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0 Comments | Dec 07, 2010


42-21883879I am Bennett. I’m twelve already and feeling every year of it. Slouched, at the moment, in the back seat of ma’s old Ford Pinto, I slurp the last of a Mountain Dew and stare senselessly at the never ending pine trees that speed by as we make our way up the Maine Turnpike. My one-year younger sister is up in the front seat. If she doesn’t get the front seat, she always pitches a fit and says she’ll get car-sick and puke and so I usually just give up and sit in the back.

It is November. Winter is here early and it’s pissed. Before the first week of this month was even over, an eight-incher had already dumped on the whole state, catching everyone, even the old timers, with their snow shovels still stuck up in the garage rafters. They are down now though, by God, and they won’t go back up overhead until nearly Memorial Day.  It hasn’t snowed again this week, but WGAN says it will by tonight, so we need to get up to Augusta and back home before the highway starts slicking up.

The sky is all flat and gray with no trace of the sun. Once in a while a lone gull flies over making its way from Casco Bay down to Falmouth or wherever. Me, my sister, and our mother do this drive once each month, as long as the weather is decent. We nearly always go on a Saturday, since that’s ma’s only day off from work. She is a damn slow driver, and the seventy-five mile trip usually takes us two hours or more each way. This morning we got off to a late start. For some reason the dog decided  to go on the living room rug and ma had to clean that up before we could leave, Then the car gave her fits getting started, being as how it was so wicked cold last night. By the time we got loaded up and on the road, it was already past nine, which means it will be nearly dinner time before we get to the hospital.

Like I said, we make the trip about once a month, unless there’s a holiday or something, when we sometimes go a little more often. You might think, with it being dad and all, we’d go more than that. There are lots of reasons for not going so often though, I suppose. Our car’s a piece of crap for one thing. It’s got like 150,000 miles on it or something, and ma doesn’t have any money to get it fixed or get a new one. Gas is pretty expensive and it’s about half a tank up to Augusta and back. Plus, winter here in Maine is about eight months out of the year, and she’s not crazy about driving in ice, snow, and all the other nastiness that can crop up here from October to May.

I think though that there are quite a few less tangible but more important reasons for not being real crazy about making the trip, at least for ma. She doesn’t really talk about it (Mainers don’t talk about anything, actually), but it always takes like an hour or so from the time we get parked at the hospital before she finally brings dad out to visit. I think she’s in there getting updates or reports or some such thing from the doctors, and she always looks pretty upset when she finally brings him out the side doors and down into the picnic area.

It’s hard to describe how I feel each time I first see the two of them emerge from the building together. It’s definitely better in the summer when the weather’s nice, because then at least we get to sit outside, which I don’t get the feeling he has many other opportunities to do. Most of the year though we have to visit in the big common room inside the hospital, which isn’t very private and has that funny hospital smell to it. When we’re outside, there’s picnic tables and squirrels, and I think he enjoys that; at least he seems to.

I think the visits are more work and strain for ma than anything else. Besides the driving up and back and the talking with the doctors, she also has to push dad’s wheelchair around, since my sister and I aren’t big enough to really help much. I can do it a little on level pavement, but the sidewalk that leads from the hospital door to the picnic area is a little downhill, so ma has to push him down and back, which looks like a lot of work. There’s an extra wheelchair in the cellar of our house (just in case he maybe comes home someday), and I’ve pushed that around by itself, just to see, and it’s pretty heavy even without somebody sitting in it. I’ve also practiced rolling myself around in it when no one’s around. I got to where I can rock back and balance on the two big wheels and spin in place, which is kind of fun. But I never see dad do anything like that. He mostly just sits. Although once in a while he is able to reach down and roll the wheels himself – only not on a hill.

People – relatives mostly – tell me I look like him, but I totally don’t see it. Of course, it’s hard to get a sense for what dad would look like normally, I mean without the head padding and all, which kind of pushes his face together. It’s like one of those things boxers wear when they’re practicing. He has to wear it nearly all the time now, because he falls a lot and hits his head on things. When we were really little and he was living at home, he didn’t wear anything like the head padding, and he was always falling down stairs and then there would be all kinds of commotion and emergency trips to the hospital, not so much from the seizures, but because he’d hit his head on the floor, or broken a bone or something like that. There were lots of broken things in our house because of how he’d run into them or fallen on them. That went on for as long as I can remember, which is only from when I was seven or so. Then about two years ago, I guess they decided he should stay up in Augusta all the time because otherwise he was probably just going to hurt himself and maybe he could come home for holidays and special occasions, only that hasn’t really happened since they moved him up here.

