By JoeAnn Hart
Viola Outreau peeled a single fish scale off the back of her wrist, almost dropping the phone nestled on her shoulder. “Don’t you worry about your mom, Mrs. Cramsey,” she said, repositioning the receiver closer to her mouth. It was Viola’s duty as a supervisor of Goose Cove’s Long-Term Unit to assure families in crisis that their loved ones were being well cared for. It was kinder to think of them more as families in suspension rather than crisis, but in either case, Mimi Cramsey wasn’t listening. She was explaining, in some detail, why she couldn’t get there that weekend. It was her son’s first varsity lacrosse game at college, and she was sure her mother would want her to be there for him. “I hope…”
As Mimi groped for words to express her mother’s unfathomable mind, Viola held the fish scale up to one eye like a monocle. She squinted at her desk lamp and the scale transfused the light, like the sun hidden in fog. As sheer as a petal but tenacious as an eel, the way it had survived the onslaught of her morning shower, but she supposed that’s what fish scales were meant to do—withstand water.
She flicked the scale into the trash and thought of Cuddy. A real chowder-head, that one, but he was hers now, and with him came the mackerel. She’d scaled it, cleaned it, and cooked it, but you’d think he’d done all the work, floating through the day in his patched dinghy, dropping silver lures into the darkness and not worrying about the outcome. His pleasure was in the vigil, as if he’d been chosen to participate in a miracle. “My catch!” he announced, bringing in the cooler. “Look at these freaking beauties.”
That was a tough moment. Viola didn’t much care for either the description or the fish itself. Bait, her father used to call mackerel, but Cuddy was her first man after a long, dry stretch, so she didn’t push it, didn’t push it at all. She was getting on in the script, once briefly and poorly married, resulting in a single child long slipped from the hold. Out of this emptiness sprung the words “I love it” when she took her first bite. “Just love it,” even as she felt the blind eyes of the fish heads in the sink upon her. He brought her other gifts, like flowers past their expiration date, gathered from the graveyard on the way back from the pier. He put them in an empty jar on the kitchen table. “Things that don’t last forever can still be freaking worthwhile,” he said, and she hoped he wasn’t talking about the two of them.
“Maybe my sister Tracy can go see Mom this week,” Mimi was saying, “but you know how she is.”
Viola did not know how Tracy was and did not care to know. In the Venn diagram of a family, the mother was where all the circles intersected, and it was a cramped, irregular space. It was here that family members blamed one another, complaining how hard it was to get away from jobs or children, stressing how impossible it was for their mother to live with them, when of course, what they meant was die. They ached for someone outside of themselves to referee, but if you were too sympathetic, too understanding, they would feast upon your vulnerability and pull you into their slurry of grief and guilt. You needed strong boundaries in this business. It’s what had pulled her up through the ranks.
“Want to say something to your mom while I’ve got you?” asked Viola. “I can bring this cordless to her bed.”
“If you don’t mind.”
“Not a problem.” Viola glanced up at the monitor to confirm that Betty, Mimi’s mother, was motionless in her dimly lit room. The vinyl curtain between her and her roommate was closed tight, making it seem as if she were an actress on a bier, waiting for Act III to begin. She was beyond the reach of any human communication, unaware at this point that it had ever been otherwise, so Viola stayed put. Grunting, as if she were getting out of her chair, she feigned breathlessness as she continued to chat with Mimi, while mentally counting off the number of steps from her desk to Betty’s side. She imagined this walk so vividly her feet began to throb, so she slipped off her clogs. “I’m ready to put the receiver to her ear now,” she lied, and readjusted the phone on her shoulder.
“Are her eyes open?” Mimi Cramsey said. “I don’t want to wake her.”
“She’ll know you’re there,” was all Viola had to say to that. “Go ahead.”
Mimi Cramsey started talking. Viola tried not to listen and went back to what she’d been doing before the call came in, sorting out insurance claims on the computer screen in front of her. But she had to keep the phone near her mouth so Mimi could hear someone breathing. Her breath, Betty’s breath, it was all one.
“Hi mom, it’s Mimi. Just called to say you won’t see me this weekend because I’ve got to go to Larry’s game at school and you know the drive. I’ll stop in Monday after work, for sure. Maybe I can get Tracy to visit, if I can reach her.”
