Hands of Time

*Because I’m stretched for time these days and running behind on pretty much everything, I thought I would share this piece I wrote last fall for a contest entry.

She asks me if I know about them, about all of the people who are gone now, dead. There must be about four of them, she says. I shake my head and turn the page in the travel magazine. Look, I say to her, I’d like to nap in that hammock, wouldn’t you? The woman beside me who has become a stranger answers with a grin that makes me sad.

Have you been there? she asks, and I tell her no, but the next page features a photo of wine country in California. We go there, I say, to wine country, but not this particular place. The grin gets bigger. Really? she asks and her eyebrows arch in a mix of excitement and disbelief. When we find a picture from Rhode Island, I tell her I would love to go there one day, and she says—as if she is reminding me—you were that one time. You were in that area; you just didn’t go.

The elevator down the hall dings, and a man with four big containers stacked on a dolly gets off and walks the other way. Who’s that? she asks. I don’t know, I say, but look at this, and I try to draw her attention back to the magazine.

When we finish looking at the pictures, I drop it on the table next to my chair and reach for another. She says she wonders what happened to her mom, and I remind her she passed away forty years ago. And then she says again that there must be about four of them dead now, and I simply shrug and keep leafing through the pages of the magazine. I point out a picture of furniture pieces painted in a variety of colors, and her withered hand points to one with shades of blue. I like this one, she says, and it’s no surprise. Lex would like this one, I tell her, and point to a bright, multi-colored piece. Is she doing okay? she asks me. I tell her yes, Lex is doing well.

I turn another page, and she says she thinks Dad just wanted to be with Mom, that she thinks about that and worries about it, and I remind her he had cancer, too. She shrugs as if she thinks I’m wrong but doesn’t want to argue. We talk about the flowers in the magazine, and then she asks me how long it’s been. She’s worried. What if they find something wrong?

Everything’s fine, I promise her. They’ll come out in a few minutes. I try again to draw her attention to the magazine; we study a picture of a big sandwich. My stomach is growling, and I tell her I’m hungry. Our eyes meet when she laughs, and I notice the vivid blue has dulled to gray, and I wonder when that happened. The infection that nearly killed her four years ago? Or aging since that recovery?

She says again that she hopes they don’t find anything wrong. Maybe they should have cancelled the surgery. It’s fine, I remind her; he’ll be done soon. You had this done, I tell her. Her stare is blank when I look from the glossy magazine page to her face.

I did? She frowns, and I know that the memory is locked away inside a damaged brain. She’ll never find it, so I nod and look out the window. Three stories up, I watch for a moment as a car loops through the drive-up for patient pickup. It must not be too cold, she says, because that guy has shorts on.

It’s not, I remind her. It’s still a bit sticky.

The automatic door opens, and a nurse steps out, but she is not looking for us.

Do you think everything’s okay? she asks me, and I nod, and she reminds me that four are gone, and did I know them? I don’t know what four she is referring to, so I nod and turn the page. We’re looking at another paint advertisement, discussing the yellow, orange and pink tones when the automatic door opens again.

This time it is for us. The doctor steps out and tells us it went well; he is in recovery. I sigh softly with relief, though I wasn’t worried as she was. The surgeon tells us the nurse will come for us in a few moments, once they get him settled in recovery.

He doesn’t look good, she says when he walks away. He looks sloppy. He’s wearing scrubs, I tell her. When the nurse comes, I toss the magazine aside, and I yank my purse straps over my left arm. I have to help her from her chair; she is frail and moves slowly now. The weakness started four years ago and happened overnight, too.

We follow the chirpy, young nurse back through the recovery area, but we are slow. I hold on to her, an arm around her waist, and my hand on her arm.

He doesn’t look right, she says, when we see him. He’s just sleeping, I promise when I hear him snoring. She rubs his arm just above his IV, and he opens his eyes. She asks if he’s hurting, and he says no, but he wants coffee. I demand a promise that she will stay at his side for just a moment, and I slip into the restroom five steps away.

When I wash my hands, a stranger looks back at me from the mirror over the sink.

They take him down to the lobby in a wheelchair, and I leave them there to get the car. He puts his dark sunglasses on to protect his eye; she waits at his side. I curl my fingers around the steering wheel, study my hands, and wonder when doctors and nurses got so young.