Polihale, Kauai, Hawaii, 2007
I call Mom every morning, or she calls me. We check on each other. She asks if the room is spinning. I ask about her breathing. Most days it’s a quick hello, status, goodbye. I ask how she is and she says, as well as can be expected. When she asks me how I am, I tell her I’m fine.
I’ve been mostly fine for almost a year now, but some days she doesn’t believe me. She’ll ask again, maybe even a third time. “Are you sure?” she’ll say. “A no-shitter?” And I’ll tell her it’s a no-shitter. Maybe she’ll say my voice sounds tired, ask, am I tired, but I sleep more than anyone I know. I have to.
Usually, if I sound funny it’s because I’m still in bed. What she hears is my sound machine, the near white noise of the sea crashing on waves. I tell her this and she tells me to go back to bed, but if she calls while I’m still in bed, I’ve slept too long or lingered too long with the dogs. So, I get up. Staying horizontal too long is a sure way to get dizzy.
I can tell a lot about Mom by her voice, too. When I talk to her she’s always been up for hours. Her husband, Three, gets up at five, wakes her getting ready for work. He doesn’t know how to be quiet. When he comes to the house his voice echoes off corners that don’t seem to exist the rest of the time, amplifies him. He walks loud and always manages to jingle the dogs’ collars when he leans down to pet them. His chair scrapes the tiled floor and when he opens a paper bag, the whole house opens, the whole world.
Sometimes the world still falls down underneath me, but it almost always rights itself quickly. My vision rarely bobs. The blurriness is minor. I’ve only seen double once in the last six months. We’ve finally straightened out my meds, even found one to stop the ringing in my left ear. There are days I can actually hear her voice, garbled but her, without my hearing aid. Mom has always had a great telephone voice, so feminine. I never understood how a voice could be so feminine. When she’d answer the phone at the beauty shop it made you want to come in, sit in her chair, tell her your secrets. And when a man would call, it would turn ever so slightly, smoother, like pillow talk standing up. In person, with a man it sounded tangerine. I don’t know how else to explain it. Her voice made her sound even prettier than she was, made the man feel like he was more desirable than he could ever be. But now her voice is weak from the steroids, the oxygen, the inhalers. Usually, when I ask how she is she tells me she’s fine, it’s just the meds, but lately, she’s started to tell me how hard it is to get her breath. She’s started talking about maybe not being around. She lost a tooth and didn’t want to get it repaired, and this worries me, this not caring. Last week she admitted that she absolutely couldn’t catch her breath—twice. She didn’t tell me when it happened but told me a few days later: no air came in or went out, no matter how hard she tried.
Yesterday, she couldn’t speak a complete sentence. I drove straight over, hooked up her portable oxygen, held her arm as we walked the ten steps to the car. She had to stop twice. I wanted to be strong enough to pick her up, carry her. Instead, I took her to the hospital, had her admitted. That’s when I learned she was still smoking.
She had this gorgeous doctor, and she admitted to him she’d been smoking, probably because he was so good looking, because of her own weakness for that sort of thing, because he held her hand when he talked to her and promised he’d make her feel better. She pointed at me when she made her admission, as my jaw fell, told me not to judge. She told the doctor it was only four cigarettes a day. He had perfect features and hair, which she complimented him on adding she knew what she was talking about.
Later, after the morphine, she told him that while he was good looking, she would have given him a run when she was younger, that’s how good looking she was, and he told her she was still very pretty. She waved him away, turned her head, but her skin gained a luster I hadn’t seen in a while. He asked her more questions. Apologized he couldn’t fix her up there and would have to admit her, and she said that might not be that bad, maybe she’d see him again. She actually tried to conjure up that magic voice, when she said it, but she couldn’t. It was gone.
Tiff Holland’s work has recently appeared in Blip, elimae and Frigg and has been thrice nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Her chapbook “Betty Superman” won the 2011 Rose Metal Prize for short-short fiction. Her poetry chapbook “Bone In a Tin Funnel” is available through Pudding House Press.
Read an interview with Tiff here.