At my mother’s dining room table, I draw morphine from a tiny glass bottle into a needleless syringe so it can be expelled quickly under her tongue. The hospice nurse watches me. In the next room, my mother lies in a rented hospital bed. She weighs seventy-eight pounds. Her urine drains, thick and orange into a bag that hooks on the side of her bed. It gives off a strong, slightly floral scent. When I sit with her, I act as if it isn’t there. I pretend I can’t smell it.
One part of me wants to climb over the bed rail and curl up beside her. Another wants to run screaming down the street.
My mother had four daughters in four years. Her parenting style could be described as I- don’t-have-time-for-your-nonsense. She loved the four of us as one loves a job well done. She loved us in warm stacks of clean laundry piled on our dressers. She loved us in timely dental check-ups and full sets of immunizations. She loved us in her predictability, her glowing, lipstick-stained Parliament permanently scissored between her first two fingers, her blond flip always visible through the kitchen window when we walked up the driveway after school. She loved us in her penciled-out Wednesday afternoon meal plans: London broil, frozen corn, salad, rolls, in preparation for her Thursday morning outings to the Purity Supreme grocery store. She was fervent about her routines, and we were happy to be swept along, captured in the current of her forward motion.
Now, the hospital bed engulfs my mother’s body. She has become her bones—sharp elbows, the point of knees, her cheeks a deep slash. Her fingers are an outline of long fragile bone, the knob of every joint like punctuation. Her hands, once always busy, now aren’t quite sure what to do. Occasionally, the fingertips of one hand absently brush the speckled back of the other. At times, she clutches the side rails tightly, the way you would brace yourself on a scary amusement park ride. Sometimes she lifts her arm toward the ceiling, and it lingers there, forgotten.
This is perhaps the hardest thing to witness—my mother’s hands without a purpose. The hands that housed a thousand tasks, tasks that said, I’m making ready, I’m expecting you, can no longer sketch her morning to-do list or even grasp a glass of water. The long tapered fingers that smoothed and tucked, that conducted the orchestra of our days, trail aimlessly in the air, pointing toward something only she can see.
I don’t flee. I don’t climb the bed rail either. I glance down at my hands. I notice the skin beginning to slack. The cords of blue veins have begun rising to the surface. Somewhere along the way, in loving my own daughters, my hands have morphed into a version of my mother’s. Then, I focus on my job. This satisfies me—having something to do. I take strange pleasure in thwacking the air bubbles out of the syringe with a flick of my thumb and forefinger. Whenever my mind presses, How did I get here? How did it come to this?, I turn my attention back to my work. I pull on the plunger, fill morphine to the precise black mark, remove the bottle, cap the syringe. I lift the next glass tube and start again. I place them evenly in a row.