KEEPING IT AGLOW (short story)

It was a tiny three-bedroom house. Not fancy. Its fibro walls bore evidence of the years when we were growing up. A crack here and there. There were also numerous pencil sketches of helicopters and stick figures and the occasional signature of the artist. Of course it was all done when mum was not around. This was home despite not having the luxury of a septic toilet or an indoor shower.
It wasn’t until after mum’s passing that the house lost its warmth and its charm. Suddenly it became an ugly, cold place to live in. The walls seemed to acquire so much mold and dust on the windowsills had become somewhat thicker. She had taken that one burning coal that kept the hearth aglow. There was en emptiness in our lives which only mum could fill. Dad did his best to keep us together. He’d take us out to the beach and then we’d have an ice cream. Although he tried to keep us smiling, the pain in him was evident. Once or twice I’d find him staring far into the distant hills and the ocean beyond. There was a sense of longing in him and in all of us.
It was harder for the little ones – Adam and Maria. During mum’s three months in hospital, Adam would spend night after sleepless night by mum’s hospital bed. When he got drowsy he’d pull the stool closer to mum’s bed and fall asleep with his head resting on the mattress. I’d hear him pray whenever he was home, asking tirelessly that mum wouldn’t leave Dad and the three of us. Deep inside, we knew Mum would not last until the end of the month in hospital. But we all just didn’t have the courage to look reality in the face.
School had become a boring routine since mum went into hospital. I was in grade 8, Adam, grade 6 and Maria grade 2. We’d wake up in the morning have breakfast and dash for school. We’d count the hours in class – hours that were almost never-ending. Then it was the hospital as soon as we were dismissed from classes. We took turns taking care of mum. Dad and Maria first, then me and Adam. Dad told me never to leave Adam alone in hospital with mum. He never said why. Sometimes, Adam and I would stay at the hospital after school until Dad and Maria joined us during visiting hours at night. During mum’s second month in hospital, we began to see her condition slowly deteriorating. We all knew it yet none of us dared to mention it. She had always maintained a tenacious hold on life and that was the way we liked to see her. It wasn’t until Maria broke down during one of our visits, that we realized she was just voicing our thoughts. “Please mummy don’t die, please…please…” she had sobbed. Dad, Adam and I stood silent as mum wiped away Maria’s tears with a frail hand. Although she was in pain but she didn’t say. I think Maria was the first to really accept that mum was dying. I had always refused to even think of the possibility whenever Maria brought up the question. My usual reaction would be to get very angry at her for bringing up the subject of mum’s passing.
On the Thursday of the third week of the second month mum was in hospital Adam and I brought her a pizza after school. We didn’t really think she’d be able to share it with us, but that didn’t really matter. I guess we were just longing for that special closeness between a mother and her sons. Mum looked terrible against the backdrop of the flowers dad had brought her earlier. Her eyes were sunken and her face, pale. But her eyes lit up when we arrived. They still had the glow in them. She smiled weakly when we showed her the pizza. We sat outside on the hospital lawn and she managed to take a bite out of a pizza slice. She said she liked it but we knew she didn’t want to disappoint us.
We were in school when the principal brought us the news that Dad wanted to see the three of us immediately. I knew it was bad news. I had to really pull myself together. It took some time, however, to get Adam to understand that we had to be together with Dad and Maria at the hospital. He stood by the school gate refusing to go anywhere. “Don’t play dumb with me,” he said looking accusingly at me. “Mum’s gone and you know it…I’m not going to that damned hospital…”
“We don’t know that yet, Adam.. Dad just said he wanted to see us and that can mean anything…” I began trying my best to sound rational.
“Yes! Yes! Your head over your heart…” he said mimicking Dad. It was the first time I’d seen him behave this way. “You’re just like him… You’re not even prepared to listen to what you feel. I can feel it! So can you! Mum’s gone and you know it… She’s gone…”
He cried. I let him cry until he quieted down a bit and then we got on a bus. The trees and cars sped past us as the bus took the hospital route. I felt like we were in the top half of an hour glass trying desperately to remain standing while the sand drained beneath our feet. We were the first to get out of the bus when it stopped at the hospital. My heart was painfully loud in my ears as we dashed for the ward where mum was.
Mum lay on the bed. She looked no more than a skinny human frame. Dad sat on a stool beside the bed with Maria sobbing in his arms. All was silent. Even all the other patients seemed be drawn into this whirlpool of sorrow and loss.
“She’s waiting to see you two.” Dad whispered. “I told her you were in school and she wanted to see you two.”
Adam and I moved closer to the bed and I picked up her left hand. She gave my hand a weak squeeze and opened her eyes slightly.
“Mum.” Adam said softly.
“My two boys…” she whispered barely. “You came…”
She paused for a few seconds which seemed like hours.
“I love you all very much…” she said as a tear trickled down her cheek. “You’ve got to stick together… You’ve got to be one… I won’t be with you… You have to be…strong…”
As she closed her eyes, I felt her grip weaken. She was gone.


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