I pace the hospital room while medical staff monitors the inner workings of my son’s beautiful body. They patch his exterior—prop, unroll, swab, and cover. I stand at the foot of the bed, holding his feet as if doing so will keep him here, not in this gurney, but on this planet. Owen. I think of him as a little boy though he is two months short of eighteen. I shave the stubble from his chin made golden from the light through the window that overlooks a bit of green. As I slide the blade across the skin around his lips and up his cheeks, I am careful not to graze the bandages around his eyes. The dressing terrifies me. I imagine unraveling the cloth and finding nothing, craters, or worse, a face from a horror movie, the kind he prefers, the kind he had gone to see the night of the accident. I fall into the chair weeping.
He floats in and out of consciousness. We are assured he will return; all signs indicate it. We are not assured of his sight. Some days, I sing to him, but mostly, I am in the way. When Peter arrives, we trade facts, father and mother facts, husband and wife facts. We bridge the details of our life together—life here, life at home. We glide past each other, brush shoulders, gingerly, as if we are the ones with broken arms.
As I exit the darkness of the hospital, I feel my chest lift with the promise of outdoor air. Sunlight. I slump in shame. My body is in good working order. But isn’t that a good thing? I can help. I lift. I slump.
I trade my regular glasses for sunglasses and cross the green, a small park—grass, two benches, a fountain—dedicated to a patron, a Mrs. Georgianna Sharp, created here to cheer people up. It is where people come to smoke. I walk past family members and friends of patients, strangers, leaning back on benches. They inhale, a look of pleasure on their faces. I want a form of that, or perhaps I want exactly that, to smoke, to pretend that coping can’t kill us. Instead, I enter the family services building.
The therapist appointed to me is not much older than Owen. She is Lisa, a name from the sixties, which does not fit this gangly girl-woman. She wears leggings the color of pumpkin pie, and a chartreuse skirt. She’s a Katrina, or a Leslie, perhaps, but I call her what she is called. Questioning her name is a mere distraction.
Lisa sits across from me in a matching high back chair. There is a table large enough for a box of tissues between us. She slides a pen from behind her ear cuffed with heavy silver. “Naturally it’s tough, Bonnie. He’s your son,” she says tapping the pen against the appointment book splayed open on her lap. “He’ll be fine.”
She smiles. Her lips are closed. They’re chapped. Owen’s lips are always parted. His deviated septum makes it difficult to breathe. Every day, I rub salve from an unlabeled hospital jar on his lips.
“Sure, he’ll be fine. I believe that. I know we’re lucky,” I say. “There are worse outcomes.” But I want to ask what she could possibly know about any of this, with her bright eyes, her shiny long hair and nail polish, purple and chipped.
“Say more,” Lisa says.
“It’s the part about his vision.” I am not completing a thought.
She does not ask me to clarify. A vintage clock, red like you’d see in a diner, on the wall behind her desk counts down the minutes of our forty-five minute session.
“I’m worried about you, Bonnie.” She looks down at her appointment book. “Feel free to come in more often. Two super tough weeks in a row is one week too many.”
What kind of therapist says super tough? There are psychologists I could go to, specialists in long-term illness, post-traumatic stress, but I will not allow such a label to define our situation. We are of the almost-out-of-the woods mentality. I see Lisa because of her link to the hospital, so in my mind, her link to Owen.
“You know what they say on airplanes,” she continues. “Fasten your own mask before helping others.”
I raise my eyebrows. I will them to relax.
“I’m fine, Lisa.”
I lean and pat her knee as if she’s the one staring down the tunnel of tragedy. Lisa glances at my hand, lips tight. Of course, there are rules she has learned in school, no touching, but she has not yet found a voice to define client/practitioner boundaries. I do not pull away. I test. Some darkness in me wants to play.
She stands and moves behind her desk, places her palm on the surface and rubs the wood in circles. I understand. It’s the same as when I hold Owen’s feet.
