The Things We Cannot Keep – Chapter 3

I watched the big windows in the bedroom light up with the sunrise. The moon had kept the room bright all through the night, but as it receded the dim shimmers of dawn clawed across the Cascade Mountains in the east and then brightened into a swirl of pinks and oranges before the sun crowned the jagged mountains. I tossed and turned in the early morning hoping to find some semblance of sleep before the daylight pulled me from the bed, but I threw in the towel as my mind raced around all of the scenarios that had led us to this point.

I sat up on the edge of the bed sliding the balls of my feet on the cool hardwood floor. All was quiet in the cabin save for the usual creaks of an old house. I stood up and stretched and walked over to the windows still aglow in the soft sunrise. Outside, a glorious September day began to unfold. The sky, clear as far as I could see, seemed to sparkle in the yawning daylight. A cool breeze ducked into the crack of the window and chilled my legs. It felt good, relaxing. For the first time in a long time, I felt good or maybe I just felt different so far removed from my life in San Francisco.

The lake simmered beneath my window, a mist coiled across its surface as if it were a giant cauldron. The Adirondack chairs still sat at the edge of the dock, empty but watching over the peaceful lake. The serenity of it all brought back many good memories from decades ago.

Dad liked to fish off the dock in the early morning. There were many mornings when I spent time here as a kid that I’d wake up and find him sitting on the edge of the dock in one of the chairs with the fishing rod wedged between his knees. He’d have a cup of coffee resting on the arm of the chair that was so hot I could see the steam rising from its mouth. He’d lightly tug the rod and then take a sip of coffee and repeat the movements over and over until a fish grabbed his line. On some mornings he’d catch a fish or two, and on others, his bait would go unnoticed. On those mornings when the fish ignored him, he’d curse his luck as he reeled in his line for the last time. He’d down the last of his coffee or toss the remnants into the lake. Then, he’d lean his rod against the back wall of the porch and slink inside the cabin to take a nap.

Dad never said much while he sat there fishing. Sometimes, I’d tiptoe outside, he hated it when we made too much noise on the dock when he was fishing, and sit on the gray planks next to him. He’d say “good morning,” but not much else. I’d glance at him from time to time, but mostly, I’d stare out over the glassy lake watching his line cut through it like a surgical knife making a precision cut.

He looked so serious when he was fishing as if he were studying the countenance of the lake for clues about where the fish were. In all my childhood memories on the dock at Baker Lake, he was younger than I am now, but I always noticed something about him that suggested time was slipping away from him like the crinkles at the corner of his eyes, the graying hair that flared back from his temples, or the loss of firmness in his chin. I noticed these things. I don’t know why, but they jumped out to me even when I was too young to appreciate their meaning. Of course, as I got older, I learned what troubled him most. Time makes you irrelevant. One day you wake up and you no longer matter.

I heard the door squeak and clank shut beneath me. I looked down from the window and saw Hank shuffling toward the lake. He still wore his t-shirt and pajama bottoms and his feet were bare. His disheveled hair looked like a crashing wave atop his head. He had a beer in his hand and took a sip as he walked toward the chairs. I watched as he plopped down into one of the chairs on the edge and leaned back. He took a long swig of the beer and sat it down on the arm of the chair. He sat motionless looking out over the lake.

I watched him there for a few seconds, stunned by how much he resembled Dad. Replace the beer with a coffee cup and put a fishing rod in his lap, and Hank could be Dad from all those years ago. Nostalgia gnawed at my gut, but I pushed it down with all of the other things that I didn’t want to feel and grabbed my phone to check the time. It was just after seven in the morning. I put on my old Stanford hoodie and hurried down the stairs.

Hank hadn’t bothered to start any coffee. Maybe he didn’t drink it anymore, but more likely, he didn’t think of anyone but himself. I started the coffee maker before I walked out onto the dock to join Hank. He didn’t turn around when the door clanked shut behind me, and I didn’t make any effort to be quiet. My footsteps thumped across the old planks, the wood rough beneath my bare feet.

