For an advanced homiletics class, we were asked to tell the same story in several ways, inspired the book Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau. I tell these stories with my son’s permission.
In a bedroom, two twin beds. Myself, 50, knees hurt, overweight, but okay. My son, 23, sick—neurologist, neuro-opthamologist, neuro-immunologist. “Neurology folks” a nurse called them.
It’s our friends’ house, a retired teacher and a water engineer—just blocks from where my son was conceived. Still on New York time, I turn the light out early each night.
“Please don’t go to bed so early.”
“I’m so grateful I can be here with you.”
In the morning, he answers Joan, “She snores. I didn’t sleep much.”
“I snored once,” I say. “You told me I was snoring and I said sorry and stopped.”
Jerry grills chicken the first night. Joan reliably makes salads. We eat leftover chicken and fresh salads the rest of the week. Each evening I clear the table, load the dishwasher.
We eat out the last night. The young waitress lays the check in front of Jerry, out of reach. My best friend in Connecticut gave me $100 to pay for that check. Jerry pays the check. I suspect we are mistaken for one family, grandson, mother, grandparents. I relax into that thought; allow that thought to be true.
During my layover: “Worse than last week. Pretty good amount of pain. Got a room in the ER pretty quick.”
A text from Joan after I’m home: “Did you see my ceramic knives?”
“Perhaps I scraped them into the trash with the chicken bones? I was so distracted.”
An old soul in a young body, his vision begins to fade, like an infant’s––they say they can only see light and forms, form of their mother. We are mortal beings, fellow travellers, laying side by side like patients in a hospital room or earlier, school children at camp or earlier, infants in bassinets.
The day he was born, when I held him in my arms in the hospital 4 miles away, illness and death were stalking the rooms above us. Jerry still works heartily at seventy-five. My son ponders never being able to work. Illness is no respecter of age or progenity.
“Don’t go to sleep so early.”
Stay awake, he means. Eternity is the present moment. Be awake for it.
You’re blind. I keep the room dark, except we’re not in a room we’re in the desert north of Cave Creek. We’re laying in two twin beds like rafts. Water is pouring out of an aquifer; Jerry is there in a hard hat, speaking Russian, trying to fix it. Joan paddles by in her green kayak, looking for her ceramic knives.
What?! The hospital?!
One hundred dollars? Really?
We’re together! How wonderful to be together! But sick! You are so young and handsome and healthy! Sick! I couldn’t grasp it! But I made it!
Friends take us in at the very last minute! And the bright quilts! And it’s so hot! I forgot how hot it could be in October!
A week together! Sharing meals! Joan’s cheerfulness and Jerry’s calmness! I snore?! I stopped snoring! You told me to! You’re getting better!
The waitress gave the check to Jerry! Like it’s 1975! Straight to Jerry! All that hospitality and then he pays! Dammit!
Back in the hospital! But I left! How will I get back!? Again sick!! I failed! Heartbreak!
The trundle creaks, a long, metallic yawn as I sit down. The air conditioning hums. When we mention the heat, Joan gives us a fan – tik tik tik —-tik tik tik — in the night. Sound of the vibrant quilt, phmmmph, as my son rolls over.
We leave the door open…Jerry’s feet pad past on the tile at 5 am…puf-puf-puf then the distant sound of voices on the morning news. His car pulls out…vvvvvmmm. Joan starts the coffee, spk spk spk spk spk.
Joan chirps stories and questions. How did you sleep? Asks me to say grace like her lesbian Mennonite friend. Heavenly Father, lafumdeladum, these gifts, deladum, and friendship, lafumdedum amen.
The ceramic knives tap tap tap on the plates as I clean up, fragile as glass. SSSSssk Sssssk into the dishwasher. Or maybe thwump-k-k into the trash.
Eyes dimmed, my son says,
Don’t go to sleep so early. . .
like a newborn’s cry.