Lisa shouldn’t worry. Most days, I follow her advice. I visit the dirt road outside of town that skirts the ravine—narrow, lined with uprooted trees. After the accident, the road crew added a guardrail. The gravel is fresh, mounded up, backhoes and material defying nature. Once, when I brought Peter to the sight, he said he couldn’t believe I had become a person who piles plastic flowers, balloons and solar lights in the middle of nowhere.
“Lisa suggested it,” I told him.
“It’s the woods, Bonnie,” he said. “The sun won’t charge the lights.”
Practical Peter. He has is own way of coping.
“I do it for Beth,” I told him. Beth is Owen’s girlfriend. She didn’t pull through.
“No one will see this,” Peter said.
At her desk, Lisa taps her pen on her steel water bottle. “Call me, any time, day or night,” she says in conclusion. She looks out the window.
At home, I hide my glasses in a kitchen drawer so I can experience partial vision. It’s the middle of the afternoon and I climb into bed. I read a magazine held close to my face, trying to distract myself from Owen’s fight. The words blur.
I wake in the night, Peter snoring beside me. Moonlight from an almost-full blue moon draws the path of the waxing sphere on the bedroom wall. I remember the time Owen came home from his first day of third grade, excited about a demonstration his new teacher gave. He acted it out for us in the kitchen, made Peter hold the flashlight, and me, the grapefruit, while he spun and rotated a basketball. The moon that rises and sets, he told us. We’re moving on the earth.
Lying next to Peter, I look down on us from an aerial view. We are side by side in bed on the earth traveling through space. I try to sense the slightest movement—a rotation, a revolution—the way Owen used to do as a little boy. Peter snores. How is it we can sometimes sleep during a time like this? I eat salty crackers in bed from the box in my nightstand, an old habit from when I was pregnant. I sip a glass of water thick with Vitamin C powder that tastes like Tang.
Last week, Neil Armstrong died. He was young once, someone’s son, with dreams about space exploration. When I was a girl, I watched the first moonwalk in black-and-white sitting on the sofa at Gram’s house holding my Gram’s pet bunny, Petunia. The man in the spacesuit enthralled me. I lost track of Petunia. I only moved my hand for a second.
“You should have kept her closer,” Gram scolded.
I cried and she pulled me in for a hug. She found Petunia a week later, thin and fearful. Now it is me, thin and fearful. I call Gram every day with news of Owen.
She tells me, “There is no keeping anyone safe.”
I walk the hall to the bathroom with the lights turned off, stretching my arms before me, sliding my feet along the wool runner. You can feel gravity if you think about it because you can’t feel the absence of it. You can smell the stale odors of kale and onions and beef from the kitchen and know that scent floats.
I stand before the bathroom mirror. Through the thin fabric of my nightie my hips feel cool against the porcelain of the sink. My hands travel my face, press fingers over my eyes. I grope for Owen’s toothbrush, know exactly where to find it. He left it near the faucet. The toothbrush is dry, of course, but after two weeks, it still smells like strawberry toothpaste. I put it in my mouth and see him in my mind the morning he ate a bowl of Lucky Charms while leaning against the counter.
“Will you be home tonight for dinner?” I asked. “I’m making lasagna, garlic bread, and coconut cream pie.” Owen’s favorites.
“I don’t know. Beth’s mom wants us to take Camilla to the movies,” he said.
“Oh, good,” I lied. “Sounds like fun.”
Now I wish I had told the truth, that I wanted him home, close and safe.
Beth’s little sister walked away from the accident. She climbed out of the car, leaving Beth and Owen slumped and gouged or sprawled and split apart, and walked the half-mile to her house. I don’t want to imagine it. Did she run, or try a cell phone? We don’t know. I stop myself from asking questions. Answers change absolutely nothing. I focus on what’s directly in front of me.
