This story is by L.M. Johnston and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The vision of Rose smiling at him over her coffee cup at a Parisian café crumbled as he jerked awake. The street sounds melted into silence. He was back in his room, the beige walls pressing in around him.
Martin checked the bedside clock. Five thirty in the morning. He felt the wetness at his crotch and turned to his side. He contemplated calling his care worker (what was her name?), but decided it was too early.
His thoughts drifted back to the day he’d met Rose. The Louvre – he’d gone to see the Mona Lisa. She’d greeted him at the door and convinced him to take a tour of the less popular parts of the museum. “The real Louvre,” she had called it. He’d spent the afternoon enthralled with her smile and quick wit. They never did get around to seeing the Mona Lisa, but that was alright. He didn’t need the Mona Lisa; he had Rose.
“Good morning, Martin,” said a voice. “Rise and shine.”
His eyes fluttered open. Slowly, he ascended from the depths of his memories. (Or had it been a dream? Lately, it seemed harder to tell the difference.)
A kind face with piercing blue eyes hovered above him. He recognized the face, but couldn’t place it. Who was this woman?
She seemed to sense his confusion. “Martin, it’s Gwen.”
“I know who you are,” he replied, feigning confidence, but surprised at how weak his voice sounded. “Of course.”
“Time for breakfast.” She moved to the windows. “Let’s let some light in here.” She twisted the blinds and let sunlight flood the room. Gwen walked back to Martin. “Ready for the bathroom? You don’t want to be late for breakfast. It’s bacon and eggs today.”
There was the click of arm locks being released. She pulled back the blankets and helped Martin swing his legs over the side of the bed. It felt like moving two sacks of sand – heavy and awkward. She stood in front of him, gripped his hands, and provided leverage so he could pull himself up. It seemed to take all his energy just to get off the mattress. With great effort, he finally made it to his feet.
Only something was wrong. His feet wouldn’t step forward.
“I need a minute,” he said, trying to maintain his composure.
Gwen frowned. “Okay. Maybe breakfast in bed?”
“No,” said Martin, hanging on to Gwen. “My feet just need to wake up. Ella’s expecting me.”
He made it two steps before his legs gave out completely. He collapsed into Gwen’s arms. She maneuvered him back to bed, and, as his head settled on the pillow, an overwhelming sense of dread took hold.
“What is it, Martin? Is there pain?” Gwen’s brow furrowed with concern. “Do you need the doctor?”
“No pain.” Martin shook his head. “Just tired.”
“I’ll change you here.” Gwen retrieved her supplies from the bathroom. “Maybe a bit more sleep before breakfast?”
She removed his diaper. Diaper changing was always a humiliating experience. Doing it here in the bed instead of the privacy of the bathroom made it that much worse. “How Ella’s doing today?” he asked, trying to distract himself from what she was doing.
“She had a bad night,” said Gwen, not making eye contact. “The doctor was with her when I got here.”
She fastened the fresh diaper and propped him up against the pillows.
“You’ll take me up to see her, won’t you?” asked Martin. “After breakfast?”
“Sure,” said Gwen. “I’ll bring a wheelchair, and we’ll go together.” She disposed of the diaper. “Are you sure you don’t want the doctor to come have a quick look at you?”
He saw concern in her eyes, and something else that he hated: pity. “Just let me rest a while,” he said.
Gwen made sure he was tucked in and then left the room. The door remained partially open. The hallway was so close, and yet . . .
He needed to gather his strength. He had to see Ella.
Ella – the source of so much joy, and yet so much shame.
“Severe cerebral palsy.” He could still remember the words coming out of the doctor’s mouth. Ella would need round-the-clock care. “Put her in an institution,” the doctor had advised. And Rose – the brave and loving person that she was – had refused. Martin had pleaded with her to listen to the doctor, but Rose had brought their daughter home and dedicated herself to caring for her. Martin had buried himself in his work.
A sound jolted him awake.
Had he fallen asleep? Drifted off again without even realizing it?
A plate with bacon and eggs sat on a tray next to his bed. The food didn’t interest him. He checked the time: nine o’clock. Almost time to see Ella. Just a bit more rest. He closed his eyes.
The triumphs and the disappointments played like an old black and white movie: Rose’s excitement over each of Ella’s firsts – first treatment, first swim, first school lesson. He hadn’t been around for any of it – too angry at the unfairness of it all – hating Ella for taking Rose from him. When he looked at his daughter, all he saw was the wheelchair and jerky movements.
His first affair had been exhilarating and hellish at the same time. Terrified of getting caught, he ended it much too soon. Rose had been baffled by the extravagant diamond ring he’d bought her to soothe his conscience. The affairs became easier after the first. So many of them. Rose had been too busy to notice. And while he faithfully gifted her with jewellery after every breakup, he never took her out so that she could wear it.
Gwen stood beside the bed, her hands resting on the handles of the wheelchair.
He tried to lift himself up, only to fall back against the pillows. After the third try, he gave up. “I need a little more rest,” he said. “Tell Ella I’m coming. I’ll be there.”
“Of course.” Gwen wheeled the chair away.
Martin drew the blankets up to his chin. A chill had taken hold of him.
His eyelids drooped.
Rose, sitting on the couch, holding Ella. Both faces covered in tears. In broken sobs, Rose told him the news. It was cancer – Rose only had months to live. For the first time, they cried together as a family.
He retired so that he could care for Rose. In the beginning, Rose made it her mission to teach him how to care for Ella. She declined so fast after the first month that his plans for making amends were never fulfilled. Her last words, “Promise me you’ll care for Ella,” sealed his fate. He would be forever constrained to Ella’s needs and that wheelchair.
He felt a hand on his shoulder. “Martin.” Gwen’s voice. He grunted. His eyes half-opened and then closed. The hand shook him. “Martin, wake up now, dear.”
“I’m trying.” The words came out as a whisper. He pulled at the blankets. He swayed from side to side in jerky movements. He needed to wake up. He had to see Ella. She was expecting him. But the dreams of the past held him tight.
The shout, “Get the doctor,” barely registered.
United in their grief, the seed of a father/daughter relationship finally took root. He learned to look past the physical and truly see his daughter for the first time. He discovered she was kind, loyal, smart, patient, and full of life. With time, he let go of all the anger and regret. He became the father she deserved.
He fought against the inevitable decline of health and faculties as his daughter moved into middle age and he into his senior years, but, eventually, the day had come. He’d agreed to move into a nursing home, but only if Ella could live in the same care facility.
He cleaned out the house. Sold, donated, or threw away most everything. He cried when he found, hidden in the back of the closet, the shoebox full of all the jewellery he’d given Rose. Cradling the box to his chest, he recognized the depth of the betrayal he’d inflicted on his family.
A luminous light shone in the room. He opened his eyes. A figure stood opposite his bed.
“Rose?” he said.
She smiled. “Hello, Martin.”
“Oh, Rose. I’m so sorry,” he said. “I love you so much, and I hurt you so badly.” Tears trickled down his face.
“Forget that now,” said Rose. “It’s time.”
“Time? I can’t go yet,” said Martin. “Ella still needs me.”
Rose extended her hand. “Come.”
“I can’t!” said Martin, agitated. “How can you ask me to leave her, after everything?”
Rose turned aside. Ella walked forward from behind her, radiant and whole.
“Come Papa,” she said. “It’s time.”