Sad Fiction Inspirational

He wakes up in the heat. The moist air poaches him in his own skin. Water dripping off the canopy in a steady rhythm is punctuated by the distant cries of jungle birds. He feels spiders making their way under his fatigues but can’t move to brush them off. He must stay absolutely still or risk giving away their position.

The dripping turns into a strange high-pitched beeping. Pain radiating up his legs is like battalions of fire ants swarming their way to his thighs. The darkness is swallowing him.

He opened his eyes to hard white light and an unfamiliar brown face hovering over him. He caught his breath and then let it out in relief when he realized it was a woman’s face. He was not in the jungle any longer. This must be a hospital.

“My men,” he rasped. “Did they make it?”

Odesa smiled at the ancient man buried in the white sheets. Whenever the temperatures rose, Mr. McCormack dreamed he was back in Vietnam, reliving what had happened.

“Why don’t you tell me how you got out of there,” Odesa prompted gently as she opened the window to let in a cooling breeze. Even though she’d heard him tell his story before, she could listen to him recount his harrowing escape from the Cong so long ago while she exercised his shriveled limbs.

One thing she understood as a hospice caregiver is that the stories that had long lain dormant in the attics of her patients’ minds needed to be told. And someone needed to listen. Most people just didn’t have the time. Certainly not the doctor, whose brief visits were utilitarian at best. Rarely did the overworked nursing staff have the time either. And, apparently, neither did his own family. Once, she had heard Mr. McCormack start to tell his story and his daughter had rolled her eyes, having heard it all before. His grandchildren had looked embarrassed. She could read in their faces that they did not believe the frail man in the bed had ever been the same man as the one pictured in the frame on his dresser, in his fatigues, standing with other handsome young soldiers in a jungle far away.

Mr. McCormack faded back into sleep after only a few moments, and Odesa went to check in on Mrs. Swanson in the next room. The spritely old lady looked in good spirits, sitting upright and tackling the Wordle on the laptop her son had sent her. He never visited himself; he had some job that kept him very busy. Instead, she tried to enjoy the gifts he sent, but she hadn’t known how to use a laptop. Odesa had bookmarked a few sites and shown her how to play the Wordle.

“Jelly!” she said, when Odesa entered. “It took me five tries. It’s the J you know. We don’t use it very often in English.”

Odesa nodded, glancing over the woman’s chart. “I bet you made a lot of jelly back on the farm.”

“Oh my, yes. I’d make pints and pints of both jams and jellies all during the last sticky weeks of summer. Speaking of which, can you do anything about the thermostat? It troubles Roy McCormack when it gets so hot. I can hear him thrashing about and moaning. It’s awful what happened to him in Vietnam.”

Mrs. Swanson always took a lively interest in others. It broke Odesa’s heart that she had no one to take an interest in her. “You are a sweetheart, Mrs. Swanson,” she said, checking the compression bandages. “But how are you doing?”

She rested her big brown eyes on the bright blue ones of this fading flower of humanity.

Mrs. Swanson smiled through the stranglehold angina had on her chest. “Just fine. No complaints.” Her voice sounded thin, like the skim of ice in the mornings that cracks at the first breath of warmth.

“What do you say I challenge you to a quick game of Boggle?” Mrs. Swanson liked these little challenges. It took just a few moments out of Odesa’s day to play a game with this woman who had so few days of her own left to live.

Across the hall, Odesa could hear Mrs. Crane had visitors. There were little barks of laughter as someone told an anecdote about one of the children growing up. Odesa knew they would bring crayoned drawings crafted by the great grandchildren that she would tape up on the windows after the family left. The light would shine through them, turning them into little stained-glass images that Mrs. Crane would proudly show off for weeks, her joy in her family the wealth enriching her final days.

Odesa could check in on Mrs. Crane after the family left. Instead, she deviated over to Mr. Frampton’s room. He greeted her as he always did, shouting out his joke of the day. “Why did the bicycle fall over?”

Odesa pretended to ponder this one before shouting back, “Because it was too tired!”

He roared. He loved bantering with this feisty caregiver, who always gave as good as she got. Mostly, he loved laughing. Why did so many people forget that guráng, old people, still have a sense of humor even when they are facing the end of their lives? In fact, Odesa considered, maybe that is when it is most needed.

Mr. Frampton’s laughter turned into a harsh bout of coughing. Odesa patted his back and then hollered out her own joke. “Why was the fish’s grades so bad?”

He looked stumped, but she knew better than to give him any hints. He would be deeply insulted if she did. You might give a child the answer when they are struggling, but you don’t treat an elder like that. Such disrespect.