I sidled into the chair next to him. “Good morning,” I said as I sat down.

He kept his eyes on the lake for a moment longer. Then, he glanced at me and replied, “Good morning.” He took a sip of his beer and returned his focus to the lake.

“A little early for a beer don’t you think?”

He looked at the can as if he were reading the label for the first time. He rolled it around in the palm of his hand. “Aren’t you a little old to be wearing a college sweatshirt?”

I laughed, and Hank did too, but only half-heartedly as if it weren’t really a joke.

“Are you supposed to be drinking alcohol?”

“No one told me I can’t.” Hank seemed aggravated by my suggestion. “Why did you buy it if you thought I couldn’t drink it?”

“I didn’t. That’s Robbie’s beer. He brought it.”

Hank considered this and took another sip from the can. He looked at me defiantly for a moment and then resumed his soliloquy with the lake. The steam continued to evaporate on its surface in the increasing warmth of the sunrise. I watched a bird fly across the lake shuddering its wings above the water.

“Do you want some coffee?” I asked sensing that the coffee maker must be done by now.

Hank considered it. “Actually, would you grab me another beer?”

I shot him a look but he kept his eyes on the lake. I relented. “Sure.”

Hank remained in the same catatonic trance when I returned to the edge of the dock with a cold beer in one hand and a hot coffee in the other. I shoved the beer in front of him and that broke his trance. He thanked me before he popped it open and took a long swig. I sipped my coffee and kept the cup in my lap as I sat back in the chair. A bird whooped on the edge of the lake. I heard a flutter of wings but I couldn’t see anything take flight. A slight breeze rustled my hair. Hank remained silent.

The sky ripened into a deep blue above us. The mist went about its merry way across the surface of the lake receding to the tall grass at the edge. The sun cast a warm, golden glow onto the dock and the back of the cabin. Save for the flap of wings or the erratic call of a bird, the world around us was muted. Normally, I’d relish the silence, a break from my usual hectic days, but here, sitting next to my older brother, an enigma in his own right, I could only anticipate what would or needed to be said next. I formed one-sided conversations in my head, but none seemed a good entry into my brother’s world. Finally, Hank relieved me of my internal anguish.

“I wish things were different,” he said.

I turned to look at him, but he remained focused on the lake. I wasn’t sure how to respond, but my hesitation didn’t discourage him from continuing.

“I wish Dad were here so I could take back my last words to him. I really do. I was angry then. I felt like a disappointment, not just to him, but to myself as well. It put me in a bad place. After all that happened, my biggest regret is what I said to him when they dragged me from the courtroom.”

His words floated across the lake and stared back at us, stark and unflinching. I’d been careful not to mention Dad during the drive up, and I had advised Robbie to do the same. He had reluctantly agreed despite his contention that Hank was a grown man and had to take his lumps. I’d argued that he’d taken his lumps for the past 20 years and that what he needed now was his family, or what was left of it.

“We all make mistakes,” I replied. I tried to think of Hank as one of my patients to keep myself steady and calm, but I could feel the old emotions rising up in my chest like the remnant of a greasy meal. I swallowed the words I wanted to say.

Hank nodded as if he had come to the slow realization that what I said was true. “Some more than others,” he said. He took another sip from his beer and then crushed the can between his thick fingers. He balanced the crumpled can on the arm of the chair.

The door behind us squeaked open and clanked shut. The sound reverberated past us and across the lake. It startled me in the moment, but I shook it off as Robbie’s heavy footsteps approached.

“You guys are up early,” Robbie said as he stepped in front of us and took the chair on the other side of Hank.

“What time is it?” Hank asked.

“8:30-ish,” Robbie replied as he glanced at the screen of his phone. He sat his phone on the arm of the chair and looked at us expectantly. Unlike us, he had combed his hair and changed out of his pajamas.

“That’s not early,” Hank said.

“It is for me,” Robbie said.

