This story is by Kim Engelmann and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Harriett was lost. Completely lost. Panic rose within her and she tried to calm herself. Everything was dark, but somewhere there was noise. Someone was talking with too much animation, creating a kind of up and down cacophony, that confused her. Anxiety rose up within her again. Harriett focus! Figure this out.
Slowly, she fought her way up from the fog of her delirium and opened one eye just a slit. It was all she could manage.
She was granted a moment of lucidity. Glancing around she thankfully knew where she was. It wasn’t always like this. Sometimes she would open her eyes to the unfamiliar and it would scare her. Today she saw the familiar, and she gave a rattled sigh of relief. The common room. The nursing home. Her wheelchair surrounded by other wheelchairs. She even recognized the lady to her right – the one who wore the gaudy plastic jewelry. She could see through the open slit in her eye the woman’s necklace made up of large pink and purple beads. To her left was the jaundiced looking guy with the scruffy beard who liked to wave at everyone who went in and out of the room. She knew Rosie the staff person who passed by. She felt proud of herself in that moment for remembering her name. Rosie would always say, “Harriett, you look good today.” Harriett knew she didn’t look good at all. She was 87 years old and knew she was losing her mind.
The flashing light of the TV got her attention. The television was always turned on way too loud for her liking, championing incessant commentary on everything, all day. Evidently there were some kids stuck in a cave somewhere. Was it Thailand? They were stuck in the darkness, lost and then found, but still stuck. She listened. Actually, now it seemed that some of them had been rescued, but there were others still in there. With heavy rains predicted, time was running out.
Harriett felt herself slipping away. She tried to fight the swirl of it. She never knew where she would end up. This time she was with her mother in the farmhouse kitchen. Dad came in from outside. They sat down to eat with Mama and Dad and Frank her younger brother limping awkwardly over to the table with the forlorn look that was his regular expression. A mere wisp of a boy, with a pale face and soft blue eyes, Frank had been born with a form of cerebral palsy that made him quiver and shake with every move. When he stood his body was shaped like an S. He could barely hold a pencil and though he was an avid reader, he was no ones friend at school. He had been an “accident” her mother had told her, unexpected, and Mama had almost lost him twice before he was born. Frank was ten years her junior and Harriett had made the conscious decision to distance herself from him and his chronic health issues after he was born. She was popular, salutatorian in her graduating class, with an exquisite singing voice. Frank had leg braces, was slow of speech and barely able to pour a glass of water. In his loneliness Frank made avid attempts to connect with her. Struggling with the pencil, he wrote her poems at Christmas and on her birthday about how glad he was to have a sister. She politely read them and discarded them. On summer mornings when they had no school he would try to make her breakfast. He was often up early – his pain made it hard for him to sleep – setting toast and orange juice neatly on the table for her. More often than not, she breezed out of the house barely noticing his attempt. His affection for her never waned over the years. Even as adults he was the one to call, to stop by. Harriett had tolerated him with pity, but rarely initiated contact. She watched Frank across the table, struggling with his fork and Mamas potatoes. A mixture of guilt and sadness rose up within her and settled deeply, throttling her with remorse. She stirred uncomfortably in her wheelchair.
All this she saw like a set of slides, flicking by, one by one on the screen of her ragged mind. Regret caved in on her and she woke to its sting. Once again she was granted the gift of recognition; the common room. The noise of the TV blared in her ear. Now she was hearing that all the kids in the cave had been rescued last night. Then, someone was shaking her, telling her to wake up. Rosie was straightening Harriett in her chair, and she opened both eyes. She saw the garish pink and purple beads around the women’s neck next to her. Then she was moving, being pushed away. The jaundiced guy on her left waved goodbye. A long hallway of rooms and vacant faces were passing her. Rosie was talking.
“Harriett! It’s community sing! You love music, so I don’t want you to miss this.”
Harriett did love music. She would recognize all the words to the old favorites but be unable to sing them. Her last stroke had left her non-verbal. When she tried to speak now, the words were jumbled, incoherent. At least the music was something lively, grounding her in the familiar. Something she could follow, even if only in her own mind.
“Here we are!” said Rosie cheerfully. “The rec room. Do you want an instrument Harriett?”
A woman was there with a guitar handing out tambourines and maracas. Harriett shook her head “no”. She just wanted to listen. The guitar began to play and the woman was singing, Home, Home On the Range. Maracas and tambourines around her joined in at different times. Some people sang the words. She saw Rosie start to leave, but then turn towards her.
“Harriett! You have a visitor.”
Harriett looked. A slight pale man came to the open door of the rec room. He had gray hair, an aquiline nose and soft blue eyes. Harriett frowned. Fragments of his features played with her mind. She didn’t know this man, and he was approaching her. Anxiety began to rise in her chest. She had no idea who he was. She did notice that he walked with two canes. The man ambled into the room deftly, pulling up a chair beside her.
“Hello, Harriett,” he said. “I am here for our weekly visit.”
That voice. It was so familiar. She knew it. Frank! Weekly visit?
He’d been coming to see her every week? She knew her short-term memory was flawed, and she was embarrassed, but so glad he was there! She turned and looked at him, recognition flashing through her now. She managed a smile. He was older than how she remembered him, but he still had the same soft blue eyes. The gratitude she felt to see him, to hold his hand, to be with him, spilled out of her. Did he know? Could he feel her joy? She turned and smiled again at him.
“I caught you on a good day, Harriett, old girl,” Frank said to her teasingly.
The regret for all the years she had spurned his affection, rose up inside of her like a tidal wave. She had waited too long to tell him “thank you” and now she couldn’t even speak. She couldn’t even form the words. His efforts on her behalf, his kindness, his continual desire to be in relationship with her; she saw it now, etched in bold relief in the caverns of her mind. She wanted more than anything for him to know that he was important to her. That she had noticed his kindness. That she cared about him. Time was running out.
They all began to sing again, and this time the song was You Are My Sunshine. Harriett knew the words well. She forced her good arm forward – the right arm that still gave her strength in her hand. Mustering all her energy she pointed at her brother with her index finger. The guitar strummed, the maracas shook, the tambourines jingled, and the words she wanted to say to him, were sung by others. She pointed at him for each word, hoping he would understand.
“You’ll never know dear, how much I love you…
Please don’t take my sunshine away.”
When it was over she studied his face, the face she now knew belonged to Frank. As she looked at him, she noticed a tear glistening on his cheek.
“Thank you Harriett,” he said.
After the music was over, and Frank had left, Rosie wheeled Harriet back to the common room. On TV, the reporter was saying that the cave rescue had been accomplished at the very last minute, just before the waters rushed in. They were calling it a miracle.