sneezes just then, or loses her footing, or maybe can’t handle the recoil, and down she goes.
“Nobody would have thought to call the cops, though I’d bet your dad’s gun slid under one of those metal racks in the basement. Any signs of an allergic episode got lost among the bruises and blood. And in the chaos of getting Chrissie into an ambulance, Gene slipped out.”
“I imagine that’s about right,” Frieda nodded. “Sarah says you’re a smart one. You going to tell her or the police?”
I pushed up with a slight pop of the knees. “If you still have that key, I’ll go get that gun before somebody gets hurt. And maybe put some grout or spackle or toothpaste in that bullet hole. Sarah wouldn’t like me on a ladder, so we’ll keep all this, pardon the expression, mum.”
Frieda started to rise. “On a hook on the mud porch.”
“Stay put.” It was labeled “C.” Back in the living room, Frieda was sipping her Sanka with Gene.
“Scary when she turned over and smiled, right? You know that was probably a reflex. Did Chrissie actually say anything? It was you, wasn’t it? Something she said once?”
“After her stroke,” Frieda said. “We were alone in her hospital room, and she wanted to let me know she wasn’t going anywhere.”
She finally smiled. It wasn’t a smile I liked.