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Out of Time

by Lilia 9 months ago in Short Story · updated 4 months ago

Pears were a symbol of longevity in her culture, yet there they were, rolling away from her.

Original Illustration by Author

The only sounds left in the room were the drip of the IV and the quiet beep of the electrocardiogram machine. An occasional nurse would pad by to peer through the window of the ICU, make a few marks on her clipboard and pad away again. A single clock decorated the pale, rose-colored wall, its hands ticking away the time until nine o’clock, when visiting hours would be over, and the quiet murmur of voices outside would also die down.

They had finally left, and she was glad. Her anxious daughter, the clueless son-in-law, and their noisy children. With everyone in the room, she felt disquieted, unable to rest. It wasn’t just that their voices crowded the small space and cluttered her mind, but that they were reminders of what she would leave behind, of all the duties unfulfilled. Her daughter still couldn’t make dumplings that didn’t lose all their filling once cooked, the son-in-law still hadn’t patched up the backyard shed after a year of gentle then incessant prodding, the eldest grandchild was still trying to master sixth grade math, and the youngest wasn’t even potty-trained. There were so many memories left to make, so many promises she had intended to keep.

So, she was glad they were gone. Glad that she could listen to the muted sounds of after hours and forget about everything that she would never see, never do.

She was 76. Young still, some might say. A good old age, others might say. Her own husband had passed away at the age of 50. But it seemed that the list of things left to anchor her to the world never ran short.

When she was battling her first bout of cancer, she had prayed for another year, just one more year so that she could see the birth of her first grandson. Her wish was granted - the tumor shrank after several months of intensive chemotherapy and radiation, taking with it twenty pounds of body weight and a headful of hair. But she was able to see her first grandson, then the second, and finally the third, a granddaughter. So she burned some more incense in the temple and thanked the heavens and her ancestors for blessing the family.

In the following years, her health was never the same. Despite a careful diet, regular exercise when her energy allowed, tons of herbal supplements, and her daughter’s doting, she relapsed. A year ago, the vile scourge of death threw its ropes around her and reined them in tighter than before. Bone cancer, with metastasis.

She began going to the temple every day. She tried to bargain. Another year for the time she hosted a refugee family back in the forties. Another month for the weeks spent volunteering at the soup kitchen. Another Thanksgiving with the extended family for the cat she rescued. Another weekend with the grandkids for a blood donation made decades ago.

She got more time, but the cancer didn’t stop. And the more time she got, the more she began to feel like an unwanted guest who had overextended her stay on Earth. She grew too weak to visit the temple on her own, too tired to prepare meals and pick up the grandchildren from school every day, too unsteady even to go to the market without accidentally falling and spoiling a perfect basket of fresh pears. She remembered the last incident quite vividly – as bystanders rushed to help her up, she had thought ironically, that pears were a symbol of longevity in her culture. Yet there they were, rolling away from her and into the street. She should have known then that time was not on her side.

Hospital visits became more frequent, and hospital bills acquired more digits. Her daughter had more wrinkles, and her son-in-law, more grey hairs. The children were tired and grumpy, their school activities disrupted, then paused indefinitely.

Her presence was no longer a blessing, but rather, a burden to her family.

It was time to stop asking for more time.

The heart monitor lagged for a moment, letting out a belated bee-beep, and a concerned nurse peered in. The screen returned to normal, but the nurse continued her scrutiny for a few minutes before her worry lines relaxed.

Before the family left, she had beckoned her daughter to lean in close and whispered, no resuscitation. There were enough machines connected to her, artificially prolonging her life as it was. No thank you to any more loud beeping machinery. It had been a long ordeal, and she wanted rest, wanted to let go of her battered body, the bones and organs overtaken by malignant cells. And yet…

Something continued to hold her back. Or she continued to hold onto something. Whether it was one or the other, or both, alone in the quiet of the small room, she still felt tethered, fighting for wakefulness, unwilling to leave her body, broken as it was.

Because what really came after?

She wasn’t sure. She had never been a particularly religious person, but like many in her culture, she had an altar in her home with tablets dedicated to her deceased ancestors and eventually, her husband as well. She put out bowls of fresh fruit and burned incense at the altar regularly, just as she had witnessed her parents do. During her first bout of cancer, she had started going to the temple, spurred by some desperate need for control, a need to feel that she could still do something to change the tide of life. From then on, she had continued to pray to the merciful Guan Yin for blessings, but she’d never thought deeply about her beliefs, about the religion that she had semi-adopted and what it said about life after death.

