This story is by Gayle Woodson and was part of our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I wish I could just fly away. Not in an airplane. I long to spread my arms and glide through the air, over mountains and oceans. But a caged bird learns not to beat his wings against the bars. From my perch I gaze down at the sea, envious of a cloud of gannets that rain down upon spawning capelin. Hundreds of graceful white seabirds with golden shoulders and bright blue eyes fold their wings and plunge straight into the water, like arrows, then soar up toward heaven, each with a mouthful of tiny fish.
My jailer calls out to me from the bedroom. “Jean, where are you?” Elliott steps through the French doors onto the terrace. “Ah, there you are.” He strokes my head as if I’m a puppy. “How are you feeling?”
I press a button on my communication board and a robotic voice says, “OK.” It’s not my voice, and it’s not how I really feel. It’s just the button I push whenever someone asks me that question.
I shouldn’t call my husband a jailer. He takes good care of me, even though he’d much rather be down on the beach, scooping up buckets of the capelin that roll in with the waves. Or out in his boat, jigging the cod that follow the frenzy of breeding fish. Last year, our son Hal waded out into the surf and grabbed a cod with his bare hands.
“How did you get out here without your walker?” He takes my arm, helps me stand, but my legs are jelly, so he carries me inside. “Time for lunch.”
“Lunch” is a euphemism. Milky fluid drains from a plastic bag into my stomach through the tube poking out of my belly. I try to ignore a wave of nausea.
“I’ve been looking online at those Go-Go chairs. Insurance would pay for it. Want to try one?”
That question does not dignify an answer. A motorized chair would be the final step in my transformation to a cyborg.
“Want to watch TV?”
The tinny voice answers for me. “No.”
He turns my chair, so I can look outside. The TV clicks on. As usual, he’ll watch cable news with the sound muted, reading the closed captions. I don’t give a shit about the news.
It was subtle at first. Doctors could not explain the intermittent episodes of garbled speech, the choking. Except for one specialist, who gave it a name: Globus Pharyngeus. I Googled that. The full term is “Globus Pharyngeus Hystericus.”
Elliot saw the first sign that it wasn’t all in my head. During dinner, he threw down his fork. “My God. What’s wrong with your tongue?”
I raced into the bathroom. In the mirror, I stared into my mouth, at a pink mass that wriggled like a bag of worms.
ALS. Lou Gehrig’s disease. I tried to make a joke of it. “Just like Steven Hawking. Maybe I’ll become a brilliant physicist.” Hal chuckled, awkwardly and obediently, but my daughter turned away, fist clenched to her mouth, trying to hide her tears. Angelina is a nurse. She knows how these things play out.
There is no cure. Only time, and the doctors said there was not much of that. We took a Nordic Cruise, while I was still functional. In St. Petersburg, Angelina bought me a lacquered set of nesting Russian dolls. I keep them on my bedside table, next to the digital frame that scrolls through photos of our family through the years. Baseball games. Ballet recitals. Christmas dinners. And a month ago, Hal’s graduation from university. That was a beautiful day. I could still walk. Not very fast, though, so Elliot insisted on a wheel chair and we had great seats, in the handicapped section.
The bag of feeding is empty, and Elliot runs a tube through the hole in my windpipe, to suction out the stuff that leaked down the wrong way, into my lungs. I cough violently. This is torture. Why did I ever agree to the tracheotomy, the tube feedings? I guess I was afraid of dying.
“I have to go into the office for a while. Angelina will be here shortly.”
I push the “OK” button.
The room is brighter when Angelina breezes in. My beautiful, sweet daughter works long hours, and has two small children at home. But she comes every day. “You should be home,” my monotone device says. But Angelina just smiles. She opens up the nested set of Russian dolls, one layer at a time, peers into the innermost doll, and nods slowly before reassembling them.
Today she washes and styles my hair. Then she paints my lips red and dusts my cheeks with blusher. “I found some old pictures, of our shopping trip to New York.”
She hands me the photos, one by one. In Central Park…Times Square…Saks…and so on. I gaze at each picture, and then let it drop onto the floor. Angelina doesn’t hide her tears.
I don’t press any buttons on my device. It cannot express what I need to say. My lips quiver, an impotent puff of air bursts from the hole in my neck, and I press my hand against my breast.
Angelina hears what my heart says. “I Love you too, Mom.” She picks up the doll again, sets it down closer to me, within an easy reach. She kisses the top of my head before she leaves.
Euthanasia is not legal around here. It sounds like a good idea to me. I Googled it last month, researchiing the options. Elliot peered over my shoulder, at the website of a clinic in Seattle. He fell to pieces… grabbed my hands. “How could you think of such a thing?” He laid his head in my lap, sobbing. “We’ll get through this together.” I rubbed his shoulders, patted his back. But he’s wrong. Only one of us will get through this.
Later, I heard him arguing with Angelina, down in the kitchen. I don’t think they realized how loud they were. “For God’s sake, Dad, let her have some dignity. She’s still a person. It’s her life.”
I heard Elliot promise to “look into it.” But he never brought it up with me.
Every day, I’m a little weaker. I don’t expect to leave this house, ever again. I just don’t know how long my sentence is. But Elliot is not my jailer. He’s a prisoner, too, just like me, just like my children.
I pull apart the layers of Russian dolls and then reassemble them in a row. The biggest one is dressed in pink, with a rose-colored head scarf. She’s holding a bouquet of daisies. The next one is blue, then green, then lavender. I open the smallest one, yellow with golden gilt trim, and stare at the loaded syringe inside. It’s my ticket out. All I have to do is squirt the stuff into that tube in my belly. Whenever I choose. Every day I have that option. Or, I can keep on dying, slowly, a little more each day.
As children, Hal and Angelina had the usual scrapes and cuts. We went through a lot of band-aids. And whenever the time came to rip the bandage off, I would ask, “Do you want me to peel it off slowly? Or just rip it off?” They would grit their teeth and close their eyes.
I never asked Angelina where she got the Fentanyl. She would never tell me anyway. Maybe she signed out an extra vial. No one would ever notice that. Unless I turned up dead. The syringe would still be lying around. Elliott might insist on an autopsy. There would be an investigation. It would tear the family apart. My daughter could wind up in prison.
The sun is sinking low in the sky. I put the dolls back together and sigh, a long breath that escapes the hole in my neck with a rattle, followed by a fit of coughing.
I don’t so much crawl as drag myself out onto the terrace. My arms muscles are the last to fail me, but they are starting to weaken, too. I still have the strength to pull myself up, to lean on the terrace wall and look out at the sea. The gannets are gone. The tide has come in, covering the beach. The surf crashes against the cliff. A lone seagull sails by in the distance, silhouetted against pink and orange clouds. The sun drops below the horizon and then the sky explodes into scarlet and purple cobblestones with glints of gold. I’ve never seen a more beautiful sunset.
The stone wall is cold against my belly, as I pull myself forward, straining to get a better view of the glowing seafoam that explodes from the waves as they crash onto the rocks.
Why didn’t I see this before?
I can fly,
If only for a few moments.
Free at last,
I plunge through the air,
Just like a gannet.