Odesa had come from the Philippines twenty-five years before, but still carried the values of her homeland in her heart. Her people respected their elders. Odesa herself had sent money back to Pasig for years until her mother could come join her. Her mother had watched Odesa’s children during those hard times when she was working and trying to earn a degree at the same time. Now, her son was in the military. That new drug, fentanyl, had taken her daughter, leaving Odesa to raise her granddaughter. She could not have been more grateful for her mother, who still lived with her and who watched the little one during Odesa’s shifts.

Mr. Frampton looked up at her triumphantly. “The fish’s grades were so bad,” he trumpeted in his rich baritone, “because they are below sea level!”

They chuckled as she finished checking his vitals. It’s funny how all those data points about the physical body were called “vitals,” she thought, when what was really vital was that she have that little joke ready for Mr. Frampton every day.

No one needed to know that each night when she got home, after looking in on the children and passing the news with her mother over a bite to eat, she would go online and be sure she had a joke for Mr. Frampton. She would look up words her patients had used that she didn’t understand. Mrs. Alvarez was from Chile and had used the word “langosta” yesterday. Google told Odesa that it meant lobster, called ulang in the Philippines.

Armed with that knowledge, she checked in on Mrs. Alvarez, who lay bathed in sunlight from the window, staring at her hands in her lap. They were bent and twisted by arthritis, the knobby joints an angry red.

Odesa began gently to stretch her fingers.

“My father’s hands were like this,” Mrs. Alvarez said. Her voice was wavery. “I always thought it was from the sea.”

“You mean from the langostas?” Odesa ventured, now that she knew what the word meant.

Mrs. Alvarez smiled at her. “My papa would take me fishing on our family’s marca. How you say, fishing grounds.” She stopped to draw breath. “I miss my homeland.”

She stretched through her finger exercises obediently. “I thought his hands looked like this because the sea had shaped them. I grew up and left the sea, but here I am, with the hands of my father…”

Her voice drifted off on a note of surprise.

Odesa held the hands warmly between both of her own. This old woman was nearing the century mark and hadn’t ever had a visitor that Odesa knew of. No one besides the doctors and the nursing staff had touched her in all that time. It made her sad, and for a moment she simply sat holding the misshapen hands, but she was running late. Surreptitiously, she twisted her wrist to check the time. She hoped Mrs. Alvarez hadn’t seen her do that. There could be nothing worse than feeling the last person on earth who seemed to care you were still alive would rather be elsewhere. She peeked up and saw with some relief that Mrs. Alvarez had fallen asleep.

Out in the hall, she shot a quick text to her mother saying she’d be a little late. Her mother shot an equally quick text back. ‘Make sure go to lawn sale for shirt.’

Odesa sighed. She’d forgotten that today was the semi-annual resident sale. That was the polite way to put it. Really, it was the semi-annual deceased resident sale. The members of the retirement community were a little mayaman, upper class. They had nice things that all too often their own families had no need of. Or they had no families at all to claim them. Beautiful end tables with grooves worn in them from the passing of a wheelchair. Tarnished silverware no one ever used anymore. Stereos, radios, and landlines that had no place in the modern world. Beautiful brand-name clothing from a generation smaller than the one they had given birth to. Twice a year, the facility sold the items in a big sale for the workers and locals to purchase, with the proceeds funding scholarships.

Probably, most of the good stuff had already been snapped up. Quickly, she checked in on Mrs. Crane who had fallen asleep. Crayoned drawings were scattered over the coverlet. Odesa hastily taped up the little masterpieces in the windows so Mrs. Crane would see them first thing when she awoke.

As she hustled down the hall to get to the sale before it closed, Mrs. Swanson called out to her. It was so unusual for the old woman to demand any attention from anyone, that Odesa stopped sharply enough for her sneakers to give a little squeak on the linoleum. 

Furrows of worry creased Mrs. Swanson’s forehead. “Dear, would you please check on Mr. McCormack. He was moaning something awful and I…well, I don’t know. I just feel something isn’t right.”

“On it, Mrs. Swanson,” Odesa sang, trying to keep any hint of irritation out of her voice. Her mother would not be impressed if Odesa came home empty handed, but she couldn’t ignore such a request. 

With a smart rat a tat on the door to Mr. McCormack’s room, she strode in and halted. Somehow, he had knocked the call button to the floor and twisted himself in his sheets trying to reach it. He lay staring at the door with the look of a wanderer in the desert searching for water. She ran to him, reaching for the gnarled hands gripping the sheets.

