“He’s still breathing.”
“It takes time, Nana,” said Rose.
Edward Hillgrand wrote that down. He’d said the same thing years ago before finding a publisher for his novel, after Nana Nora had wondered out loud why Edward didn’t have a real job.
“I can’t watch.” She turned to walk out.
Edward’s sister Rose gently gripped her arm. “We should all stay, Nana.”
Edward wrote that down too. He might use the phrase later, maybe not for a story set in the UNC cardiac intensive care unit with a dying father, but sometime. Edward’s mother held John Hillgrand’s hand as he lay motionless on the hospital bed, her tears dripping onto his wrist. His chest rose and fell.
“God, he looks like he did when he was a baby,” said Nana Nora. Her lips tightened. “My baby.”
They stood around the bed—Mother, sister Rose, and Nana Nora. The doctor and nurses had silently walked out after unhooking the ventilator. Edward sat in a chair against the far wall, scribbling into his cheap spiral notebook and working to capture the details of the room and these people: his family, the quiet of the ICU, the curtain in its curved ball-bearing track, the bare walls, his father’s breathing body tilted slightly upward at the waist, the monitor screen with its bright color-coded numbers and waveforms.
Nana Nora looked over at Edward. “Are you gonna put down that damn pen for once?”
Edward wrote that down.
“Nana, leave him alone,” said Rose.
But Nana Nora persisted. “Is this going in your next book, Edward?”
Edward continued scribbling.
“Are you even here?” said Nana.
“He hasn’t been here for years,” said Rose. “Not since he put us all in that novel.”
Edward stopped writing and looked up. “It’s not you in the novel, any of you. It was fiction.” Christ. How many more times?
“Yes, fiction,” said Nana Nora. “Not like real, honest work.”
Edward lowered his head and scribbled. ‘Honest work’ again. He should have wrangled that phrase into his writing long ago. Nana Nora had been using it ever since Edward had made clear during high school that he had no intention of taking over the Hillgrand farm.
Nana Nora turned and frowned at her dying son. “Look—his mouth.”
All heads turned to John Hillgrand. His mouth opened in a wide yawn, then closed again. The machine beeped.
“Nurse! Nurse!” said Rose.
A nurse padded in.
“He yawned,” said Rose.
“Yes, that’s normal,” said the nurse.
Nana Nora’s face fell back down.
“His body is working to draw oxygen since the ventilator isn’t helping anymore,” said the nurse.
“Oh God.” Edward’s mom held her husband’s hand and patted it. “Did we make the right decision?”
The nurse slipped out.
“Mom, we agreed,” said Rose.
“Even he agreed,” said Nana Nora, pointing a thumb sideways in Edward’s direction.
Edward wrote, ever immune to Nana’s taunting. Before The Sustenance of Grief was published and then optioned for the screen, Edward had endured multiple jobs during his twenties. He successfully avoided his family’s Wilson County farm, though he did sell farm equipment for Tractor Supply Company in Knightdale for three years after graduating from UNC Greensboro. But sales took a toll on his energy and left little time for writing, so he moved to Durham in search of menial jobs that would free his mind to dream and create. He waited tables at Elmo’s Diner, he scooped ice cream at Northgate Mall, he tended bar at the James Joyce. But apparently none of these jobs constituted honest work, with writing occupying a particularly shameful position at the low end of the honesty spectrum.
“He’s yawning again. Dad. Daddy!” Rose rubbed John Hillgrand’s forearm.
“Oh, sweetie,” said her mother.
Edward looked up from his notebook and watched his mom flit her fingers through his father’s hair. Was his dad’s head rising to meet her hand, or was Edward imagining it? No, John Hillgrand hadn’t moved since entering a coma last week, and now Edward’s mother straightened his hair and stroked his cheek and rearranged the bed linens. Nana Nora paced. Sister Rose kept her eyes fixed on the screen.
“His pulse is dropping,” said Rose.
Edward tucked back into his notebook. He shook his pen. Was it running dry? He didn’t have another ink cartridge. When in high school Edward had announced that he planned to be a writer, his family had erupted in shrieks and tongue clicks and protests about the farm and about Edward’s status as the only Hillgrand son, and so on. But his father had maintained silence—silence Edward at the time had interpreted as disapproval, but then a year later on the morning of Edward’s sixteenth birthday, his father had handed him a small, wrapped box. Edward had now been writing with that pen—a sleek Waterman Hemisphere from the Askew-Taylor store in Raleigh—for seventeen years.