So mostly these visits are pretty much the same. My sister and I sit at the picnic table and watch ma push the wheelchair down the sidewalk and as they get closer this curious feeling comes over me like here’s this man I hardly ever see but I feel like I should know him better. And we walk over and say hey, how are you, and give him a kiss on the cheek, which is kind of awkward with the head padding, and feels pretty scratchy usually because it doesn’t seem like he gets shaved all that often, or maybe he just prefers it that way. He asks how are we doing and are we being good and minding ma and things like that. And we say yeah, we are, and isn’t it a nice day to be outside, and ma pours coffee from an old black and red checkered thermos bottle we’ve had forever. I wonder if it’s the same old one out of his lunch pail from when he used to work at the lumberyard back before I was born. Ma told me about that once. She said he worked there for quite a while, but then one day they found out he was sick and they sent him home because Mr. Whethers, the owner, was afraid he might have a really bad accident being around all those power tools, and he was sorry, but it was for his own good.

Dad’s eyes are dark brown, like the coffee before ma puts in the milk, and they seem to sit really deep in his face, which could be the padding thing again. I don’t really have any recollection of what he looks like without it on. But it could just be that he really has deep eyes because whenever he’s outside with us he looks around a lot, which is probably just because he’s not outside very much and maybe he wants to take it all in before he has to go back inside. I’ve never actually seen his room in the hospital, so I don’t know if he has a window to look out of or not. I sure hope so.

So, by the time we get up there today, turns out the weather man was a little off in his estimate and the snow has already started falling – nothing serious at first, not very heavy or anything. But it’s those tiny little sleety flakes that sting your cheeks and let you know it will keep coming down for a good long time. All of which pretty much stinks because it means our visit is going to have to be quick since now we’ll need to be heading back home. And also it means we’ll need to visit in the common room with a bunch of other families visiting their relatives. Plus we’ll be even slower getting home, which will annoy ma and she’ll probably yell at us if we aren’t totally quiet the whole way, and that’s pretty tough when you’re twelve.

We walk up to the hospital’s main doors, which are these enormous double oak things with no windows and as thick as the upper part of my arm. It hasn’t even been snowing that long yet, but there’s already puddles on the floor just inside where folks have been stamping their feet to clean them off and ma almost slips getting inside. It turns out there aren’t that many people in the common room today and ma tells us to go over and sit at one of the tables and to wait for her while she goes to get dad. And she gives us each a quarter to get something out of the vending machines while we wait for her to come back. It’s pretty quiet and we can hear the sleet tapping against the large panes of glass just beyond the metal window grates.

There’s murmuring from other families, but we can’t really hear any of their conversations. Seems like everyone is kind of in the same deal – someone staying here in Augusta who gets visits from family members from time to time, and probably not as often as they’d like.  I asked ma once what it was that got you sent here instead of a regular hospital like the one in our town. She said I wasn’t old enough to understand, but I kind of wish she’d give it a try at least, although I understand how she might not want to talk about it. I get the sense that what gets you sent here is when everyone else has pretty much given up on you. I think it might also have something to do with money and insurance and all that, but I’m not sure.

And we’re out in the common room for maybe half an hour, eating candy bars and playing go-fish with an old card deck I brought, when we see ma come walking out through the side doors by the vending machines. She’s by herself and she’s sort of just looking down at the floor, and there still isn’t really any noise other than the tinkle of the sleet on the glass and the hollow sound of her footsteps as she comes towards us. I’m thinking maybe they got an orderly or someone else to push dad down to the common room, since the weather’s turning bad and the floor is slippery in parts. And I’m wondering what I should say to him – maybe something that can help cheer him up, what with the weather being all gloomy and another six months or so like this to come. And I’ve just about got it worked out. I figure I’ll spring something on him about the Red Sox and how they went to hell again this fall just like every other year. You have to live here a while to understand why something like that would be a cheerful thing to talk about, but it just is, in a weird way. When your team always loses, it becomes sort of a joke. So just when I’ve got it all worked out, ma comes up to us and says to put our coats back on and we’re leaving and dad can’t come visit today. Something about he had a bad night last night and they think it’d be better if…and I kind of tune out after that, because this has happened before too. Drive all the way up here for nothing.

But here’s the thing that really sticks with me as I’m walking back down the sidewalk to the car and as I’m getting into the back seat and even as we’re pulling out of the parking lot with the snow and sleet coming down a little steadier now and starting to stick to the windshield wipers. My first reaction when I hear that we won’t get to see dad this time isn’t sadness or annoyance or even concern for my mother and the way her expression looks on these trips. My first reaction is relief. And I’m old enough now to realize that that’s a horrible feeling to have, except that I can’t help it – it’s how I feel. I don’t know how my sister feels about it. She’s barely eleven, and besides, like I said before, Mainers don’t really talk about anything, at least not anything important. There’s this thing that no one really officially tells you, but you just sort of get it, and that’s that feelings are something for the inside, not for showing, and certainly not for discussing.

And so we crawl back down the Maine Turnpike, doing about thirty this time, which means it’ll be about supper time when we get back. And there’s no more sodas in the car, so I just look out the window at the pine trees and think some more about what I was going to say to dad about the Red Sox. If I can remember it all the way home, I’ll put it in a letter and send that up to the hospital so at least he’ll know I’m thinking about him.

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