As I sit by you and watch your eyes swish back and forth behind thin-skinned lids, I hear your cackle floating around my head like those cartoon bubbles in the funny papers you used to read to me on those slow Sunday mornings when you weren’t rushing off to your shift. You would throw your head back so far that I thought it might disconnect and roll off into the laundry room, and then you would bray like a donkey until it infected me—a virus working its way through the air and making me throw my own head back and bray along with you.
You don’t cackle now as you lay here in this hospice bed, connected to all the life-saving gadgets that irritate and agitate you. Before you slipped into this fitful sleep of yours, we would talk. Sometimes you still knew me, and sometimes you didn’t. Your mind like the newspapers we would leave out at the end of the driveway, battered by rain with all the ink running together and the paper disintegrating.
I used to ask you how much you loved me and you would say, “A bushel and a peck and a hug around the neck.”
The last time I asked and you were able to answer you said, “More than $10,000.” Then you folded your hands in your lap and declared you were tired. I didn’t push. They tell me not to push you.
I attend to your needs and your wants, although your wants are waning now. I peel my bare legs off the Naugahyde chair and water your spider plant, the one that takes up the whole corner and is suspiciously starting to look like the bust of a famous president. As I put the water bucket back under your sink, I hear you clear your throat and say, “She offered me $10,000 for my baby back in 1943.”
Startled, I stand frozen in the middle of your room, my feet cemented to the floor. Seconds feeling like days tick by as the sound of the window air conditioner overtakes the small space.
“She’d spent a good week asking me all sorts of questions about myself and doting over you, while ignoring your older sister. Pulling back your blanket and declaring your eyes lapis jewels. Greedy she was.”
My feet finally working again, I go to sit by your bed. I take your hand, careful not to bump the tube taped to it. You gift me a squeeze and a smile.
My breath catches as I ask, “Who was she?”
“Oh, it was that old Lois Love. A busybody whose family owned everything in Cherokee County. Had the world at her fingertips. But no baby.”
I place my other hand over yours, not wanting to interrupt your train of thought. Not wanting our interaction to end.
“Out of nowhere one day she asked to buy my baby. Can you imagine?”
You pull your hand from mine, and I’m scared the conversation will stop. That you will go silent again.
My shoulders slump and my chin droops to my chest in defeat. I want more, but I’ve been told what to do. I don’t push.
You cup my chin with your fingers, tilting my face upwards and closer to you.
“I know who you are. You’re my $10,000 baby.”