If I’m Still Here
Shirley peeked into her mother’s room to see her sitting on the bedside.
“Good morning, Ma! How are you?”
Hazel said, “Still here. Feeling pretty good.” She blew her nose into a handkerchief.
“Do you want anything special for dinner, on your birthday?”
“Oh, honey, I don’t think that far ahead. Let’s keep it simple.” She sounded hoarse.
“But you’re turning a hundred Monday. Three days away. Don’t you want to celebrate?”
“If I’m able to sit upright and smile, I will celebrate. I gave up counting anniversaries long ago. You know that. Maybe open a box of stogies. Puff up a storm and tap a keg.” Hazel smiled. She tried suppressing a cough, but it got the best of her.
Shirley became concerned when the cough began to look painful. Hazel looked wrung out when it finally subsided.
Shirley caressed her mother’s back. “Ma! I didn’t know you were sick. Get dressed. We’re going to the doctor.”
“I’m not going to any ER. They’re filled with sick people. You trying to kill me?”
“I’ll call Dr. Olivet and see if we can’t squeeze you in there. You’re going to outlive us all. Do you want help?”
“No, I don’t want help. I’ve been dressing myself for quite a few years, you know. Any coffee?”
“I know, Ma. I’ll be in the kitchen. Fresh pot.”
Shirley filled a travel cup with coffee and milk. When Hazel entered the kitchen, Shirley held the door for her and helped her to the car. Hazel hated using a cane. Shirley got her strapped into the passenger seat and handed her the coffee cup. Hazel drank. Shirley drove.
“Oooh! That’s perfect, dear. I love my coffee.”
“I called George. He’s going to meet us there.”
“Good. Did that interview get printed yet? I’d like to see what lies they tell about me.”
“They’ll just put what you said. Why would they lie?”
“Maybe the lies I told weren’t interesting enough.”
“I haven’t seen it yet. It’s in today’s paper. We can read it while we wait.”
“He was a nice boy. Wet behind the ears. Stock questions.”
“He seemed respectful.”
“In person, yes. We’ll see what makes it into print.”
Hazel started coughing again. It seemed to take on a life of its own. Shirley pulled over. The cough subsided. Hazel looked frail.
“We’re almost there. Don’t talk. Okay?” Hazel nodded. She seemed to shrink into herself. Where did this cough come from?
Shirley got Hazel signed in at Dr. Olivet’s. The receptionist was friendly. Hazel sat in the waiting room, staring at nothing.
Shirley got a local paper from the newsstand downstairs. She paged through until she found the feature story on Hazel turning one hundred years old.
“Seems like more people turning hundred all the time. It used to be such a rarity. This is their most popular feature.”
“If they haven’t jinxed me with it. They should have waited to print it.”
“Let me read.” Shirley was worried. This cough came out of nowhere. Shirley watched Hazel as she read the paper’s summary of her life. She wasn’t sure her mother was even listening. But then she’d grunt in response to some quote, or comment.
Shirley looked at Hazel. “This is you, now. ‘I feel about forty, lately. For a long time I felt in my twenties, but you know, time passes. Seems to be catching up, of late.’
‘I missed out on the Great War, but I got here in time for the Great Depression. Though I never understood what was so great about either of them.’
‘Those ‘Golden Years’ you always hear about, seem to be an advertising slogan. I find myself wondering, where did everyone go? I miss my hubby, my friends…’
‘I tried all the slow suicide methods – smoking, drinking, a little pot… You know. But they all made me feel bad. Then I got the hang of just living. And here I am.’
‘The secret to a long life? Stay out of the papers.’”
When Shirley got to the end they looked at each other. “That was good. I think he did pretty well.”
Shirley’s son, George, had walked in, unnoticed. “It sounded just like you, Grandma. How are you feeling?”
Hazel grunted non-committedly, but she brightened on seeing George. The nurse called Hazel’s name. George assisted her to the nurse’s station. Shirley offered to accompany her but Hazel waved her off.
George sat across from his mother. “She’s a survivor.”
“She looks so frail, though. Seems to be melting away as we speak.”
“Sorry it took me so long. I had to cover some things at work, before I left.” Being in his fifties, George was still on the job, managing a local factory.
“We were talking about her birthday.” Shirley showed him the interview in the paper.
“Yeah, I heard you read it.”
“I hope she makes it.”
“She’ll make it. She’s strong. But…”
“Well, she is old. This… whatever it is, could…”
“You must have thought of this.”
“When, then? What’s she worth?”
“What do you mean? Dead or alive? Are you really going there? Don’t rush. You’ll get what you deserve, in good time.”
“I’m talking about long term care. What if Olivet recommends hospice? What if she has pneumonia?”
“Hospice isn’t what you think. They get a flat rate and have every incentive to ‘close the case’ sooner than later. They get paid the same whether it’s a week or six months.”
George had never heard Shirley speak with such disdain. “Wow. So, ‘dying with dignity’ is..?”
“Well-greased skids to the cemetery… in my humble opinion.”
“I had no idea.”
“Things change so fast. I haven’t…” She put her hands to her face.
George moved next to Shirley and embraced her. “I’m sorry, Mom. I was still in management mode. I didn’t mean to sound…”
“Mercenary? I could hear cash register chiming…”
“I meant for her care.”
“I hope so.”
They sat in silence for a few minutes. Then George picked up the paper and read the interview. At one point, he started laughing and said, “That’s perfect. It’s so Hazel.”
“He captured her pretty well.” Shirley smiled at George with wet eyes.
Hazel emerged from the examination rooms, working her cane and leaning on a nurse’s arm. She looked frail. Shirley hugged her.
The nurse handed Shirley some papers with care instructions and said Dr. Olivet recommended hospice.
“I don’t think so. I want to look at other options. But thanks. Is there a prescription? Is there any hope? Are we giving up?”
The nurse pointed out the prescription for anti-biotics and smiled sweetly. She said something about ‘quality of life.’
“If you think she’s going to just curl up and blow away, you don’t know the same Hazel as I do.”
George gathered their things and walked Shirley and Hazel out. He got them to their car and told them he would see them at home after picking up the prescription.
The next three days were hell. Shirley thought she was losing her mother. Hazel would lie still for hours and then would become unsettled and thrash around on the bed. Shirley would stroke her hair and that seemed to calm her. Their eyes would meet and Hazel would smile and squeeze her hand.
Shirley didn’t dare leave her alone. They called a service for twenty-four hour nursing care. The woman who came was highly skilled and compassionate. George sat with Shirley and Hazel when he could. They would pray together. That was all they could do.
Monday morning, Shirley peeked into the bedroom and saw her mother lying on the bed, her face turned toward the window. Shirley tapped on the door and entered. The nurse smiled at her. Hazel turned and smiled at her daughter.
Shirley touched Hazel’s arm. “Hi Ma! Happy birthday! How are you?”
“I’m still here! When’s the party?”