Don’t, Viola almost said out loud. Don’t go trashing a sibling, but thankfully Mimi did not go on about Tracy. She did not go on at all. It was not easy talking to someone who could not respond, especially on the phone. Dr. Roy, the medical director, had told Viola that they—the ones with closed eyes—could usually hear, so staff should be careful what they said. Talk about the weather, how well they look. Tell them their children called while they were asleep. Lie. What does it matter now? But if it was true that they heard, Viola did not believe they took it onboard. The cloudy waters of their gaze rarely cleared, not even when family members were there in the flesh, talking at them. Sounds did not necessarily translate into words. Mentally deaf, that condition was called, which was so much kinder than saying demented. They were often fidgety after visits, plucking at bedclothes, straining toward something they could not name. Let them be, was Viola’s motto. Just let them be.
“OK then, Mom, I’ve got to go. Talk to you later. Love you.”
Viola let a beat go by. “All done, Mrs. Cramsey?”
“Yes,” she said with an automatic sigh. Well, what else could you do but sigh? The families and staff had an unspoken understanding about what was happening within the ward’s dim rooms and corridors, the empty, sunlit commons. Cuddy—who had a strange inventory of Native American folklore handed down to him from a Wampanoag uncle—once told her about a tribe that used to chase its elderly parents up a tree, then shook the trunk. If the parents had the fortitude to hold on, they lived. If they fell out of the tree, they were killed, thus spared the agonies of age. The children must have prayed that the fall itself would do the job. They must have prayed very hard. Here, middle-aged children signed their parents in and prayed for a swift arterial event. What was the point of hoping for anything else when there was only one outcome?
“Don’t you worry, Mrs. Cramsey,” Viola said. “We’ll take good care of her.”
And they would. Viola might not go running to patients with the phone every time a call came in, but if she happened to be in a room when eyes were open, she stayed. She put in her time, and had done so with Betty. A few weeks ago, when she had first come in after the paralyzing stroke, Viola had seen life in her eyes, as quick as the silver flash of fish in the air. But it did not take long for the eyes to darken, even as the lids continued to open and close at random. When Betty cycled into a state of apparent wakefulness, someone, if not Viola, would try to be there to chat and hold her bird-claw of a hand, rubbing a warm washcloth along the chickeny bits under the arm. Someone, if not her, would softly comb the wisps of hair that floated above her pink skull like the morning mist, and rub petroleum jelly on her lips to keep them moist.
“Thank you,” said Mimi, as they said their goodbyes. “Thank you.”
Viola clicked off the phone and put it back in its charger. Her own mother had died in a car accident when they were all too young to understand its permanence, and as awful as it was, death on impact had spared her mother, and them, the time in which to fear death. It was a blessing compared to the slow drain of life and memory she witnessed in this building, and she hoped, that of all the things the patients had forgotten, they could no longer remember that one day they were going to die.
At mid-day, Dr. Roy stopped by the office after his rounds. “Betty Witcome’s vitals are falling. Could you call the family and let them know they might want to come in?”
Viola nodded. “I’ll send Shayla in to sit with her until they get here.” She called Mimi Cramsey who was already at her son’s game half-way across the state, and Mimi began running to the car as they spoke. Viola could not get through to the other daughter, Tracy, but she left an urgent message without exactly saying what the urgency was. They all knew there was only one. She pulled the file to see if Betty would want last rights, and the answer was no, but the family did indicate a funeral home of choice, and she made a mental note of it. While she was in the file, she made sure that the DNR instructions were all in order, and found the Five Wishes pamphlet that Betty had filled out long before her stroke, indicating end-of-life preferences. The first was already being honored: She did not want life support, just care, which is why she was in this ward at Goose Cove and not hooked up to drips and monitors elsewhere. She had wanted to die at home, but while it was too late for that, it was not too late for other things. Betty asked to be cared for with kindness and cheerfulness, not sadness, and they could do that. She did not want to be alone at the time of death, and she would like music played, preferably classical. She wrote that she would not mind if someone read to her as long as it was not the Bible, since she’d be hearing enough of that at her funeral afterwards. Viola smiled. She liked seeing hints of what the patients were like before.
