Mrs. Reese, the social worker of the hospital, a middle-aged
woman with dark, reddish-black straight hair pulled tight into a
chignon, shook hands peculiarly; she stuck her hand out with the
wrist bent like a gooseneck, and the two sisters hesitated, not
quite knowing how to grasp a hand offered so.
Yvette extended her own hand slowly, palm up, and unthinking,
almost lifted the woman’s hand to her lips to kiss it. Her sister
noticed the movement upwards, and realized precisely what Yvette
had almost done; they had lived together so closely for so long
they could nearly read each other’s thoughts. While very
different in their personalities, they seemed yet on the way to
becoming one creature. If the two sat together quietly in a room,
in a minute or two they would be breathing in unison.
Mrs. Reese squeezed the dry hand, hoping to communicate warmth.
It was her mission not only for her work but as a person. But it
was obvious both sisters had shrunk away in spirit from her
already. She could feel it. Oh, dear.
She smiled widely, and held her hand out to the other sister,
Yvonne. The hospital rarely sent her to speak to a family in this
section of the hospital since it was all private suites and
expensive. The staff called this section the Gold Coast. There
were usually many foreign patients, particularly Arabs, here. A
security man would visit when the patient had been admitted and
was settled, to advise him or her not to keep any valuables in
the room; send these home with your family, he’d say. If you
can’t the hospital will allow you to have them placed in the
institution’s safe for a small fee, just like in a large hotel.
The patient had a bigger menu to choose from each morning, as
well as the privilege to have a family member (or private duty
nurse) stay 24 hours a day in the room and sleep there if he
wanted; there was a comfortable sofa as well as recliner. The
social worker decided these two women did not look like money —
to put it mildly! — the fatter one sitting there in stretch
cotton lycra pants that were beginning to pill, and the clothes
of the other no better, a shapeless corduroy skirt and t-shirt.
They appeared to be both in their mid to late forties. The sister
in pants also wore a jeweled clip in her long hair, and foolishly
bright red lipstick. The other had no jewelry at all, and no
makeup on her long plain face. Her hair, longer than her sister’s
and threaded with gray, had been braided then stuffed into a
“So you’re your mother’s caretakers,” Mrs. Reese said. “You’ve
been, for — how long? oh, yes, that’s a long time,” she
acknowledged as one sister held up some fingers. “Yes, I see.
You’ve done quite a bit of work, both of you, naturally. But of
course because she’s your mother and you love her. I’m so sorry
she’s sick. This, now, must be very difficult.” She spoke
delicately, and deliberately glanced over at the much older lady
in the high bed, who lay simply covered with wires and tubes. Two
machines hovered by her head, one vacuum-pumping oxygen into her
chest. A plastic mouthpiece was taped into her open mouth. The
machines made a lot of noise. Mrs. Reese went over and closed the
door, then returned to the women.
The sisters just looked at her.
“How have you been feeling about it? I hoped I could be some help
to you,” she prompted. They looked puzzled.
“I guess we feel okay,” Yvette said.
“What’s this all about?” said Yvonne. “You’re a social worker?”
She tilted her head so the hairclip glinted.
Mrs. Reese sat down in a chair and pulled it closer to them.
“Yes. You’ve taken care of your mom very, very well and I guess
now everything’s going to change, isn’t it? We don’t last
forever; we just aren’t made to. Your mother was certainly lucky
to have two daughters who would do so much for her when she
Yvette said, drawing her gray braid around with both
hands, “What’s going to change?” and Yvonne, in a distracted way,
began bleating, “What? What?” with her eyes widening. Mrs. Reese
automatically reached out a hand and put it on Yvonne’s arm, to
calm her. She turned to Yvette.
“The doctor did say that he was going to move your mother
upstairs to intensive care, didn’t he?” Yvette nodded, with a
frown. “Well, he also explained to you that it was necessary
because her lungs can’t get enough oxygen, even with the
ventilator. Her blood pressure is dropping, and her heart is
“So what do they do next?” Yvette demanded.
