by Heather Talbot
Ellen paused for a long moment on the porch. She stared at the chipping, white paint on the door, gathering her strength. With a slow deep breath, she turned the key, opened the door, and walked inside.
“Ellen? Ellen is that you? Ellen?” a voice called to her as soon as the door creaked open.
“Yes, Mom. It’s me. I brought lunch.” she answered.
“Why don’t you ever knock? How am I supposed to know whether it’s you or some criminal?”
Because criminals don’t have keys, Mom, Ellen thought. “I brought chicken and a salad. Are you hungry?” She set the food down on the side table and hung up her coat. She turned and looked at her mother with a steady, practiced smile.
“Chicken? Again? Bleah. And you know I hate salad. Why are you always bringing damn salads?”
“Because Dr. Porter says you need to eat more vegetables and avoid fatty foods, Mom. I’m following the diet plan he gave you.” How many times were they going to have this conversation?
“Why can’t that damn doctor let me die in peace? If I want to eat nothing but lard until I keel over, what’s it to him?”
Well, maybe tomorrow I’ll bring you a jar of lard then. “It’s still warm. I cooked and brought it right over. Let me go get the TV tray.” Ellen walked into the kitchen, and grabbed the folded tin TV tray, brown and harvest orange, probably some kind of kitschy collectible by now, and walked back into the living room. Her mother was sitting in the worn brown recliner, head drooped, a light snore drifting from her. Her white, wiry hair stood in wispy clumps around her head. In the lamp light, it glowed, like a halo around her head. There’s irony for you, Ellen thought. Her mother’s pale nightgown hung loosely on her thinning body, draped with the skin that was stretched to fit the rolls of the body she once had. Her oxygen tubes had slipped, again, and were now sitting just above her lips. Ellen quietly moved the oxygen tank to the side of the recliner, unfolded the tray and placed it over her mother’s knees. She tucked the tubing back around her mother’s ears and wriggled the nose piece back into place. Her mother’s head jerked and with eyes opened as wide as her sagging eyelids would allow, she glared at Ellen.
“What the hell are you doing, Ellen? Are you trying to kill me? You just can’t wait for me to die, can you?”
Ellen suppressed a sigh and repasted her smile. “I’m just fixing your oxygen, Mom.” She picked the food up from the side table and took it into the kitchen. She removed it from the Tupperware and placed it on a plate with the brown flower borders and filled an avocado green melamine cup with water.
“Here you go, Mom.” Ellen placed the plate of food, water, and silverware on the tray. The chicken was already cut into bite sized pieces, the salad carefully pre-shredded. She had learned not to do those things in front of her mother. Let her keep some semblance of independence.
Ellen sat in the recliner next to her mother. It still felt odd to sit in it. Her father had never let anyone sit there. She still expected to hear his gruff voice ordering her out of his chair. She watched carefully as her mom picked up the fork, hand shaking, struggling to stab a piece of chicken, then slowly bring her trembling hand to her mouth. She looked so frail and small. Not like her mother at all, really.
“It’s dry. And it needs salt. Get me the damn salt.” It’s definitely still her though.Ellen went into the kitchen and got the salt. She set it on the tray.
“I want you to take me to church tomorrow. Eight o’clock mass at St. Agnus.”
Ellen stared at her mother. It’s happened. She’s lost her mind.
“Mom, you haven’t set foot inside St. Agnus since… well, since, um, well since…”
“Why are you stuttering like a damn idiot? I know when I went to church last. I want to go tomorrow. If you won’t take me, I’ll find someone who will!”
Who would that be? No one but me will come here anymore. Not since Dad died. You’ve chased them all off.
“I’ll take you, Mom. Whatever you want. I’m just surprised. Do you want me to come over early and help you get dressed?”
“Nah. The morning nurse from hospice can do it. Don’t want to be a burden.” Ellen sat down on her dad’s recliner. Her mother took another unsteady bite. Ellen looked into the blank screen of the console television.
“Mom, why do you want to go to church tomorrow?” Ellen asked.
“It ain’t any of your damned business! You always were one to stick your nose where it don’t belong.”
Ellen looked at her feet, waiting for her mom to finish eating. They sat in near silence; the only noises were her mother’s labored breathing and the occasional scrape and clink of the fork. Ellen’s thoughts drifted around the room, latching on to fragments of memory. Being scolded for eating in front of the television set. For getting messing up the doilies on the arms of the couch. For chewing too loudly. Being scolded for just existing, it seemed. Hours of piano practice; she couldn’t quit until each scale and song was perfect. The time she and Matthew brought home Shadow, a stray they had found by the creek, and her mother screamed at the sight of the dirty mangy thing rolling on her immaculately kept shag carpets. She had yelled herself hoarse at the two of them, made them scrub the carpet until their hands dried out and cracked, but she let them keep the dog– outside in the shed, but even that concession had shocked Ellen.
“I don’t think the Church even cares anymore if you marry a Protestant.” Ellen was startled by her mother’s voice. “Priest told me I’d go to Hell. Mama told me I’d go to Hell. Wouldn’t even come see her grandchildren. Called you unbaptized heathens. And now the Church don’t even care.”
Ellen looked at her mom. “So why go back? You always told us the Church was just a bunch of superstition and nonsense.”
“Why do you have to question everything I do? I want to go to church. That’s all you need to know, damn it.” Her fork clanged loudly on the tin tray. Ellen couldn’t tell if she’d dropped it or thrown it.
“Are you done eating, Mom. I’ll take your plate if you are.”
“Yeah. Take it. Chicken’s dry anyway.”
Ellen picked up the plate and fork, leaving the water, hoping her mom would drink it later. She took them into the kitchen, scraped the food into the trash, and washed the dishes.It’s been 60 years. She always said she didn’t care. She always said she was better off. Is this some kind of death bed repentance? When did she ever feel she needed to repent of anything?She dried the dishes, put the plate and fork away, and carried the Tupperware back into the living room.
“I’m going to go Mom. The night nurse should be here around five. Do want me to turn the television on?”
“Nah. Nothing good on anymore. It’s all trash. I’ll just take a nap.”
“I’ll see you in the morning for Mass.”
“Don’t be late. I don’t want to be late.”
“I won’t be, Mom. I promise.”
Ellen put her coat on and started towards the door.
“It’s different now, you know, at the Church. Maybe now they’ll forgive me.” Her voice was low and quiet.
“I don’t think you have anything to be forgiven of Mom.”
“I gave up God for him. And then he left me.”
“He didn’t leave you, Mom. He died.”
“What’s the difference? I’m still alone.”
“You’ve got me, Mom. And Paul and the kids. And Matthew’s coming for a visit next month.”
“Hmmpf” her mother grunted and looked away.
“I can stay, if you’d like.”
“No, no. You go. I don’t want to be a burden.”
“You’re not a burden, Mom.” Ellen placed her hand gently on her mother’s. Her mother did not pull away.
Ellen took off her coat and sat down.
Heather Talbot is an English major with a creative writing minor at BYU. She has an extraordinarily supportive husband, four kids, and two dogs. This is her first time being published.