This story is by Elizabeth Parise and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“Oh, look at him. He looks so peaceful lying there. It seems like just yesterday when we were at your baby shower.”
Amie nodded her head in response, “Yes it does.” She spoke as if in a trance, the weight of it all making it feel surreal. It seemed like she had just been pregnant with Alex.
As they entered the room, guests dropped cards in a basket before signing the guest book. Friends and family spoke in hushed tones grouped in clusters, occasionally breaking away to walk up and peer down at Alex. There were a lot of people, more than at his baby shower.
There was so much love in that room, yet Amie felt all alone. Thoughts of her baby shower came flooding back. That day had been filled with elated anticipation enhanced by the warmth of “perfect weather.” Today was different; everything was cold. At least they had the fragrant flower arrangements to brighten the stuffy living room.
The baby shower had been all about her, a celebration of Amie becoming a mother. But today was all about Alex.
“Oh, Amie, I heard what you went through. You’re so strong!” the sharp voice jolting Amie out of her fog. “Thank you Aunt Carrie, but I didn’t do anything any other mother wouldn’t have done too.”
Strong. The word echoed in her head. She didn’t want to be strong, or brave, or anything else people were calling her. She didn’t want all this responsibility. She just wanted Alex.
Amie didn’t really need the bathroom; she just wanted to be alone. She thought about the day she brought newborn Alex home from the hospital. Amie hated hospitals, even that day, and she couldn’t wait to get out of there. She had looked down at Alex with both the honor and the horror of knowing that it was her sole responsibility to take care of him. She didn’t just want him to survive, but to thrive. She knew that every single thing she did from that moment on would impact who Alex became.
Amie looked in the mirror. She had the dark circles of lack of sleep, and an excess of stress, under her eyes. She supposed it was a badge of honor for every mother, but she resented it. She felt like she’d aged ten years in just the past few weeks.
She thought back to how just a week ago she waited in another hospital waiting room for news on Alex. They say your life flashes in front of your eyes before you die, but Alex’s life had flashed before Amie’s eyes in that moment.
He had been the sweetest, happiest child, energetic, yet peaceful. He was one of those kids people call “an old soul.” People of all ages wanted to be around him. He entertained them with his words of wisdom, sometimes silly, sometimes profound, often both. One babysitter carried one of Alex’s quotes with her as a guiding mantra.
“When I grow up I’m going to be whatever I want to be. That’s what I’m going to be when I grow up.”
Alex could have been whatever he wanted when he grew up but Amie knew he would be an artist. When he was a toddler, Amie left Massachusetts to study dance at a college conservatory in New York, and she brought Alex right along with her. Though he spent these early years surrounded by artists of all types, he always had an inherent concern for beauty that was all his own. Whatever was around him he turned into art- paper plates, push pins, rubber bands. Amie called him the artistic MacGyver.
When Alex was eight, Amie moved him back home to Concord, MA to open a pottery studio. Amie was following a dream of her own, not realizing that it was opening the door to Alex’s.
Alex found his “home” in the creativity of Concord. He studied the historic homes of his ancestors and developed an appreciation for the old, found beauty in the decrepit. As a teenager, he personified and befriended an abandoned house in the historic district of town. It was there he left his deepest secrets, and expressed his loftiest dreams. Mainly, he dreamed of restoring the house.
Alex went back to New York and got a degree in Scenic Design at the same college Amie attended. He was able to use this education to become a successful scenic designer, and window display designer for international fashion houses. Manhattan was an artistic hub, but Alex found it to be too frantic for his peaceful soul. Amie moved to New York to be closer to Alex.
The circumstances that led Amie to be sitting in that hospital waiting room had started a year earlier, just after Alex found out his dream house had been demolished. Alex had become increasingly short of breath, fatigued, and developed a non-stop cough.
A CT scan revealed a large effusion around Alex’s left lung, which was completely collapsed. Amie accompanied him to the ER to have it drained. After a three week hospital stay, including two surgeries and many tests, Alex was diagnosed with a rare, aggressive cancer at only 28 years old.
Over the next year, Alex endured three more surgeries, five weeks of radiation, six rounds of chemotherapy, six months of weekly injections of a clinical trial drug, and a combined eight weeks stay in four different hospitals.
Amie admired Alex’s strength through it all without even recognizing her own, instead feeling the weight of responsibility. It had been her responsibility to keep him safe and healthy, and she had failed. She longed for the days when he was a baby and his needs were straightforward. Taking care of him then, even if exhausting, always felt within her reach. But that year Amie felt helpless to do anything, no matter how hard she tried… or prayed.
While Amie felt helpless, Alex felt hopeful. He thought about his life, and his life was art. He realized, as he thought about the cycles of life and death, that his art was fleeting, discarded when the final curtain went down or at the end of the fashion season. He wanted to preserve things, as much as he wanted to preserve his own life. He applied for the Masters in Preservation Studies program at Boston College. He wanted to go home.
Just after his 29th birthday, Amie sat with Alex in his cramped hospital room as he waited for yet another surgery. She listened with confused concern as his breathing became labored. “Is this what a ‘death rattle’ sounds like?” she wondered. The doctors and nurses didn’t seem concerned; perhaps she was overreacting.
While Amie wrestled with her thoughts, Alex drifted in and out of a dream-like state. She held his hand as he spoke of his visions. He spoke of talking to his Grandma Mimi, who had died years ago. “They’ve come for me but I’m not ready to go” he said. “Who’s come for you?” Amie wanted to know while she tried not to sound alarmed. “Oh, I don’t know what I’m saying.”
She kept trying to alert his nurse to his dire condition without panicking Alex. She thought about making him as comfortable as possible, letting him drift peacefully away. She knew it was her responsibility as his mother to guide him out of this world as much as it had been to guide him into it.
A few hours later, Alex was being wheeled into the ICU with Amie at his side. The doctors asked her to leave so they could intubate him. She wanted to argue with them but the large orderly standing with them made it clear that she better not. He seemed to be more of a bouncer than a healthcare provider.
She held Alex’s hand, looked in his eyes and said she was there for him, he was going to be okay, and she’d be right back. It turned out to be just a set of broken promises.
Amie left the bathroom to face what felt like her whole world. The living room of the funeral home was cold and smelled heavily of lilies. Alex’s artwork and photos of him throughout the years alternated between flower arrangements of various sizes. Peter Gabriel sang out “You can keep my things, they’ve come to take me home” as the images of Alex’s life flashed on a TV screen. Alex had wanted to come back home, just not this way.
Amie stood next to Alex’s casket to address mourners as they shuffled up to say their final goodbyes. She saw the pain and pity in their eyes, if they even looked directly at her. Some were so uncomfortable bearing witness to her pain, their eyes looked anywhere but at her. The avoidance left Amie with another level of loneliness.
“Oh, look at him. He looks just like he’s sleeping. It’s hard to believe he’s gone.”
“Yes it is” Amie nodded, “yes it is.”