“Promise me you’ll take care of the kids,” Barbara pleaded. She grabbed my hand and squeezed it hard. Her grip surprised me. Barbara had always been a small woman with tiny hands, but she had this fierce demeanor about her that made people notice her. Rudy had found out the hard way when he was in high school and had been caught drinking at school. He says he’ll never forget the look in his mom’s eyes nor the way she screamed at him when she brought him home after he was suspended. I’ll never forget that incident either. Barbara wouldn’t let me.
“Of course,” I said. I felt confused as if I didn’t understand what I had passed between us. Barbara sat in her chair next to mine in the living room. Both chairs faced the TV, but the TV was turned off and I could see our reflections in the darkened screen. Barbara’s seemed to fade in and out in a haunting way, which startled me. I turned to look at her.
“Let’s talk about something else,” I suggested.
Barbara looked at me in the way she’d look at a lost puppy. She sighed slightly under her breath just as she did when the kids tested her patience. “We have to be realistic, Jim.”
I shook my head as if I could make it all go away. Barbara disappeared for a moment. I rubbed my eyes and she reappeared. I took a deep breath in relief. “I’m never going to give up. You know that. I can’t.”
“I know that, dear, but some things are inevitable.”
“Not now. It’s too early.”
“We don’t get to choose, dear.”
“I choose to believe.”
She smiled and looked at me with her glistening eyes, and for a moment, I was transported to a time long ago when I sat in the diner eating my eggs and she smiled at me in much the same way. In that instant, she glowed in the beauty of youth. It took my breath away.
I reached out to grab her hand. I wanted to pull her in to me and kiss her in the way I had back then. The passion surged within my chest and throbbed like the most wonderful pain I had ever experienced. I floated on the clouds with the wind in my face. I felt the warmth of the sun. I was as light as a beautiful spring day.
I heard a bump and it startled me awake. Barbara was gone, as ephemeral as a shooting star. I struggled to determine if my moment with her was real or a dream.
“Did I wake you?” the nurse asked.
I looked up from my bed and saw her sitting in the chair near the foot board. Her piercings glistened in the sunlight that seeped into the room. Her dark tattoos seemed ominous like a visible cancer that encroached on her arm. Seeing her disappointed me. I had gone nowhere. Barbara hadn’t returned. Nothing had changed.
“Yes, you did,” I said spitefully. I wanted her to feel my disdain for her. She wasn’t Barbara and she’d never take her place. I’d rather be alone than have her in my house, but my kids insisted that she stay with me. I hadn’t taken care of them like I had promised, and now, they were punishing me for not honoring their mother’s wishes.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Dunn. Maybe you can go back to sleep.”
“I don’t want to go back to sleep.”
“Do you want me to make you some breakfast?”
I thought for a moment. I wanted her out of my room. “Yes.”
She smiled and stood up. “The usual?”
I watched her leave the room to make my scrambled eggs and toast. She didn’t make it like Barbara did, but Barbara wasn’t here to show her how I liked it.
I wanted to get up out of bed, but the weight on my chest pushed down upon me. I tried to sit up but could only flail a moment before I gave up. A ray of sunlight crept across my room toward me. I thought of calling the nurse back into my room to adjust the blinds, but my hunger exceeded my discomfort from the bright light that shined in my face.
I dozed, and only the clanking of the plate and glass of juice forced me awake. The nurse bent over before me with my breakfast on a tray. She moved so slowly that I feared I was dreaming again. Only when she started adjusting my pillows and helping me sit up did I realize she was truly there and it was time to eat.
She pushed the tray toward me. “Do you want me to help you?”
I shook my head side to side. Her question annoyed me. I put the over-dry scrambled eggs to my mouth and chewed them. I clutched the damp toast in one hand and nibbled it as I ate the eggs. Barbara’s were way better.
I heard a door bang shut in the living room and briefly looked toward my bedroom door. The nurse stood up and left the room without a word, and I finished my breakfast. I drank my juice and dribbled a little on the bed sheets, but I stamped out the stain with my hand. I pushed the tray down to my knees. I felt too weak to put it to the side. I started to call the nurse when Carla entered the room with the nurse trailing behind her.
“Good morning, daddy,” she sounded grim despite the greeting.
“How are you feeling?”
I hated the question. It had been asked of me so much lately that I had begun to feel it was a trick question. I gave my stock, defensive response, “Okay.”
She sat beside me on the bed, while the nurse grabbed the tray and left the room. She put her tiny hand on mine and squeezed it, which reminded me of the dream I had just had. She kept talking to me despite my slow and muddled responses. I loved hearing her voice. It reminded me so much of Barbara’s that it almost lulled me to sleep.
Out of nowhere she said, “I’d like you to move in with us.”
My eyes opened wide and I looked at her in shock or something resembling fear. I said nothing at first.
“What do you think?” she asked after a few more moments of silence.
“Your mother will be worried if she comes home and I’m gone.”
Carla caught her breath and squeezed my hand again. “Daddy…”
She turned away, and somehow I knew I had no choice in the matter, and in that moment, I think I realized that Barbara was never coming home again.