She shook her head. “It could be a day or more, or just a few
hours, the doctor said.” Mrs. Reese stopped and waited.
“A few hours, and then what?”
They’re in denial, Mrs. Reese thought. Or maybe they are
absolutely in the dark. Is it possible? When you look at that
woman’s face, not to know? Earlier, the nurse had shown her,
Mrs. Reese, there was mottling on the hands and feet already. She
knew what that meant. Aloud, but in a small voice, she said:
“This is terminal, dear. I’m so sorry.”
The lifting and dropping of Yvonne’s hands and arms that began
made Mrs. Reese think of birds getting ready to fly. Yvonne’s
head snapped to look at Yvette. They both stood suddenly from
their chairs in a convulsive movement, staring at each other.
Yvonne turned on Mrs. Reese. “Nobody told us her cancer was
terminal.” Her voice was a little shrieky with accusation. “When
the ambulance came, and we told the paramedics that she just kept
sleeping on and on, they asked us if it was supposed to be
terminal. We said no!”
“Not once did her doctor ever call it that,” Yvette declared.
“She gets better every time. And goes home,” she added.
“Oh, my dears…. I can’t tell you how sorry I am.”
“You’re not a doctor. You don’t know!” Yvette said. Her face
pinked up, with rage.
But Mrs. Reese stopped her: “She knew.”
And everything stopped. The idea that their mother had known the
end was coming but did not mention this to them was too vivid a
betrayal. Mrs. Reese wished she hadn’t said it. Rage, perhaps the
only force holding them intact just then, she had snatched away,
and they began to come apart as she watched. The very skin of
their faces drew and crumpled. Yvette turned gray. “Sit,” Mrs.
Reese commanded. “Lean forward. Put your head down.”
“What is there now?” Yvonne was saying. Her thin arms, waving
randomly, seemed too loose to stay on.
Yvette, then Yvonne, began crying loudly, sobbing and catching
their breath again with an agonized intake. To Mrs. Reese it
sounded like the hee-hawing of donkeys. She put her arm around
one, then the other when she could manage to gather her in, and
let them continue.
The crew of nurses and orderlies who arrived to move the mother
met up with an angry daughter army of two. Who actually did not
attempt to stop them, only hurled abuse as they positioned the
gurney alongside the hospital bed, and loosened the sheets
underneath the mother, rolling the edges to grasp so they had a
sheet to lift with. “On three,” instructed a tall nurse. They
counted, and boosted the patient onto the gurney.
“One, you’re an idiot!” screeched Yvonne.
“Two — you’re fucking stupid idiots! Probably she’ll die before
you get upstairs, or you’ll let her slide off the cot,” sneered
Yvette. “And three — “
“Three, our mother would kill you if she saw what dirty hands you
all touched her with.”
“If she isn’t okay when you get upstairs — which is pretty
likely, the way you’re letting that machine roll all over the
place — we will know every one of your names.”
“Absolutely,” Yvonne said.
“This place has the worst staff. You’re all disgusting to me.”
The sisters waited until the staff and the gurney had rolled out,
then after a minute or so they ran down the hall and punched the
elevator button. It opened hummingly, rolling its layered steel
doors back. It was empty. Good. The mother and her entourage had
gone ahead already, in another elevator. Yvonne chose the button
for the intensive care floor, and then they stood expectantly,
biting their lips.
It was at least half an hour before they were actually permitted
in their mother’s new room, and this was rather disheartening.
Also, the extra staff that did the move had departed, and only an
I.C.U. nurse was there. It rather took the wind out of their
sails. They had lost the psychological moment. They stood by the
bed and regarded their mother. “They took long enough,” Yvette
said. “Anything could’ve happened to her while they took so long
fooling around, and we wouldn’t have been there.”