Viola slipped her clogs back on as she studied the room availability chart, then buzzed an orderly to move Betty’s roommate down the hall. Then she stood up, smoothed the wrinkles of her pantsuit, pulled a Jane Kenyon book of poetry off the shelf, and went to check on Betty herself.
She passed Shayla in another patient’s room finishing up a bed bath and quietly asked her to go to Betty when she was done. Two orderlies were already in the room when Viola got there, and she directed the moving of the roommate, who did not stir as they rolled her bed away from the window, past the foot of Betty’s bed, and out the door. Viola listened to the wheels squeak rhythmically down the hall, until she could not hear them at all.
She opened the curtain to let natural light flood the room. Outside, a smooth lawn stretched to the water, landscaped with a few closely sheared evergreens. “Looks like a funeral home,” her father had said when she brought him to Goose Cove for his own last months. He wanted to gaze at flowers, or at least some interesting foliage, but the facility did not want the residents to dwell on fading blooms or changing landscapes. At the very moment they most needed to be reminded of the cyclical nature of life, their surroundings were frozen in time. But no one could stop the tide. Patients could see the water come in and go back out, then return, over and over again. Her father watched with complete absorption until the day he died. She wondered if Cuddy was still out there fishing, trolling for an invisible tug on the line. As she stared out at the cove, her gaze softened and the white light bouncing off the water filled her vision with a single glow.
Viola shook her head and turned from the window. Back to work. She dragged the room divider open, trying not to rustle the stiff accordion of vinyl. Betty might be blind to the view, but maybe she could feel the warmth of the sun on her cheek. Viola could hear the wheezing in her shrinking lungs. The family better get a move on. Her body was being held together by tendons at this point, a mere gesture of a human form under the sheets. She was so small, they were all so small. Her father had told her that old age was a sinking ship, you had to throw ballast overboard as you went. He weighed ninety-five pounds by the time he sank altogether, in his sleep, a generous death. She wished she’d been there.
Shayla arrived with a couple of People magazines under her arm, and Viola took them away and handed her the book of poetry. “Read this,” she said, “aloud.” Shayla made a face. She took it though, and nestled herself in the chair at Betty’s side for the long haul.
“Remember,” said Viola, as she aimed the remote at the sound system. “No heroics.” Not only was it Betty’s wish, but a resuscitation at this point would only break her ribs. And for what? Soulager mais pas prolonger, as Dr. Roy explained the center’s philosophy. Comfort but don’t prolong.
“Wait,” said Shayla, paging through the book. “Where’s the reading part? It’s all poems in here. I don’t get poems.”
“Just open it up and start anywhere,” said Viola, tuning in to some Bach. “You don’t have to understand.” As she left the room to return to her office, she heard Shayla intone the words like she was reading from a list of chores, with no thought to line breaks or punctuation. But she had volume, Viola had to give her that.
“She is like a horse grazing a hill pasture a hill pasture that someone makes smaller by coming every night to pull the fences in and in….”
Later in the afternoon, Shayla came to Viola’s door and stood there looking at her, rubbing her arms. Viola knew what that meant.
“Betty is gone, I think,” Shayla said. “You’d better come. She’s not cold, but I don’t think she’s there anymore. She opened and closed her mouth like a fish, then a gasp, then, you know, nothing.”
“Thank you, Shayla,” Viola said, and stood up. She looked at the monitor, but Betty looked no different than she had that morning. “It’s never easy, is it?”
“I held her hand,” said Shayla, collapsing in the chair across from Viola. “Maybe she thought I was one of her kids.”
Viola grabbed the phone and slipped it into her jacket pocket, then looked at the clock and made a mental note of the time: 4:20 p.m., give or take. She touched Shayla on the shoulder on her way out. “Watch the desk for me.”
When she got to the room, her throat tightened when she saw Betty’s open eyes, pale as beach glass, and her mouth ajar like that of the drowned. No matter how often she saw death, and it was often, it was still unnerving. Why was it always such a shock, when it happened all the time? She found a Q-tip in the bedside drawer, and secured the eyes closed with specks of cotton under the lids. Then she tilted Betty’s head forward by repositioning the pillow, which kept the mouth closed. That would have to do for now. She rested her hand on the dead woman’s forehead, as if she were taking the temperature of a child. Cuddy had once told her about a coastal California tribe who believed that the moment of death was the point at which the river enters the sea, and the souls of the dead continued over the horizon. Betty had most definitely gone back to the sea.