In the morning, Peter leaves early for the office. I dress, take my glasses from the drawer, and head to the hospital. I visit my son. Visiting is a strange word. I visit Gram every summer. We visit friends on the Oregon coast for Christmas. This is more like a visitation. Formal. An inquiry.
“How is he today?” I ask the doctor that I like best. I place my hand on the patch of golden curls that peak through the bandages on the top of Owen’s head.
“He’s coming out of it,” the doctor tells me, smiling. She looks down at a chart. “But as we’ve said before, we’re just not sure how well he’ll see.”
It becomes more difficult to phone Beth and Camilla’s mother. I’ve called Lauren once every day for two weeks, though I have no idea what I’ll say. She doesn’t pick up. I feel rejected, then shame for the audacity of my feelings. Some mornings, I park and watch Camilla waiting for the school bus at the end of their driveway. What does she think about? What images now flash across her mind when she should be thinking about math and sports and outfits?
Once, I mustered the courage to ask Lauren if Beth was on the pill. “I can’t be sure, Bonnie,” Lauren said. “Daughters are tough to raise. You’re lucky to have a son.”
“But Beth has so much more control,” I argued. She could decide to keep a baby and not let Owen in its life, or worse, he could be financially responsible and rarely see his child.”
“As parents we have even less control,” she told me. “Everyday there’s a new lesson in letting go.”
The combination a faulty tire and bad roads was the cause of accident. Owen had not been behind the wheel. No one had been drinking or smoking weed or worse. He let Beth drive because he felt tired. This fact seems crucial because I am selfish. I don’t want anything hanging over our heads. Though, it’s true, the saying, none of our lives will ever be the same.
Gram wants to make the six-hour trip to visit her only great-grandson, but Peter or I would have to pick her up and neither of us wants to travel that far from Owen. We buy her up an iPad and teach her to video chat so we can show her Owen in his hospital room. She speaks live with the nurses.
It’s cruel to keep her away. She lost her husband last winter. She stayed at our house for two months to remain as close to family as possible. At night, she’d roam the rooms downstairs. I’d hear her slippers shuffle against the maple floorboards in the living room and the Mexican tiles in the kitchen.
I paced the same floors on the nights Owen broke curfew. When he pulled into the driveway, I’d fling open the front door, shattering the stiff silence with a tirade.
“Do you ever think about anyone else except yourself?” I’d scream at him from the front porch. “Have you lost your mind, coming home this late on a school night.”
He’d walk past me, into the house, as if he didn’t see me standing there.
Pacing never altered the course of the universe and my hollering kept him away. Now I wish I’d used that anxious time to read a book or watch TV with Peter who would calmly approach Owen in the morning and tell him he was grounded. Grounded, as in, staying home, as in gravity, which can either mean the severity of a situation or the force that keeps us on earth.
I wonder. If every mother in the Milky Way walked hand-in-hand, in the same direction at the same time and against the direction of the earth’s rotation, could we slow the time it takes from the moment we feel the first movement–the small person floating like a tiny astronaut inside our womb–until the day he drives away?
On Friday, Owen is awake. We are stunned. We celebrate. We grieve. When I phone Lisa to cancel my therapy appointment, she says, “That’s super good news. Really super good news.”
In the hospital, the broadcast of Neil Armstrong’s memorial service is on all of the televisions. Peter and I watch old black-and-white footage of the moonwalk in Owen’s room. Owen wears bandages over his eyes, but he can hear. I rub lotion on his dry flaking feet. In another week, they’ll remove the bandages and test his vision.
When Owen asks, we tell him the basics about the accident, about Beth.
He nods and says, “Enough.”
Tonight, I write Beth’s mother a letter. I tell Lauren that I will stop calling but that I want her to know we are here for her, whatever she needs, whenever she’s ready. I can see her house from the mailbox at the end of her driveway. A television glow shines blue on her living room wall. There’s a light in Camilla’s room.