Hank laughed. “I can’t believe you’re a grown-up.”

“Why not?” Robbie asked. He made no attempt to hide his irritation. I could see the redness rising in his face like some sort of warning light.

Hank looked at him in mocking disbelief. “Because you’ll always be my baby brother. It’s hard to imagine you as anything but that.”

Robbie took umbrage at his comment. He’d never learned how to keep his emotions in check or how to keep a straight face. He was like our mom in that regard.

“I’m almost 40 years old. I’m hardly a baby. At least I’m – “

“He’s here to celebrate your freedom, Hank,” I interrupted. I knew where Robbie was going, and I had to cut him off before he inflamed old wounds. Our long weekend was just starting and to have him and Hank already fighting would make for a miserable experience. There had been moments on the drive up when I thought the trip would unravel before it even began, but I had managed to keep Robbie at bay while giving Hank room to venture out into the world he’d but shut off from for so long even if his part of that world had been taken away.

The Hill at the End

On Sunday, I ran a marathon in the rolling hills of West Virginia at the home of West Virginia University in Morgantown. I see why the WVU mascot is called the Mountaineers. The further east you go on the main thoroughfare through the town the more it drops off a cliff. That same street happens to be the last mile of the Morgantown Marathon. I’m sure the guy who set up this race had the best intentions (the net proceeds from the race go to benefit U.S. veterans) but he also has a sadistic streak because who puts a steep hill at the end of a marathon?

To be fair, it would be impossible to run a race through Morgantown and not have a hill on the course. The town is wedged into an outcrop of the Appalachian mountains, which are not as beautiful and dramatically rugged as the Rockies but they certainly aren’t lacking in steepness. This particular course featured 2,000 feet of elevation gain over the 26 miles. It was enough to make even the most experienced runner quiver in his sweaty running shoes.

Going into this race, I knew it’d be a challenge. In addition to the hills, the weather didn’t look too favorable. The “low” temperature was predicted to be 69 degrees Fahrenheit, while the high was forecast near 80 degrees with mostly sunny skies. Such temperatures may be ideal for a run-of-the-mill day out on a Sunday, but for running a race, these temps were closer to dangerous than favorable. I had never been more thankful for cloud cover than I was when I walked out of my hotel on Sunday morning. It was slightly cooler than expected, and those clouds stayed around for most of the race. It was still hot for running, but not as bad as I had expected.

Before the race I had reviewed the elevation map of the course in disbelief. I didn’t see how I was going to run the whole race and still finish. Hills chew through a lot of energy, something that must be managed carefully over a race the length of a marathon if you hope to finish. If you’re not careful, you’ll hit the proverbial wall sooner than later on such a course. I was prepared to walk, if necessary, when I encountered the biggest hills. It’d be better to recover than run out of gas before I finished the race.

Early in the race, I felt particularly strong. I settled into third place behind two stronger runners and held that pace until I hit the biggest hill on the course. At that point, when I looked at the long climb ahead, I pulled up and began to walk. I used the time to consume some food and pounded my way up the hill at a good walking pace. Only a couple of runners passed me. Before I crested the hill, I began to run again feeling refreshed and reinvigorated after my brief respite.

After that big hill, all of the others seemed illegitimate as if their status as hills had been revoked. I cruised through the next few miles and even managed to catch one of the runners who had passed me. The race was going extremely well. The stretch of miles 23 and 24 were along a river trail and were as flat as could be. I felt great despite having crossed the 20-mile point. At mile 25 I grabbed some water as I ran by the mile marker and turned the corner in the last stretch of the race. That’s when I saw the obstacle that stood between me and the finish – the hill from hell.

Almost the entire final mile of the race was up hill. Not only was it a steep climb, but it was completely exposed to the sun as there were no trees on either side of the road. By this time in the race, most of the clouds had burned off and the temperature hovered in the 70s. Seeing and feeling this felt like being squashed under a giant boot. I pulled up and began walking again. The finish line would have to wait.

