He sat in the chair, his left hand fingering the nubby gray fabric of the arm rest. His right hand lay on the bed, browned and wrinkled and rough against the snowy waffled blanket.
He glanced down and the thought crossed his mind – not for the first time that afternoon – that his mother’s hand seemed so small, so fragile against his. Her pale skin was crinkled and scored with lines; her knuckles were bruised and swollen, a result of the arthritis that puffed up her joints. He rubbed a thumb over the fingers, taking comfort that they were still warm.
It was funny, he thought, that his mother seemed to have shrunk over the years, yet she remained tall, strong and vibrant in his memories. The red-headed woman with the bawdy laugh, the easy smile, the toned arms that would just as soon wrap you in a bear hug as wring a chicken’s neck for Sunday supper.
“Excuse me, sir?”
He jerked his head up, his eyes focusing on the man in the white coat in front of him.
“Yes,” he said, standing and wiping his now clammy palms on his corduroy pants.
“I’m Dr. Kent, your mother’s physician. Can we talk for a moment?”
He followed the doctor out into the hall, his tennis shoes squeaking on the tile floor.
Dr. Kent glanced down at his clipboard, reviewing his patient’s history before settling his calm and steady gaze on the nervous man in front of him.
“Mr. James, are you aware of your mother’s condition?”
“You can call me Albert. I just know that she’s real sick. Is she going to get better?”
“Albert, I’m sorry, but she’s not going to get better. As it stands now, the best and only thing you can do is make sure she’s comfortable. We can give her medicine to relieve some of her pain, but her organs are gradually shutting down. The machines in her room are helping to keep her alive, and you need to seriously think about what you want to do. I strongly recommend speaking to her attorney, or whoever may have power of attorney. Again, I’m very sorry.”
Dr. Kent patted Albert’s shoulder before striding away, his coat flapping behind him.
Albert turned and leaned a shoulder against the cold metal door jamb. He scrubbed a hand over his face and through his graying curls. He was a simple man, a farmer, one who rose with the sun, who put one foot in front of the other, who did what needed to be done. But, Lord help him, he didn’t have the strength to deal with this. Any of this.
He let out a long breath, his cheeks ballooning, his lips spreading. He walked slowly to the bed in the middle of the room and looked down at his mother’s gray and wizened face. Her eyes were clamped closed, the lashes stubby and thin, the mouth pursed, even in sleep.
Albert leaned down and kissed the papery-thin cheek.
“I love you, Ma. I don’t know what to do. I’m so sorry, I don’t know what to do.”
A tear dripped from his eyes, clung to his skin before dropping onto his mother’s neck and sliding down onto the pillow.
As he fought to hold back his grief, Albert felt a gentle touch on his cheek, a delicate, shaking finger wiping away the wet track of the tear. He opened his eyes and stared into the clouded green of his mother’s.
She laid a hand on his cheek, and her mouth pulled up gently at the corners. Her eyes sparkled, full of love. She gave a slight nod of her head, the effort causing her puff of hair to shake, her eyes to close.
And Albert understood.