I plodded down the hallway toward Thomas’s hospital room. I dreaded going back to face his piteous crying, and my inability to ease his spas-ming Achilles tendon. Then I spotted a halo of blond curls coming toward me, and I recognized my closest friend—a sister, really—Susan. I dashed forward and we wrapped our arms around each other. I clung to her for a moment, soaked up her courage, wisdom, and understanding. She could make me laugh, take me away.
Although I had sighed when I stood at the hospital door and watched my ex-husband, Ray, head for home, deeper feelings collided—I resented he could leave, but was vastly relieved he had. I had spent the past nine hours vigilant to every nuance of his mood. When he had bellowed at Thom’s main nurse, “Fuck! Can’t you stop this misery?” I placated everyone so Thom had the best chance for a positive outcome. But the nurses scurried down the hall and out of sight, I’m sure to complain about us behind our backs. Thomas and I took the rap; except for the jobs licensed staff must do—medications and changing intravenous fluids—they left Thomas’s care to me. I mopped his face, held the urinal and the small, harvest gold throw-up pan. I crooned songs to him. My knees shook with exhaustion and fear—and even deeper, unexpressed, unmollifiable rage. Knowing Susan had answered my SOS—as friend, confidant, support—felt like balm spread on festering sores.
She pulled away to get a good look at me. “How is he? You seem wiped.”
“It’s bad,” I said, took her hand and walked toward his room. My feet slogged along the floor. “He tolerated the anesthetic, but he’s been in agony since before he even fully woke up.” I stopped and sighed, wondered where I would find the strength to take more air in. I tried to straighten my shoulders. “I’m not blowing this out of proportion, either. I hate for you to even experience this. Listen—you can hear him from here.”
She paused, cocked her head. “Oh my. Poor kid. Poor you.” She dropped my hand and looped her arm through mine, drawing me closer. “I’m here for you, remember?”
I leaned into her.
We sat with Thomas until nightfall. Finally, from morphine and exhaustion, he dozed. After leaving my number at the nursing desk, Susan and I trudged toward the Ronald McDonald House. We didn’t talk on the way. Clouds rolled in, obscuring the stars I longed to see. My child’s shrieks echoed in my head. I knew he would wake in the night, and guilt plagued me that he would have to endure wracking pain with only brief interventions from the impersonal nurses. I would be talking with my good friend, snuggle in a warm bed, and maybe sleep the whole night through. Nonetheless, I had to have this break.
I opened the door to the room and staggered inside, grateful for the dirt-cheap, clean accommodations. That didn’t change how I felt about the framed clown that sneered above the bed. His picture hung in every room, and he gave me the creeps.
To save money, we had packed sandwiches to eat for dinner. When I snapped open Thomas’s Star Wars lunch pail, the musty smell squelched any appetite I might have had. The limp tuna sandwich stuck to my fingers, but I forced myself to chew and swallow a few bites. I was grateful to be away from the bustle of the hospital, the stink of Pine Sol, the regular alarms and beeps from the medical equipment. We ate without talking, somber and shell-shocked.
I had brought precious objects from home—anything to try and change the atmosphere and steady me—a small polished worry stone, prayer beads, and a sage-and-lemon balm stick, so I could waft cleansing smoke through my room. At the last minute, I had added a tiny carved box to my suitcase. The contents of this box plagued me. I had turned my bedside table into a makeshift altar and placed these items on it for safekeeping. Reaching over to touch my prayer beads, to run my fingers over their buttery, olive wood surface, I picked up the box instead.
“What’s in there?” Susan asked.
I closed my eyes for a moment. This was embarrassing. “My wedding ring from my marriage with Ray,” I said.
“Really!” She leaned over and smoothed her finger on the box’s carved surface. “Why are you holding on to it?” she asked. “And why did you bring it here?”
I opened the box. “I can’t just throw it away—doesn’t feel right, or honoring. My son’s about to walk on his own for the first time in his life. Five years late.” I rubbed at the nagging, chronic pain in my low back, the result of carrying him. “It’s past time I’m my own person, too.” I unfolded the forest green velvet, and touched the ring. “I loved this man; this ring symbolized our caring and commitment, even if it didn’t last.”
She tilted her head and frowned at me, mystified. “I’ve seen Ray act downright mean to you. Hanging on to his ring is beyond strange.”
