When I arrive, a sign is already posted outside my mother’s private room—Airborne Infection: Isolation—and an open box of sterile masks is meaningfully mounted on the wall. I take one and strap it on, feel it channeling my breath toward my still cold glasses as I push open the heavy door. I see my mother before she sees me: a small figure in thin cotton, eyes wide, laboring to inhale an infusion. Mr. Magoo swimming behind clear plastic. When I left Chicago in December, my mother hadn’t been feeling well for a few days. Now, in February, she’s become a patient. Nearly thirty years of infection have scarred my mother’s lungs, and she’s begun to struggle for oxygen.
Reptiles’ bones grow quickly when food is plentiful; slowly when what they need is hard to find. If she were a frog or a lizard, my mother’s weakening bones would barely be marked by new life this year, or would perhaps be faintly encircled like the growth rings buried in the deep flesh of a tree or in the hidden hardnesses of an old snake’s tapering, lagging tail. My sister and I flanked and shepherded her through the last bitter winters—swaddled in wool and down, the strong warming coats of animals—the few steps from her front door to the car. Behind the two of us crystal clouds continued to puff and linger in the freezing air as we chattered, but my mother’s breath was growing too faint and fearful to leave a wake; against the clawing cold she could no longer spare the energy for speech.
On the table next to her hospital bed is a lunch tray that my mother has hardly touched. She picks at her food, but it’s air that she’s hungry for. When we hug I come close to the bruises where nurses have missed her fragile veins or jabbed them too roughly, where blood has leaked and pooled below the surface of her loose skin. A square of gauze is taped across the i.v. port that must be inserted into the crook of one thin arm for her daily doses of antibiotics. She closes her eyes, taking in air and releasing it in gentle spurts, fitfully letting go, finally falling asleep.
I quietly leave my mother’s room and prowl the halls. How do you feel, Mommy, I want to ask, but I can see what I see, I can hear what I hear. Life’s rhythms are set by the blood, cycles as strong as the rising sun and the waning moon, as regular as the seasons; warm to the touch, audible as the first snow falling. But the sounds of the hospital are the sounds of machines: beating pumps and beeping timers; the metal wheels of carts turning on linoleum; the low blur of daytime television. I pause in the long corridor to look out a window at the parking lot below where gray drizzle is freezing into slick ice and visiting families are starting to lose their footing. I feel my chest tighten, and I tremble and look for a seat on one of the battered vinyl armchairs lined up against the wall. There’s something I want to say, but I am suddenly short of breath.