At the Last Minute by Martha Miller


Martha Miller is a Midwestern writer whose day job is teaching freshman comp at a community college. She lives an unremarkable life in Springfield, Illinois, with two dogs and two cats, and her partner of 15 years. Her web site contains writing samples, publications, and awards.

2nd place - 2009 Raymond Carver Contest


Dyed yellow, powdered cheeks, and a red kewpie doll mouth—I’m betting she’s in her late sixties. Ironic. This nurse who brings the critical information looks like a clown. She scans the cold, windowless, waiting room. She hasn’t seen me yet, and I want to hide—to just close my eyes and let her pass me by. In three days, two others have died. The nurses must take turns because a different messenger has come each time.

Late last night, a woman with gardenia white hair quietly waited for news of her husband. Her son, a short and round man in his forties, made a big fuss, and the messenger-nurse seemed almost glad to give them the news. In the end, the gardenia-haired mother glared at her unruly child as if his troublemaking in the waiting room caused her husband to die.

The old woman had been nice to me. She’d asked about Nora. Maybe she thought I wanted to talk, which I did, but I couldn’t talk about Nora without betraying her. I’d played Judas when I brought her here three days ago. To the standard question, “What is your relationship to the patient?” I told the admitting nurse, we are sisters. I didn’t give her a chance to turn me away. The stakes were too high, and I couldn’t deal with those ‘family only’ rules in intensive care. So I told them there, like the insurance man and the woman who signed us up on the family plan for the motor club, I’m her sister. To most, I suppose we looked like two old women simply keeping house together. I discovered a long time ago that others see what they want to see. Unless I force the issue, people are usually more concerned with their own lives than with mine. Nora used to say that straights think of lesbians only in terms of sex. We are both in our fifties. Most believe that’s too old for sex. So in a sense, we are too old to be lesbians anyway.

The woman with white hair and her son are gone now. All that remains are the sticky peelings of two tangerines left from their dinner, scattered on the table next to a neatly folded day-old newspaper.

Just twenty minutes ago, I’d been in Nora’s tiny room, with its machines and wires, talking. I aimed the words at her not knowing if she heard or if the force that makes all things fleeting swallowed them up. I was talking about the dogs, I think, when she moved restlessly, opened her eyes, and looked right at me.

I held my breath waiting, but she said nothing. So finally I said, Want something to drink?

She tried to smile, almost did smile.

I turned to reach for the plastic water pitcher, but I hadn’t even touched it when a scream startled me. I couldn’t figure out where it came from until I heard the pounding of the nurse’s rubber soles. Then I realized that one of the Nora’s machines had gone nuts.

She was awake. She wanted water, I told the nurses as they rushed toward her. No one heard me. They ripped her blanket off, and I felt someone touch my shoulder.

The words come in fragments from far away. Have to leave… in the way… waiting room… will come for you.

I turned toward Nora a last time. Her eyes were still open and seemed to be meeting mine. I waved a couple of fingers and backed out the door.

. . .

Six months ago, Nora’s doctor had warned her that often colon cancer doesn’t respond to chemo, but I’d convinced her to take a chance. The treatment, as bad as it was, gave her some power, gave her something to do besides wait to die. As it turned out, she could have saved herself the side effects. But there was no way to know that outcome in advance. All we had been given were numbers. The numbers weren’t good, but they were a little better than zero.

She’s been in and out of the hospital four times since then.

I keep looking for meaning in this.

Three days ago, I was putting Nora’s bag in the car, preparing for this trip. A south moving cloud slipped over the sun and a patch of dark, an island of shadow drifted across a lawn and over the some dogwood trees. What remained was a soft spring rain. A bright shiver went through me; peace and comfort are deceptive things that can be snatched away in a hundred ugly ways.

The dogs were circling anxiously at my feet. They knew what would happen when the suitcases came out. I knelt, scratched their ears and spoke to them softly. Our dogs, two beagle-like mutts, were strays that Nora had taken in as puppies. They had been tiny things with almost every parasite known to dog. I had been sitting at the kitchen table balancing the checkbook when she’d brought the wicker laundry basket through the back door.

Nora said, Before you say no, let me explain. I’m just going to take them to the vet and get them on their feet. Then I will find good homes for them.

She sat the basket next to me and I looked down. Two puppies, one black and brown and white and the other just brown and white looked up at me. They were nestled on what I recognized as one of our good purple towels.

