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EVEN WITH THE SWEAT ON HER FOREHEAD AND THE skip in her breath, she didn’t look sick. Her skin didn’t have the peachy glow I was used to, and her eyes weren’t as bright, but she was still beautiful. The most beautiful woman I would ever see.
Her hand flopped off the bed, and her finger twitched. My eyes trailed from her brittle, yellowing nails, up her thin arm, to her bony shoulder, finally settling on her eyes. She was looking down at me, her lids two slits, just enough to let me know she knew I was there. That’s what I loved about her. When she looked at me, she really saw me. She didn’t look past me to the other dozens of things she needed to do with her day, or tune out my stupid stories. She listened, and it made her really happy. Everyone else seemed to nod without listening, but not her. Never her.
“Travis,” she said, her voice raspy. She cleared her throat, and the corners of her mouth turned up. “Come here, baby. It’s okay. C’mere.”
Dad put a few fingers on the base of my neck and pushed me forward while listening to the nurse. Dad called her Becky. She came to the house for the first time a few days ago. Her words were soft, and her eyes were kinda nice, but I didn’t like Becky. I couldn’t explain it, but her being there was scary. I knew she might have been there to help, but it wasn’t a good thing, even though Dad was okay with her.
Dad’s nudge shoved me forward several steps, close enough to where Mommy could touch me. She stretched her long, elegant fingers, and brushed my arm. “It’s okay, Travis,” she whispered. “Mommy wants to tell you something.”
I stuck my finger in my mouth, and pushed it around on my gums, fidgeting. Nodding made her small smile bigger, so I made sure to make big movements with my head as I stepped toward her face.
She used what was left of her strength to scoot closer to me, and then she took a breath. “What I’m going to ask you will be very hard, son. I know you can do it, because you’re a big boy now.”
I nodded again, mirroring her smile, even if I didn’t mean it. Smiling when she looked so tired and uncomfortable didn’t feel right, but being brave made her happy. So I was brave.
“Travis, I need you to listen to what I’m going to say, and even more important, I need you to remember. This will be very hard. I’ve been trying to remember things from when I was three, and I . . . ” She trailed off, the pain too big for a bit.
“Pain getting unmanageable, Diane?” Becky said, pushing a needle into Mom’s IV.
After a few moments, Mommy relaxed. She took another breath, and tried again.
“Can you do that for Mommy? Can you remember what I’m about to say?” I nodded again, and she raised a hand to my cheek. Her skin wasn’t very warm, and she could only keep her hand in place for a few seconds before it got shaky and fell to the bed. “First, it’s okay to be sad. It’s okay to feel things. Remember that. Second, be a kid for as long as you can. Play games, Travis. Be silly”—her eyes glossed over—“and you and your brothers take care of each other, and your father. Even when you grow up and move away, it’s important to come home. Okay?”
My head bobbed up and down, desperate to please her.
“One of these days you’re going to fall in love, son. Don’t settle for just anyone. Choose the girl that doesn’t come easy, the one you have to fight for, and then never stop fighting. Never”—she took a deep breath—“stop fighting for what you want. And never”—her eyebrows pulled in—“forget that Mommy loves you. Even if you can’t see me.” A tear fell down her cheek. “I will always, always love you.”
She took a choppy breath, and then coughed.
“Okay,” Becky said, sticking a funny-looking thing in her ears. She held the other end to Mommy’s chest. “Time to rest.”
“No time,” Mommy whispered.
Becky looked at my dad. “We’re getting close, Mr. Maddox. You should probably bring the rest of the boys in to say goodbye.”
Dad’s lips made a hard line, and he shook his head. “I’m not ready,” he choked out.
“You’ll never be ready to lose your wife, Jim. But you don’t want to let her go without the boys saying their goodbyes.”
Dad thought for a minute, wiped his nose with his sleeve, and then nodded. He stomped out of the room, like he was mad.
I watched Mommy, watched her try to breathe, and watched Becky checking the numbers on the box beside her. I touched Mommy’s wrist. Becky’s eyes seemed to know something I didn’t, and that made my stomach feel sick.