Viola sat down in the guest chair, still warm from Shayla’s body. She dialed up Dr. Roy to come in for the death certificate. Later, she would page the orderlies to wheel Betty downstairs to be collected by the funeral home. She wondered whether to call the family again, using that calm and courteous tone that signaled bad news, the voice that always triggered tears. “Whatever we can’t hold,” her father once said, “we will find a hook to hold it.” Viola was that hook, the one who held the pain like an open coat, waiting for the family members to slip their arms in. But there was no point in calling now. Death was no emergency. Mimi Cramsey was already on her way, and if she saw the number on her cell phone it might cause her to swerve off the road.
Viola left another ambiguous message for Tracy. When she put the phone back in her pocket she found an old tissue. She wet it with her tongue, then wiped a bit of salty residue from around Betty’s mouth and eyes, then sat back and looked around the room. There were prints of hazy flowers on the seaweed green walls, and a bulletin board where visitors could tack up cards and photos, like a shrine. Other than those few mementos and the nightgown Betty died in, there were no personal items. Everything else had been let go of before she got to this room, a place with no history, no time but now. Viola looked up at the clock and felt the ticking in her bones. Once, when she and Cuddy were watching a medical drama on TV, where all the workers seemed numb or caustic, he asked her about her job. Didn’t it make her sad, he wanted to know, with death rolling past her every day like an assembly line?
“No,” Viola said. “It’s the natural order of things. Not sad, just inevitable.”
“Don’t harden yourself to death,” he said, and patted his sternum. “Every fish that dies in my hands, I freaking feel it, right here.”
The phone in her hand rang. She looked at the number, and recognized the name. When she clicked it on she heard a voice drenched in pain.
“It’s Tracy Witcome. Am I too late? Is it too late?”
Viola looked up at the clock again, as if the hands could give her the answer. But even if the clock had stopped working, time would still go on. Betty had been gone twenty minutes, at least. She looked at Betty, so serene she seemed immortal.
“No,” Viola said. “It’s not too late. I’m right here, right here with your mother. I’m putting the receiver to her ear now.”
Viola held the phone to the side of Betty’s head, carefully positioning the receiver just so, as if she might actually be able to hear. She could not make out the daughter’s words, but she knew what she was saying. I love you. Don’t go. Please don’t go. I love you. Please, don’t. The endless variations on the theme of love, sorrow, and guilt, love, sorrow, and guilt, over and over. Other words and emotions that might never have been expressed before now flowed from unknown depths. Death really did bring out the best in people. Think of what complete asses we would be without it.
As Viola continued hold the phone to Betty’s ear, she stared out the window. Shayla must have turned the radio off when she left, and she wished she hadn’t, because outside was a scene that called for background music, with the clouds purpling and the sun setting like an orange spill on the water. She held her hands steady until she could hear only crying coming from the phone, then she brought it to her own mouth.
“Tracy, it’s me, Viola. Your mother is gone now. I’m sure she heard you, but she’s gone.”
There was a sharp intake of breath on the other end of the phone, then another. “I can’t get there,” she whispered. “I can’t.”
“Don’t worry,” Viola said, smoothing a few white hairs behind the translucent shell of Betty’s ear. “We’ll take good care of your mother.”
“I can’t,” Tracy said again, in disbelief.
“Mimi is on her way, she’ll call you later.”
They said their goodbyes and condolences, and as Viola was putting the phone back in her pocket, she saw Mimi standing in the doorway, staring at her. Mimi looked over at her mother, then back at Viola, who stood up and shook her head no, an almost involuntary tic. “She’s gone.”
“She’s dead?” Mimi asked. “Dead?” She moved slowly forward to the bed, opposite from Viola, and they looked at one another across the divide of Betty’s body.
“I’m so sorry,” said Viola.
“I missed her,” Mimi said flatly, and she lowered herself to sit on the edge of the bed. “I didn’t get to say goodbye.”
“You can say it now,” said Viola, as she inched towards the door. “I’ll leave you two alone.”
