On a cold October evening a few days from Halloween, the clear, evening sky was in the beginning stages of a total, lunar eclipse. My mother was in the hospital recovering from surgery to repair a hernia that had allowed part of her intestines to be where they should not. She had been in a lot of pain the previous few days, pain that only morphine could dull, and I knew she was grateful the hospital was able to work her into the day’s surgical schedule.
Just 25 minutes before the end of visiting hours, my boyfriend pulled up to the front entrance of the hospital so I could get out with a bouquet of flowers, a light-weight, lovely, blue, glass vase and a freshly sharpened pair of scissors, usually kept in my kitchen drawer.
Once inside, I found the lobby empty and the information desk deserted. I had been there the day before, so I knew where to find my mother’s room and went straight to the elevator.
In the silence of the corridor, I suddenly remembered a scene from The Godfather, Part II in which Michael Coreleone sends an assassin to kill his nemesis in the hospital. The assassin attempts to suffocate his victim with a pillow, but hospital staff and body guards walk in and shoot the killer to death before the deed can be done.
I passed a couple of nurses on the third floor as I approached room 323 on my own mission. Neither of the nurses asked me who I was or whom I was going to see, so it was very easy to slip into Mom’s room, where she lay curled up on her left side. Her blonde hair was tousled, but looked very soft. She wasn’t snoring, but was breathing heavily under the weight of post-op, anesthetic exhaustion.
There were a few specks of blood on the pillowcase. From a phone conversation with my father before dinner, I knew that earlier, in her sleep, Mom raised her arms above her head for some reason and the IV hep-lock came out, allowing blood to flow into her hair and across her pale face. A nurse started a new IV drip, washed away the blood and, with the help of another nurse, jostled my mother around so they could change the bedding. Dad said that process left new bits of blood on the pillow. It is always so inexplicably fascinating to see blood.
This evening, Mom was alone except for an old woman on the other side of the partition. In between moans, the elderly patient spoke in low tones on the phone to a relative, relieved to hear the drive home had gone safely. She probably felt a little better too, knowing someone else was aware of her pain. The television was on. Though the volume was low, I could hear pundits in salubrious conversation about the presidential election that was just days away. I would be as quiet as possible – and since no one had come to check to see who I was or what I was doing, I knew I could do what I came to do without a soul to stop me.
I placed the vase on the rolling breakfast tray next to the bed. I filled it with water from a cup sitting there that had a straw in it. The straw was the kind made to bend at the tip, the sort little children love to sip from.
I was not near a window, but I knew the earth’s shadow was steadily moving to cover the moon – and I knew the stars were sparkling. Everything about this night was crystal clear as I smoothly removed the scissors from my coat pocket.
The old woman on the other side of the room was still talking on the phone in a near whisper, like a teenager who didn’t want to hear her father tell her to go to sleep.
Time was going by and I needed to think about what I was doing. I cut the plastic wrapping away from the roses and trimmed the stems. But there were too many leaves. That many leaves would suffocate the baby’s breath.
After carefully placing the scissors on the table, I soundlessly stripped the leaves away. Not all of them, but enough so the roses had room to breathe in the vase as they died. The arrangement looked nice.
I picked up the clippings and stray leaves, and put them in the trash along with the day’s newspaper. I thought it would be a nice touch to straighten my mother’s books and magazines, and I placed the water jug and leftover, red Jell-O within easy reach. Everything looked neat and tidy. The roses were spectacular. Visiting hours were nearly over.
As I looked at my mother and took a few moments to think about how brave she was in her pain, not just the physical pain that led her to the hospital, but all the pain in her life including what she put up with to bring my sister and me into the world, I slipped the scissors back into my pocket and leaned over to touch her hand.
The morning would greet her with red, yellow, pink, peach, white and lavender roses.
In the vacant corridor, as I waited for the elevator that would take me to the lobby where my love waited patiently, I recalled again that scene from The Godfather, Part II. I live in a relaxed kind of town. If I were an assassin, I could have murdered my mother in her hospital bed, and the woman next to her, and no one would have seen me do it. There are probably security cameras of some kind installed at various points in the building that might help catch a treacherous, psychopathic killer at a later date -- but it was disconcerting to know that anyone at all could approach my sleeping mother, and the pained old woman on the other side of the curtain, without interruption. It was kind of nice, at the same time, to know that towns still exist where peacefulness is expected and people are trusted.
As we were leaving, my boyfriend and I paused in the parking lot and leaned against the bed of his truck to admire the beauty of the lunar eclipse. By the time he dropped me off at my house about 10 minutes later, the earth’s shadow had completed its slow dance across the full moon, ending in a spooky display of reddish haze.
And my mother slept.
(2004, updated 2010)