Hanging On

by Catherine Hammond

            My momma hasn’t been home for two years. It started with a broken hip. Then she got outta her hospital bed in the middle of the night and broke it again. That turned into a shitpile of problems that lasted so long her muscles gave up, and now she can’t hardly walk. 

            My sisters wanted to stop with all the rehab places and bring her home to Dad, but I said no. Seventy-five isn’t that old, but carrying her to the bathroom, that would be too much for him. Besides, Ma’s stubborn. She’d insist on brewing her own coffee or sweeping the front porch, and then she’d break the other hip. 

            It’s been hard, everybody having an opinion. My aunts and uncles. Dad. People who act like they’re better friends than they are just so they can spout some advice. I listen. I really do. But in the end,

            Ma chose me to make all these decisions, and I’m doing the best I can. 

            A week ago, Dad got sick, too. It was the COVID. I hate that disease. It’s like the snakes in the barn. You know they're hiding in the hay right next to your favorite horse and you try your darndest to ignore them, but then they strike outta nowhere. That’s what happened to Dad. Six days and he was dead.

            People don’t say dead. They say he passed, or he went to a better place. That’s all fine and probably true, but to me he’s just gone. I think about the sick calf we’ve been keeping an eye on or the broken latch on the front gate, and I pull my phone out of my coat pocket to call him. When I’m about done dialing, I shove the phone back in my pocket, surprised all over again. 

            The hardest thing is telling Ma about Dad. She’s in a room at the end of the corridor, lying on one of those mechanical beds with a white blanket up to her chin. A janitor is mopping the hallway floor, and some nurse is talking on the loudspeaker. 

            When Ma sees me, she picks up the clicker and pushes the buttons ‘til she’s sitting. 

            I scoot my chair close. Every muscle in my body quivers.

            “Hi, son,” she says. She has red lipstick on. She’s been feeling better.

            “Hi, Ma.”

            She looks at me. “What’s wrong?”

            “It’s Dad.”  

            “Is he getting worse?”

            I lay my hand on her leg. It feels bony under the blanket. 

            “He died, Ma.” 

            “No.” Her face crumples and she cries.

            “I’m sorry, Ma.” I cry, too.

            It lasts a long time. We got tears and snot running all over the place.

            “Hand me that tissue box,” she says. 

            We both use some, and then we cry some more.

            After a bit, I fold my arms and lay my head down, right there on her legs. She rubs my head. In a minute, my neck aches, twisted like that, but I don’t wanna move.

            “Come on now,” she says. 

            I sit up. 

            “Listen, honey,” she says, “make sure you put him in that dark blue suit, the one he wore to your cousin’s wedding. And use that light blue Oxford. He looks good in that.” 

            “Okay. The dark blue suit and the light blue shirt.”

            “The Oxford.” 

            “Right.”

            “I love you,” she says.

            “I love you, too, Ma.” I take her hand and squeeze to let her know I mean it, and she squeezes back. 

            “Are you okay?” She’s the one asking me. 

            “Yeah.” I wipe my face with my shirt sleeve. “You didn’t get to say goodbye.” 

            “It’s all right.” 

            Outside, traffic rushes by. Tires spin on wet pavement. A truck blares its horn, but we don’t flinch. 

            Ma’s looking at the wall across from her. It’s white like everything else in this room. We only moved her to this place a few days ago. There’s no flowers, no photos from home, nothing yet.

            “I have to go,” she says. 

            “What?” 

            “I gotta go. He’s waiting for me.”

            “No, Ma, he said you need to get healthy. He wants you to come home.” 

            He didn’t say that. He died too quick. But it’s what he’d want me to say. He was her rock and her island, sitting in the back row during the first court case she ever judged, smiling at her black robe like it was a prom dress. I was sitting next to him. I remember.

            “It’s time,” she says.

            I tell her how wrong that is, how she has to keep fighting, but she closes her eyes and pushes the clicker ‘til the bed is flat. 

            I talk about the sick calf and how I got the syrup into him just in time. “Remember, Ma? You taught me that trick.” 

            I wait for a reaction, but she’s quiet and still, all ninety-two pounds of her. 

            Two years ago, I wouldn’t have known how much she weighed. One forty or one twenty, it wasn’t any of my business. Now I know more than I ever imagined. 

            We’ve talked about a lot of stuff. Like how she gave up taking care of us every day to become a magistrate ‘cause she wanted to help people. That was a hard conversation. She said she was sorry for missing my baseball games. I told her it hurt way back then but I didn’t mind anymore, and it was true. 

            Another day, we talked about Cassie, the pretty dental assistant she always wanted me to marry. 

            “Y’all were sweet together,” Ma said. 

            “Yeah, I screwed that up.” 

            “Why do you scare ‘em off like that?”

            And so I told her. It was hard to find the right woman. Someone who didn’t mind my hours. Who liked tractors and fishing boats and didn’t make me go to New Year’s Eve parties. Who made chicken fried steak just like hers. 

            “You got me already,” Ma said. “You can stretch your wings a bit.”

            I laughed. I was forty and she was still raising me. 

            Just the other day, she gave me a lecture on forgiving my sister for never coming by. “She needs more space than you,” she said. “She’s like a mole, you know, digging her little tunnels and never coming up for air. You just have to give her space.”

            It was good to talk. Good to say the things we needed to say. It made me wonder what all we’d gone on about before she got sick. The weather? The price of hay?

            She snores a little, and I slide my chair back. I need to get on over to the funeral home and make some decisions about Dad. That’s how life is, you know. You wanna do one thing, like sit with your ma, but then there’s somebody waiting on you, a phone ringing, a cow bleating. 

            Anyway, that night, Ma has a stroke. 

            By the time I get to her room the next morning, she has all kinds of tubes stuck in her. While I’m standing there trying not to throw up, not that I’ve eaten, the doctor stops by and walks me to a little room. I’ve been in a lot of little rooms like that. 

            We sit at a circle table. He has some stubble on his chin. 

            He says she isn’t going to make it. 

            I put my elbows on the table and hold up my forehead. All I see is Ma in her flower apron, bending down to pull a red velvet cake out of the oven. Ma in her Carhartt coat, revving the engine on the four-wheeler. Ma lying in that white bed in that white room, closing her eyes so she won’t have to stare at that white ceiling. 

            “Will I get to talk to her again?”

            “No, son.”

            I twitch. I’m not his son. 

            He spends the next twenty minutes explaining what happened to her brain, how those tubes can keep her alive for a long time if that’s what we want, but they won’t make her whole again. We have to decide. I have to decide.

            “Let me know when you’re ready,” he says.

            “Yes, sir.” I look right at him. I ain’t looking away. 

            “There’s no hurry.” He gets up and leaves.

            I walk back to her room and hold her hand. It’s so warm. So Ma. But we aren’t squeezing. Her hand’s limp, and I’m just holding on.

About the Author

Catherine Hammond has a BA in writing from Northwestern University and an MA in Education. Her flash, short stories, and novellas appear in a variety of online publications. As a school principal and the mother of four young adults, she enjoys sharing all kinds of stories. When she's not writing, you'll find her on the water with a fishing pole.