Yvonne, feeling the beginnings of some promising grumbling,
opened her mouth to rejoin, but could think of nothing. Yvette
said nothing more, either, and they simply stood looking at the
patient, and then the machines she was connected to, for as long
as they were permitted to stay in the room while the intensive
care unit breathed its very efficient air conditioning around
They ate crackers and cheese in the cafeteria, sitting together
on the same side of the table. Yvette had coffee while Yvonne
drank Coke. “How can you drink anything cold?” Yvette asked. “It
was so freezing up there.”
“I was thirstier than coffee. Sometimes it leaves me thirstier
than when I started, you know?”
Yvette did know, so merely nodded. “It was dry up there, too.”
“When are we allowed to go in again?”
Yvette looked at her watch. “Eight o’clock. So we’ll stay here a
“You should eat some more. Maybe some fruit, Yvonne,” Yvette
instructed. Her sister grimaced. “I nearly passed out myself —
you want to do that too?” Yvette demanded.
“Will you eat part of it?”
They returned in a while upstairs, and when the nurse — or guard
dog as they dubbed her — summoned them, they returned to their
station beside the mother. As long as they were just waiting,
everything seemed as usual. They did not get upset again. When
they entered the room, the nurses were tilting the bed with an
electronic positioner. The head of the bed was considerably below
the foot, and the nurses returned the bed to a normal position.
Yvonne looked at it curiously.
The younger nurse, looking very weary, took the time to speak to
the sisters to give them an update on the mother’s condition. The
blood pressure, she said, had gotten very low. To keep an
adequate blood supply to the brain, they’d had to elevate the
mother’s feet and lower her head and keep it that way for some
time. Yvette and Yvonne didn’t really know what this indicated,
what it might mean. They nodded. After the nurses left, Yvette
thought her mother’s eyes, which occasionally opened, looked
swollen; not the eyelids, but the eyeballs, distended. She
decided it was an illusion. The face was certainly puffy; that
No one tried to make them leave the ICU now. It had been about
twelve hours since their mother had entered intensive care. A
nurse would come in, adjust a few things, stand and observe the
mother for a minute, then step out of their way. A doctor came in
a couple of times. He was the attending doctor, not the
oncologist their mother had been treated by for years; that
doctor was too far across town and was on the staff of another
hospital, not this one near their home. This attending doctor
spoke softly and reasonably to them. He seemed very young, like
the nurse. He said their mother was in no pain. (The sisters
didn’t think so either.) He said it was almost as if she were
already dead. The sisters nodded. The machines — which they had
noticed for some hours were showing gradually lowering numbers —
were not doing much of anything for the mother now and they, the
daughters, could say when it was time to stop them. He would do
it when they felt it was all right. They nodded, but did not say,
“Now.” The numbers, Yvette remarked to Yvonne, were still very
high. What right did they have to disturb their mother’s
machines? They just wanted to stay there numbly.
A critical number on the heart monitor was reached, and a bell
rang somewhere. Three doctors rushed in with some sort of cart
and began looking the mother over; they called to each other
different instructions. The sisters stepped back, relieved
someone was feeling urgently about the situation. But when one
doctor called “Lidocaine!” and reached out, another person
stepped into the room, a petite woman wearing a raincoat, and
held out her hand.
“Don’t do any more,” she said. Her voice was sweet and sure. The
I.C.U. nurse behind her was nodding at the doctors. The doctor
looked at the woman, dropped his hand and withdrew the crash
cart. The other doctors examined the monitors, fiddled with them
a little, then left too. The woman walked up to the bed and
leaned over the mother. Her hair, short and fluffily curled,
swung forward. She placed her hand on the mother’s purpling upper
arm. “Goodbye,” she whispered.
The machines, everybody saw, had slowed to single digits.
Yvonne and Yvette could hardly look at this woman. They could
smell her, however. She smelled good. Like gardenias. The woman
turned and approached them and softly grabbed each sister by an
elbow, then let go; rather theatrically, Yvonne thought. “How are
you holding up?” the perfumed woman whispered.
