Better Left Unsaid
Winner of the 2017 12 Short Stories Contest
“You have two days max to get here if you want to see her before she dies,” my sister’s urgency pressed through the phone. “She’s barely awake now.”
“Do you have any idea how much flights even cost right now?” I asked theThis was coming from the sister living for free in mom’s now abandoned house, sleeping free of charge in the rooms above her hospice home, holding vigil over a mother who never really paid attention to her.
“This could be your last chance. Do you want to live your whole life knowing that you let airfares stop you from saying goodbye to your only mother? The only mother you are ever going to get?”
I sighed and looked out at the bubbling mall fountain, lit up with red and green lights for the season, one hand over my ear to block out the Christmas music blaring over the mall speakers.
“I’m three states away for a reason.”
“She has no one else,” my sister whispered into the phone, as if our mother would overhear her. “Please. There’s only two days.”
I hauled my suitcase onto the beige hotel bedspread when my husband called.
“Are you there safely? I hate to think of you doing this by yourself.”
“You didn’t have to send me in the first place,” I pulled out a crimson cashmere sweater from my suitcase and held it out. I was thinking of changing and having a drink at the bar downstairs.
“Yes, I did,” I heard the Rudolph movie blaring through the phone. My heart ached for the kids. I could be nestled between them on the couch right now, their hands darting in and out of the giant family popcorn bowl cradled in my lap, their soft hair under my chin. Snow was spiraling past the window when my husband pushed me out the door to be here, telling me how I would regret not going.
I regretted being here.
My sister beeped in on the other line.
“Where are you?” she was breathless. “She has not been conscious for twelve hours. The nurses keep asking me when you will be here.”
“ I am stuck at the airport,” I lied. “There haven’t been any cabs yet. It’s three days to Christmas, for God’s sake. I won’t make it tonight.”
“Sorry to inconvenience you,” she huffed and hung up.
I smoothed the cashmere sweater and slipped on some heeled boots and headed down to the bar.
“Coming to visit family?” Heather, according to her name tag, slid a second Christmas special martini across the bar to me.
“Something like that.”
My phone went off.
Are you at the hotel yet? My sister messaged me.
I am at the bar trying to relax, I messaged back.
Before ten minutes went by she slid onto the stool next to me and ordered what I was having.
“You could just stay with me upstairs at the hospice,” she said by way of greeting. “You didn’t have to pay for a room.”
“I don’t really want to be there.” I concentrated on the twinkling bar lights reflected on my glass. “I need my space.”
“I know she’s Mom,” my sister said after swallowing the cloying, strong drink. “But she is our mother. The only one we have.”
“That seems to be your only argument for my being here.”
“She loves us. She might not show it, but she needs us right now.”
“Yeah? And what about when we needed her? Where was she when she dropped us off, for, I don’t know, a seven year visit with Grandma? Who turned out to not even be Grandma but some poor woman who she said was her best friend.” my voice was rising with drink and irritation.
“God, you don’t have to tell the whole bar,” my sister said. “She did what she felt was best. It could have been worse than Grandma.”
“I don’t know why you feel you have to pretend at her deathbed like she deserves your love,” I pressed, quieter now. “You always had to go above and beyond for her to even act like you exist. Like you’re doing right now.”
I watched the tears shivering in my sister’s eyes.
“Come on, sis,” I reached out, wanting to drape a guilty arm across her shoulders.
“No,” she jumped up, pushing the barstool back. “I am going back to Mercy House,” she gathered up her coat and I knew she was leaving me to pay for the mostly untouched drink. “I’m calling you at six o’clock tomorrow to come over.”
The guilt of hurting my sister had not gone away when she called the next morning through my pounding headache.
“Today is it,” my sister’s tone was clipped. “The head nurse just got here and she said Mom will be gone by the end of the day. You need to get here.”
“By the end of the day? I have some time to finish Christmas shopping then!” I said in mock glee.
“Why do you insist on being like this?” I heard the door shut behind her.
“We aren’t kids anymore. You don’t have to make sure I do things that you think are for my own good.”
“Are you coming or not?”
“”I’ll get there when I get there,” was all I could say, my stomach sinking.
Two hours later I had showered and was on my way to the Dunkin in town when I decided to go and see the first house that I remembered living in with my mother and sister, and a slew of boyfriends of my mothers, in and out, before our long stay with Grandma.
I parked across the street, barely recognizing the place for how run down it had become. A young woman trying to carry a Christmas tree into the house was followed by three small children in grubby coats, the biggest trying to help the smallest toddle up on the porch behind her. They were laughing, all three of them, and trying to cram the tree in the tiny doorway.
A wave of sadness washed over me as I sat there in my car across the street. Did we laugh like that in my cold Christmas in that house? Or was it just Mom fighting with her boyfriend that year as I lay in bed, wondering if Santa would come because they had not gone to bed yet?
My sister called.
“Where. Are. You.” She almost hollered. “Mom just woke up and she wants to talk to you.”
“I am on my way to Dunkin,” I said.
“Get me something, and get here.”
I got in line between a family with about five children all heavily dressed in snow pants, shoving each other and laughing in line, stumbling all over each other onto the grubby floor. I watched them, aching for my own children. It was their last day of school before Christmas break and I liked to take them sledding that first moment of break, while it is at its most exciting, and I was stuck here,not even sure I wanted to say goodbye to my own dying mother.
I heard the mother at the counter ordering seven white hot chocolates.
“I snuck them out of school so we could get our Christmas sledding in,” she told the cashier, bubbling with excitement.
That was it. Tears clawed at my face again. I put my hand over my mouth as the family paraded out brandishing all those hot calories in two drink trays, excited about their day ahead.
“Are you all right, Miss?” the cashier in her spidery mascara looked mostly uncomfortable but a little concerned at my tears. My sister messaged.
She’s back asleep, she wrote. Her breathing is shallow and slow. Get here now.
I gulped. “I’m okay,” I said, and ordered a coffee for me and one for my sister.
I paused on my way out to the door, and turned instead. I settled at the counter by one of the windows and watched the snow floating down. I did not have long to wait now. My phone rang, my sister, paused when it switched to voicemail, and erupted again in another round of rings. Jingle bell rock came over the speakers, my favorite Christmas song. My coffee was hot and sweet on my tongue, my favorite peppermint mocha. I swallowed slowly as a peace slowly pushed away the last of my grief.