“Can he hear us?” said Rose.
“No tellin’,” said Nana Nora.
“What if he’s in pain?” said Rose. “Nurse, is my father in pain?”
But the nurse had left.
“He’ll be fine,” said Edward’s mother, still holding his hand. “You’ll be fine.”
And as Edward wrote “He’ll be fine,” he recalled lying in bed at age fourteen at the farmhouse after Will Barnes had beaten him up for the second time in a month and hearing the family downstairs in the living room talking. Will and his mother had just left after they had come to the farmhouse to apologize to Edward and his parents and to lie that it wouldn’t happen again. “He’ll be fine” had been his mother’s final pronouncement. It was in that moment that Edward had decided to write a novel, and that it would open with a Will Barnes character. Edward would show no mercy.
“The doctor said we should say goodbye,” said Rose.
“I can’t do it,” said Nana Nora. “He might get better.”
“His pulse keeps dropping, Nana.”
Edward’s mother cried. He got it all down, especially the way his mother’s tears continued to drip onto his father’s wrist—that was a good detail. Nana Nora did most of the moving, even at age eighty-six, pacing the room like a caged panther. Edward’s sister Rose stood by the bed staring at the machines and the IV drip and occasionally glancing over toward the door of the room.
And Edward stayed fastened to his chair, intent on keeping his focus. There was nothing he could do for his father, and the rest of them couldn’t have cared less that he was there at all. His experience as a novelist had taught him that these were crucial moments, that he needed to keep the pen moving and to continue digging. The writing would not reveal itself to him unless he gave himself over to it with every molecule of his attention.
“What’s in this bag here?” Nana Nora had stopped pacing to examine a label on one of the plastic bags hanging from a hook.
Edward glanced up for a second. “It’s Diprivan.”
His mother’s head whipped around, Rose turned, and Nana Nora spun suddenly to face him. He sat straight up and watched them. They all stared at him with wide eyes. What was this? Had his family suddenly become experts in pharmacology, and was there something controversial about Diprivan? Edward was perplexed, but he couldn’t let the moment get away, so he returned quickly to the notebook and scribbled, glancing up now and then to re-evaluate the scene.
Edward thought again of Will Barnes. The bullying had continued through high school, as Edward had gradually distanced himself from his friends and the Charles Bailey High School FFA.
“Maybe he’d leave you alone if you weren’t so ashamed of farming,” Nana Nora had said one night at the supper table.
“I’m not ashamed, Nana.”
“You intend to spend your life eating other people’s food?”
“He’s gonna write,” John Hillgrand had told his mother. “He’ll be fine.”
And thanks to his father and Will Barnes, Edward was fine. He had filled multiple notebooks and written draft after draft and wrestled with the words and dumped his anger onto the pages of The Sustenance of Grief, but even after a film deal and six years of strong sales, Nana Nora didn’t approve.
“You okay, Mom?” Rose said.
“Yes,” said Edward’s mother, finally looking up from her husband. “Thank you.” She smiled at Rose.
“How long’s it been?” said Nana Nora.
Rose looked at the screen. “Forty-five minutes.”
“He always was one to take his sweet time.”
“Nana!” said Rose. “That’s awful.”
Edward’s mother smiled. “It’s okay, Rose. You’re so sweet. Our sweet Rose. Your daddy loved you so much.”
“Loves, Mama. He’s still here.”
Edward captured every word, every nuance. He’d never hear conversations like this anywhere else or at any other time. His agent had been pestering him for another novel, and this could be the start of something good, maybe even great.
Nana Nora squinted again at the IV bag. “Is this that same stuff he was on last week?”
Edward answered without looking up. “No, that was Primaxin.”
“Well, is it?”
“Primaxin’s an antibiotic,” said Edward. “No need for that anymore.”
“I don’t know, Nana,” said Rose. She turned back to the screen. “The beats are slowing.”
