They schedule the surgery nine days out. Routine, they attempt to reassure me. Routine, another part of life, somewhere after marriage and kids, but before social security, and clearly before death.
Jessica is very apologetic that she cannot take me. She lives in Texas now, with her husband and the baby. She looks for my blessing on the call, as she does not trust her husband to look over the child in the weeks it will take me to recover. I absolve her. She has her routines, and I have mine.
Kristen, the neighbor’s wife, is happy to take me there and back. She drives me to church on Sundays. She looks for deeds, and I am not guilty to provide her with them. She asks me if I need help with the wash. She waters the azaleas when the sun bakes them for too long. She sends her husband to mow my lawn. When the mailbox gets too full, she knocks on my door with a handful of donation requests. I always thank her, and yet throw them into the trash all the same. I wonder if she has ever seen them in the garbage bags she takes to the curb.
She has no children yet, but wants them. I tell her all of the tricks to conceiving: how to track your basal temperature, which days are most fertile. She absorbs this information dutifully. I wonder if she has heard it all before, from her own mother. But it is nice to share what wisdom I have, and so I give it each time the tan minivan pulls up and her stomach remains flat.
I have been putting my home in order for the surgery. When I have the strength, I wash the sheets, clean the counters. I find crumbs in places where I can’t remember leaving them: on Hamish’s side of the bed, the divot in the mattress and his sweat stains still present three years later; on Jessica’s desk, speckling her black keyboard; under the oxygen tanks in the living room. I leave a trail of myself behind me each time I eat.
Jessica sends me a photo of the baby smiling. He is bigger than in the last photo. I still have not met him. The doctor would not clear me for the five hour flight. The calendar where my surgery is marked will one day have my trip to meet him marked. A new routine to prepare for.
In all honesty, I have ended my own life, bit by bit. Perhaps more so after Hamish died and was buried, but somewhere in the years before that. In Jessica’s room, she pulled away at the yellowed wallpaper until the layer below it was exposed, and then the layer after that. Some part of me was torn away with it.
The week passes as all weeks pass. I go to church with Kristen. I smoke on the back porch. I crochet a sweater for the baby to grow into. I call the property management company and tell them that the neighborhood fountain isn’t as clean as it ought to be. I kill a moth in the bathroom. I smoke on the back porch. I fall asleep to a program about drug trafficking in Texas, and dream of Jessica running through a Wal-Mart parking lot, guns sounding behind her.
I wake in the early morning. An infomercial for non-stick pans is on the television.
I am not disappointed that I will live after the surgery, but I am not excited either. It is a new routine. I can take a detour if Green Street is closed for construction, but I would rather cut through it to save time on my trip to the post office.
In Jessica’s room, in the far corner, there is still a scrap of dusty floral. It clings on, looking a bit desperate when you can already see the taupe paint a few inches below it. It is a souvenir. I enter the room and stand on my toes. I can just reach it. Perhaps I will peel it away soon.
Kristen is nervous when she drives me to the hospital. She adjusts her windows a few times, opening them inch by inch, then closing them.
She asks the nurse repeatedly when she should come back, then asks me if I would prefer she just wait here. I console her, and remind her that this is all routine. She smiles, frantic but accepting. She promises that she will be back as soon as I am in the recovery room.
The anesthesiologist asks me to count back from ten. Instead, I think of how exposed I feel. I wonder how much of my body that they will see. Will they notice the scars that Jessica left? Will they be able to tell when I tripped on a garden hose that Hamish had left out and fractured my ankle? Will they think my body is already used up? Will they ask what I have left to give?
In my dreams, I am again at the Wal-Mart parking lot. There are no gunshots this time. Instead, I am driving. It is the old Taurus, where crumbs littered each seat from Hamish and Jessica snacking on our groceries. Each parking space in the parking lot is already full. The cars all resemble my own. I make a loop, and then another, but there is nowhere for me. I think about coming back another day, but there is something I needed—more detergent? Posterboard for Jessica’s science project? I am becoming frustrated. I make another loop and feel myself tear up. It is harder and harder for me to see the road, but I know that I am not going to find a spot to park. I will not be able to make my purchase. I will be forced to go home empty-handed.
I am crying in the recovery room. A nurse stoops over me and dries my eyes. She is young, younger than Jessica even. She asks me if I know where I am. I cannot speak. I nod.
They take me to a smaller room that night. There were some complications in the routine surgery, but I will live. Kristen has texted me that the surgery went longer than they expected, and that visiting hours were over before she could see me. Blearily, I ask her to come when she can tomorrow.
The patient next to me is watching the news. The volume is too loud. It intrudes on my thoughts. I wish I had my crochet. I need to start getting things ready for my trip to see the baby. I loop my fingers around each other and imagine the yarn between them.
When Kristen walks in the next day, she is smiling. It falters a bit when she sees me. She holds my hand. She tells me that it’s very early, but she thinks it’s happened. She’s pregnant, finally. She is crying a bit. My eyes are watering too. I pat her hand and smile.
It will be good for me, I think. A new project to work on, once I finish the baby’s sweater.
The surgeon comes once more on the day I am discharged. He takes photos. He is pleased with his work. He shows me where to place my hands. A doctor tells me what I can and can’t eat. They tell me which pains are normal. Routine.
Kristen has brought me a change of clothing, freshly laundered. The familiar smell has been overtaken with mountain breezes. A nurse helps me to dress. I cannot apologize, so I give her the kindest smile that I can.
She lists the pros of home birth in the car. Then baby names. She bats the idea of a boy and girl back and forth.
I pat her hand and she suddenly falls silent. Her hand flips over the directional, and she turns into my driveway.
She pulls the wheelchair from the trunk. I am easily slid from the passenger seat into its frame. Kristen checks to see if I am comfortable. The expecting mother is already proving herself.
She pushes me to the stairs and then pulls the screen door open. With a bit of maneuvering, I am brought back inside. She chatters nervously, then promises that she will park at home and return shortly. I smile again, and she smiles back.
When she is gone, I slowly wheel myself to the screen door. The azaleas are beginning to poke through the mulch. The air is humid, about to give way to rain. It inches into the house, beaten back by years of smoke.
I hunch forward and put my hand into my pocket.
The streets are loud—the children are running around, screaming a scream that is between fear and joy. Bugs chitter softly, too soon for cicadas. A weed wacker starts and stops.
The world is humming a tune. I cannot join in. I do not know the routine, and I no longer have the words. There will be children after me, and children after them, and I will watch them crowd out the soil until my own roots wither.
I would feel sad if it were not natural. No. I do feel sad, because it is all natural.
The world is humming a tune. I bring a cigarette to my throat and inhale.