“Mr. McCormack, what is the matter?”

His face awash in sweat, he slowly seemed to realize he had found what he was looking for, another person to be with him in that moment. Slowly, the tension in his body began to ease, flowing out of him almost like a sigh. He sank back against the pillow but held her gaze. She gripped his hands as firmly as she could without bruising his fragile skin.

“I am here, Mr. McCormack,” she said clearly. “I will stay with you.”

He nodded, understanding what she was telling him. “Call me Roy, please, Odesa.”

It was impolite to call a grandfather by the first name, but rules no longer mattered. “I am with you now, Mr. Roy.”

He smiled. She did not take her eyes off his as the dim light within them flickered and then went out. His breath rattled briefly before stilling. The muscles in his face relaxed and then – perhaps it was a trick of the light – she could finally see the face of the young man in the framed picture on the dresser.

Still, she held his hand, listening to the beeping of the monitors, the telephone ringing at the nurse’s station. She let her eyes wander across the worldly possessions left to this man in his final days. One pair of leather shoes he would never again step into positioned neatly beneath the bed. One battered dresser crowned with the framed photographs of family members who had not come when they had received the call that he was near his end. In the top drawer of the dresser, behind the shaving kit he no longer needed and the rolled leather belt that no longer fit, tucked back where no one ever saw it, there was a purple heart. 

Soon, a whole team of people would come, the charge nurse, the doctor, the social services director, the grief counselor, and finally the funeral director. They would take over the final affairs of Mr. Roy McCormack. They would notify his family and write out the death certificate. His family would come to claim his body. Maybe they would take the battered dresser. Odesa doubted it. She wondered what would happen to the purple heart.

Her own heart pained her. For a moment, she stared out the window she had opened earlier, feeling the soft whisper of fresh air against her damp cheeks. When she no longer felt his presence hovering with her, she pushed the buzzer so the official machinery of death could begin. As she waited, she gently lifted his hand to lightly strike her forehead with it. Respect, she told Mr. Roy, respect.

April 28, 2023 14:42

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.


Aeris Walker
12:48 May 12, 2023

Such a lovely story. I have a soft spot for elderly people—especially those you see who could be on their last year of life. Your writing is such a tender and sad reminder to honor, respect, and take seriously these people who might be withering away in frail bodies but who have lived such full, vibrant lives. I was stopped in the grocery store the other day by a woman in her late 80s, who just wanted nothing more than to tell me and my children her stories. There was a sense of desperation in her, that there wasn’t much time left to share h...


Laurel Hanson
13:22 May 12, 2023

Thank-you so much! I have always loved old people; the worlds they have inhabited fascinated me even as a child. Walking history, I guess.


Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Geir Westrul
16:14 May 11, 2023

I loved Odesa, the caregiver, respecting her elders, just a good soul. It seems to me that Odesa lives in a cocoon of caring. She cares for her patients, they care for her, she is cared for by her mother, she cares for her granddaughter. They are small acts of caring, but so important. Even though she has her share of tragedy (her daughter dying from fentanyl addiction), and even though her workday could be perceived as drudgery, in this cocoon of caring, everything is full of love, sharing, gratitude, humor, and joy. A very nice use of ...


Laurel Hanson
17:21 May 11, 2023

Thank-you! I truly appreciate your perspective on my story. It is so well expressed.


Geir Westrul
17:33 May 11, 2023

It's a wonderful story, Laurel, one that sticks with you after you've finished reading.


Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Marty B
19:12 May 06, 2023

Good story, I like the anecdotes of the patients, that show how much Odesa cared. Also the sadness and loneliness which fills the lives of so many of the seniors (in western society). Like others, IMO going back to Mr. Roy's perspective at the end would have closed the story in a more standard way. Except your ending was great, and I liked the line '...the official machinery of death' - so accurate :( The hero and the sidekick make a good pairing!


Laurel Hanson
20:51 May 06, 2023

I get the difficulty I presented with the POV thing. Just me trying to be too clever and literally take the story from the hero and pass it to the sidekick (without depriving the hero) to make the point that we need to pay attention to the sidekick. It's just one of those things that might work and might not but probably would need more time than a week to figure out how to do it well. Returning to Mr. Roy like you suggest was one of my thoughts, but I liked the idea that where she was hovering over him when he awoke, his spirit is hovering...


Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
RBE | Illustration — We made a writing app for you | 2023-02

We made a writing app for you

Yes, you! Write. Format. Export for ebook and print. 100% free, always.