Wringing my hands around the cellophane wrapped petunia stems was pissing off everyone in the waiting room. Well, maybe not everyone, but at the very least my sister. It wasn’t always a conscious motion—the wringing—as any slight shift caused the cellophane to screech. Sometimes I thought I was holding unto them too firmly, like I was strangling them, but then I remembered that it didn’t really matter how tightly I held them since they were already dead, just as long as it was steady so the crinkling plastic didn’t bother anyone too much. I wouldn’t even have been still holding them if the nurses hadn’t shooed me away. Flowers weren’t allowed in operating rooms, hospital rule I guess.
My Aunt Elsa had been complaining to her sisters about a burning pain in her stomach for several months, and although each one of them had suggested she consult a doctor, she refused. No one was surprised; she’d always dismissed a lot of doctors’ findings as quackery. She said it was just her ulcer acting up, or just the fact that she was getting old, but it turned out to be something far worse and mostly inoperable. They could try to keep her alive for a brief period, but that was about it. Everyone knew she was going to die, but they just didn’t know when. We’d been in the hospital waiting room for about three hours. With no foreseeable end in sight, I slouched down a bit and stretched my legs out. Cici, my younger sister, was sitting with her legs underneath her while scrolling through an article on her phone too quickly to read. Next to her was Ma, sitting upright, legs close together, hands on her purse in her lap while she nodded in and out of sleep. None of us had said much since we arrived.
Besides us, there was only a mother and her daughter in the waiting room. The girl was using her mother’s knees as a makeshift pillow. When I slouched, the cellophane crinkled again, which was the straw that broke the camel’s back as far as Cici was concerned.
“Oh my God, will you get rid of those things?” Cici asked, not looking up from her phone, “every time you move an inch we all have to hear it.”
“Sorry, there’s really nowhere to put them,” I said, waiving them around to show the lack of tables in my vicinity. She just rolled her eyes at me. Our talking roused Ma up.
“I wonder what’s going on in there,” she said, trying to pretend she wasn’t just asleep.
“Operating,” I said, invoking any image I could muster to avoid thinking about what that might entail—I’d always been squeamish.
“I mean I wonder when we’ll know,” she said, shuffling slightly to wake herself up.
“Don’t know. I guess however long it takes,” I said. Ma answered by nodding. The mother sharing the waiting room with us got called back. From our distance whatever the doctor told her sounded very muffled, but her reaction made it seem like good news. I was glad it worked out—whatever it was.
“I can’t imagine what it would be like to lose my sister,” Ma said. She was staring through us, with no noticeable inflection in her voice.
“Well, at least we all came,” I said and we shared a half-hearted smile.
“Yeah, at least someone did. Nobody else bothered to show up,” Cici said. Brutal as it sounded, she was correct. Elsa had four sisters—including Ma—and a brother, but we were the only ones waiting around to see if she’d survive. She was childless, and all four of her marriages ended in contentious divorce, removing further reasons for anyone else to bite their nails in sterile purgatory hoping she’d make it through the night.
“I know it, I just can’t believe them,” Ma said, stamping her foot in quiet indignation towards her siblings.
“Well…” I said and stopped myself from continuing. It didn’t seem like the best time to get into it.
“Can’t say I blame them,” Cici said. Our relationship with Aunt Elsa had always been strained at best.
“She could be a good person when she wanted to be. And we’ve all got to remember that,” Ma said and paused before continuing “and regardless of who she was—or is, I shouldn’t be thinking like that—we’re family and that’s why we’re here.”
“That’s definitely why we’re here alright,” Cici said, setting her phone down to rub her eyes. Silence thickened again as everyone recognized that duty, not compassion for Elsa, brought us there in the first place.
Ma’s statement that Aunt Elsa could be decent when it suited her kept bothering me. Maybe she could, but I’d never seen it. Sometimes Ma wanted to see the good in people so badly that even her rose colored glasses fogged up.
“You remember how she had that bowl of candy that she’d never let us touch?” I asked.
“Ugh, yes. And the time you and I finally worked up the nerve to steal some and it turned out the Starbursts in the dish had gone all hard, and dust had gotten in the wrappers. Like how?” Cici asked and laughed quietly. I saw Ma smiling on the sly.
“Or those few years she had that yappy dog chained up outside her house…what was that thing’s name?” I asked.
“Ethel,” said Ma.
“Who names a dog Ethel?” Cici asked.
“I guess your aunt just really like the name.”
“Or how she—” Cici began before getting cut off by Ma saying “alright, you two that’s enough. These aren’t the things we should be talking about right now. We should be sitting here hoping for the best, not degrading her memory—or name I should say, see? There I go again—while doctors have their hands in her gut.”
And with that the silence was back. Cici and I quickly became the embodiment of the motherly adage ‘if you can’t say something nice about somebody, don’t say anything at all.’ Curmudgeonly or not, she was Ma’s sister. I knew if I spoke first I’d say something unkind so I kept my mouth shut. Cici and I were both surprised when it was not us, but Ma who broke the silence.