Nora reached into the basket and picked up the one with three colors. She slipped it into my arms and said, Some asshole dumped them in the park. I found them this morning wet and cold and hungry.

The pup squirmed in my arms and managed to lick my chin. All right, I said. But let’s not name them. When you give a puppy a name it is harder to give it away.

By the time we admitted that Buddy and Max were part of the family, I had passed up at least two opportunities to give them other homes. When they weren’t competing for our attention, we were competing for theirs. They slept on our bed and pretty much ran our lives.

After I put her suitcases in the car, I had to go back in the house through the garage so I could clean the mud off the dogs’ feet. They knew the routine and went to the throw rug by the back door to wait for me. As I cleaned eight muddy paws, I could see that Nora’s collection of empty coffee cans had grown. It took up most of the space under her workbench. I learned a long time ago that she sorted through the things I threw away. Nora often said she wanted to live simply and was regularly after me to throw out weathered seasonal lawn decorations or the artificial Christmas tree. But she was a sucker for a cast-off coffee can. Nora was always trying to make something beautiful out of what I thought of as junk.

On weekends while I watched a basketball game or read a mystery, Nora worked on her little projects and sung to herself. Her voice was musical and clear. I felt a sense of peace when I heard her humming.

I tore my eyes from Nora’s stash of cans, and the dogs led me through the back door. I found her sitting at the kitchen table, her ball cap in place, wearing her well worn jeans, and a leather belt cinched at the waist, fastened in a new hole three inches past the last notch. Her hands were folded on the table in front of her the way the nuns taught us to wait for afternoon recess.

Don’t forget to call Billy, she said. Ask him to come by and walk the dogs if you are going to be late getting home tonight.

I will, I assured her. I would have to make sure my son still had a key. When he lived with us, he’d lost more than a few.

Tell him to make sure they have water. Her voice had gone child-like and shaky. Checkered orange curtains tossed at the open window over the sink—fresh air becomes essential in a house full of sickness. From somewhere nearby an unfamiliar bird sang a strange, persistent song. Rain, lifting in the wind, sprayed against the screen like fine surf.

 I took her arm to help her stand, and she whimpered softly.

I said, I’ll call him later. When you’re settled in your room.

After a slow walk to the car, she inched into the passenger’s seat sitting with one leg tucked beneath her and her arms folded across her chest. I started to buckle the seat belt, and then changed my mind. She would be more comfortable without it.

I’m sorry, she said when I started the car.

For what?

She shrugged. I’m too tired to fight anymore. The time has come to cry uncle.

I touched her shoulder. Then I’ll fight for both of us.

A spark of life showed in her sunken eyes. She managed a reassuring smile.

. . .

Since that day I’ve felt I would rather we were anywhere else doing anything else than here, again. Nora would be the first to remind me that that is a pattern. In fact, I’d been saving my money to move to California when I met her, yet seventeen years later I am at a hospital, a half-mile from my home, our home, still in the Midwest.

Everything they tell you about life is a lie. I didn’t know that until today. The things that matter are always out of our control. We construct a life and make choices. We compromise and adjust, and none of it matters. In the end, we learn that the most meaningful things are gifts that we can’t keep.

. . .

When I first met Nora, Billy and I were recovering from a messy divorce. Although I’d had a little thing with my dorm-mate in college, that had been a long time ago. A friend of mine, who thought we had a lot in common, had introduced us. Nora seemed nice, if a little boring. I thought we’d be friends. I wasn’t ready to start over—though I planned to some day. I couldn’t see myself growing old alone—I still can’t.

So Nora and I went to some movies and had a few dinners and gradually started sleeping together. Okay, I had poor boundaries. Or maybe I just had an itch. It wasn’t the chills-up-your-spine type of sex that I always sought. It was comfortable and tame. I told her, and told myself, that it was just a casual something-or-other.

I remember lying in Nora’s bed after sex with her curled up beside me, her fawn colored hair fanned across the pillow, the bed a hopeless confusion of blankets and pillows. I stared out the window at the night sky. Smoky strands of clouds drifted before the icy winter moon. If it was Sunday, I would get up in the middle of the night, dress, and go out in the cold. Nora would drive me home before dawn because Billy would soon be home from the weekly visit with his father.

When I was at home, I wanted to be with Nora. And when I was with Nora, I remembered all the things I wanted to do without her.