“You know, Travis,” Becky said, leaning down so she could look me in the eyes, “the medicine I’m giving your mommy will make her sleep, but even though she’s sleeping, she can still hear you. You can still tell Mommy that you love her and that you’ll miss her, and she’ll hear everything you say.”
I looked at Mommy but quickly shook my head. “I don’t want to miss her.”
Becky put her soft, warm hand on my shoulder, just like Mommy used to when I was upset. “Your mom wants to be here with you. She wants that very much. But Jesus wants her with him right now.”
I frowned. “I need her more than Jesus does.”
Becky smiled, and then kissed the top of my hair.
Dad knocked on the door, and then it opened. My brothers crowded around him in the hallway, and Becky led me by the hand to join them.
Trenton’s eyes didn’t leave Mommy’s bed, and Taylor and Tyler looked everywhere but the bed. It made me feel better somehow that they all looked as scared as I felt.
Thomas stood next to me, a little bit in front, like the time he protected me when we were playing in the front yard, and the neighbor boys tried to pick a fight with Tyler. “She doesn’t look good,” Thomas said.
Dad cleared his throat. “Mom’s been real sick for a long time, boys, and it’s time for her . . . it’s time she . . . ” He trailed off.
Becky offered a small, sympathetic smile. “Your mom hasn’t been eating or drinking. Her body is letting go. This is going to be very hard, but it’s a good time to tell your mom that you love her, and you’re going to miss her, and that it’s okay for her to go. She needs to know that it’s okay.”
My brothers nodded their heads in unison. All of them but me. It wasn’t okay. I didn’t want her to leave. I didn’t care if Jesus wanted her or not. She was my mommy. He could take an old mommy. One that didn’t have little boys to take care of. I tried to remember everything she told me. I tried to glue it to the inside of my head: Play. Visit Dad. Fight for what I love. That last thing bothered me. I loved Mommy, but I didn’t know how to fight for her.
Becky leaned into my dad’s ear. He shook his head, and then nodded to my brothers. “Okay, boys. Let’s go say goodbye, and then you need to get your brothers in bed, Thomas. They don’t need to be here for the rest.”
“Yes, sir,” Thomas said. I knew he was faking a brave face. His eyes were as sad as mine.
Thomas talked to her for a while, and then Taylor and Tyler whispered things in each of her ears. Trenton cried and hugged her for a long time. Everyone told her it was okay for her to leave us. Everyone but me. Mommy didn’t say anything back this time.
Thomas pulled on my hand, leading me out of her bedroom. I walked backward until we were in the hall. I tried to pretend she was just going to sleep, but my head went fuzzy. Thomas picked me up and carried me up the stairs. His feet climbed faster when Dad’s wails carried through the walls.
“What did she say to you?” Thomas asked, turning on the tub faucet.
I didn’t answer. I heard him ask, and I remembered like she told me to, but my tears wouldn’t work, and my mouth didn’t either.
Thomas pulled my dirt-soiled shirt over my head, and my shorts and Thomas the Train Underoos down to the floor. “Time to get in the tub, bubby.” He lifted me off the floor and sat me in the warm water, soaking the rag, and squeezing it over my head. I didn’t blink. I didn’t even try to get the water off of my face, even though I hated it.
“Yesterday, Mom told me to take care of you and the twins, and to take care of Dad.” Thomas folded his hands on the rim of the tub and rested his chin on them, looking at me. “So that’s what I’m gonna do, Trav, okay? I’m going to take care of you. So don’t you worry. We’re going to miss Mom together, but don’t be scared. I’m going to make sure everything’s okay. I promise.”
I wanted to nod, or hug him, but nothing worked. Even though I should have been fighting for her, I was upstairs, in a tub full of water, still as a statue. I had already let her down. I promised her in the very back of my head that I would do all the things she had told me as soon as my body worked again. When the sad went away, I would always play, and I would always fight. Hard.