She was beautiful in her last days.
The reasons were not nearly so beautiful. Her failing liver turned her skin almost golden; the weeks without food threw her elegant bone structure into sharp focus; and the drugs for the pain left her expression peaceful and serene.
But the beauty was still there.
Celia didn’t know what she would do when it was over. It felt like she’d entered a different kind of space, a place where time no longer existed. Every day was the same and yet different. The nurses wore pink scrubs or blue scrubs or green scrubs or once, white scrubs with a pattern of pale pink flowers. Roses, perhaps. That was the only thing about the day that made it different from the previous day or the next day. The white scrubs with mysterious pink flowers.
Presumably the sun rose every morning and set every evening, but Celia didn’t notice. Except once, walking out of the hospice at twilight, when she paused, struck by the incredible beauty of the sky, caught between day and night, and realized how much it resembled her mother, golden and diminishing quickly.
All the conversations seemed the same. “No difference, but she ate some soup at lunch.” “Not much of a change, although she’s gotten very quiet.” “No change, the nurse says maybe next week sometime.” “It could be any time. We wish you could be here, too.”
The one exception was when her mother became terminally restless. If that was the way to say it. Entered terminal restlessness?
Was it an emotion or a place?
Celia didn’t share those moments with the callers, though. How could it help them to know that Mama was begging to go home? Crying out in fear at the dark man, standing in the corner, that no one else could see? Striking out at the nurses and desperately trying to break free from her bed, only to fall from the weakness of her legs?
Celia didn’t tell them how bored she was, either. It would have sounded callous. But sitting in the hospice room, hour after hour, long past the time when all the words had been said, became an exercise in surviving tedium. She’d stared at the picture on the wall above the bed for so long she thought she could draw it in her sleep. She’d open books, then let them sit in her lap for hours, unread. Sometimes she turned on the television, but only for a few minutes before she turned it off again. Entertainment seemed so superficial, so shallow. Not because anyone would care how she spent her time. The nurses weren’t sitting in judgement of her, condemning her as a bad daughter because eight hours of sitting by a dying woman’s bed lasted an eternity. But it felt wrong.
She wished, instead, she could treasure every minute. She wanted to store them up, to grab each precious second and bottle it, so that in the years to come, she could open the bottles when she needed them, when only hearing Mama’s voice could comfort her. She knew those days would come. But the minutes ticked by, one slow second at a time, and she couldn’t save them.
On the last day, Celia saw the dark man, too.
Her mother had been right. He was waiting in the corner.
Celia stared at him. He was coming into focus, sharper, clearer. As if he’d been a shadow but was growing solid. He wore a top hat, not quite a stovepipe, but the sort of headpiece that a man in a tuxedo in a Fred Astaire movie might wear. It didn’t match the casual sweater and blue jeans that he wore underneath.
“Who are you?” She grabbed her mother’s hand. The fingers were limp in hers. It had been at least three days since Mama had roused, even for a minute, and her skin was cool and dry.
“Seriously?” The man took off his hat. No, he doffed his hat. It was a move out of a movie, accompanied by a little bow, much more formal than merely removing the black topper.
“Who are you?” Her voice raised, getting squeaky at the end. She glanced toward the door. Should she call for help?
Was she hallucinating out of exhaustion? The days had been long and it wasn’t as if she was sleeping particularly well when she did sleep. She was always afraid that she might miss some important moment, the last time her mother woke, the last words her mother might say. Her hours of trying to sleep weren’t terminal restlessness but they were restless.
“How can you not recognize me?” He sounded hurt.
His eyes were blue and he had a dimple in his chin.
He had to be Death, right? Who else would appear in a dying woman’s room? But he didn’t look like Death or at least not the way Celia had ever pictured Death looking. He wasn’t skeletal or dour.
He smiled at her and his smile was charming. Also familiar.
Celia frowned, her eyes narrowing, her hand tightening on her mother’s. “Dad?” She hazarded a guess.
“Oh, please.” He grimaced. “You can’t possibly think I look anything like that son-of-a-bitch.”
“Well, I never met him,” she defended herself.
“Right, and if he showed up for your mother’s last days, I’d hope you’d punch him in the mouth.” The man made a fist and jabbed it in her direction, not threateningly, but playfully.
“Grandpa?” Celia’s mouth dropped open.
He opened the first, index finger pointing at her. “Got it in two. Good job, baby.”
“But you… you…” He looked about eighteen, no more than that, far younger than Celia herself. Not at all like the man she’d known.
“You didn’t think I’d stay old forever, did you?” He winked at her.
“Where’s Grandma?” Celia asked.
“Busy, busy, busy.” He shook his head. “Not that she wouldn’t be here if she could, of course. This is a big moment for us, you know.”