Green Thumb, Black My Eye

Melford Community Hospital

"Forgive him." That’s what she keeps telling me. "Forgiveness will help you heal. The pathway to forgiveness is hard but you’ll find comfort. You will find peace. Lois, please forgive him before he dies," she begs of me. "It’s the Christian way," she sighs. I nod politely with face lowered and my hands folded because if I let them go, they’ll probably wrap around this bitch Chaplain’s neck. She offers a prayer and I close my eyes and tune out her rambling on about pain and suffering and peace on earth and good will toward men. My eyes automatically open when I hear "Amen" and she reaches over and squeezes my hands. She smiles and says she’ll say a prayer with Arthur now and takes vigil at the side of his hospital bed. I sit still and keep my hands clutched. I can’t quell the desire to strangle her.


Home Hospice

The hospice nurse can’t stop gushing about arranging the hospital bed in the sunroom, overlooking the garden. She says it will bring Arthur great comfort to view his plants, his life’s work, and will likely lessen his emotional and physical pain. She doesn’t realize this is the last thing I want for him. I want him in the extra bedroom where the walls are painted ash gray and the only object in the room is a solitary nightlight casting a sickly yellow glow along the wall. But I can’t speak my mind so the hospital bed is set up in the sunroom.

When Arthur comes home by ambulance, the attendants gingerly slide him onto the new bed. The nurse bends over the rails, fussing over him. She smoothes his sheets, fluffs his pillow and whispers to him, "Arthur. You’re home now. Open your eyes. Can you see it? Your garden? It’s beautiful." She glances at me and smiles sweetly. I nod and leave the room. She’ll think I’m overcome with grief and am too embarrassed or too brave to cry in front of her and Arthur. The truth is my hands are bleeding. My fingernails sliced my palms as they were curled into fists.

Before the nurse leaves for the evening, she shows me the monitor. I’ll be able to hear him from my bedroom if he needs me during the night. She hugs me goodbye and will be back noon tomorrow. As soon as her car leaves the driveway, I unplug the monitor but I turn on all the lights. Arthur’s eyes open, they water and he begins to moan. Still the room is too dim. In the morning, I’ll bring in floor lamps from the living room.

I run a bath upstairs. I undress and stand naked in front of the mirror. I take inventory of my "tattoos." A map of permanent bruises from years of abuse. I trace them with my fingers along my breasts and my stomach. They continue up and down my back and there are small round thumbprints dotted on my buttocks. They still ache.

I used to ask the emergency room doctor when they would go away. "Never," he would say, working his jaw up and down. "They’re scars. They are permanent yet preventable scars." I could feel another lecture coming on but he would sigh and walk out of the room. The doctor has known me for years. At first he was so tender with me. He agonized over me. Over time, he changed. I sickened him. I frustrated him. I think he felt more sorry for Arthur than for me. In fact everyone in the emergency room did. Except for that spinster chaplain. She’s consumed with saving me. I became her personal mission. She won’t give up on me. She prays for me. And I hate her for it.

The steam from the hot water clouds the mirror and I can no longer see myself. I’ve become a blurred image. I have no desire to correct it, so I ease myself into the water.


Nurse Lois

"I just don’t understand it. Maybe the cancer has spread into his bones." The hospice nurse is puzzled. Arthur’s pain is uncontrolled. He’s moaning almost constantly and his blood pressure is high. The nurse carefully checks over his prescriptions and dosages. She suggests alternative pain relief through music, warm blankets and soft touch. Nothing has worked. She believes it may be spiritual and she’s asked the hospital chaplain to pay a visit today. She increases the Duragesic patch and adds more morphine for breakthrough pain. She tenderly bathes Arthur with warm, soft cotton washcloths and speaks quietly to him about his garden. She tells him the roses are just starting to open and the clematis vines are blooming in the most brilliant colors of purple and white. She praises him for being a genius with flowers. A master gardener. For having the patience and ability to nurture tiny seeds into beautiful bushes of meadowsweet and stalks of delicate lupine. She says she’d give anything to have his green thumb. I feel sorry for her.

The chaplain arrives as requested. She holds Arthur’s hand and tries to pray away his pain. She recites The Lord’s Prayer. I sit with her and assume the praying position. She asks to see me privately in the other room. She wants to know how I’m doing. How am I holding up? Do I want to pray? She’s more than willing to spend the night. She brought me a book, Forgiveness is a Choice. She’s worried about me. Is there anything she can get me? I shrug my shoulders and lead her to the door.

I continue on with my evening routine. I turn off the monitor, flick on all the lights, flush morphine down the toilet and rip the pain patches off Arthur’s skin. I’m always careful to replace the patches and turn the monitor back on in the morning. Only Arthur is the wiser.


A New Gardener

The hospice nurse gently moves her stethoscope over Arthur’s chest. She holds his wrist with her fingertips and looks at her watch. She sighs and shakes her head. She whispers to me, "I’m so sorry. It won’t be long." She has other visits today and will be back later to check on us. She encourages me to page her immediately if I need her. She promises she’ll drop everything to be with me. I’m relieved when she finally leaves. Arthur’s breathing is labored but his eyes are wide open and he is tracking me as I pace around his bed. He can see me. He can sense me.

A flower arrangement of colorful irises and spikes of lavender sit on his bedside table. Every time I walk past, the scent sickens me. This was the nurse’s silly idea. "Let’s bring Arthur’s flowers inside for him to enjoy!" I want to shove them back in the dirt where they belong. How dare they be put on display in my crystal vase!

I continue to circle the hospital bed and Arthur’s eyes still follow my gait. I stop and open the patio door. I look back to make sure he’s still watching. I leave the door open for him to see me tear at his garden with my bare hands. I rip through the hostas like heads of cabbage. The roses are stomped on with my bedroom slippers. My fingers strip the honeysuckle vines of leaves and orange blossoms. I shred the paper-like poppies. The necks of butter yellow foxglove are cracked in two. The nectar-filled tips of the fragile columbine are rubbed vigorously between my palms. The heads of angel white hibiscus are yanked out of the ground and their roots left dangling like flaccid legs. Clumps of lady’s mantle loosen easily from the soil and are thrown up in the air. I climb the trellis that holds the clematis until it gives way from the house. I fall hard, ripping apart the vine and crushing the garden mums.

I’m out of breath. My side aches. Carrying the murdered mums in my fists, I limp to the patio door. Arthur is staring at me. His eyes are glassy and his chest is still.

And then I scream.


Christine Baerbock writes short fiction from her home in Greendale, Wisconsin.