Yvette’s throat made a phlegmy noise. She yanked herself from the
woman’s touch. “I hate you!” she shrieked at Anna, who happened
to be her — and Yvonne’s — younger sister. Yvonne burst into
loud tears behind them. As Yvette fled from the room, braid
flapping, Anna turned to Yvonne, and held out her
gardenia-flavored arms, making a sort of sad coo. Yvonne’s glance
crawled up from her cupped hands.
“Oh, Yvonne,” Anna coaxed.
In the days succeeding, Anna began arranging everything for the
funeral. Her husband Carl, a clean-cut man a few years her elder,
had come into town with her. They had come just in time, he said
to Yvette and Yvonne. He smiled continually, and mostly stood
back and watched his small neat wife do like a whirlwind. An
attractive, girlish whirlwind. She was considerably younger than
her sisters, by about 15 years. But this was not the key to their
differences. In the old family house where Yvette and Yvonne had
lived and taken care of their mother, Anna headed for the
telephone and usurped it. She and Carl were staying in a motel,
not wanting to barge in on the two sisters. But Yvette took a wet
soapy cloth to the receiver before calling her hairdresser. The
plastic smelled faintly of the other sister.
The funeral took place and went correctly and well. The mother
had not been an ostentatious person and would have wanted only
the proper religious ritual, not anything showy or dramatic.
There was a large buffet for friends and extended family at the
house. Anna offered plates to Yvette and Yvonne, who were both
sick and could not look at the food. Yvette, who was feeling
weak, waved Anna away nervously. Yvonne flumped down in a chair
in the game room. Anna sat beside her with a plate of ham which
her husband had sliced nice and thin. Yvonne moaned and turned
her head away, like a child, each time Anna brought a fork close
to her mouth. But Anna persisted, bringing another plate, this
time of kippers, sardines and crackers. She laid a fragment of
the sardine on a saltine and held it up. Yvonne stuck her tongue
out. It accidentally touched the sardine, and Yvonne was
surprised, relishing the salt. It wakened her hunger. Anna fed
her, approving. “You never tried them before?” Yvonne, engrossed
in the crunch and heavenly taste, shook her head.
That evening, when nearly all the visitors had gone, Yvette found
she could manage some thin vegetable soup. She sat alone in the
dining room and ate with her head over the bowl. She had cried
all through the funeral mass and several times since, and wanted
to go straight to bed without thinking about anything. But
something still disturbed her field of vision. No — not vision.
Her field of sensation. It was Anna. Anna did not belong here,
and it made Yvette feel worse than strange, what with her
mother’s death. Why did she have to endure both at once?
Anna stopped in Yvette’s room late that night to see her. Yvette
allowed herself to be hugged and kissed. She would be gone soon,
anyway, and leave her and Yvonne in peace. “Why don’t you come
down soon for a week or so?”
Yvette blinked. “Where?”
“To my house, silly. We could swim, and go shopping, and things.
You could get a haircut, something really sharp, and a
makeover…” She was touching Yvette’s hair. “Think of all the
time you have now.”
Yvette had trouble being civil in her answer, but thought she had
stayed on the right side of the line. On the day of your mother’s
funeral, you shouldn’t be nasty.
The next morning Yvonne wandered around the house helplessly. It
had been her work formerly to make breakfast for their mother and
help her with a bed bath. She had nothing to do now. She went and
found Yvette. Yvette looked at her with understanding and jumped
out of bed. “We’ll start organizing things here,” she said.
“We’ll … send her wigs to the cancer organization, and start
going through her clothes. And thinking about her property and
what to do about everything.”
“Well, Anna already called the lawyer, and he’ll be letting us
know about most of that,” Yvonne said.
Yvette paused. “Someone made her frigging queen, didn’t they?”
“But I don’t even want to deal with all of that. It’s too hard. I
feel like I can’t move.”
“She doesn’t know how it feels, does she,” Yvette said. “We’ve
cried so much it feels like you could fall out the other side of
yourself. I feel like I’m not all here.”
“Exactly,” cried Yvonne. “And she doesn’t know! She hasn’t been
here.” She looked at Yvette with awe and horror. Yvette nodded.