“It’s too late.” Tears began to wet Mimi’s face as she touched her mother’s shoulder and drew back. “Oh. She’s already cold. Already.”
Dr. Roy knock softly on the door before stepping in the room. Viola clenched the tissue in her pocket. He had a clipboard with a death certificate form cradled in his arm. “I’m sorry about your loss, Mrs. Cramsey. Viola told me it was an easy end, if that’s any comfort.”
Mimi sat up straight and stared at Viola, then back at Dr. Roy.
“When? When did you two talk about an easy end? My mother only just died this minute. Tracy was just saying goodbye.”
Dr. Roy looked around the room for the sister, then looked at Viola.
“On the phone,” said Viola. “It’s never too late to say goodbye.”
Dr. Roy nodded without much comprehension, then motioned Viola away from the bed and took her place. He lifted Betty’s wrist, as gently as a leaf, and let it back down. Leaning over her, as if telling a secret, he held his stethoscope to her chest, and after the briefest of moments, stood back up. He took a pen out of his jacket pocket and looked at his clipboard. “Viola, did you say the time of death was 4:20?”
Viola inwardly groaned, squeezing the tissue in her pocket, but there was no point lying about death. “Yes.”
“I’ll leave the form in your office,” he said. He put the pen back in his pocket, then looked intently at Betty for a few seconds, perhaps long enough for his own goodbye. “She was a lovely woman.”
Mimi nodded slowly, and when Dr. Roy left, she turned back to Viola. “Did Tracy know Mom was already dead?”
Viola held her palms open. “Does it matter?”
Mimi was quiet, her face screwed up in thought, and she looked at her mother.
“That was wrong. I don’t want to make trouble, but if it were me, if I found out that I’d been speaking to… if I found out later my mother was dead.” She turned to look at Viola. “My mother heard me this morning, didn’t she? Those were our last words.”
“We don’t know what anyone hears,” said Viola. “We know nothing, really.” She adjusted Betty’s hands on her chest, placing one on top of another. “Take your time, Mrs. Cramsey, I’ll wait for you right outside.”
When she slipped out the door, she left it ajar. The hall was empty, and she was glad for the privacy. She let her head rest against the wall to take the pressure off her neck. She hoped Mimi would not tell Tracy about the time of death, not just because she might get in some sort of trouble if the two of them made a stink about it, but because it was so beside the point.
At the far end of the building, she heard the clattering of dinner carts, heading towards those for whom food still meant something. Behind her, in Betty’s room, she heard Mimi choke up a bit. Death had begun its work on her, softening her edges. In a voice so tentative it might dissolve, Mimi began talking to her mother. Her words were no different than Tracy’s. She loved her. She missed her already. She was so very sorry. Viola took a deep breath and released it, and when she breathed in again she caught a whiff of the cleaning fluid used on the floors, the underlying scent of the ward. And yet, in his final days her father kept insisting he could smell the sea. It was unfortunate that even though she worked right there, she happened to be visiting her son the day he died. She had told her father not to go anywhere while she was gone. “Don’t you worry,” he said, and they had both smiled. She should have known.
Tears blurred the surfaces of the hallway until it seemed she was no longer in a building at all, but suspended in space. She took the phone out of her jacket pocket and dialed Cuddy.
“What’s up, darlin’?” he said, but before she could answer, he continued. “Bet you’re wondering about dinner. Got it right here in the cooler. Flounder! Three big mothers. What a day. I’m reeling in the last cast now, then I’ll come in with the tide before it gets any darker.”
“I love flounder,” she said, and it was the truth. “Mind if I just listen for a bit?”
“Listen to me fish?” he said, and he laughed. “I’ll put the phone on speaker in my top pocket. How’s that?”
Yes. That was good. She imagined the phone against his warm chest, with a heart thumping strongly underneath. She closed her eyes and could hear the seagulls screeching for gurry in the sky around him, and the wash of the surf hitting the dinghy. As Mimi came to the end of her words, the ward became so still that Viola could hear the sound of Cuddy’s breath. In and out. In and out. A miracle. A goddamned miracle.
JoeAnn Hart is the author of the novels Float and Addled. “Someone, If Not Her” was the winner of the 2016 Reynolds Price Award in Fiction.