One night she had asked, Do you ever want to just be where you are?

I said, When Billy is grown, when my car is paid for, I will move to California. Then I will want to be where I am.

Nora knew who she was and where she wanted to be. She loved her government job and even when it was hard, she stayed with it. My job at the bank was different. I never meant to work there, let alone stay there. I had been on unemployment after Billy was born. I wanted to stay home with my baby as long as possible. Except when you’re on unemployment, they make you go for interviews, and when you’re offered work, you have to take it. So when Billy was two months old, I started working again. One thing after another happened and I kept working, deferring my dreams, feeling trapped. By the time I met Nora, I’d been working twenty years at a job I never really wanted in the first place.

Before Nora and I moved in together, we had this talk. I told her that I wanted to leave the Midwest when Billy was grown. I wanted to live near the ocean, and I wanted her to share that dream. But she informed me that she was staying here. Everything that made her happy was here. So when I decided that Nora was the one, when we bought the house and combined our households, I knew that I was staying—probably forever. I saw it as a compromise. What Nora brought into my life was stability. That enabled me to finish grad school and finally change jobs. She helped me through some tough stuff with Billy. Hell, she even got along with my mother—better than I did. The two of them enjoyed talking about me like I was this big problem they had to solve. They talked about me in third person as if I wasn’t even there.

One thing Nora and I did agree on was the end.

Don’t ever put me in a home, Nora had said. When I get so bad I can’t care for myself, if you love me, you’ll help me end it.

We’ll end it together then, I’d told her. We’ll have our own little party.

I want ice cream and chocolate cake, she said. Maybe some decent pot if we can score it.

But that was supposed to be down the line. That wasn’t now. The death pact party was for when we were really old—when we’d had enough of life.

. . .

Billy came up to see her this morning. No, that was yesterday morning. Only one family member can go in her room for ten minutes every hour. He’d brought her flowers and a card.

Nora and my son have had a bumpy relationship. But yesterday when Billy came out of her room, he sat with me. His eyes were red and puffy. Finally he said, They’ve got her so drugged up. She didn’t even know me.

I touched his arm and said, She knows you.

I don’t think he believed me.

He asked, Are you coming home tonight?

I shook my head. I’m going to stay until she is better—until she is out of ICU. I need to be here.

Then he said, I’ve decided to stay at the house. I can sleep in my old room for a while. It’s easier than running back and forth for the dogs. Besides they seem lonely.

Thanks, I croaked.

Do you need something to eat? Billy asked.

No, they’ve been ordering me a tray along with hers.

Can she eat?

No, not yet. But I am getting meals.

How about a change of clothes?

I looked down at my sweat pants and wrinkled T-shirt dumbly. Suddenly Billy embraced me and held on tight for a long time.

When he left all he said was, Get some rest, Mom.

I said, I will. What else have I got to do?

I should have asked him to call my mother. Nora’s brother could wait for the time when she was closer to the end. But my mother would say, Why didn’t you call? I couldn’t talk to her about this just yet, but Billy could. I told myself I’d ask him the next time he came up.

Family is a strange thing. I know gay people whose families have disowned them. And there are gays who never tell their parents. I didn’t have to tell my mother; my sister did it for me. Nora was one of those people whose family never talked about it. She thought her parents probably knew. Anyway, when we first bought the house I had this idea about having them all to dinner. My mother was from the same small town where Nora grew up. I thought they’d have something to talk about. Nora thought it was a horrible idea, but I had to have my way. I cooked a roast. After dinner we went into the living room and our mothers sat there in an awkward silence. That was the longest, most awkward afternoon of my life. Some years later we were laughing about it, and then I recalled that even when I was married I hadn’t attempted to get my husband’s parents into the same room as mine.

Remembering that silly afternoon with our mothers, I am smiling when I meet the eyes of the clown nurse coming toward me. But it isn’t the nurse. It is Nora smiling back at me. She’s wearing her favorite jeans. Her bangs fringe her forehead, a tawny contrast to her clear green eyes. She carries a pink paper plate. In her other hand she holds two forks and folded party napkins.

You’re still here. She seems pleased.

I say, Of course. I’m waiting for you.

She says, Well, here you go then. Her raspy voice has an appealing softness.

My heart thuds as she offers me the pink plate which contains a wedge of chocolate cake and a single scoop of ice cream.