“Nothing is the same!” Yvonne exclaimed. “There’s nothing left
By mutual agreement, they didn’t try to do much of anything the
next few days, just washed their dishes and clothes, and a few
Anna was still in town a week later, although Carl had gone home.
She had met with the lawyer several times. The mother’s estate
was divided evenly between the three sisters. Not that Yvette or
Yvonne cared much. Anna appeared at the house one afternoon and
found only Yvonne home, and this was fortunate, since if both had
been home she wouldn’t have been able to budge either one. It had
to be divide and conquer. Yvonne was coaxed out to lunch with
her, and they went afterwards to a nail salon, which Yvonne had
never done. She was pleased with her pretty pink nails. She
mocked herself, silently, as the manicurist finished her: “This,
and sardines! What a new life!”
They returned to the house, and Yvette was already home. Yvonne
was tired, having spent a long day with her young sister, and was
actually tired of her company too. It was a relief to see good
old Yvette curled into the big easy chair in the front room
watching tv with her bare feet on the furniture. Her hair was
undone and a little greasy. She looked embarrassed when the two
walked in looking nice.
Anna chattered about their afternoon while Yvette scooted around
to hide her big feet. Yvonne sank smilingly into a chair: The tv
room was dim and she deliberately did not turn on any lamp, since
this could make Anna uneasy and leave, with any luck. It had been
a pleasant afternoon. Now get out of here.
It worked soon enough, and Anna left. Yvette turned to her sister
and said, “Don’t ever do that to me again. She’s the same as a
stranger, and I don’t want my privacy intruded on by her.”
Yvonne was stunned. “What did I do? I couldn’t say goodbye to her
at the door, you know, especially since she gave me a manicure
and lunch! It doesn’t matter if she’s here for a second or two;
she’s gone now! What’s the big problem?”
But Yvette was nettled. Something female in her had been
challenged and judged, and found lacking. “Just… nothing.
Forget it. You don’t know what she’s like.”
They were silent for a while, then Yvette burst out again: “She’s
always trying to fix me! To make me just like her! She’s got a
And: “She hates the way I dress, the way I act, the way I sit and
stand and eat and drink, and smell,” Yvette commented later.
Yvonne was growing angry too. “You always say I don’t understand
anything.” She was envious of the enmity between the other two,
but at the same time, felt herself stupid for feeling so. So she
vented this on Yvette: “You’re really critical too.” She, unlike
Yvette, spoke quietly, very quietly. This was her tactic.
They were silent again. Then, with a loud guffaw, Yvette said,
“Did you see the undershorts Carl had on the day of the funeral?”
Yvonne gasped. “Yes!” she shrieked. “His pants kept slipping
because he doesn’t know what a belt is for! They looked like an
old woman’s girdle, all white cotton, and seamed and shaped!” The
two laughed heartily
“And his nose hair! Did you see!” screamed Yvette. Yvonne
responded with a whoop. They kept laughing.
“And did you see — “ Each one kept adding. They laughed until
their stomachs hurt. “Oooh, whoo,” Yvette moaned, holding her
stomach in pain. They rested, breathed, then at a glance one at
the other, broke out in fresh hilarity. Yvette’s laughs were
manly, almost gross. Yvonne sighed happily, giggling every now
and then. She stretched out her arms and catching sight of her
new nails, wiggled them. Pretty, she thought. She glanced at her
sister, who was scratching her dirty feet. Their laughter died
Yvette grunted and clambered out of the easy chair. “And she
thinks she’s all that and a bag of — pork rinds,” she said
loudly, on her way to the kitchen. She returned with a glass of
apple juice and stood regarding her sister from the doorway.
“I am so glad you’re here,Yvonne,” she said. She drank some
juice. “Even though — she gulped slightly — “Mom’s not here,
we’ve got a, well, a family. Not everything’s changed after all.”
She humphed, embarrassed by her speech, and sat down again
quickly in the chair. “Don’t you think so?”
Yvonne kept waving her fingers. She seemed to be thinking. “Mmm,
hmm,” she said.