His head was swollen and pink the first time she saw him, and when they swaddled him onto her chest she let her sweaty forehead rest against his, and she saw his dark brown eyes for the first time. The trip home from the hospital was a nerve-wracking affair, full of baby car seat anxiety and newly mothered clingy-ness that resulted in her sitting at the back with him – who dozed off not even five minutes into the ride.
As most kids when they are three, he was obsessed with chocolate. His cheeks were permanently stained a light brown giving him a false outdoorsy look, but she was always there to wipe his cheeks down, revealing the hidden dimples under. It almost looked wrong to see him clean – dirty was a look he wore well – but she wiped and wiped, and as the years passed his cheeks lost that baby softness, taut by the onslaught of youth.
(She even stuffed a packet of wet-wipes in his bag on her first day of school. He came home and proudly showed off the empty packet, but he missed the spot on his left ear.)
He was six when he jumped into the kitchen wearing nothing but underwear and a cape wrapped around his shoulders, demanding a pointed hat with his toy sword. His eyes would perk up at the sight of rolled dough. He screamed in delight when she pounced after him, chasing and tickling – wishing to set forth a cat and mouse chase that will never end – but does, with the horrid offense of middle-school.
She was dimly aware that her son was seen as the ‘funny one’ in school, but didn’t pay much attention to that. He was seen in and out of the kitchen, helping whisk a thing or two and leaving to catch up with friends who always waited on the porch – they weren’t big on hellos. She always had to hide the chocolate – you would think that the sweet tooth would have been gone by now, but she was convinced it was only getting stronger. It didn’t help that she loved baking: she always jotted down a tip next to the recipe she tried, knowing before anyone else (including him) what he sought in life.
The accident happened when he was eight.
He had a fresh haircut; they were driving to the pet store. His grades were good and a puppy was promised. They weren’t speeding… later on they were told it was a drunk driver. They were all wearing their seatbelts, thank God, but truth be told she doesn’t remember much of it. There was that brief millisecond of a realization that they weren’t going to get out of this unscratched. There was panic; the car jostled, her hair flew to obscure her vision, her hand extended to the back of the car where he looked at her with shock. She pushed him away from the window before registering the screaming as her own, the crushed window shards cutting her arm. There was screeching of tries and the crunch of metal, then silence. He was alert, (trying to yank her arm?) yelling at her to keep her eyes open – yelling so much so his words ended with a shout as she closed her eyes for the last time.
That was the last she saw him: rosy checked, stripe shirted and fresh haircut. Brown eyes erratic with fear and concern, his small hands cradling a bleeding arm.
When she came to, she couldn’t open her eyes. The world was dark, but her hearing was sharp. The beeping of the monitor seemed almost piercing. She wanted to turn her head but was unable to – and this caused fear to trickle down her spine. She commanded her body to twist, turn, lift a finger – all unresponsive. The beeping on the monitor became more urgent, and she felt like screaming, only her mouth wouldn’t open, and her chest couldn’t heave.
There was rustling, a shuffling of feet and a presence by her side. “Easy there,” – a voice, empathic and tired. Not one she recognized. “You’ll be fine. Your son and husband are getting their last check-ups before being discharged,” A sigh, and she heard some more noises, things she couldn’t identify then. (A pen scribbling on the board, the nurse always took notes – a sound she would get familiar to soon.) There was the retreat of her footsteps, and she was gone.
Time seemed to blur into nothingness then, with the beeps of what was her heart monitor, she realized, to keep her company. She couldn’t see light or shadow, just darkness. In that, time expanded.
He came to visit her as soon as he could. He held her hand – her limp, almost lifeless hand – and kissed it. She felt his teardrops on her fingers and tried oh so very hard to twitch, to move, to caress those cheeks again. To wipe one last time.
“The nurse-lady says you can hear me,” he mumbled against her palm, his voice wobbly. He sniffled and started to narrate all the things that had happened, updating her on the family’s reactions and how the hospital looked. She was, for once, grateful for his talkativeness. His small fingers made lines on her arms, unpredictable and random (He was tracing the scars, lamenting.) He made no jokes, but didn’t stop describing the white tiled floor… until another knock on the door was made.
“Time to go,” he said, and kissed her cheek. She felt him pause there – she yearned for another, longer hug, but he left; almost heaving himself away from magnetic pull her sleeping form had on him. His footsteps were light and quick… the door shut, leaving her with her heart monitor that was beeping steadily – rhythmic, very opposite to the scrambled mess of despair her thoughts were.
It felt like years when his footsteps were heard again – light and quick, no squeak. She recognized them immediately: they were not the nurse’s, who always said good morning and checked her vitals. Her sneakers skid on the tiles, his didn’t. The nurse announced the date – three days? Where had they been?
“Dad is horrible at cooking,” Was the greeting, and she felt him shifting onto the bed with her. He picked up her palm and placed it in his lap, his fingers tracing the scars on her arm as he tittered about the messy house and the broken car and the burnt toast. She clung onto every word with a fierce attentiveness, and willed all she could for her fingers to move.
