by Laura Bonazzoli
“Come on,” he pleaded, his black eyes shifty with morphine. “Let’s blow this joint. You and me. Let’s get outta here. Go to a café somewhere and talk.”
He’d spent the afternoon in a stupor in the bed, hooked up with a hose to a tank that sucked sludge, green with bile, out of his abdomen and made a noise that sounded like a kid sucking through a straw the last bit of milkshake from the bottom of a glass. But then he’d gotten restless, and his nurses had detached the sucking machine and, one on either side, helped him shuffle—or slide—to the toilet. A vast distance, four long squares of linoleum, with ankles and feet so swollen with fluid they’d had to cut slits in the legs of his pajamas to get them on. But he’d made it, and they’d opened the front of his pants and held him up while he peed. Then they washed him and dressed him in a favorite blue shirt they took from the narrow locker where he’d unpacked a few things from home three weeks before, when he’d given up and checked himself in to die.
And now he was sitting upright in the stuffed chair, his long hands spanning the armrests, forming a wide base beneath the two forearm struts that held upright his wasted chest. A posture sustained by will. And will compelled him toward me and, through the morphine haze, formed the words that begged me to take him away, out of this room and into the warm, starry night he loved.
How could I answer? Words flashed like sparks in my mind, then disappeared. My metal chair squeaked. Perhaps I could promise tomorrow. My voice started, cracked, started again, stopped. I looked away. I knew his failing organs had narrowed his world to this final room—bed, toilet, chair—and I was helpless, tonight or tomorrow, to get him out.
Helpless. Not a fairy godsister who could make his wish come true, who could take him out of his fate to a café to share milky coffees and chocolate cake with gooey icing and celebrate his plans to get a master’s degree and counsel troubled kids. Or touch his hand across the table as he confessed to still wanting the girlfriend who’d dumped him when she learned he was terminal. Or say something soothing about quantum mechanics proving an afterlife. Or remind him of another time, the summer before I left for college, when I took him to a café, and we ordered tuna sandwiches with fries and cokes and traded stories of mean nuns and dreams.
I couldn’t take him out that night. Not to a café, or even to the garden beyond his window where a frog was croaking and the warm night breeze blew in from the sea. I was helpless like I’d never been helpless before, no wisdom or service to offer, no good deed to anchor me. And so I stammered my lie: The nurses feel you should rest, maybe tomorrow. Then I raised my head and looked straight into his black eyes, and just for a moment they stopped their shifting and held mine and knew.
And that’s when everything shattered—every rule I’d ever followed, every purpose I’d been seeking—and I drifted without protest into that bare space, that vast indifference of cancer and stars where I wander still, emptied of striving, typing these lines in an airy café while my elegant, emaciated brother sits heavy with longing, here in my memory, waiting for me to release him.
Laura Bonazzoli is a freelance writer and editor, mainly in the health sciences. Her technical writing has been published in patient brochures, podcasts, and textbooks. Her creative writing has appeared in many publications, including Exposition Review, Free Inquiry, The Healing Muse (forthcoming), Reed Magazine, The Sandy River Review, and the Viking Review, among others. She lives in Midcoast Maine and is working on a novel.