Eugenie’s father George was not getting enough oxygen. He was dying of cancer, but was still at home. Eugenie, who was married and had a grown daughter, flew from her home in Los Angeles to DC to help her mother take care of George in his last days.
From the time she was ten until she was sixteen, Eugenie’s father had raped her repeatedly and secretly, though she always had an idea that her mother, Theola, knew that something atrocious was going on and said nothing. Eugenie, too, said nothing, not to anyone. She hadn’t even told her husband what had happened to her back then.
When she was sixteen, Eugenie had left home to live with some of her girlfriends from school. She still kept in touch with her family.
Sometime after her move she learned that George had turned to her younger sister Bernardine. Bernardine told her herself. Again, Eugenie kept silent but Bernardine, only twelve, had called the police. George was arrested and sentenced to a prison term of some years. Theola had put Bernardine out of the house and she’d gone to live with George’s sister Margaret in Charleston. That was 34 years ago. Bernardine hadn’t spoken to either parent since then, though she spoke with Eugenie and their brothers. Theola disliked this — she wanted the whole family to shun Bernardine — but there was nothing she could do about it.
When Eugenie returned to the two story house, she also returned to the bedroom she used to share with her sister on the second floor, the bedroom where their father had done what he did. She hated this bedroom, with its pair of girlish beds and its milk glass lamp on the table between them, but she always slept there when she visited her parents. If she’d asked to sleep in another bedroom, Theola would have asked her why, and Eugenie could not have told her.
Now, Eugenie helped her mother care for her father in his last days. Sometimes she’d simply sit in a chair near the bay window and watch him as he lay in the bed he’d shared with Theola for 55 years. She did not wish to touch him.
Eugenie would learn, later, that her father could have had hospice care, which would have provided an adjustable hospital bed and an egg crate mattress that would have spared him the bed sores that seemed to pain him more than anything else. But no one in the family knew this was available. The sores sent a sickly sweet smell into the air, but the smell wasn’t stifling, or even that unpleasant.George had was a physician’s assistant who came in now and then from the oncologist’s office to check him and give him shots to boost his blood levels, and a machine that pumped oxygen into him through a nasal cannula.He used to be a hefty man but he’d lost 100 pounds since the cancer, which he’d had for some years, had become terminal. He could no longer get out of bed without help and he couldn’t think straight. He only knew that he wasn’t getting enough oxygen.
“Air,” he would rasp. “Air.”One afternoon, while Theola was out grocery shopping, Eugenie settled in the chair in the master bedroom as she did and watched her father breathe. His hands twitched over his chest in a ragged, knitting motion. How she hated those hands.
After a while, Eugenie got up and went to the oxygen concentrator. It was ice gray, the size of a suitcase, with tiny green indicator lights. It sent forth a soft, steady roar, like a window air conditioner. Like an air conditioner, you got used to the sound if you were around it long enough.
Eugenie reached down, found the touch pad and turned it off.She stood up and looked down at George.
His eyes rolled back in his head and he took a deep breath. Then his eyes widened, and stared. He began to gasp in a way that reminded Eugenie of a landed trout.“Air!” he managed.
“Air!”He started to thrash about. He thrashed about so much that the bed, with its heavy oak frame, moved about an inch and a half rightward.
Eugenie watched. If she felt a stirring of mercy in her — and she did, once or twice — she strangled it.
She didn’t really know, but it seemed to take about 15 minutes until her father went still. She waited a while, then went to the oxygen concentrator and turned it back on.When Theola came home she went straight upstairs to the bedroom even before she put the groceries away, even though it was the height of summer and she’d bought fruit juice popsicles for George to suck on.
Eugenie had carried the chair to the bedside. When she heard Theola’s footsteps coming up the stairs she forced herself to take George’s hand. It was still warm and supple. The pale fingernails with their blue beds were longer than usual because they hadn’t been clipped in a while.
Theola knocked on the door, then entered before Eugenie could answer. Eugenie looked up at her.
“I think he’s gone,” she said. She forced just enough moisture to her eyes to look grief-stricken.
But no, she hadn’t had to force tears to her eyes at all. All she had to do was remember.
“What?” Theola cried. “What?” She hurried to the bed and saw that her husband was dead. She lay her hand on his forehead, pressed his sunken gray cheeks. “That fast? Oh, Lord have mercy!” she cried out. “Lord have mercy! Lord have mercy!”
Arlene McKanic is a writer living in South Carolina. McKanic's been published in several literary magazines over the years, including the MacGuffin, Obsidian and the Maryland Review. Lately, she's been writing reviews for BookPage magazine.