SHORT STORY- MEMENTO MORI
The woman has been gone for a very long time, I notice. She rarely uses the public phone in the nursing home, even though many of the other old people do; children calling, grandchildren calling and friends calling. I do not question why her son rarely calls. As a caretaker, my only responsibility is to take care of the old and to engage in polite conversations with them when they want it. It’s a delicate business, alright; for some reason, the human brain is programmed to take offense very easily, and as it ages this gets worse. Because of this, I never ask the old woman many questions. She, like all the other old people, is the one who does most of the talking, mostly about her life, most of which is now safely behind her.
I glance at the corn soup I have brought for her. It is my duty to feed her, because some medical accident a few years ago, before she even came to the carecenter, something relating to her blood veins, she was left paralyzed. She’s a widow, her son working in some small local shop. I do not know the reason the old woman is here with me; whether it is because the son was busy, or because he doesn’t care, I cannot say.
Soon enough, she is wheeled back to the room by a nurse. Her face is very pale, her eyes devoid of any spark; it seems like all of a sudden, the liveliness that makes a human has been sucked out of her, leaving only a numb, unresponding creature. I wonder what happened to her, and who had called- but it isn’t my place to ask.
Instead, all I say is, “Ms Laurene? Here’s your soup. It’s beginning to get cold.” I almost wish I didn’t ask. Slowly, she turns her eyes on me- two sickly looking eyes that signify that all hope in life has been lost.
“Oh, my.” is all she says. “Oh, my.”
I pick up the soup, scoop up some of it and puts it near her mouth, but she says, “No, please. Not yet. You can heat it again later if it goes cold. But no, I’m not hungry. Not yet. You can heat it later if it goes cold. But no, I’m not hungry. I guess I was hungry. But not anymore.”
I cannot resist the urge. “What happened?”
She closed her eyes and took a deep sigh, the deepest I’ve ever heard her take. “My son just called.” she said, which was surprising in itself. Her son rarely called. “He told me that a doctor has diagnosed him with lung cancer.”
“Oh.” is all I could say. “Oh.”
I realize that really isn’t enough to say to an old paralyzed widow who just learned her son had lung cancer.
“I’m sorry to hear, Ms Laurene. I…”
“No, please- stop. I’m old enough to guess that you’re only saying this, not because of any real feeling of sadness, but just because it’s the standard response that society expects you to give.”
Humans really do have a hardwired instinct of taking offense. “Please don’t take me wrong.’ I say. “I truly am sorry…” but I have no idea what else to say, either. I don’t have to. The woman takes over the speaking.
“The cancer has already spread to other parts of his body. The doctor told him that at this stage, he’ll probably have five, maybe six, years left, if he fights it hard.” I nod solemnly.
“How old is he?” I ask.
“Twenty-four.” she replies. Her face is very visibly pained. “I never expected him to go before me.”
I have no idea why she said that, considering 1) he isn’t dead and 2) there is a very real possibility that at eighty-three, she will, in fact, go before the six years are over, but I keep quiet and just nodded. It is hard to give offense by nodding.
“I’m sorry to hear.” I say again. I see she is beginning to cry, and so I take a napkin and begin to wipe her tears. She just continues speaking.
“He had such a bright future.” she says. “Twenty-four. He still has his whole life stretching out in front of him, and now! It’s all cut down. It’s all cut down. It’s all gone. Gone! Torn apart! Right in front of his eyes! Right in front of my eyes!”
I am not a specialist in the art of comforting old women whose sons just got diagnosed with cancer, only to take care of them. “You need to eat.” I say. “Maybe your son will visit you. Perhaps today. You don’t want to be gurgling corn soup when he’s here.”
“No, I’m not eating.” she insists stubbornly. Oh well. Old people have their way all the time, no matter what, I guess. I put away the food tray. “Would you like me to leave you alone?”
“Stay for a while.” she says, then sighs yet again. “I still remember when he was a baby. I still remember holding him, feeding him myself. I remember when he was growing up; oh, so long ago. He’d tell me he wanted to be an astronaut, then an inventor, then an engineer, then the President. All those dreams.”
“They’re not over yet.” I reply. “He still has many years in him yet.”
“There’s time.” she says. “It’s true. But the time’s been cut down so much. I just can’t believe it. I can’t…I can’t take it in.” She begins to cry again. “He had so many dreams. He had a list of places he wanted to visit before he dies. He’s always buying those books, you know- 1000 places to go before you die? Those sort of stuff? But I never thought…I never imagined he might…”
“I understand.” I say. “Would you like to rest?”
“Yes, please. Help put me on my bed so I can sleep.” Gently, I heave her up to her bed, put a blanket over her, and leave the room. There are many old, broken down people I still have to take care of.
* * *
That afternoon, I see a nurse wheeling the old woman out of her room. I eat lunch quietly on a table outside the rooms, and I think nothing of the woman being wheeled out. She often asks to be wheeled around, so she could be free from the room that smelled of sickness, so she could get a gulp of fresh air.
About five minutes pass when a friend of mine walks over to me. “Hey,” he says, “since we’re both off duty, let’s go for a walk around the mall.” I agree, and we head for the entrance. Walking at the mall to kill time is something we caretakers do on a regular basis. There’s plenty of time, anyway; none of us have a lot to do with our lives.
As I walk to the entrance, however, I catch sight of the old woman and the nurse at the gate. They’re talking to a policeman, who hovers outside the gates.
My friend and I share a glance of understanding with each other. Actually, it’s more like a glance of non-understanding. What is going on? We speed up our walk to reach the gates.
We walk pretty quickly, until the nurse let out a shriek. I pause for a second, stunned, then run towards the gate. What is happening? Why was the policeman here? Why?
As I get close, the nurse begins to hurriedly feel the old woman’s body. I see how the body was slumped into it, the neck not holding up. I take a closer look. Her eyes were closed.
“Her heart isn’t beating. It’s not. It’s not!” the nurse cries to me.
“What happened.” I shout and look back at my friend, but there was no need; he’s already calling the ambulance. The nurse immediately cart the woman back towards the carecenter. She’s not skilled enough to handle this on her own. I turn towards the police, who is frowning deeply.
“What in the world…” I stop. “What did you say to her?”
“I came here to tell her that her son is dead. He was walking out of the Memorial Hospital, calling someone- his girlfriend- and he crossed the road. A car hit him and ran him down. He’s dead.”
“He’s dead?” I ask in disbelief. It was just this morning that he had six years to live. Now I begin to understand why the woman had a heart attack.
“He just called his mother this morning to say he has cancer. He had six years.” I tell the policeman.
The policeman shrugs. “I’m sorry for her, but not overwhelmingly so. I live with death, son. All the time- car crashes, dead robbers, dead victims. Death is common.” I just nod at that. I have no idea what to say.
“I’ve learned something from this, I guess.” the policeman continues. “Death isn’t far away. The human body is fragile. It’s not hard for life to be torn away from it. Just remember- one day, any day- could be tomorrow, could be in eighty years, could be in an hour- but one day, you will die.”
I hear the sirens of an ambulance coming closer and closer. The policeman walks back to his motorcycle and drives away.
* * *
I pick up the morning newspapers the next day at home. I scan through the front page quickly, as I always do. My eyes stop at one of the headings.
‘Policeman’s motorcycle crashed into car near old care-center- three dead.’
‘Memento Mori’, in Latin, means “Remember one day you will die.” In Roman times when a general was celebrating a triumph, a slave would be beside him, reminding him “remember you are but a man” and “remember one day you will die.”