A Short Story

In participation with the Celebration of New Christian Fiction (click here for a listing of participating posts), I am posting one of my yet-to-be-published short stories. It’s an experiment in present tense and I think it reflects the heart of Christ for our relationships.

Issues of the Heart

The ringing phone jolts me from a deep sleep. Fumbling for the receiver, mouth dry, heart pounding, instinct propels words from my mouth. “Hello? Hello?”

No answer. Another ring.

Press the “talk” button, my fuzzy brain reminds me.

“Your father had a heart attack early this morning. Don’t worry, he’s okay.” Mother’s voice shakes just a bit as she speaks.
“Where are you?” I swing my legs off the bed, my toes searching for the fuzzy slippers usually within reach. With the phone still at my ear, I shuffle across the tiled bathroom floor and into my large closet. She talks while I jot mental notes—people to call, things to be done.

I snatch up the wrinkled pair of jeans on the floor and wriggle into them. I wrestle a sweater over my head, trying not to drop the phone, still listening to my mother’s raspy voice.

“You don’t need to come to the hospital. Just make a few phone calls for me. I’ll call you this afternoon, after I’ve talked to the doctor.”

My heart flutters in protest. How dare she assume I wouldn’t drop everything to be there with her—with him. I puff up, ready to explode my answer. Silence on the other end deflates my angers. She’s hung up.

I stare at the phone, the dial tone sounding loud in the stillness of early morning. Memories of that other early morning swirl thick, driving me to my knees. Has it been five years? It feels like yesterday.

That morning I had been the one making the call.

I replay the conversation in my head, as I have a hundred times since then. “Mom, Kyle’s had a heart attack. We’re on our way to the hospital, but it’s not looking good. I only have a minute. I know you’re busy, but if you could just make a few phone calls for me, I’d appreciate it. I’ll talk to you again this afternoon and let you know what’s going on. Thanks, Mom.” Click.

A natural defense, I tell myself again. I didn’t want to burden them. I didn’t want to disrupt their lives, too. But even as I tell myself this, I know it is a lie. I hadn’t wanted her there. I hadn’t wanted her to see me hurting.

I hadn’t wanted to need her.

Now she didn’t want to need me.

The smell of coffee forces me into motion. Pushing aside the memory of Kyle making me coffee every morning, I run a brush through my hair and whisk makeup over my face. In the kitchen, steaming liquid fills my tall, stainless steel travel mug. I savor the first bitter sip. It kicks me into high gear. I grab my purse and head out the door.

My hands shake as I dig for my cell phone. I throw it on the empty seat beside me, both hands gripping the wheel. Ten short minutes later, the hospital looms before me. I look away, concentrating on the signs for visitor parking. An empty space. Turn the car off. Now the phone calls begin.

It is hardest to call my children. Natalie told me just last week the boy she is dating might be “the one.”

“Will Grandpa walk me down the aisle?” she had ventured in a small voice.

“Of course,” I had replied.

Now I hear worry in her voice. I picture her biting her lip and twirling the lock of hair that falls next to her face, like she did at her dad’s funeral.

I call Daddy’s sisters, then Mother’s. “We wish we could be there,” they all say. “We are praying.”

Steeling myself against the onslaught of memories, I step from the car, my feet heavy, reluctant. And yet at the same time, eager, anxious. At the Emergency room entrance I feel the tingle of flesh as my fingers touched Kyle’s until the paramedics wheeled him out of reach. It was the last time I felt the warmth of his skin on mine.

Misty-eyed, I stumble through the waiting room doors. My mother sits slumped in a chair, hair half-curled, half-straight, eyes wide and shadowed. The sleeves of her sweater bunch unnaturally and I spy a bit of pink satin, lace at the edge. Battered white slippers cover her feet. It could have been me. It had been me.

I lay my hand on her shoulder. Her head jerks up. We look into each other’s eyes, sisters now—sisters in suffering. Suddenly, we are in each other’s arms, crying tears we should have cried together before—tears we must cry now.

More than an hour we sit, sometimes talking, sometimes crying, sometimes in understanding silence. The TV drones on in the background, telling of other people’s tragedies; we know only ours. The nurse intrudes politely. Daddy has been taken to the ICU. We can see him.
We stand, unsure of each other.

“I can go now, if you want me to,” I stammer, afraid to hear her answer.

“No. Don’t go.” When she places her hand on mine and I almost can’t tell which is whose. When did I get to be so old?

“I want you here. . .” she pulls her hand back and drops it at her side, “unless it’s too painful.” She shrugs and looks away. “I understand, either way.”

I feel a tug at my heart that hasn’t been there since girlhood, since just before those first years of asserting my teenage independence. I smile as a memory flits down and lands softly, like a butterfly whose wings flap, then slow, until I can see every color, every intricate design.

“Do you remember the first time I really skinned my knee, Mom? I was six, I think. I had on my new roller skates and hit a bump in the sidewalk. It bled for so long I thought it would never stop. Then my whole knee turned to scab.” As I tell the story I can see that scrawny, headstrong little girl, pigtails flying. “Once the scab got hard it hurt to bend it. Remember?”

Mom nods. The light in her eyes tells me she knows what I want to say, but she will let me say it anyway. Still, I hesitate.
“I think it’s time for my heart to bend a little.” I bite my lip and look away. “I’ve been limping for a long time. I know it will hurt for a little while—but it will heal. You told me that, and you were right.”

She smiles back at me, like she did when I was eleven, twelve, thirteen, when lights would go on inside my head and I would reveal to her some truth I had stubbornly refused to believe before. A smile of love, with no “I-told-you-so” behind the eyes.

I reach for her hand—glad I won’t ever be too old to need my mother, glad once again to accept the role of daughter.

We gather her things and leave the waiting room. I spy Daddy as we pass through the doors to the ICU, bed propped at a semi-reclining angle, making the nurse laugh. My daddy, just like always—except for the tubes and machines. He sees us and lifts a hand. I wave back. Mom wipes her eyes, blows her nose.

And I wonder whose heart will heal faster—Daddy’s . . . or mine.

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