She’d never had time to. Her life before cancer had left no time for thought – she was caretaker of her children and elderly parents, caretaker of her husband after he got sick, then caretaker of her grandchildren. For the first time, there was nothing else to do but lie there and think. Thoughts and questions swirled in her mind, and she struggled to make sense of the beliefs that weren’t really beliefs and the fear that was really just a lack of hope.

See, her body may have been broken, but at least it was still hers, familiar and known. And she may have been confined to a bleak hospital room, but at least the four walls were solid and certain.

As for death… There was no certainty as to what it would hold, if anything, so she was rightfully fearful. She did not know what lay beyond her current misery, and so she was understandably hopeless.

The heart monitor lagged again, but no one came to check this time. The clock ticked closer to nine. The nurses were probably herding the visitors out, making sure everything was in order for the night shift.

She tried to remember what the nuns at the temple had said about death and rebirth. Apparently, humans were reborn an infinite number of times, and each time, as something different, perhaps another human, an animal, or even a god. The particular type of rebirth was determined by the actions performed in previous lives.

She started to fret. Have I done enough? She hadn’t given up meat as the nuns had advised. She still got impatient with her children and grandchildren, even calling her daughter “useless” that one time she ripped the dumplings. Did she have enough good deeds to guarantee a better life? Or did her bad deeds outweigh all the good she had tried to provide to her family? What if the next life was worse? What if I’m not even human?

The question rose unbidden in her mind, and she grew more and more anxious until she remembered the cat that she had rescued long ago. The smoky grey kitten had been left by the apartment dumpsters, starving and flea-ridden, but after she brought it home, it had lived a comfortable, pampered life. That’s not so bad, is it? She sure wouldn’t mind not needing to worry about bills and mortgages for a lifetime. She felt a little better having considered that possibility.

But a cat had such a short lifespan, and how much good was a cat able to do? Even if rebirth as a cat wasn’t all that bad, she couldn’t imagine a life where all she did was take and receive without giving back.

Her gaze shifted to the small bedside table, where a children’s book, “The Giving Tree,” was left open. Her grandson had been reading a few pages to her every time he visited – interpreting was probably a better word than reading, as each sentence was followed by lengthy, unbridled commentary.

How about rebirth as a tree? “Or better yet, a pear tree! What do you think, Grandma?” They had just found out that the Giving Tree was an apple tree, and her eldest grandson had shaken his head in distaste, “Yuck, apples!” So in their translations, the Giving Tree had been recast as a pear tree with the sweetest, most refreshing fruit.

Or better yet, a pear tree? A new feeling bloomed in her chest, a feeling that did not add to the burdens already sitting heavy on her, but that began to slowly ease some of the weight off.

A pear tree would indeed be fitting for her. She would have all the time in the world to finally be at peace. There would be no human afflictions, no conflicts or misunderstandings, worries or fears. Just the ability to guard, watch over, and provide.

She recalled all the afternoons spent with her grandchildren – a bowl of freshly cut fruit was a near constant in every memory. Crisp, cold pears, always carefully diced and cubed, were presented to the children while they watched television, completed their homework, cried over scraped knees, or simply sat in the kitchen to keep her company. It was her way of saying, “I love you,” or sometimes, “I wish I could help,” and even “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that.”

The clock ticked past nine. She suddenly felt more tired. Her eyelids drooped and her breathing slowed. As she drifted slowly into a peaceful slumber, the hospital room faded away and was replaced by a sunny backyard. In that life, a small sapling was growing, her branches reaching for the sky and her roots stretching far into the soil from which she had awakened.

Perhaps one day, she would see her grandchildren again. Under the shade of a pear tree. The younger ones would clamber around her branches, and the eldest would sit and read against her trunk. A branch might tickle their bare feet, leaves might sprinkle their hair, and a pear might fall into their waiting hands at just the right moment.

And there would be time again.

If you enjoyed this short story, consider giving a heart or even a tip! Better yet, check out some of my other writing, including To Light a Lantern, Waking the Dragon River, and A Shipload of Dreams.

Short Story

About the author

Lilia

Dreamer of fantasy worlds. Lover of glutinous desserts.

Instagram @itslalalilia

Twitter @linesbylilia

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