“Nurse says that coma patients are un-pre-dic-atable,” He confessed, and seemed pleased with the way he pronounced the word. (It was wrong, and she didn’t care) “Never know when they might open their eyes,” he mimicked, with her singsong tone she used in the morning. He started conversation again, about how going back to school might not be the same, but was interrupted by another knock on the door – she was starting to dread the sound of knuckles on wood.
“Gotta go,” he whispered, kissed her palm – she exhausted herself to try to move a finger, at least, but couldn’t. She was left with the sound of his retreating footsteps echoing in her head.
Never ending darkness… the monitor’s noises were reduced to background noise now, she was used to them. She identified the signal of a new day when the nurse skid on the tiles, greeting her. Scribbles on board, leaves. There would be people outside as well – muffled conversation, every so often a roll of wheels: wheelchair or stretcher? Games she could play with herself. Months passed, then years: time expanded, and at some point the date the nurse would announce would register no meaning. She was never good at math. Over the course of this time, the visits became shorter with longer intervals.
But then, the Girlfriend happened.
His steps were not as quick, more…calm. She knew it was before he even reached for her hand. When he spoke, his voice was deeper. His hands were also getting bigger – how unfair, does he not remember how it would take his entire fist to curl around her pinky? He retraced the scars, and updated her on the philanthropic club he joined in high school: “I know I need to cater to everyone else’s needs – but I just think a bake sale will be most profitable,” She wanted to smile, to chide him and his childhood sweet-tooth. When he raised her limp hand to kiss, she was shocked to find his chin prickly.
“I’ve also met someone,” Oh? “She’s…” he trailed off, unsure. “Nice,” he decided, and she felt like laughing. “She said the bake-sale was a good idea.” A pause. He coughed, and sighed. She was able to identify the different type of sighs he had: the frustrated one, the sad one, the tired one. This one was sad. “I wish-” he stopped. I wish you were here, I wish I could talk to you, I wish you could give me advise. Her fingers were unresponsive.
“I’m going to ask her to the movies,” he said, and she felt like a frantic caged bird at the confession.
When he left, his footsteps seemed heavy.
There were times she wondered why they let her stay on life support. Wouldn’t it be easier to say goodbye once? What were they hoping for – her to break through the nerves her body refused to respond to? She felt like screaming: yet she couldn’t heave her chest.
He mentioned her next two visits later, after the success of the bake sale.
“She thinks we should donate the money to the homeless shelter, but I want to keep some of it to fund our next project,” He went on, describing the scheme in elaborate detail. “Your pies were a hit,” He complimented, and she felt pride she never felt before in her life. “And you were right – lemon zest in the crust does elevate the dish,” Her notes! He was reading them! She wanted to yank his head onto her lap and coddle it like an old woman.
“She loved them too, said they were her favorite,” Ah. I see. She tried not to let that diminish her happiness – she was beyond proud, truly.
“I want to cook for her,” he said, and he never sounded surer of anything in his life. “Cooking brings this… light, into her eyes. I love the way she enjoys my food,” He tapped her palm. “Our,” he corrected, “Our food.”
The was something maturing behind that – now fully solid and deep – voice of his. She selfishly hoped to be awake, somehow, miraculously, when it happened.
“She said yes,” she could hear the smile in his voice, “To being my girlfriend,”
Darkness again, and time worked its way in the mysteriously quick and slow way it does. The greeting of a nurse, the skid on tiles. A noisy wheelchair (stretchers were accompanied by multiple footsteps, not one) and the constant beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.
He came again and it was years, in fact, later. He had graduated. Apologized for not coming earlier. Revealed a dream for culinary school she always saw coming but apparently he didn’t.
“I know if may seem like a surprise,” he said, cupping her palm – his hand was bigger than hers now – no, no surprise. “But I think this field allows me to be creative and make people happy. I uh- build on some of your recipes. And created some of my own,” He talked a bit about how the Girlfriend fully supported the dream. She was going to study journalism.
“I’d like to have your blessing. For, uh, you know. The new chapter in life and all that,”
He already had them, all of the blessings, since day one.
“I’m sorry we can’t keep you like this any longer,” His voice hitched, and it dawned on her what kind of meeting this might be.
“I’ll bring her to see you tomorrow.” When he raised her hand to kiss it, his cheeks were damp with tears and his beard was trimmed.
Beep. Beep. Beep.
Time was no longer expanding. It was a clump of sand, diminishing by the second.
Skid, “Big day today,” the nurse sang.
Beep. Beep. Beep.
There were three sets of footsteps that entered the room. Sniffling. A shuffle towards the bed, not him – unfamiliar. Light, poised and unsure. A brief brushing of manicured hands. The Girlfriend? She smelt nice.
“Hi.” Her voice was sweet, and she heard him laugh at her nervousness.
“I’m sorry our first meeting had to be like this,” Me too. “Um. I’ll make sure to take care of him,” at this, she sounded genuine.
Make sure to clean the chocolate stains on his cheeks and to wipe behind his ears.
She felt his hand again – it was shaking. She felt a wave of dismay and understanding that he might not say goodbye. I have loved you the moment I saw your brown eyes.
“I love you,” He says, instead.
The world was already dark, but now it was silent.