Before I crested the hill at mile 26, I began running again. The finish was slightly downhill, so I let gravity give me a hand. My time was still a respectable 3:17 despite the walking. Having conquered the course, I felt good. This wasn’t a course for personal bests.

That hill at the end was a real bummer even though I knew it was there before the race started. I couldn’t help but draw a parallel between the race and writing. There seems to always be a big hill at the end when it comes to finishing a novel, and I don’t mean completing the novel itself. The hill is perfecting it or getting it to the point where it’s ready to go beyond the draft phase. It seems insurmountable, but it requires focus even if that means slowing down and taking much longer than I’d prefer. That walk to the finish can be maddening, but it’s worth it when you cross the finish line.

Episode 4: Donna Quixote

The key under the planter had rust stains, little splotches like the liver spots on the backs of her hands. She tried to brush them off with her fingers to no avail. She’d clean it when she got inside the house. She scanned the vacant street behind her. The quiet abandonment of workdays and school days meant she was alone for the moment. She felt free from the eyes of the neighborhood.

The door knob popped when she turned the key. As she stepped through the door, her foot hit something solid. The package. The EMTs must have placed it inside her door when they took her away. She bent down slowly to pick it up and cradled it in her arm as she walked to her kitchen. She sat it next to the other package on her counter. Like that package it had no return address, but she could tell they were from the same person because the handwritten labels were very similar.

As she took her medicines and chased them with cold, unexpired water from her refrigerator, she stared at the packages. She wondered who sent them and why. Once the blood pressure cup released her arm and she had written the reading down in her log, she returned her attention to the packages. She tore open the first one.

Inside was an old Folgers coffee can, not the new plastic ones, but an old tin one with scrapes and dents. The color was more burgundy than red with gold writing across the face. She imagined she had seen this before, but she couldn’t recall where. She had stopped drinking coffee years ago. Something rattled in the can when she pulled it from the box. She removed the plastic lid, which had been so stretched over the years that it almost fell off unforced.

Pictures and letters were stuffed the inside of the can, so many that she almost couldn’t get her hand inside to pull them out. She pinched the edge of one of the letters and pulled it from the can. She recognized her writing and the address right away. Her heart beat in her throat and her eyes welled. She had to sit down.

She cradled the can in her arms as she sat down in the recliner. The letter had been addressed to her ex-husband, one of many she had sent to him after he had left and taken her children away. She peeled back the flap of the yellowed envelope and removed the folded paper. This letter had been a short one, only two pages. She flipped open the letter, which was dated October 5, 1979.

As she read the letter, the old feelings returned. The sense of loss overwhelmed her. The words on the page wailed at her much like she had mourned the absence of her husband and her two daughters. She only read the first paragraph before she folded the letter again and shoved it back into the envelope. She stuffed it into the rattling can. She shook the can again and peered into it trying to determine what was bouncing around in the bottom. She turned it upside down and shook it until a sparkle of gold tumbled from its lip. The ring landed in her lap. She pinched it between her fingers and took a close look at it. A moment passed before she realized she held her ex-husband’s wedding ring – the one he had worn when they were married.

The plain, gold band had scuffs and scratches on its surface, but it still gleamed in the light like a twinkling star in the night. She rolled it between her fingers. A flood of emotions pushed her back into the squeaky recliner. She stared at the ring a bit longer before she dropped it back into the can and replaced the flimsy, plastic lid. She sat, breathless and bewildered, wondering why her ex-husband would send her these things.

Donna retrieved the other package from the counter, but before she opened it, she examined the handwriting. It didn’t look like her ex-husband’s writing. He could barely write the way it was. If she remembered correctly, his handwriting was bulky and shaky like that of a child’s. The writing on the package was rounded and decidedly feminine like hers would have been had she ever focused on such things.

She tore open the package carefully as if she were afraid of what she might find. Her fingers slid along the edge of one of the box flaps as she opened it, and she winced in pain at the paper cut opened on her index finger. At first, it was just a slice of skin on the side of her finger, but then, blood flushed the superficial wound. Pain radiated through her hand. She put the finger to her lips and held it there until the pain subsided. She put the package aside and ambled into the kitchen to attend to the wound.

