She was in a constant state of rustle. Not that she moved much—or at all. Save the perpetual rotation of her right wrist, Helen spent her days in a wheelchair, shrouded in sterile fluorescent lights and the buzzing parchment paper hospitals refer to as gowns.
This rustle emitting from Helen’s unmoving figure lent her both permanence and fragility. As if time leaves behind the audio of all our moments to be released by our bodies in motion. All an observer overheard of Helen were the moments lingering between the folds of her gown and the air between her fingers, curved into a claw. The ninety years of her life, subtle and unapologetic, amplified only by the shaking of her wrist.
I was at the hospital doing writing sessions with the elderly. The hope was to spark some synapses into firing. I never went through this. My father gave me the responsibility of pulling the plug and that’s what I did after his third massive stroke. I hadn’t seen him in years but was given to understand he was wading through life, his movements of one in water or perhaps a high-grassed marsh.
It didn’t take more than a couple hours of filling out forms. Death, like marriage, involves a lot of paperwork. My marriage ended when I failed to return from “putting my father down,” as my ex referred to it in the forms that accompanied divorce.
In the proceedings over property and bank accounts during the split, I pleaded that not coming home was a career move. “The past two years of my life have been full of sheets of paper defining my legal role in the lives of others,” I wrote. “I’m looking to end this quickly so I can file away these papers and return to the page.”
This is the truest statement I never made. Here’s another true thing: It was this proud need that led me to love Helen to death. Helen had no one. I took her words. Literally.
The hospital was the only writing gig I could get based on my modest publishing success out of undergrad, before marriage. Before death and divorce. Whatever wellspring of writing had been within me was dammed up. I imagined inspiration as snowmelt, a finite amount of something that took seasons to develop and was divvied out according to natural forces such as beavers and avalanches. My creative landscape was suffering from serious drought.
And all these crumbly old people wiggling around the hallways on walkers with loose wheels were my kin. This fact became more apparent as I reviewed their responses to photographs of their own family members.
The ones with clear eyes scribbled sentimental dribble. Others wrote single words: son, beloved, bitch. A few pages showed a strong dark line running off the edge where their medication kicked in and they’d fallen asleep with their pens pressed against the paper. Helen, the wrist shaker, doodled diagonal.
The writing sessions were moved to earlier in the day, before the patients got their meds. Before pills and IV drips thinned their blood, my small writing group was verging on rowdy. They drooled less and attempts at mobility were more frequent. The first day we changed the routine I asked them to write about how they would like to spend their final moments. One man began to rise out of his chair in offense to the question, as if he’d forgotten—he was dying.
Those who had responded with one word now completed sentences. “Son” became “my son, John.” “Beloved” became “my beloved husband of forty years.” “Bitch” became “that bitch who never loved me.” I was envious. Fogged histories, medication, irregular heartbeats. They had, at least, a bit of heat within them—something melting the snow, giving them something to say or someone to blame.
I was still blaming beavers and avalanches. I imagined myself the riverbed rather than the tall grass flooded—the riverbed designed by nature to carry the current, the field stagnant, undrinkable. I held this unfounded image of myself: long, skinny, and crucial, close to my hollow ribs.
My prompts became increasingly inappropriate: Write a story about the first time you had sex. Write about the last time you weren’t horrified by the sight of yourself naked. Tell me about how much it costs for your family to keep you alive in this miserable place.
I don’t remember the sensations of sex, Helen wrote. The body hardly remembers. I do remember the sounds, the sloppy suction of it. Catheters, labored breaths, the smack of lips whose throats no longer know how to swallow, these medical sounds that surround me now, they come close to reminders—aural nostalgia for empty acts of intercourse. As for the body, who needs it? It is, by nature, horrifying. All the embarrassment of flatulence, snot, yeast infections—naked or not the body is a constant insult to the injury of consciousness. Stuck now and trudging through the sludge of physicality, family appears as the remnants of a tree. The stump of me.
This woman, immobile and untended, was the field flooded with the writing that, but for the beaver, was meant to course through a vein in the earth such as myself. She poured her history into me with ballpoint pen, her wrist churning.
I am in a constant state of rustle, she wrote. Permanent and fragile, pinned to this chair by the immense static of all my moments. In the air between my arthritic and frozen fingers ninety subtle and unapologetic years on this soggy rock are lost. Though my wrist moves and the flood of my thoughts control the constant motion of this damned wrist—my only remaining motor skill.
My father gave me the responsibility of pulling the plug, Helen spilled. And I did. This is the chilly reality of me. My feet were always this cold, my skin always this pruned. All feeling dammed up somewhere in the tiny groves within my person.
The past two years of my life have been blank pages. I’m looking to end this quickly. Atonement is a reconciliation that can be achieved through death—reparation for injury or offense. I wish someone to take these words literally and show me the consideration I showed my father when he became useless. There is no one who loves me enough to let me die.
This is the most truthful thing I’ve ever written.
The decision to become her caregiver was an easy one. “Atonement,” the staff at the hospital said, as if they were defining words I had not yet learned to spell. As if this were a spelling bee I was bound to fail. They were right. Atonement: trying to absorb the tone of what I meant, what I was meant to ink out into the world.
In my own embarrassing way, I loved Helen. I loved her selfishly, as I wanted to love myself, all the cold toes and sharp elbows of me. I let go of the nature metaphor, the romantic landscapes I’d invented and the beaver I’d blamed. I decided to be man-made, something fabricated, created in sterile labs through the magic of chemistry and lies. I became absorbent, I dabbed at the corners where Helen leaked out her life.
A sponge does not have talent or motivation; a sponge has only purpose. I didn’t mean to kill Helen. It was only my purpose in life to do so—to sop her up within my fibers. To bloat with the damp and the drench of her. My sole utility was to wipe at her surface, capturing all that perspired there, bits of her memories lodging under my fingernails.
A sponge forgets any knowledge of life it may have had before it was a sponge. So I’d forgotten how the inspired life could be depleted, seeping out the pores, salty and specific. There were very few people at Helen’s funeral and fewer that knew me. Those that did thanked me. I told them I was thankful to Helen.
When my novel was published, the dust jacket had quotes like, “The author displays a wisdom well beyond her years,” and, “Trembling with cold, the prose is yet touching.” They were describing Helen’s real life, Helen’s pages, pages I’d cut up and put back together. “Can’t wait to see what this new literary talent does next.”
Despite the success of my book, I continued to work at the hospital. I responded to my prompts while the students slowly fell asleep, drooling on their papers, drowning any words that may have been meaningful there. What I squeezed out were only ever traces of Helen still permeating.
Write about how you would like to spend your final moments:
If there were a brochure, perhaps with package deals, things like “sky diving heart attack: buy one get one”, “mountaintop view with free massage before lightning strikes,” or “freak accident on safari (includes binoculars),” I would take drowning every time. And soon. It must be better than this slow drying out, the exhausting pouring forth of my life onto paper.
There was a pride, a longing that once defined me. This life needed telling. But now it seems my memories can belong to anyone. That you can peel them from this page and they will stick to you, like skin under the fingernails.
And after all, is this not right? That behind all the things we conceive to own—the unique and painful, the exquisite vistas and bleak horizons—are nothing more than illegible postcards, too small to fit anything meaningful, traded and wholesale, special to everyone, subject to the inevitable churning wrist of time, rustling.