I think of Camilla sitting on her bed, how cozy it can be at that age, to roost, alone with a journal or a book, some music, the feel of warm covers wrapping your legs on a cool spring night. I imagine she does not feel cozy.
I think of Beth, how last spring her long auburn curls shone like licks of soft flame down the back of her violet prom dress. She was bare-shouldered and smoothly tanned. Her smile lit up her mother’s garden. I couldn’t keep my eyes off of how my son couldn’t keep his eyes off of her. I remember thinking how beautiful they both were, how, of course they were having sex, and how odd, that I felt more alive than I had in a long time.
Now I ache. I cannot help the woman who lost her daughter and I cannot let go. I pull open the lid of the mailbox. Letters and bills and flyers jam every space inside. There is a small package in brown paper addressed to Camilla that falls to the ground. It’s decorated with tiny hearts and stars in purple glitter marker. How sweet and sad. I cram it back in, close the box, and take my letter with me.
Before bed, I put my glasses in the drawer. I make a vow to leave them off as much as possible until the doctor removes Owen’s bandages. I can’t sleep. I roam the upstairs hall. In the bathroom, I wash Owen’s toothbrush with soap and hot water until my fingers sting with heat. In his room, I stretch out on his twin bed. I count by tens to a thousand. Downstairs, I pace the living room as if Owen not being here is breaking curfew.
A video call rings on the iPad charging on the dining room table. I grope in the dark, though I mostly know the way from memory. It’s Gram.
“I’m sorry to call so late, Bonnie. I couldn’t sleep.”
“How’s Owen?” she asks.
“Well, Gram, I haven’t seen him since you and I checked in a few hours ago.”
We both laughed.
“I know. I know,” she says. “Can you see the moon up there?” she asks. “It’s a blue moon.”
“I haven’t yet, no. I forgot to look.”
“Go outside, Bonnie. Take me on a tour.”
I pick up the iPad and walk slowly to the front porch so I don’t jostle the screen and make her dizzy. Outside I position the computer to capture an image of the blue moon as it creeps between two tall maples, the sentinels of our front yard.
“Can you see it?” I call out, breaking the silence of the night.
“Bonnie, it’s glorious. I hear this won’t happen again for a few more years.”
That morning over the phone, Lisa told me the same thing. She said the day was auspicious and told me to take care with my thoughts. “Think the super good ones,” she said.
Gram says, “I wish I could see it better here.”
I imagine Gram in her ground floor apartment at a nursing home in the middle of the city, vaulted buildings crowding the skyline to a mere sliver. I think of how anything could happen to her at anytime. I want to keep her safe. I want to keep the whole world safe.
I turn the iPad to face me and hold the screen close so I can see Gram’s eyes. “I’ll come and get you, Gram. I’ll drive down tomorrow and bring you here. We’ll look at the moon together.”
She beams, looking a lot like her daughter, my mother, when she studies the faces she loves. “Where are your glasses?” she asks.
“I’m doing an experiment, Gram. I want to feel what it’s like to be Owen right now.”
“Of course, you do,” says Gram. “But you can’t, can you, Bonnie? You know that. You can’t feel the same as others. You can only feel how you feel.”
The screen blurs as my eyes burn with tears. I think of Lisa, to young to help someone cope, but trying. I think of Lauren and Camilla at their house, the television on, unaware of this moon, and Peter, upstairs, so far away, asleep in our bed. I think of Owen in a sterile hospital room with a small window, alone with eyes that work and a heart that is broken. Gram is right. I can only feel how I feel. I close my eyes to better see my own pain. I am in darkness. I let the force of gravity pull me down.
Jodi Paloni lives in southern Vermont and teaches writing at Community College of Vermont and at Word and Image workshops at the River Gallery School. She is the 2013 recipient of the Short Story America Prize for Short Fiction and runner up in the 2012 Raymond Carver Short Story Contest.
Image of Blue Moon by Olivier Bacquet.