With a fresh bandage on the cut, she returned to the package and opened the flaps. Another letter, not ancient like the others, sat on top of several wooden picture frames. She ignored the letter for a moment and pulled the pictures from the box. The first one showed her and her husband on their wedding day on August 5, 1971. She stared at it in disbelief. A tear trickled down her cheek.

She peered into the box at the next framed photo, which was her with her two daughters, Emily and Ann. They were still little girls then. The picture had been taken in the backyard just beyond the wall in front of her. She looked that way as if she could peer back in time and see them playing on the tire swing that hung on the big oak for so many years even after they were gone.

The last photo in the box was a family portrait taken just before her husband left with the girls. Donna looked at the pained expression on her face. She remembered that day well. She put the pictures back in the box and pulled the letter toward her face. She squinted at the swooping words on the page as she slowly read it. Her heart thrummed in her chest and her breath hitched until a sob escaped. She crumpled the letter in her fist and crammed it back into the box before she pushed it to the floor at her feet. She sat back in the recliner as tears rolled down her cheeks. The refrigerator purred to life filling the anguished silence for a moment. Her ex-husband had died.

Living, Not Existing

My daughter and I had a great discussion this weekend, one of many that we’ve had over the years. I sometimes forget she’s only 13 until I put her and her brother in the same room. It started with an article about the 76-year-old who recently completed the Western States 100 trail race in under 30 hours becoming the oldest finisher of the grueling race. It’s a feat when a young person completes the race, but for a septuagenarian it’s downright miraculous. I can only admire the man and his determination, but mostly, I respect that he’s living life vs. simply existing.

This gets the crux of the conversation that I had with my budding philosophic teenager. One of the my favorite aphorisms that I’m constantly repeating to the kids is that if you’re not challenging yourself, you’re not growing. There’s a corollary to this that I don’t share, and that’s if you’re not growing, you might as well be dead. I save that morose offshoot for myself because, let’s face it, I don’t want to depress the kids; I just want them to make the most of their talents (and move out and get off the parental dole), but there’s a whole lot of truth to that corollary.

I see it all the time – people who are just there floating in space like a jellyfish waiting for something to happen to them rather than making things happen for themselves. They’re quick to bemoan the perception that they’re a victim of some unseen force and slow (if ever) to see how their lives are a collection of their own decisions. This gets to another aphorism that I push onto my kids: you are the result of your own decisions. Don’t blame anyone or anything else; it just makes you look dumb. It’s safe to say I don’t adopt the jellyfish persona.

During our conversation about the oldest finisher in Western States history, my daughter said, “that sounds like something you’ll be doing when you’re that age in a few years.” I forgave her for conflating 30 years into such a short time frame. While I don’t know if I’ll ever want to attempt the Western States, I do know that I will never get to the point of sitting around and waiting to die, and that’s really all simply existing is. I don’t understand that mentality. As long as I wake up each morning, I’m going to make the most of it. I’m certainly not going to waste time doing pointless things, staring into space without a meaningful thought in my head, or imagining all of the terrible things that could happen should I try to live my life.

If my kids are clear on anything, it’s that my wife and I intend to make the most of the the years ahead. They’ll be lucky if they can keep up with us. We’ll become a veritable game of Where’s Waldo once they move out. I have no intention of allowing the moss to grow under us. Life must be lived. Simply existing isn’t an option for me. Now, about that Western States race…

 

Mr. Big Nose

Several years ago, my family and I lived in China for a while. A job opportunity landed us in Beijing as I had taken an expatriate assignment with my employer at the time. There’s nothing more challenging from a personal and professional perspective than plopping yourself in the middle of a very different culture, especially if you don’t speak the language. The trials and tribulations of everyday life felt overwhelming at first, but gradually, we adjusted. You can’t grow if you don’t challenge yourself, so it’s safe to say, we grew a lot those three years. I learned a lot about myself, the most of important of which is that I have a big nose.

