This story is by DANKA H. ORIHEL and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
WHEN THE CHESTNUTS BLOOMED
My left hand rose and floated across to the space next to me, as it did every morning before I awoke.
I turned around and started pounding on the pillow next to me until its duck feather filling fluttered all around me.
I closed my eyes and hoped to fall back into sleep. No such luck. I reached for my housecoat. There, the large portrait of the three of us in the summer garden stared directly at me. It was taken on the day our daughter had won the gold medal at the Royal Conservatory’s Violin Competition. My throat locked as I gazed at the beaming face of my husband, the unruffled expression on Brianna, and the self-righteousness on mine. A bouquet of blood-red roses in Brianna’s hand covering her sharp chin.
I recall the laughter and the clinking of wine glasses. Gus’s strong, loving arms wrapped firmly around me. Three of us spinning around the garden in a fairy dance!
Life as we knew it changed the day my husband suffered a massive stroke and fell into a coma. For days, I couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep. My hair fell out in clumps. I tried to envision my life without Gus. Terror had rushed into the crevices of my mind. ≥What if he dies?≤
In the beginning, I visited my husband daily. Our teenage daughter, Brianna refused. “I’ll visit
Daddy when he wakes up,” she announced.
The longer he was away, the more I dreamed about him. In my dream he was alive and well, eating a roasted duck I cooked for him; walking in the park beside me; discussing the latest news with me or making plans for our winter holidays.
I’d wake up with nausea and heart palpitations.
Brianna dealt with the situation by hiding behind closed doors of her bedroom.
I was preparing dinner one day when she waltzed in, her hair a cotton-candy pink. My mouth opened and then froze. Brianna came up to me, her amber eyes full of anger. “I don’t get it! How could this happen?”
I bit hard into my lower lip until the salty, metallic taste filled my mouth.
“Damn it. It’s not fair. Dad’s only forty-three.”
I looked out into our garden where the chestnut trees were in bloom. The scent of their heavy, sweet odour stirred me from myself and memories would pour.
≤Gus at the window, watching the white chestnut blooms. “They look like candlesticks, don’t they?”
I smile. “And you, my dear poet, are like these trees; hard on the outside, soft and delicate on the inside.≥
“What is this cerebral infarct anyway?” Brianna’s voice brought me back.
I wiped my face with an apron. “It’s a blockage of blood flow in an artery supplying a part of brain.”
She raised her eyebrows.
“Your father had a blood clot, so his brain cells died from a lack of oxygen.”
Brianna took a step back, breathed in and out deeply and then swallowed. She reached for
a package of cigarettes on the table, took one out and lit it. Then she kicked the back leg of the wooden chair. It fell on its side like an injured animal.
I picked it up, and walked to the window, my back straight.
“Mother,” I put on a brave face before turning, “things like that . . . supposed to happen to old people! Dad was athletic and healthy!” With the strength of a sledge hammer, she kicked the same leg of the chair again, dismantling it completely.
I moved closer, wanting to hold her, but she pulled away and stormed out. My eyes flooded with tears. I wept for what was taken from us, for what would never be.
≥I have to be strong for both of us.≤
During my hospital visits, I’ve never cried in the room where my husband lay. I talked to him about the book I was reading, the movie I saw, about Brianna’s activities—hoping for some response –the smallest change of his expression, the slightest movement of his fingers.
I looked past the tubes attached to his mouth, the wires coming out of his arms and chest and tried to find hope in remembering our last Christmas, last holidays, last evening . . .
But still, at times my hope faded and I’d have to get out. I’d run down the three flights of stairs and go outside. There, in a charming little park a block away, I sat, smoked and thought about our life before the stroke.
On one of these days a woman dressed in a threadbare cardigan and a gypsy skirt approached me. She fixed the fringed scarf wrapped around her head, and asked, “Could you spare a smoke?”
I look up from her muddy shoes, to her grubby clothes, to her pale face. About mid-
thirties, I thought, handing her a cigarette. She lit it, inhaled deeply, and studied me with her
grey, lacklustre eyes. “Sorry for the rudeness, ma’am. I really needed one. My welfare ran out
. . . and my benefits haven’t come yet.” She gave me a crooked smile, exposing her yellow stained teeth. With a single breath she took in a big chunk of the cigarette, like a child afraid of someone taking away her favourite toy.
I took in her wardrobe, her face, and felt embarrassed in my Donna Karan and full make-up.
“Kate,” I extended my hand.
She slid onto the bench next to me and sighed. “In ten minutes, I’ve got to go in. I don’t really want to, but I’ve run out of options.”
Sadie took a last puff of her cigarette, and threw the butt on the ground. I kept biting on my thumbnail.
“I don’t mind the treatment itself. It’s the ‘Good Samaritan’ nurses who make me sick to my stomach. Their artificial sweetness, false empathy–they make my skin crawl.”
