By Steven C. Brymer
Mom is hospitalized during a snowstorm. My car is already buried, and I’m the last to find out. My older brother, Ryan, lives with her in a neighborhood much better about clearing the roads. He’s the one who calls to say Mom is in critical condition. Just sickness, he says, but it’s bad. I suppose sickness happens with age.
I move the curtains in the living room with the delicacy I’d use to slide hair from my daughter’s face. Streetlights are on, and in their beams I see a cone of snow continuing to blow past. It’s cold and getting colder. The hospital is a difficult—but not impossible—walk from my house. For a moment, I am unsure if I even want to see her, but I can make it if I leave now. So I form a plan.
I will leave before the sun fully sets, to have some illusion of warmth. My daughter will already be tucked into bed. My wife will shudder a grave nod after I tell her the news; then, I’ll grab my gloves as I pull my coat over my arms. While tying my scarf, she’ll tell me she loves me.
The sidewalk will be uncleared and up to my knees, so I’ll take the glossy road. To keep warm, I’ll imagine how the streets will look days from now, after the snow has caved in on itself and shrunk to a tumor-like slush.
Blocks from my house, I might move to the sidewalks cleared by children and pet owners. I’ll feel every piece of salt beneath my boots. It will remind me of my eleventh winter, when I marched through dry frost in early February to my friend’s house for cans. His dad answered the door and asked which charity I was collecting for. He wore yellow Tradesafe boots even though he was inside. I said the Salvation Army, but the truth was that Mom had just been demoted, and Dad had left, and because of the housing crisis, we couldn’t sell our home without losing more money than we’d need to relocate. Mom decided to keep paying the bills, and food fell through the cracks. But I told my friend’s dad it was for the Salvation Army. They had no cans to give. Ryan always said our finances were a scarlet letter for Mom. As long as we had the house, Ryan said, Mom would be able to sleep at night. So we collected cans.
Walk signals at intersections will be difficult to make out in what will feel like a blizzard, but there will be no cars, so I’ll race along the slick road and continue into town. I will see two homeless men between the diner and the karaoke bar, lying still in the white snow which has toppled their tent. Shelters are full this time of year. I will look between them and the hospital only two blocks away, then wonder if it was painful. That will be the danger of the cold, of course. Not the blue-white, frost-bitten limbs, but the slow and deceptive sense of security that sprouts from these pains. That fatal longing for stillness will have lulled these men in the gutters to a sleep they won’t wake from. In this disquieting moment, I will understand why Mom chose the house over food.
When I reach the hospital, a nurse will guide me to my mother’s room, where Ryan will be waiting. He’ll hug me before getting Mom’s attention. She will look like snow that has turned to slush, and will be lying still like the men in the gutters, with IVs stuck up the inside of her elbows. The sight will remind me of the night I impatiently searched her room for my Christmas gifts, only twelve years old, digging through the most secret of drawers. I will remember finding a bag that contained a syringe and spoon. I’ll remember realizing, years later, why we truly had trouble affording food. I’ll remember that Ryan already knew, and told me it was our job to take care of Mom, not the other way around. I’ll remember deciding to spend less time around them afterward. Mom never knew I knew. But I knew.
Despite these memories, when I see my mother lying on the hospital cot, I will rush to her side, crouching beside the gatch bed and clasping my hand around hers, our spidery fingers interwoven like worn patchwork. I might feel the impulse to cling to the judgment I had grown close to, but she will smile and say that she has missed me. She will say sorry. It will be all I need to hear.
But the truth is that I don’t go, because Mom is hospitalized during a snowstorm, and my car is buried when Ryan calls. And there is still resentment left pulsing in my limbs. And my mother has become my scarlet letter. I don’t blame myself, because it’s cold and getting colder. It’s dark and getting slicker; sidewalks and roads are like the glazed lane of a bowling alley. It is out of my control. I do not want to end up dead and frozen in the gutters between bars. Mom won’t say sorry anyways. I tell Ryan to keep me updated, then go to bed. My wife tells me she loves me. I just smile; then, I fall asleep with little regret.
My daughter crawls between me and my wife after having a nightmare, and I see a text from Ryan when I check the time on my phone. It’s one a.m. Mom is gone. I flip the phone face down and hold my daughter until the stillness lulls us to sleep. I can hear the wind outside. It pulses against the side of the house like a blizzard. There is no way it will clear by morning.