5 years, 352 days before
When I said it, I didn’t mean it. I just wanted to go home after another long day in the ICU. But then, I didn’t know it was really the end this time.
“Promise me something,” my mom said, her voice cracking, a whisper over the hum of machines that latched onto her body. Sometimes I thought those cords and tubes and electrodes were the only things holding her here. Without them, she’d slip away like a balloon string sliding from a child’s fingers.
I nodded, ignoring the pain in my wrist from grasping her hand over the railing. It was an old pain, a dull ache I’d gotten used to, just like the way my spine begged to be stretched and my lungs longed for air without the scent of rubbing alcohol and gauze. Waiting in a hospital for a few months will do that to a body, I guess — even the body of a ten-year-old.
Mom’s fingers were frail, and her skin seemed too big for the bones underneath. She smiled, pulling at the tape holding a tube into her nose. “Promise me, Shelby, that you’ll do three things. For always, from here on out.” She spoke like this a lot — like it was the end. It used to scare me, but after so many months I’d sort of gotten used to it.
I kissed her palm the way she used to kiss mine when she put me to bed. Back when I let her read me picture books long after I’d lost interest in them just because I could tell how happy it made her.
“Sure,” I said, ignoring my dad at the door. He was giving me the “five minutes” hand gesture in between intense whispers to a nurse.
My mom rubbed my palm with her thumb, then continued. “Three things. Listen to your father, Shel. Love and listen to him.” She paused, and remnants of a laugh laced her voice when she spoke again. “Poor thing doesn’t know what to do with a girl.” She reached up and ran a hand through the tips of my overgrown hair.
“Okay, Mom,” I sighed. “But if this is about that thing with the makeup, it’s not fair. Dad says I can’t wear any.” My mother shook her head. “I know. It’s not about that. Listen — second thing: Love as much as possible.”
I raised an eyebrow. My mom had always been a dreamer, but this was a little intense even for her.
“Okay, I will,” I said as my dad held up two fingers. “I have to go soon —”
“And last,” she cut me off, her lips trembling a little, like she’d cry if she had the energy, “live without restraint. Do you understand what I mean?”
Not really — I had no clue what she was talking about. One minute left. I stood, leaning over to hug her — she wasn’t much bigger than me, and my arms felt strong around her body. “Sure.”
“I mean it, Shelby. Promise me,” she said as she hugged me back, her voice growing louder than it’d been all summer, desperation on every syllable.
“Okay, Mom,” I said, sincere. “I promise. All three things. I’ll do them.”
My mom relaxed. The nurse walked in to inject her IV with a clear fluid. I unwound my arms from Mom’s body and waved good-bye as my dad took my place by her bed to bid his own farewell. Two tiny tears dripped down Mom’s cheeks; the nurse wiped them away without hesitation.
When I said it, I didn’t mean it. I didn’t know it was really the end. And now . . . how could I possibly break a promisemade to a dying woman?