It’s just you and me, and the hum of your mask. I’m sorry, space mask. It’s essential for our journey tonight but it hadn’t always been. Straps circle around your head and hair, pressing silver curls to your chin. A few thin strands escape—like comets they streak and shimmer across the pillows, while a mountain of blankets does little to protect you from the cold that wraps your bones. They rise and fall in time to your slowed breathing as skin, white and hot as moonlight, burns slowly from the worries rising in you.
May 1st my Grandma underwent open heart surgery, after a physical examination revealed that her left atrium has been underdeveloped since birth. She was told that this imbalance placed an enormous amount of pressure on the right side of her heart, resulting in a buildup of scar tissue within her arteries and dangerously low oxygen levels. The doctor made it clear that what simply presented as shortness of breath today could end in a heart attack tomorrow. She’d been given a choice, to agree to four bypasses or not, and I sometimes wonder if she ever regrets the operation.
Don’t get me wrong, the surgery was a success. Under the hands of an experienced Swedish cardiovascular physician, my Grandma is doing exceptionally well. But the road to recovery is proving to be more challenging mentally than it is physically. For a woman who has survived famine, war, and the fall of communist Russia, her hard spirit and independent nature has always been something she could depend on. But she can no longer trust herself. Several times at night she’ll attempt to wrestle off the mask from her sleep apnea machine. Waking up from the pain and restlessness in her chest, she’ll become disoriented and claw at what is meant to keep her alive while she sleeps. So I sleep with her, just as she had with me in childhood.
As we lay, the silence is pronounced by the slow ticking of the wall clock. It reminds me that she’ll wake in three hours. Then three after that, then three after that—this happens every night. So I just lie there and hold the hand that once held mine. Her fingers grasp now tightly around my own and wait patiently when I dress and feed her. The ribbons she would tie for me I now weave into her hair, and every night again unravel. How strange to think that time so linear has bent like moonlight when it meets a mirror. One name, one gender, same laugh and smile, am I a mirror? Or a vessel, meant to remember how she once had been. She’s collapsing in on herself, yet it’s still so quiet.
I wait alone, she’s gone ahead. Though short, the daytime tires her quite quickly. It amazes me how fast and childlike she falls asleep, one minute here the next she’s drifting. I wish I could reach inside her, shake off her sutured heart, and snuff out the searing thought that her life’s become a burden. I wish I knew what to whisper at night as she sleeps. But I don’t and likely never will. For if I could, I’d fill the craters of the moon, to see the stars light up her eyes once more.
But they stare blankly at the ceiling before they close. Not dead but somewhere worse, we exist now somewhere in-between. A space where time reverses, stops, and weighs down heavily within us. I’m not sure whether she or I will be able to accept how things have now become. But life goes on, the clock’s still ticking, and the moon hangs steady in the sky. I turn to see your eyes are open, I’m drowning in their vibrant blue. A whimper, a hand, and then the struggle, you pull at straps and skin alike. My hand is swift to smooth your hair, while I watch the fear cloud up your iris. But then again, that could be me, beginning as you are collapsing.