TAKE CARE by Lisa Pierce Flores
MY DAUGHTER DIDN’T COME DOWN to see me much after she went to school up North. She liked the city I guess, liked her job, and why not? An air-conditioned office in a big glass building was sure better than the mill where her father and brother and me worked when she was growing up.
But there she was when I woke up from the surgery, my stomach feeling like someone was standing on it. She tried to look like it was just where she wanted to be, God bless her, but I could tell she was annoyed that her brother was too far away and busy with his own family to help, annoyed that we had no way of knowing where her father was after all these years, that she had to brave this out all by herself. Maybe she was even annoyed with me for being so sick.
It was humiliating listening to the lady doctor tell Jill all the things she was going to have to do for me. I’d be helpless as a baby and she didn’t know a thing about taking care of people. She didn’t have a husband or family of her own. She’s such a skinny thing she probably can’t even cook. This whole past week in the hospital I hadn’t seen her eat anything in front of me but she wasn’t on a diet. She had half and half in her coffee just like always so I figured she just didn’t want to eat in front of me when all they let me have was crackers and Jell-o.
As we were leaving the nutritionist handed my daughter a packet of information about my new diet. There was a long list of things I couldn’t eat and a short one of the few things I could. Basically, whatever tastes most like cardboard made the second list. Maybe he could live on that much food but I couldn’t. Still he mentioned the recipes on the last page and squeezed my daughter’s shoulder. I thought maybe he liked her, wanted her to cook for him. He wasn’t bad looking. My daughter mumbled thanks and rolled me out into the hall. She had some trouble maneuvering, what with my purse and bags of clothes and makeup and magazines hanging from the wheelchair handlebars.
When we got to the elevator the wound care specialist stopped us. She told Jill about how she needed to change my dressings but I tried not to listen. I didn’t like being reminded about the mending hole in my gut.
“Take good care of your mom,” the woman said as the elevator doors sealed us inside.
When we got home that first night Jill wanted me to sleep in my own room on the second floor, but I said no way, that my daughter was here and I wanted to see her. I made her make up the sofa bed in the living room so I could see the big TV and her in the kitchen working on her computer and making me my “meals.” I didn’t want to miss a minute with her – who knows when she’ll ever be back for this long again?
That first day, by the time I got all settled, it was five and I was hungry. She made me dinner off that damn sheet. Dry chicken, dry brown rice, and mushy broccoli with no salt on anything. White rice, mashed potatoes, biscuits and gravy were all on the No list.
I noticed she didn’t eat with me again, just sipped on a can of V8 juice. I thought it was sweet of her not wanting to eat anything decent in front of me while I had to eat all this tasteless food but I didn’t see why we couldn’t break some of the rules now that I’d finally got sprung from the hospital. I told her all this but she wasn’t budging.
“When can I eat a normal meal?”
“Salt, gravy, a little butter for Heaven’s sake.”
“A week,” she said. She was always like that. Never breaking any rules or letting herself or anyone else have any fun.
The next night I could see that she’d tried to make an effort. She’d cooked the carrots in honey and sprinkled some nutmeg on top. I hate the way nutmeg and cinnamon makes your mouth feel all gritty but I tried to eat them all to make her happy. There wasn’t any butter in the rice again but it tasted different than the night before.
“What’d you put in the rice?”
“Boullion cube,” she said.
“Smart. Aren’t you going to have any?” I asked as I handed her my empty plate.
She shook her head and took my plate to the kitchen. I thought I heard her spit something into the garbage. When she was in high school there was a few weeks when I caught her dieting, even though she ran on the track team and was skinny as a stick. It wasn’t a diet so much as she didn’t eat for a while. This was when I first started working night shifts at the mill and she had to make her own dinner. At first I thought she was just being lazy, but it lasted a while, a week maybe, and her clothes got even baggier than normal. Her father said to ignore her; she was just trying to get attention. Just when I was going to say something to her she seemed to gain all the weight back. I hadn’t ever thought of it since.
I watched her through the open double doors that connected the living room to the kitchen. She was still a little bit of a thing, but her normal self, thin but a little round at the hips like my younger sister had been in her thirties, before she passed on.
I kept looking up from “Wheel of Fortune” to see what Jill was doing in the kitchen. I saw her heading toward the back door carrying a half filled bag of garbage. I thought about asking her to come eat beside me, just a snack before bedtime, but instead I said, “Do you think I’m made of money?” I meant this to be funny because who cared if she was wasting a half full garbage bag when she had paid for the groceries and stocked my house full of food and cleaning supplies, enough for a couple months, but I kept on with it. “The garbage pickup isn’t but once a week.”
She knew just what I was talking about because she held the bag a little higher up and said, “How can you notice that the bag isn’t full from all the way in there?”
“I notice everything, Honey.”
Jill replaced the trash bag under the sink and sat down next to me on the bed with her cup of tea. I checked in the cup to see if she’d put any milk in it. She had. I wanted to say something to her but she seemed so far away from me even sitting right there on the bed beside me, our knees near to touching. Besides, couldn’t none of us ever argue with her. By the time she was six years old she had forty arguments to “Just one more bite.” It seemed like she’d been backing away from us all her life.
Jill was just looking at me and I could feel two tears running up under my chin.
“Mama what? You need your pills?” Jill tried to stand up to get the pills but I pulled her hand toward my chest and wouldn’t let her go.
“I’m fine, Honey. It’s just nice having you here.”
“But you’re going to be OK, Mama,” she said softly. “You’re going to be able to take of yourself real soon.”
“I know it, Baby.” I tried to smile. “I’ll take some of those pills now.”
The next morning Jill was in her bathrobe and already sitting at the kitchen table tapping on her computer by the time I woke up. When I mumbled out, “Mornin’ Honey,” she smiled and answered “Mornin’ Mama,” and shut the lid on her computer.
I pretended to be real interested in Matt Lauer on the TV but really I was listening to her making scrambled eggs and toast, both things that were on the approved list if I ate them plain. I decided I wouldn’t grumble, even to ask for a little pepper on the eggs if she forgot it.
When she brought the tray out there were the scrambled eggs, a plate full, with cheese mixed in and a puddle of ketchup running into them, just the way I used to make them for her and her brother.
She sat down beside me and slowly ate a thin wedge of cantaloupe. At least it was something. I picked up a piece of the wheat toast, a pat of real butter melting at its center.
LISA PIERCE FLORES' writing has appeared in numerous magazines, journals, and newspapers, including Willow Springs, Poem, Inkwell, Stand Magazine, and The New York Times. Her book, The History of Puerto Rico was published by Greenwood Press in 2009.