John Hillgrand’s pulse had held steady at thirty-two for many minutes but was now dropping fast through the twenties. His chest rose slowly and fell. Edward’s mother put her hand over her husband’s heart as his rib cage expanded again, then dropped.
“That’s all.” She smiled at her husband. His chest stayed flat. Her tears had dried.
Nana Nora stopped pacing and stood at the foot of the bed with her back to Edward and her hands on her son’s ankles.
“But his pulse is still thirteen,” said Rose. “Twelve. Oh.” She turned away from the machine and held her father’s forearm. “Daddy.”
The cardiologist and a nurse walked into the room. The doctor leaned over and placed his stethoscope on John Hillgrand’s chest while the nurse clicked off the machine and carefully pulled out the IV.
The doctor stood up and faced Edward’s mother. “I’m very sorry. Take as long as you need.” He and the nurse exited.
Edward was mesmerized. The moment had arrived, what they’d been waiting for. His father was dead. Okay. They’d all known it was coming. Edward took a breath and reminded himself that his father had been fading for months now and had effectively departed a week ago with the onset of the coma. Edward quickly took in the scene and got back to work. His mother was still smiling. Nana Nora stood at the foot of the bed with her back to Edward. His father’s mouth hung open. Rose’s lower lip trembled.
“I can’t do this,” said Rose.
“It’s over, dear,” said Nana Nora. She walked across the room and returned with two chairs. “Here, sit down.” She parked herself next to Rose, her hand on Rose’s left shoulder.
“It’s so quiet,” said Edward’s mother.
And quiet was best for writing. Up until this point Edward had felt like a reporter, grabbing the goings-on and the movements and the glances. But now with only the silence of his family seated reverently around the body of his father, Edward’s attention zeroed in to the tip of his pen and the flow of blue ink across the paper. He had never told his father how much he’d appreciated this pen and how vital it had been at such a young age to have even one person who had supported his yearning to create, to be an artist. Edward and his silent father’s alignment against the rest of the family had formed an especially effective armor against Nana Nora’s incessant griping about the worthlessness of writing. And yes, Will Barnes had played his part too, the fucker. Over the years, Will’s popularity and Edward’s isolation grew in direct proportion and forced Edward deeper into a solitude that he’d first endured with resentment and then later came to embrace and appreciate. Without Will Barnes, there would have been no first novel.
“Okay,” said Edward’s mother. She smiled at Rose and Nana Nora.
“What happens next?” said Rose.
“I’ll find out.” Nana Nora left and returned with the doctor. “He said there’s some paperwork.”
“Yes,” said the doctor. “Have you designated a funeral service?”
“Oh God.” Edward’s mother lowered her face into her hands and sobbed.
“It should be Joyner’s,” said Edward.
She sniffed and looked up. “I think we’ll use Joyner’s, the way we did for Grandad Hillgrand.”
“God rest his soul,” said Nana Nora.
“Okay,” said the doctor, turning toward the door. “I’ll have Michelle bring in the papers.”
The nurse returned with a clipboard. Edward’s mother stood and took the pen.
“Right here,” said the nurse.
She signed and handed the pen back. “That’s it?”
“Yes, ma’am. We’ll arrange with the funeral director.”
Edward’s mom sat down and faced her husband. Then she stood back up. “I guess we should go. Should we go?” She sat down again.
“It’s okay to say goodbye,” said Nana Nora.
“We love you, Daddy,” said Rose.
Edward’s mother leaned down and cupped her husband’s face. She kissed his forehead. “Thank you, my love.”
Nana Nora patted her son’s arm. “It was good.” She squeezed. “You done good.”
Edward’s mother walked toward the door. Rose and Nana Nora followed her out.
Edward watched them leave and then went back to scratching with his pen. Come on, come on, not now—he’d left his only ink refill in the car.
The nurse entered and unplugged more machines. Two orderlies in blue scrubs wheeled a gurney alongside the bed and in seconds had transferred John Hillgrand and started back for the door. As Edward’s pen ran dry, the nurse stripped the bed, then switched off the lights as she exited the room.
Robert Slentz-Kesler lives and writes in Durham, North Carolina. He is a former public school teacher and librarian whose work has appeared in The Blotter Magazine, The Urban Hiker, Toad the Journal, and Fiery Foods Magazine.