By Janet Yung
The cuff tightened around her arm as the nurse pumped the balloon. Libby watched from the corner of her eye, trying to see how high the numbers would go before they came to a stop. Like hoping the metal tab on the scale would rest at an appropriately low number or the right balls would bounce out on the weekly lottery drawing.
“Okay,” the nurse said as she undid the Velcro, jotted some numbers in her chart and left telling Libby the doctor would be in shortly. She should calculate the number of minutes she’d spent waiting, watching one day move into the next adding up to weeks, months and years. Waiting for the defining moment of her life.
“You won’t live forever,” her grandmother told her one evening seated on the front porch of the old frame house. Libby had loved the front porch where she’d watch the summer come to an end, the chains on the swing squeaking. “I need to have your father oil that thing,” her grandmother said.
Libby wrapped her sweater tighter around her shoulders, listening to the trains a few blocks away. She loved the sound they made in the night as she fell asleep in the tidy upstairs bedroom she inherited when her parents moved into the house. If only I could bundle up this moment forever, she’d think right before going inside, getting ready for bed and slipping beneath the crisp white sheets and worn quilt.
Feet scurried down the hall and she strained to hear the voices in the next room. Her doctor’s distinctive voice came through the wall. It sounded as if he were on the phone. One sided, it didn’t make much sense but she’d been an incurable eavesdropper her entire life.
Seated in the dining room at Famous Barr on Saturday afternoon, she held the pieces of her club sandwich in her hands, mouth open for the first bite. “He’s never been good to her.” Libby slowly chewed her food, her ears perked up with the salacious bit of gossip she anticipated to follow.
“It isn’t polite to listen to other people’s conversations,” her grandmother leaned towards her, the statement delivered in a low voice.
“Huh?” Libby managed, sandwich filling her cheeks, torn between ignoring the comment or talking with her mouth full.
“You know what I’m talking about.” Her grandmother tapped her spoon against her coffee cup and took a drink, watching Libby over the rim. For a moment, conversation at the next table stopped, but then resumed.
“We’ll keep in touch,” Dr. Baker said. Or, maybe it was “well, keep in touch.” Two entirely different meanings. Was he brushing somebody off because they failed to follow his orders or suggestions or was he showing his concern?
From her perch on the examining table, staring through the window, Libby had a clear view of the parking lot, watching a few old codgers headed towards the building. The patients seemed to be getting older. Some were pushing walkers.
It was easier to listen to their conversations because they talked louder and seemed eager for an audience. They’d talk to the nurse in the outer office while she scheduled their next appointment, telling her about their kids or grandkids or how they couldn’t figure out statements from the insurance companies and wasn’t it a pity doctors didn’t make house calls anymore. The nurse would smile and nod patiently as if she really cared. Libby would never discuss important things with strangers. She’d reserve that for the people who cared.
“The people who care,” her grandmother said, “are the ones who matter most.” Libby would agree although she had no idea what it meant. “Someday, you’ll understand,” and Libby was left thinking someday might never come.
She checked her watch. She’d been in the examining room twenty minutes. She should’ve brought a magazine from the waiting room. It sounded as if Dr. Baker had left his office. He must be at the nurses’ station, studying her chart before coming in.
Libby stretched out on the table, staring at the holes in the tile ceiling. She’d never liked the drop ceilings and fluorescent lights. They made everything ugly, especially her. She closed her eyes. She could almost fall asleep except for anxiety gnawing at the back of her brain. Take a deep breath, she reminded herself.
Her grandmother had Boston ferns. They hung from hooks on the front porch in the summer time and were brought into the house before the first frost. One rested on a plant stand in her bedroom in the bay window overlooking the front lawn. It would shed withered fronds throughout the winter and Libby imagined it looked longingly through the glass, anticipating spring and summer when it would be liberated.
All the ferns died when her grandmother did. Not exactly at the same time. It was a slow process. Her mother had a brown thumb and although she tried to follow Libby’s grandmother’s directives of how they should be cared for, nothing seemed to work. They either received too much sun or water or not enough. “I don’t know what I’m doing wrong,” Libby’s mother moaned as the last one was dumped in the trash, a shell of its former self. That was the way her grandmother described her friends as they began to decline and disappear one by one. The ladies from church, her garden club and card parties.
Am I giving up my former self, Libby wondered. How would she feel if the news was bad? She squeezed her eyes tighter and willed herself back under the quilt. Could she be as brave in the face of adversity as her grandmother had been or would she cave in, denying the inevitable?
Suddenly, there was a tap on the door followed by the doctor coming into the room. “Hello, young lady,” he said and judging from the expression on his face, she knew the news would not disappoint.