I’d never really regarded my nose as particularly large. Growing up, when I looked around me, everyone had similar-sized noses, so I never ascribed much stature to my nose. Sure, I saw some people who were considered to have rather large noses that were described as hawk-like, maybe in an admirable way, or elephantine, in an unkind way, but these folks were the exceptions rather than the rule. My nose was rather pedestrian. I could easily see around it, and in fact, I had to angle my eyes inward quite a bit to even see it without looking in a mirror. When I did use a mirror, I often looked straight on into it rather than at a profile, so I didn’t pay particular attention to my out-sized snout.

Just as it’s hard to see crutch words (can you find them in this post?) in your writing, it’s difficult to see aberrant personal features when you’re surrounded by similar people. Drop yourself into a different culture and suddenly those features stand out like a black sheep in a flock of white ones. In China, my prodigious beak looked like I could audition for the main role in Pinocchio. It became readily apparent, oddly enough, when my time there was nearly finished. As a goodbye gift, I received a caricature statue of my family from my coworkers. As is common with caricatures, they exaggerate the most prominent features of their subjects. The tiny statues of my wife and kids looked pretty normal, but when I saw mine, I was struck by how it looked like a tiny person attached to a giant nose.

It’s easy to laugh at the statue as an overwrought exaggeration of a heretofore unknown physical abnormality, but it also drives home the importance of perspective, which is something that makes writing (and reading for that matter) so interesting and enjoyable. As a writer, I get to step into someone else’s perspective and try it on for size. I attempt to see the world through his or her eyes. It doesn’t mean I get it right, but for once, I step outside my own view of the world and look at it in a different way, and much like the challenge of adapting to a very different culture, it helps me grow, and hopefully, it helps my readers grow. That’s the true value in a good story. It expands the mind beyond what is merely possible by being who and where you are. That’s the kind of growth I like, the kind unrelated to my snout.

Postscript: Only my wife can call me Big Nose. To everyone else, it’s Mr. Big Nose.  

For the Thrill of It

The summer vacation season has come to an end, and I wrapped it up with my daughter as we spent a few days at Cedar Point, an amusement park jam-packed with thrilling roller coasters. Not only was this a chance to relive a few moments from my own childhood when I traipsed through an amusement park with my cousins, it was also an opportunity to have some valuable one-on-one time with my oldest child, who isn’t really a child anymore. In between the rides and bites of what amounts to nothing more than carnival-style food, we chatted about anything and everything from TV shows to books to life in general.

As the kids get older, I can feel time slipping away. Their orbit around my wife and me is expanding and the gravitational pull that once held us tightly together has weakened. They are finding their own path, slowly but surely, and it no longer depends on us. In many ways, this is rewarding, but in other ways, it’s sad, an end of a phase of our lives that we never thought would end. When you have kids, you throw your whole being into it. You give yourself up entirely. The love you feel for them is all-consuming. It’s like running a long race that you can never finish.

So, I try to find ways to reconnect, to relate, knowing that it will fall short because the relationship between parents and teenagers is meant to be angst-filled, a dramatic, slow-motion removal of a sticky bandage. My kids are very different from each other and relating to them requires different approaches. My son is testing out his masculinity, expressed through mindless video games that I no longer get, but I listen to him prattle on about them even if it doesn’t resonate just to hear the sound of his voice. My daughter, cerebral and wise well beyond her years, requires a different approach. We bond over books, writing, running and solving the injustices in the world. Her thoughts and conversations can be very deep, but sometimes, I get a glimpse of the little girl I once knew when I see her watching Moana on her phone.