“My thoughts exactly. How can they understand?” I cleared my throat. “The one who takes care of my husband at night looks like she’d come fresh from graduation. She keeps repeating, “‘I know how you feel; I understand.’” “How can she possibly understand?”
Sadie nodded and lit another cigarette, producing a perfect ring of smoke.
“Lately, she talks to me the way you’d talk to a child. I want to punch her in her perfect mouth.
“The nurses in Radiology are the same shitheads,” Sadie spat on the ground. “None of them have had the ‘pleasure’ of having their boobs irradiated. The older ones keep telling me, “‘don’t make a fuss, or ‘“you don’t understand.’”
I placed my hand on her bony shoulder, and from the corner of my eye saw how the
muscles in her face loosened up. ≤She’ll be okay.≥
“Five more weeks and I’m free.” She smiled. “Shit,” she slapped her face, “I haven’t asked what ≥you≤ are doing here.”
“Visiting my husband.”
She raised her eyebrows.
“Gus’s in a coma. After his stroke.”
“Jesus. What are his chances?”
Shaking my head, I edgily stubbed out my cigarette on the ground, and popped a gum in my mouth. As I stood up to leave, Sadie put her hand on my arm. Her grip was remarkably strong.
“Good luck, Kate.”
“To you too, Sadie.” I smiled at her through my moist blue eyes.
I visited Gus again on May 30th, the hottest day of spring, and Gus’s ninetieth day in a coma, I walked into the office of the attending neurologist. “Any news, doctor?”
He leaned toward me. “Kate,” he murmured, “we’ve measured the depths of your husband’s coma again. His brain is showing less activity than before.”
I swallowed, hard. “Are you saying there’s no hope?”
He didn’t speak, only gazed at me with his sad, deer-like eyes. I was crushed into pieces, like the bathroom mirror I put my wrist through a few days ago. I felt spasms in my stomach and ran to the washroom, barely making it. After I threw up, I studied my reflection in the mirror. ≤Who is that ghost with the dark circles under her bloodshot eyes?≥ I bit into my lower lip and applied a layer of make-up to my face and fresh lipstick. ≥What are you doing? A youthful look won’t bring him back.≤
“Accept who you are,” I said aloud to the mirror.
A line from a book I once read entered my mind. ≤There are moments in your life when you know exactly who you are. If you happen to stand in front of the mirror at that moment, that’s who you would see.≥ Jesus; Brianna’s realized it long before me.
Pulling a piece of paper towel, I rubbed my face until it was raw. Then I removed my lipstick. With a last glance in the mirror, I headed for Gus’s room.
I placed a branch of chestnut blossoms on the windowsill and opened the blinds. The light shining through painted a golden glow on my husband’s face. ≥My darling. How peaceful you look.≤
I pushed a dark curl from his eye with one hand and held his limp hand in the other. “Hello Gus, it’s me. I’d like to tell you something, darling.” I inhaled. “Do you remember the first time we met? I was so shy; I couldn’t even look into your eyes. The intensity of your gaze burned me. But you lifted my chin . . . and I drowned in those ambers eyes of yours. And you reached for my hand . . . and I trembled as if an electric current had shot through my body.”
I gently squeezed his hand. “I’m sure you felt it, too.”
I paused to wet my lips. “You invited me to your rehearsal at the Concert Hall. I came; you knew I would. Every now and then you glanced at me from the stage. I still remember how mesmerized I was by the music you played—Bach’s Concerto for 2 Violins in D minor—wasn’t
it? The sound you created with your instrument . . .was transcendent, angelic. It touched my soul,
and I knew you’re the one, darling.”
Suddenly, there was a minute flutter of his eyelids. I felt a slight vibration in the hand that held his. My heart was loud in my chest.
≤A brief flicker of hope.≥
I scrutinized my husband’s face. There, in the corner of his eye, a single tear glittered like a diamond.
The following day I sent Brianna to visit her father and spent the next day analyzing my husband’s responses. A tear. A change in his breathing. A vibration in his hand. Or . . . did I imagine it?
Finally, I searched the internet and found out those were all the signs of vegetative state. Except his brain function measurements. Number four on the GCS; the lowest was three.
In my husband’s room again. I placed a fresh branch of the chestnut bloom in the vase on the bedside table. The faint light of the room illuminated his motionless body, his ashen face, and his closed eyes. I placed a kiss on his forehead, and caressed the top of his head. “Gus, it’s me, Kate. I’m here with you.” As I spoke, there was a change in his breathing. It was subtle, yet it was there.
“My darling Gus; let yourself go. Brianna and I . . . we’ll be all right. We love you and understand that you need to be free.”
I slipped my arms gently around my husband as if he were a tender bloom of the chestnut tree.