pages Thin as Bone

by Michelle McMillan-Holifield

Published in Issue No. 232 ~ September, 2016


I know the year you thinned to bone. – Nancy Reddy

It was the year you woke up in ICU with all fifteen of us (against hospital protocol, but then everyone thought you were dying) staring at you and tubes wormed their way down your throat, and you sat up, lay back down, sat up again, waving arms, miming for a pen and when there was none, your fingers danced (Mozart? Picasso?) along the sheet that lay over your atrophied legs, writing questions in invisible ink. Your once-bunned gray hair spread lank, limp, over eyes wide as blackened daisies. The staff marched us out of that claustrophobic space; we shuffled back to the waiting room where we camped for days until the chairs contoured to our bodies and the stench of our sweat penetrated the pores of the fabric.

Once you were better we took you, not back to your home, but to a home, where nurses could care for you 24/7. We got you settled in and visited every day and the little ones brought crayoned drawings of your house and your garden, and we hung them on the cinderblock walls with double-sided tape.

Sometimes when you would sleep, your fingers moved in rhythmic patterns, kneading the sheet; the nurses called it reflex, a memory of something you once did. It reminded us of a cat’s kneading and we were comforted and imagined you purring contentedly in your dreams. You would wake and not remember your dream, but that didn’t matter to us because at least there were parts of you that still worked. But sometimes a tear would hover in the corner of your eye, slip down the side of your face. You were too weak to wipe it away and we weren’t quick enough and the fabric of the flat pillow absorbed it.

We cut the visits to twice a week; we all had jobs. When we would visit we found your hands in mittens and your legs bandaged like silkworms. The nurses said you scratched at your legs until they bled; they said it was that same reflex as kneading the sheets. You told us when the sun set in the afternoons your room got so hot you would ask whoever was near, nurse, orderly, stranger passing by your room, for a glass of water. And sometimes there would be water and sometimes not. And we jumped on that and called in the on-duty nurse and denounced her job performance, demanded better. Demanded. Better.

We had demands on our time. Not just jobs, but soccer. Not just soccer, but dance recitals. Not just recitals, but life and life and life that never seemed to stop and time that did not slow down for us. The duties of our lives stretched on like bandages rolled out in front of us, and it was then we remembered we hadn’t seen you in a month. Two months. Three. We popped in to visit. We grew restless being confined in that small, stifling room. We needed to get outside to breathe, to let our bodies feel the miracle of freedom, but the business of hunting down a wheelchair, hoisting you off the bed, and wheeling you down the hall past the nurses seemed like it would be too trying on your fragile body, especially having to do the reverse when we were done. So we chose to stay just a few more minutes. As we left, we heard you talking in your sleep, to whom we could not be sure. You said: you stay as long as strangers stay. Minutes thin as bone.