“Yeah, you’re right.” I had been clinging to misery.
“It seems really important you finish with this.”
Susan pondered my question, and we were silent for a while. She had gained strength and faith in herself the hard way, through the loss of her children, and the courage she’d mustered to get through it. She always had valuable insight to share.
“A water ceremony?” she suggested. Curious, I stared at her. Her gaze held a wicked quality I’ve come to recognize and love.
“Come on,” she said. “We’ll tidy the bathroom first, and burn the sage to purify the space. Then we’ll sit on the floor and create your ceremony.”
I nodded, slowly. I glanced up and grimaced at the clown, then stood on the bed and turned the painting so it faced the wall. That clown would not be privy to my ceremony.
The bathroom already looked clean, but it needed to be my clean. I found Comet, a rough scrubby, and even rubber gloves under the sink. Susan and I worked on every surface, inside and out. I vented my frustration at Ray on that toilet bowl, scrubbed until I had emptied the day’s rage out of me. Then I lit the stick; the sage and lemon scent dissipated the acrid stench of both the cleanser and my bitterness. We settled ourselves on the tile, on either side of the sparkling toilet.
I opened the little box and fingered the pounded silver band. My chest went tight. I could still hear the tap-tap-tap of his jeweler’s ball-peen hammer. My sense of dread still felt fresh in the surface marks. “It feels awful to flush something he made.”
“Could you give it away, or sell it?”
“Not in good conscience; passing along unhappiness feels like really bad juju.” I turned the ring and peered at it closely in the light. I could see a shadow of myself in its surface. He was still hammering on me today.
“What have you learned from Ray?”
“I saw his potential. I learned a hard lesson—you’d better love your mate exactly the way he is, with no expectation of change.”
She pursed her lips. “What did he take from you?”
I turned the ring slowly. “The confidence that I know how to pick a loving partner.”
We sat for a while … it was so quiet, I could hear the loud tick of my Little Ben alarm clock in the other room.
“What did he give you?”
“He gave too much,” I said. “He gave himself away, and then hated himself—and me—because nothing was left.” I held the ring and offered prayers for Ray, that he would find his own way, and peace would enter his spirit.
“You ready?” she asked.
I nodded, dropped the ring into the bowl, and watched it settle to the bottom. Then I pulled down the handle. The water swirled and flushed. Susan and I both rocked forward and stared into the bowl. The ring had not budged. I flushed again. The ring sat stubbornly on the bottom, its hammered surface reflecting the round ceiling light above.
I pressed my fist against my mouth to stifle a nervous giggle. I whispered, “Now what do I do?”
Susan met my gaze, her eyes wide. Then a titter burbled out of her. Soon we were both laughing uncontrollably, hysterically. Tears poured down our cheeks. I gasped for air. I wasn’t laughing at the ceremony; we both understood the seriousness. The anxiety of the day had simply erupted. That kind of pressure requires venting.
It took ten minutes for us to regain control. My sides ached, and the muscles between my mouth and my ears were rigid from laughing. I unrolled some toilet paper and mopped my eyes.
She peered through the water at the ring again. “I hope it’s not an omen.”
“Omen of how present he will be in your life. Like he won’t go away.”
“He isn’t supposed to go away; he’s Thom’s dad.” I said. “But I am afraid of his temper.”
“What’s underneath?” she asked. “Even deeper down.”
I closed my eyes. Resistance still clogged my heart. “I have a responsibility to set boundaries, for both Thomas and me.”
“Yes, you do.”
I pushed up my sleeve, plunged my hand into the bowl, and grabbed the ring. It felt different now, not so sacred after its sojourn in the toilet. Admitting my weakness, hearing it spoken out loud, had girded me. “This sucker has to go,” I said. “Now.” I wrapped it neatly in toilet paper, set it lightly on the water’s surface, and flushed again. I held my breath. The water swirled, whirled, and down it went—ring, paper, and all.
• • •
Skye Blaine writes memoir, essays, and fiction, developing themes of aging, disability, awakening, and the human predicament. She earned an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University. Her memoir manuscript, Blood Bond, won first prize in the 2005 Pacific Northwest Writers Association literary contest. She read her personal essays on KRML 1410 Radio in Carmel, Calif. Other essays have been published in In Context (now Yes!), Catalyst, The Register-Guard, and the Eugene Weekly.
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