Esther floated from day to night back to day as dreams became her only comfort. A hospital curtain separated her from the traffic in the hallway even when the door remained open. The confusion within her body separated her from herself. Her left side remained paralyzed from a stroke and the right jolted from residual TIA blasts.
Her daughter tried to lift her mother's spirits with elaborate plans for a homecoming party. "Let's cater it. Lots of guests. Fresh shrimp, delicate pastries." But her voice came out too high and trailed off into a pinched squeal.
Esther shook her head and pointed to the dry erase board tied to the side of her bed.
As an aide folded a pillow at exactly the right angle, Esther tried four times to pick up a felt-tip pen. Even the half of her body that responded moved like an old slow-motion film, breaking at any moment. She shook her head when the aide leaned in to help. Esther clutched the pen, claw-like, and printed an awkward D-I-E on her dry erase board.
The aide remained steady. "Nobody knows. But sometimes patients have a sense that can't be explained. Did you need to talk to someone?"
Esther mouthed a no and with effort and shook her head. No one on the staff had discussed anything with her, as if aphasic meant waxed statue. She liked this woman who wasn't afraid to tell it like it is, yet continued to act as if this moment were infinite.
"I'll come back later, Mother," her daughter said. "We'll talk about it then. I'm not ready for you to leave me. Do you hear me?"
Esther nodded, staring at her daughter, wanting genuine eye contact with her, a way to communicate the truth, something like willing a candle to stay lit in the wind.
Sure, lots of people recovered after a stroke. But Esther suspected the brain firings hadn't ended. Strange, it didn't frighten her because she felt energy grow within the core of her being. A separation had begun somewhere inside her chest. But it waited for something before it could take flight.
She couldn't talk to anyone about it. Any sound that came from her throat mimicked vowels caught in a storm. Consonants didn't exist. The pen slipped on the white board like old shoes on ice. Easily smeared. Not easily rewritten.
Someone had printed ESTHER at the top in first-grade teacher-perfect black. She didn't know when it had happened. Didn't matter. But she remembered a green board on an easel in her younger son's room, at least sixty years ago. He had struggled printing the alphabet ... A, B, C, labored, uneven yellow-chalked lines.
His big sister teased him. "You print like a dummy, only worse." He curled into his mother's arms for comfort, Esther and her golden-haired boy. He asked for a girl's bike on his birthday the year his sister's was stolen.
Alone in her sterile room, Esther found the black pen again with numb fingers, and tried to write her son's name. Over and over, as if her clumsy efforts could summon him. A tonsillectomy. That was all. A rare allergy to the anesthesia. He didn't come home.
She paused, worn. Snow blew sideways in heavy sheets outside the oblong window by her bed as a bright yellow flash caught her attention, a goldfinch, in his brilliant warm-weather feathers, three months early. He flew onto the ledge on top of the drifts and stared at her. He inched along the window sill as if he were watching ... waiting ... for her.
She smiled back, with no effort at all.
"I missed you, son," she said with the strong voice she had owned sixty years earlier. "I'm ready to fly." The pen and board dropped to the floor ... Her heart quieted for a moment before it soared.