Many years ago when my daughter was much younger, we were at Disney World, and she had just passed the height requirement to ride Space Mountain. That ride happens to be the first ride I ever rode at Disney World, and while it’s not particularly strenuous by today’s thrill ride standards, it’s aggressive for a young kid. I was worried about how she would handle the ride, but she was so gung-ho about it and so excited to ride a big kid roller coaster that I couldn’t say no, so we rode it together. She sat behind me in the ride, and the whole time I kept my hand on her leg both to comfort her and me. At the end of the ride, she practically giggled with delight. She enjoyed it so much, and I enjoyed it, too, more so because of the sheer joy it brought to her. I bought the in-ride picture they took of us on the coaster to commemorate the event. In the picture we’re both smiling from ear-to-ear and her wild hair flutters in her wake. It’s how I always picture her as a little girl, my little daredevil.

A few years later, I took her to Six Flags outside Los Angeles on a daddy-daughter trip, and we spent the whole day riding some serious roller coasters including Goliath. She was fearless, tackling each ride with the gusto that made me proud. Hearing her squeal with excitement and react in amazement at what she just did made my day. I’ll never forget the look on her face as we careened around corners on Goliath, an expression of youthful fearlessness and hesitant excitement. With each return to a coaster terminal, she expressed her desire to do it again. Daredevil indeed.

As such, it seemed only fitting that we’d return to our shared love of thrill rides one more time this past week. We descended upon Cedar Point late Saturday afternoon expecting a packed house, but we happened upon a lull in the crowds because the weather had been suspect. We managed to ride almost all of the coasters in a five-hour span starting with Wicked Twister and ending with The Raptor. As we walked out of the park that first night, the adrenaline still pumping from all of the rides, we talked about what we’d ride the next day. I caught a glimpse of that little girl I remember so well from Space Mountain. She’s changed a lot since then, but some things never change.

Episode 3: Donna Quixote

Before Donna opened her eyes, she could sense the unfamiliar around her. She’d had a dream of her mother and she hoped that by keeping her eyes closed she could linger in the dream just a little longer. She missed her mother dearly and thought of her every day. The day her mother died had been the second worst day of her life.

A low hum droned next to her head on her right, a faint chatter echoed somewhere away from her, and she could feel someone next to her. She slowly opened her eyes. A young Indian man stood next to her cloaked in light blue scrubs and a white coat. She took him in with half-closed eyes and blinked hoping that he’d go away, but he remained next to her making notes on a tablet.

“Good morning, Ms. Scott. I’m Dr. Kolachalam,” he said. Her name rolled off his tongue in a strange way, but she understood him. “How do you feel?”

Donna turned her head to the side and felt the stiffness from her shoulder roll up her neck. She felt pain in her expression. “Where am I?” she asked.

“Eastside Hospital. You had a fall and hurt your shoulder. The EMTs brought you here this morning.”

She thought about this for a moment. She remembered falling and pain radiating up her shoulder. She remembered the tinny voice on the end of the line when she dialed 9-1-1, and she remembered wondering if the dispatcher recognized her voice.

“You’re lucky it wasn’t worse, Ms. Scott. It appears you fainted from low blood sugar and fell against your kitchen counter. You’ve got a sizable bruise on your shoulder, but it should heal in time. Have you been taking your insulin as prescribed?”

She couldn’t remember when she last took her insulin, but she usually took it at night before she went to bed. “Last night,” she replied. Her voice croaked as if she hadn’t had anything to drink in a very long time. “Can I get some water?”

“Sure.” The doctor turned to the space behind him and poured some water into a plastic cup. He pushed the cup toward her lips, but she stuck up her hand and he put the cup in her hand instead. She swallowed large gulps of water as he watched.

“You should be fine, but you need to ensure you take your insulin. The bruise will hurt for a few days, but nothing is broken. The nurse will be in to discharge you. You can go home.”

“Is the ambulance going to take me home?” she asked.

“Do you have someone who can take you home?”

“No. I live alone.”

“Oh, let me tell the nurse. She can help you.” A look of sympathy washed over his otherwise stoic face. His eyes lingered on her a bit longer before he turned and disappeared behind the room’s swinging door.