“You know…after all these years and everything I’ve done for her, she was never nice to me? Not once. Not even one time. You’d think I’d be able to remember one time my sister was nice to me. Honestly, it escapes me. And here I am: the only one who gives enough of a shit about her to show up? Serves me right,” she said.
“Don’t beat yourself up, Ma. You tried your best, but she wasn’t nice to anyone. I mean let’s face it: she was just—or is—a mean person,” I said and Ma nodded.
“Yeah, I’ve never liked her,” Cici said, to which all three of us shared a guilty laugh, before she continued, “I just came for you, Ma. And seriously, dude what’s with the flowers?”
“I don’t know, I thought maybe she’d like them,” I said. At that point I’d forgotten that I was still holding them.
“Like them? She’s in there turning the color of those flowers and you were thinking she’d like them? And, while we’re on the subject, deep-blue petunias? That’s like something you bring to a wake. Did you just pick something out randomly and shove a ‘Get Well,’ card at the top?” She asked, laughing.
“I thought it was a nice gesture, sweetie,” Ma said. I looked quietly at the petunias and couldn’t remember what was going through my mind when I bought them. Out of all the occasions I’d purchased flowers—of which there had been very few—this was easily the most somber occasion, so I wasn’t sure about what to buy. But Cici’s comment made me start to wonder if it was ever actually ‘a thing’ to buy someone flowers on their deathbed.
“I thought it was something people did. I don’t know,” I said.
“Excuse me, are you Mrs. Goldman?” A voice asked from the hallway. Ma responded enthusiastically, and we helped her out of her seat so she could go and listen to the man. When he explained what had happened on the operating table my mother put her hand over her mouth.
“Not looking good,” Cici said.
“Nope. Not at all.”
She came over and stood between us. Before she could speak Cici simply said “we know,” and we wrapped our arms around each other. Ma sat down in her same seat and pulled out a tissue from her purse, dabbing her swelling eyes. We moved on opposite sides of her, my hand on her shoulder, Cici’s on her knee, and sat comforting her for a few minutes and listening to the little ‘whoo’ noises she’d make when she’d breath heavily, trying not to sob.
“It was great of you two to come with me. I can’t say she would’ve liked it, but…it was nice to not be here alone.”
“We came for you, Ma,” Cici said and gave her a kiss on the cheek while I bobbed my head in agreement. Ma sniffled and blew her nose into a tissue.
“I know. And the problem I’m having right now is I just feel so guilty,” she said.
“What would you of all people have to feel guilty about? You’re the only one of her siblings who even came here tonight,” Cici said.
“It’s just that I really don’t feel that bad right now,” she said. Cici and I glanced at each other, ready to proceed with caution.
“Well, I mean you’re still in shock,” I said.
“Yes, I know that, sweetie but I should fee something worse about this but I really don’t. And I just lost my sister but now it’s making me feel like a bad person for not feeling anything else. Here I am, my sister’s still warm right down the hall all cut up and gruesome—we can’t even see her because of it—and I’m turning the whole conversation into something about myself.”
“Don’t think like that, Ma that’s not how it really is. You’re being too hard on yourself,” I said.
“Yeah…you’re right, I suppose.”
“And honestly, do you think Aunt Elsa would shed a tear for you if your situations were reversed? Let’s be real here, Ma you’re scolding yourself over nothing. I don’t think there’s anything unnatural about the way you’re feeling,” Cici said. Ma didn’t say anything for a while.
“She’s right you know,” was all I could think of.
“I know, but we shouldn’t speak ill of the dead like that. Especially not the freshly dead.”
“It’s okay, we don’t have to talk any more about it if you don’t want to,” Cici said, rubber Ma’s back a little more aggressively. Another lapse in conversation stretched as we tried to think of something that could wrench us from our melancholy seats.
“Do you two want to get some food?” I asked.
“You want to eat at a time like this?” Ma asked.
“Yeah I kind of do,” Cici said.
“Wouldn’t mind it. Plus we shouldn’t keep sitting here dwelling on everything right now,” I said.
“On second thought it might be nice to sit down somewhere. And I guess I could feed you two for coming here with me. I wonder what’ll be open,” Ma said.
“We’ll find something.”
We locked arms with Ma as we walked towards the exit. In an adjacent wing we were passing through, a mother and her two children were crying anxiously looking at the clock. I’d never actually meet them, but seeing them bawl together hurt more than the entire three hours we’d spent waiting combined. The ghastly consideration that if someone dearer to us than Aunt Elsa had been on the operating table we would’ve been in their seats thumped through me. Breaking away from Ma and Cici, I ran over to ask a passing attendant if the petunias I’d brought could be donated anonymously to whoever it was they were crying for, as I was about to walk out the door still holding them.
Kurt Entsminger lives in Chicago where he writes to escape the drudgery of 9-to-5 life. Outside of writing, much of his spare time is spent refusing to take anything too seriously. As a newcomer in the Lit wold, Bonding Agents is his first formally published piece.
If you enjoyed Bonding Agents, leave a comment and let Kurt know.
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