Don't Curse the Nurse!

Sharing support with stories & humor

Lights Out ( a short story)

on February 11, 2015


Rain hits the window like paint pellets, sharp splats followed by fat circles of water that distort and gray the lines on the pavement in front of me. I’ve been traveling this road weekly for the last two months, and each time the stretch seems longer.

“Watch the road! My God! Do you have your lights on?”

“Yes Mom, they’re on.”

“When we get to the doctor’s, make sure you tuck in your shirt and put on some lipstick.” She emphasizes the word lipstick by puckering her mouth and puffing her cheeks.

I focus on my breathing and keeping the car at maximum speed without hydroplaning into a ditch. My mother, Veronica, is short of breath from her brief exchange with me. She sniffs in oxygen from the tube that connects her to the cylinder behind the seat.

That, along with her wheelchair, takes up all the space in the back of my Volvo. Every time I shift, the soft spot of my elbow hits the pressure valve on the propped up tank. My hands stay gripped to the wheel until I see the green roof of the doctor’s office. Then, I take the side street fast enough to make her slide over towards the door. But, after I brake and twist to unbuckle my seatbelt, I feel a twinge of guilt for my speedway exit into the parking lot. My mom is looking at me with a soft gaze, the first sign that her memory has lapsed again.

“Who are you again? Where are we?”

“Mom, it’s me, your daughter. You live with me.”

This woman, whose chronically impaired lungs are now invaded by cancerous cells, pats my arm with affection.  It was only yesterday that she let out a long series of expletives and pushed over the aluminum walker I asked her to use in the house. She ended her tantrum by telling me what a piss poor housekeeper I was.

I get out of the car and walk to her side with an umbrella in hand. The steps she has taken from the door to the wheelchair leave her winded and her chest heaves up and down. I step in closer to offer my arm and she clutches it as she pivots and sits.

“Remember Mom? Your doctor’s appointment.”  When I squat down to put her feet on the pedals her pupils brighten and her brow relaxes.

“Oh, that’s right.”

“Here, let me button your coat.”  After getting her comfortable, we roll into the office and with a nod from the receptionist, right into an exam room. After her doctor looks at x-rays, he confirms what I suspect, the cancer has spread.  Her clothes hang loose, her skin has become oddly colored, and when I look in on her at night, sometimes seconds go by before I see her chest rise.

I am trying to focus on what he is saying, but it’s difficult to listen. She is pulling on the edge of my frayed sweater, fingering the places that have begun to pill. “Mom!” I push her hand away, but she tugs at my shirt again.

With the tip of her tongue behind her teeth, she makes the sucking sounds I’ve heard since my teen years when I carried an extra ten pounds of baby fat and failed to make the cheerleading squad. I put her wrinkled hand back in her lap and speak in the modulated voice I reserve for these visits. “Mom, please, the doctor is talking.” I turn my attention back to him.

“Aggressive treatment for your mom would be risky at this point. Her lung capacity and tidal volume would…”

While he talks, my eyes dart around the room.  It’s the same one we were in the last time; the lilac painted walls, the plastic flowers crammed into the ceramic vase by the sink. I remember thinking how cheap they looked and wondering why the town’s only Oncologist couldn’t afford anything better. But, I can’t complain.  Last October he removed a tumor from her lung and got her out of the nursing home in six weeks. Today he is not speaking as confidently. He’s using phrases like “in the case of an emergency” and “comfort measures”.

“It’s up to you to decide how to proceed.  I see from our records that you have power of attorney.” While handing me a stack of papers and forms, he explains options in a practiced, impartial tone. Chemotherapy.  Radiation. Parenteral nutrition. Resuscitative efforts. The last paper has large type across the top, Do Not Resuscitate, with the first letter of each word bolded and underlined. I know what it means without having to read the content.

Do nothing.

I pull it to the top and look at him through narrowed eyes. Doing nothing has never been considered good enough. Crap, what I have done has never been good enough. He gives me a pat on the shoulder and an almost sincere smile. Kneeling low so he is eye to eye with Mom, he praises her efforts and pats her on the hand.

“You’re a sweet lady Veronica.”

If only he knew.

When we leave the rain has stopped and I push her wheelchair through a shallow puddle.

“That man, he looked like Tyrone Powers.”

I murmur absentmindedly and let her bump through a gouged area on the pavement. “Yeah, he’s handsome.”

She is quiet on the way back, only fidgets with her limp curls and slaps my hand when I reach to turn on the radio. Once home, I help her change into night clothes and bring a heated dinner to her room. The running oxygen hisses in the background of the game show Wheel of Fortune.  I am almost out the door when she clears her throat and calls me in a scratchy voice.

“That man we saw…”

“Yes Mom.”

“He’s out of your league. You’ll never get a man the way you look.”

She lets out a snort and turns her attention back to the contestant picking out vowels.

I shut her door and walk toward my bedroom on the other side of the kitchen. As I pass through, I stop to sign the DNR forms on the counter. Then I turn off the lights.

2 responses to “Lights Out ( a short story)

  1. Holy shit this was really good. Subtle, nothing is overwrought which, with subject matter like this, would be very easy to fall into and indulge. The ending was damn near perfect. Really mature writing.

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