Donna pushed herself into her pillow and looked away from the fluttering door. The machine next to her bed had been disconnected from her and turned off. She wondered what her blood pressure reading was. She wanted to compare it to what her own readings had been to see if she’d been getting incorrect numbers. These thoughts rippled through her mind as a wave of exhaustion washed over her. She closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep.

A murmur of hushed conversation woke her from her slumber. At first, she just heard the disembodied voices hovering over her, but as she slowly opened her eyes, she could see blurred faces. It took her a moment to realize her eyeglasses had slid down her nose. She pushed them up to her eyes and took in the two women staring at her.

“Ms. Scott,” the nurse said, “your daughter is here to take you home.”

Donna looked at the woman beside her. She had aged a good bit since the last time she had seen her, but she still had that dismissive look on her face, one that she had worn so well for so many years.

“Ms. Anderson called me and said that an ambulance had brought you here. I’m glad you’re okay.”

Donna blinked and looked away toward the skinny window in the room. The light outside had dimmed.

“Are you ready to go home?” her daughter asked.

She turned back toward her daughter. The nurse had left the room. “You didn’t have to come here.”

“I know, but I thought I should. Ms. Anderson was very worried about you.”

“She needs to mind her own business.”

“Donna, be glad you have a neighbor who cares.”

“She doesn’t care. She’s just nosy.”

“You haven’t changed a bit.” Her daughter shook her head with a look of disdain framing her face. Donna looked toward the window.

“Alright, at least let me take you home. Otherwise, it’s going to cost you. Can you get dressed, or do I need to call the nurse back?”

Donna shifted her gaze back to her daughter and then winced in pain as she tried to sit up.

“I’ll get the nurse.” Her daughter turned and left the room, and a few moments later, the nurse returned smiling a bright white smile that even made Donna want to smile in return.

After the nurse helped her get dressed, she sat in the lone chair next to the bed. Her shoulder throbbed, and her heart pounded in her chest. She grasped the bottle of pain medicine the nurse had given her. The door swung open and her daughter’s sour face hung above the bed in her line of sight.

“You ready to go?”

She nodded.

“Do you need help, or can you walk yourself?”

She nodded again and stood up as if to offer proof.

“Let’s go.”

Donna took a tentative first step and then shuffled toward her daughter. Silence engulfed them as they rode the elevator down to the main floor and walked out to the parking lot. Her daughter walked in front of her and she followed her broad back down the aisle of cars and through a line near the back of the lot until her daughter stopped at a small, red Kia.

“This is my car,” she said. Donna stopped and backtracked to the passenger side. She waited for her daughter to unlock the door, and then, she slid into the passenger seat, which felt like it was almost on the ground in the small car. When her daughter cranked the car, the radio came on louder than Donna cared for, but she didn’t complain. The piercing noise of the music drowned out the words left unsaid.

The drive to her house only took about ten minutes. Years ago, when she had her children, the nearest hospital had been almost an hour away, but in the intervening years as her neighborhood became something she didn’t recognize, the town around her grew in importance, enough so that it now had its own hospital. Donna watched the world go by outside the passenger window, a blur of buildings and houses, some new and some old blended into a smear of colors in the late afternoon.

The car came to a stop in front of her house. Donna almost didn’t recognize it from the outside since she rarely looked at it from this angle.

“Do you want me to help you?” her daughter asked.

Donna shook her head without looking at her daughter. She took a breath and opened the car door.

As she stood up and before she could shut the door, her daughter said, “Donna…”

Donna bent down and peered into the car at her daughter. Her daughter froze as if she had forgotten what she was going to say.

“Take care of yourself,” she said after an awkward pause.

“I will,” Donna replied. She shut the car door and turned toward her house without another word or glance at her daughter. She heard the engine hum and the crackle of tires on the asphalt as her daughter drove away. She felt a sense of relief mixed with exhaustion as she walked toward the planter on her porch that hid the key to her house. She couldn’t get back in her house soon enough to get away from the world that shunned her.