This story is by D.R. McElroy and was part of our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Bethany stood staring dully at her father in his hospital bed. Tubes and wires ran everywhere, and heavy bandages obscured most of his head and face. She could see one closed eye and a slack, pale cheek. The steady beep of the heart monitor accented the respirator’s rhythmic wheeze.
Bethany had driven to the hospital in a rental car straight from the airport; the thousand mile flight to Idaho a blur she had mostly slept through. Sleeping was something she had been doing a lot of this past six months since Mom had died unexpectedly, at a young 54. Cardiopulmonary edema, the coroner had said.
Bethany had taken her death very hard, grief leaving her stunned and numb. Dad had basically lost his mind. With no one to be accountable to, his drinking had escalated to a constant state of walking coma. He’d been admitted to the hospital with a blood alcohol level of 0.40—five times the legal limit; which explained how he’d missed those two little steps down from the dining room into the sunken living room of his 1970s-built house. He probably would have been okay, maybe only broken a wrist, if not for the stacked-stone fireplace; his skull hit the raised hearth dead-on.
It was the whore who had found him, bleeding and unconscious. Always a weak man, Dad had called Bethany about a month after Mom’s funeral asking if he could come live with her. She could hear the drink in his voice; bitterness and repressed anger had risen in her. She and Mom had coddled him and suffered his alcoholic rages until the day Bethany turned 18 and fled the house, leaving Mom to face his wrath alone. And now he wanted to come crawling back into her life? She almost laughed, but instead sneered, “Sure—as long as you don’t drink while you’re here.” He’d hung up angry and they’d not spoken since.
It wasn’t long after that Bethany had discovered he’d invited a stranger to live with him. Mom wasn’t even cold in her grave and the bastard had a new woman in the house. Bethany thought of her as the whore, but in truth she was a nursing student who basically took care of Dad in exchange for room and board. Everyone agreed that Dad would have died if she hadn’t been there, but Bethany was unable to feel gratitude.
Now, here she stood looking at him, a sad victim of his own demons, and to her shock she felt a wave of pity for him. She pushed it angrily away as the doctor came in. He delivered the news with the dispassionate compassion his profession required: Subdural hematoma…severe damage…poor prognosis, even with surgery. Bethany absorbed the information, but felt nothing—the same howling, screaming nothing she had felt since Mom died. Sometimes, at work or at home alone, she would relentlessly stab her forearm with a fork or pen or whatever was at hand, trying to make herself feel something—anything—but this yawning abyss of grief and darkness.
In this chaos, they wanted her to make a choice—a choice she had neither the capability nor clarity to make. Dad had a DNR. A Do Not Resuscitate order. That meant no extraordinary measures were to be taken to prolong his life. But the paramedics, of course, had no way of knowing that, and had intubated Dad before transporting him. Proper procedure. By the time the DNR was discovered, Dad was on a respirator. Now, it was up to Bethany, his only living relative, to decide his fate.
Bethany stumbled from his room and out to her forgettable silver rental car. She’d told the doctor she needed some time before making the decision. She drove to the house with the windows down, the frosty winter air helping to clear her head. There was no sign of the whore at the house. Too exhausted to do anything else, Bethany collapsed on the sofa and fell instantly asleep.
When she next opened her eyes, the first thing she saw was the gigantic fireplace. The irony hit her so hard that she began laughing hysterically. The laughing became screaming and the screaming, weeping. She sobbed uncontrollably for her loss and the unfairness of it all. When the tears finally slowed, she toppled over on the sofa and slept again.
It was the pain that eventually woke her; she was slumped sideways on the sofa, her neck cocked at an angle and her lower back howling. She had no idea how long she’d been sleeping. The house was dark. Slowly, she pushed herself upright and clambered to her feet. The light on the answering machine was blinking. The message was from the nursing student, asking how Bethany’s dad was and could she (Suzanne her name was) possibly come get her things from the house? Bethany erased it.
She walked down the hall to the master bedroom, flipping on lights as she went. The room smelled like old man and stale perfume. On the nightstand on Mom’s side was a half-empty bottle of Red Door. Growing up, Arpegé had been Mom’s favorite, but she had mostly stopped wearing it by the time Bethany left home. Had Mom started wearing the new scent recently? Bethany picked up her mother’s pillow and sniffed it; it smelled strongly of Red Door. Tears sprang from Bethany’s eyes. Dad had been spraying Mom’s pillow at night when he went to bed. The unfamiliar scent offered Bethany no comfort, and she set the pillow down again.
In the master closet, all of Mom’s clothing still hung, massively askew. Bethany rolled herself in the clothes still on their hangars, and immediately understood why everything was all jumbled. Across the hall in Bethany’s old room, nothing looked familiar. This was obviously where the whore had been staying.
Back in the kitchen, Bethany made coffee, discovered there was no milk, and drank it black with extra sugar. It was too cold to go out on the deck, so she threw the curtains in the living room open; light flooded the gloomy interior of the house. She sat at the dining room table. There was several weeks’ worth of junk mail and assorted bills piled up, and she realized that she was now accountable for getting those paid. She felt her anger flare, and then immediately snuff out as the weight of responsibility crushed her: Estate; I have to settle my father’s—my parents’—estate.
Clearly, Dad had done nothing with any of Mom’s things. The house wasn’t a total wreck, but it was grimy and in need of a good cleaning. Thoughts started bombarding her: hospital, lawyer, bank, bills, moving company, funeral arrangements—it was too much. What she needed was a distraction from thinking. So, she started cleaning: kitchen, bathroom, master bedroom, dust, vacuum, mop, scrub, move furniture, kill dust bunnies, air freshener, walls, baseboards, trash, empty mop bucket, clean kitchen sink again, clean coffee maker—had it ever been cleaned?
At last, Bethany dragged herself into the bathroom. Her face in the mirror was chapped and red, her eyes swollen. Her hair hung in greasy ropes down her shoulders. She turned the shower on hot and stepped in, clothes and all. The water purified her and washed away the last of the tears.
As the water ran cold, she peeled the sopping clothes from her body and stepped out. No towel; she gave a grim chuckle as she realized her clean clothes were still in the suitcase in the back of the car. She padded down the hall into the master closet and found a soft old flannel shirt of Dad’s, and a serviceable—if too short—pair of Mom’s jeans. “Still looking after me, Mom,” she said aloud.
Two days of cleaning, crying and sleeping had done their job. Bethany set out the choices in her mind. One: The DNR. Dad had made the decision while he was still capable, relieving her of the responsibility, as well as whatever doubt or guilt she might feel. But that meant that he won—he would control her even on his deathbed. Two: Life support. He would be a lump on a respirator forever; she’d never have to worry about him again. Unless, of course, he woke from a seven-year coma, or something. She shuddered at the thought. Death or life? Freedom or imprisonment? Bethany put her face in her hands.
Bethany drove to the hospital and asked at the nurse’s station for the doctor to be sent to her dad’s room. The doctor listened to her decision without judgement, only asking her if she was certain. She was. He and a nurse unhooked Dad from life support. Do Not Resuscitate. But, he wouldn’t die alone.
The room went eerily quiet as the wheeze of the respirator stopped. Bethany felt a single tear roll down her cheek, as well as a twinge of satisfaction.
Then, Dad took a breath.