I awakened to an awful, pungent smell that lingered around me as if it were being blown on me by some unseen fan. I twitched my nose and tried to breathe through my mouth to avoid the horrible odor, but I failed to ward it off. My eyes drooped and felt weak. Everything seemed fuzzy like those Monet paintings that Barbara loved so much. I could barely discern the outline of Rudy and Carla standing before me. Both looked at me with an expression of concern.
“How do you feel, Dad?” Rudy asked. His voice sounded strained, unsteady. His lips moved out of sync with his words as if he were in a badly-dubbed movie. The disconnect startled me and I wondered if I were dreaming or if he really was talking to me. I froze and said nothing. I just stared at him dumbfounded poking that uncomfortable cannula that crimped my nose.
Carla grabbed my hand and squeezed it. “Dad?”
Each of them tensed almost in unison and leaned into me. They had always had that symbiotic relationship – feeling and sensing together like twins even though they were born almost two years apart. Barbara and I had struggled so long to have them that we treated them like the miracles they were. I’m sure they often had to retreat to each other to resist the fussy overprotective tendencies of their parents.
“Where is your mother?” I asked finally after a few rushed breaths. I felt winded after holding my breath to avoid the odor.
Carla’s eyes pooled with tears and one escaped down her cheek. Rudy’s eyes glistened in the harsh light of the room, and at that moment, I realized I wasn’t in my room. It startled me, this realization, and I spun my head side to side to trying to determine where I was. Nothing seemed familiar. I wondered how I had gotten into the strange room and unfamiliar bed. I tried to sit up, but some invisible force craned its knee into my chest. My entire body ached.
“Mom’s not here,” Rudy said after a long pause. Carla shot him a look that almost knocked him down, but she said nothing. More tears rolled down her high cheekbones. I looked from her to Rudy hoping for some answer to the only question I cared about.
“Where am I?” I asked.
“You’re in the hospital,” Carla said.
“Why?” This revelation startled me.
“You fell,” she replied. Her voice seemed distant, vacant. She peered at her brother as if she wanted him to fill in the blanks. I looked from her to him and back, but nothing more came. It all seemed too much and I suddenly felt overwhelmed and exhausted. I closed my eyes relieved to not have to stare at my children. Their refusal to tell me where their mother was exasperated me to no end.
When I opened my eyes again, Rudy and Carla had moved to the corner of the room next to the door and were whispering to each other. Had this been many years ago when I was younger, I would have been able to hear them, but time had played an awful joke on my senses. I struggled to hear even the most normal level of conversation, so whispers, even those only a few feet away, were out of the question. I waved them off in my imagination annoyed that they’d blatantly discuss something in front of me without including me.
Carla noticed me staring at them first, and she abruptly stopped talking. Rudy turned to me and smiled wanly, and both of them walked back to my bedside. Neither said a word at first. Carla touched my hand lightly and then squeezed it in hers. My large hand swallowed her tiny paw. It felt so delicate and soft that I feared I would break it if I squeezed back too hard, but swelling and stiffness stunted my clumsy, blunt grip.
“Dad…,” Rudy started, “you…broke your hip…” His voice hitched but he maintained eye contact with me. For a moment I could not understand what he said. I thought it impossible. I had done no such thing. I searched my memory for something that would confirm what he said, but nothing came.
Carla turned away and even I heard her stifled cry. I watched her back move away from me and turned toward to my son.
“We’re going to get someone to stay with you when you go back home,” my son continued.
“Tell your mother I need her to come home.”
“Please. She’ll understand. She’ll forgive me if she knows I need her.”
“She’s not coming home.”
Rudy shook his head and tightened his lips across his face as if he were angry. At who I did not know. Barbara’s absence confused me. She never told me what I had done, and now, when I needed her most, she refused to help me. It didn’t make any sense. I wanted to scream out her name hoping that she stood just outside my room waiting for me to call to her as a indication of how much I loved her.
Barbara had never been so angry with me that she avoided me for so long. One time in April 1975 she left me for a couple of days after I had come home late drunk and unruly several days in a row. The pressure of trying to have kids had driven me to drinking a few years earlier, but I had kept it under control for the most part using it as an escape in the evenings or weekends. By early 1975 I had swerved onto an unsustainable path and fallen into the habit of going out with my coworkers after the work day ended for a few beers – more than a few in reality. Barbara tried to be understanding, but by that spring, it became too much, so she left me.
Only after Barbara had packed her bags and left for her mother’s house, did I realize that I had a problem. I managed to go to her mother’s house and embarrass myself, but I convinced her that I would clean up my act. I kept my promise. Almost losing Barbara had scared me straight. A year later we welcomed Carla into our lives and 19 months later Rudy followed her. I haven’t had a drink in 40 years.
Whatever I had done could not possibly be worse than being a drunkard husband, but Barbara had been gone several days now, which was the longest she’d been out of my sight since that spring in the 1970s. Her absence worried and scared me, yet my children remained mum. I cared less about my hip or any other physical ailment that beset me. I needed Barbara. I wanted to apologize to her for whatever I had done. The urge to yell out her name returned., but I couldn’t muster the breath to do so. Instead, I just stared at my son who clung to the side of my bed as if it would roll away. He stood there unblinking and unsure of what to say. My head listed to the side and I lost myself in the pale wall of the hospital room.