The thick, floral-print draperies in the cramped room my parents shared were drawn against the crisp afternoon. A small lamp, crafted from a poorly painted porcelain Chinese figurine my father had picked up in the service, shed a dim bubble of light in one corner. The air was stifling, as though they were trying to keep the last of the sun's failing heat from escaping. Their room smelled of stale camphor and soiled clothing. The carpet felt moldy slick under my feet.
My mother's frail body reclined on the rented hospital bed, her head and legs elevated slightly, a tube of clear liquid shunted into her arm, a smaller hissing tube hung just below her nostrils. Machinery hummed in the corner. She was dressed in a flimsy, tangerine gown from another era—the sort of burnoose she had worn her whole life. A pair of tidy, colorless mules waited futilely on the small oval rug at her bedside for her feet to slip again into them. Her eyes were closed, her face at peace.
"Mother?" A beat passed. Another. Around her there was an absence of human smell as if her pores had clamped down to trap her perspiration—her vitality—inside her skin. The bed around her body felt cool. The muscles beneath her papery skin tensed, her thin lips dissolved into a grimace, and with what seemed like enormous strain she pried apart her eyelids. I remembered her eyes as a warm hazel, but now they appeared dull, soupy, nearly consumed by her graying pupils. I lowered my face into what I thought was her field of vision. "Hello, Mother. It's me, Josh." Her lips retracted, and she gritted her small, filmy teeth in a sort of smile. Her stomach contracted with the effort. Her weak breaths were odorless.
"Joshua, dear. It's been so long. We've always been so proud of you." She stopped, the effort clearly immense. Her tongue poked around in the cavern of her mouth. I felt a slight twitching in her hand. I took it in mine. It was rubbery, neutral. "Listen to your father. Do what he says." She parceled her words out carefully. "It will be hard for you," she quivered with the strain, "but it's even harder for him."
"What are you talking about?"
"And promise me you'll find something good to say about me." She collapsed back into her pillow the fraction of an inch the tension in her stomach muscles had lifted her and exhaled audibly. "I'm tired. Give Nina my love." Her eyes shuttered and it was like she had fallen a great, great distance.
I squeezed her hand and felt the bones crackle under my grip. "Mother? What do you want from me?" A clicking sound came from her other hand. "Tell me."
"Why don't you read to her?" My father's voice startled me from my contemplation of my mother's inarticulate pain as she lay motionless in the stultifying room she shared with him. She was rotting from the inside out.
"She always loves the Bible. The Psalms. Ecclesiastes. The Sermon on the Mount. Or you could try Shakespeare. There on her table beside the bed. She likes to hear the sonnets."
I riffled the worn, gilt edges of my mother's blue, leather-bound collected Shakespeare.
"You know, when she was growing up, these were the only books her parents had in the house. She was very bright. She learned to read from them."
"Do you think she can hear me?"
"She'll know the sound of your voice. And maybe the rhythms of the words as well. It will be comfort enough for her." The book flopped open and my eye lighted on the first line of one of the poems.
"I'll give it a shot."
"That time of year thou mayst in me behold…"
"Yes, that one," he said. "It's one of her favorites."
I began again:
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang. …
"Bare ruined choirs... ." Indeed. I looked up from the text and saw my father, a white handkerchief in his hand, leaning over her body, dabbing at what might have been a drop of moisture glistening in the corner of her eye, and read on.