Beauty and the Mustache(8)

By: Penny Reid

The nurse gave me a close-lipped smile. “Your momma’s asleep right now. If you want to go sit with her ’til Dr. Gonzalez arrives, you can.” Her tone was full of compassion.

“Can you tell me anything?” Without waiting for a reply, I added, “Why was she admitted?”

The nurse studied me for a minute but said nothing.

“I’m a pediatric nurse practitioner in Chicago,” I said. “You can shoot straight with me.”

Her smile returned. “I know, baby. Your mother told me all about you. But the doctor wants to speak with you first.”

I stared at her for a moment—the compassion, the sympathy, the secrecy—and I knew.

This was textbook modus operandi for the terminally ill. Nurses never informed patients’ families. It was always the doctor, and it was always done in person.

My eyes stung and I felt my chin wobble even as I bravely nodded. “Okay,” I managed to croak, and I glanced at the ceiling, blinking. My head was overwhelmed and my heart was breaking, and I was still holding two Get Well Soon kitten balloons from the Piggly Wiggly.

“Aww, baby….” The nurse stood, walked around the counter, and wrapped her arms around me. “Baby, baby, baby….” Her soft body was a big pillow of warmth as she rubbed my back.

I sniffled, fighting the tears. Not yet, I thought, not until I’m alone and can break something that makes a very gratifying smashing sound, like plates.

“Come with me, Sunshine.” She shifted so that her arm was wrapped around my shoulders. “I’ll take you to your momma. You sit with her until the doctor comes, okay?”

I nodded numbly, allowing the older nurse to steer me to my mother’s room. She opened the door and walked me to a seat by the bed. Sunlight streamed in through the open curtains, but it was still a hospital room. There was nothing remarkable about it other than the occupant.

I looked at my momma. Her eyes were closed. Her skin color was okay—not great, but not ashen—and she looked very thin, almost fragile. My mother had never been thin a day in her life. She’d been blessed with more boobs and hips than wits, and she had a lot of wits.

At five feet nine inches, I towered over her five-foot frame. Although I’d inherited her boobs and hips, my longer legs and torso distributed the wealth, whereas she’d always looked like a curvaceous, compact hourglass.

Her hair was streaked with gray. The last time I saw her she was still coloring it chestnut brown. My brain informed me that was two years ago.

My momma had always seemed young to me. She had Jethro at sixteen, Billy at seventeen, Cletus at eighteen, and me at twenty. The twins came two years later, and Roscoe—the youngest—arrived approximately two years after that. Seven children before she was twenty-five, and six of them boys.

Now, thin and gray, she looked older than her forty-seven years. She looked ancient, like all the stress and worry and hardship she’d shouldered raising a family of seven and handling my deadbeat father had finally caught up with her.

As instructed, I sat in the chair by her bed. The nurse reassured me once again that she would page the doctor, and then she left me alone with my momma.

I couldn’t focus on anything. I don’t know how long I sat looking around the room staring at nothing, unable to form a complete thought; maybe an hour, maybe more.

Images and sound bites from my childhood, of her care and love for me, of our daily telephone calls, lobbied for attention, and my mind felt slippery and confused.

My mother shifted, and my gaze was drawn to her as she opened her eyes. They fell on mine immediately.

“Ash….” she whispered. She gave me a weak smile. “Be a good darling and get me some ice cream. I’d give my eye teeth for some ice cream.”

I watched her for a minute.

Ice cream—I could get her ice cream. That was something I could do. Because under no circumstances was I ready to talk about her death. Instead, I would go get her ice cream.

“Rocky road?” I asked quietly.

“If you can find it, though I’m not picky.”

I nodded once and stood, moving to the door.

“Honey,” she called after me. I turned and met her eyes, which were alight with amusement. “You can leave the flowers and balloons here. No need to take them with you.”

I glanced from her to the balloons and flowers still clutched in my hands.

“Oh.” I put them on the chair where I’d been sitting.

I’d almost made it to the door before she called me back again, “Ashley, one more thing. This is really important.” The urgency I heard in her voice made my heart rate spike and my eyes sting.

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