When a nurse in bright yellow scrubs stepped into the doorway, every head turned in her direction. “Redfield?” she said, prompting a thirty-something blonde woman to pop up and haul her two children to their feet. “You can see your husband now.” The nurse turned to lead them back down the hall. The little girl, about three, startled by the sudden yank, made a high-pitched keening sound. Her mother drew the toddler into her arms and pulled her son along so quickly his feet dragged across the floor behind him.
“Well, can you talk or not?” he’d said.
She cleared her throat. “Oven-fried chicken, you know, the recipe with the Cornflakes you liked? Broccoli and fried apples.”
His response stung, just as she’d dreaded. “Again the chicken. How stupid are you anyway? We had chicken yesterday, didn’t we? And I despise broccoli.”
“The doctor said…”
“I don’t give a damn what he said. Throw that crap in the trash and make me a steak.”
“I just thought...” Martha stopped when she realized her mistake.
Frank took a step toward her and grabbed the skin under her arm, pinching. “You know better than to think. I believe your face and your brain are drying up at the same rate.” When she tugged her arm, he twisted. “Stand – right - there.” He articulated each word individually. She winced but went still, knowing the bruise he left would hurt less than the punch she would take if she moved.
“I’m don’t feel so great anyway,” he said. “I’m going to take a nap before dinner.” He released her arm and knocked the plate of breaded chicken off the counter on his way out.
Martha stood still until his footsteps retreated down the hall, then bent to clean up the ruined food and shattered platter. She’d long ago ceased crying over things like this. Her arm throbbed, but she didn’t look at it; this mark would look exactly like all the others: angry and inflamed. Like Frank’s personality, she though with a little smile.
Half an hour later, with the steaks sizzling on the grill, Martha reached for the “start” button on the microwave when she heard Frank’s voice.
“It’s okay, Frank. I’m calling an ambulance.” She grabbed the phone on the nightstand.
Martha felt someone slide into the seat next to her and looked up, her replay of the afternoon over for now. A glance at the new arrival revealed the blotchy face of a woman about her own age biting her lip. Martha nodded and checked her watch. Nearly an hour since they’d taken Frank away.
“I believe so.” Martha fumbled in her bag and produced a small pack, which she handed to the woman. “Are you okay?”
The woman sighed, her eyes glued to the doors to the treatment area. “I am, I guess. For now. It depends, doesn’t it? On what happens in there. I think my husband had a heart attack.” She wiped her nose. “You?”
Martha said, “My husband too. I mean, not a heart attack, at least I don’t think so. I’m guessing a stroke.”
“Oh, dear, I’m so sorry.” She took Martha’s hand in her own. “My name is Betty van Roden, by the way.” A new stream of tears began, and she dabbed at them with a fresh tissue. “My poor George. What would I do if something happened to him?” She looked at Martha. “My whole world would be changed.”
Martha squeezed Betty’s hand, then released it as the other woman’s words brought her own situation into focus. What would I do if something happened to him? She tried to envision going home without Frank, and immediately shamed herself for the sense of relief washing through her. She uncrossed and re-crossed her legs, pushing the thoughts from her mind. Then, finding she couldn’t ignore the possibility, she carefully approached the idea again. Alone. Without Frank? Yes, the thought definitely produced a loosening of the ever-present tension in her shoulders. She’d never been on her own, but living alone didn’t scare her. In fact, when she considered the fear she’d lived with since the age of eighteen, a house free of menace seemed like peace beyond her imagining.
A tear escaped the corner of her eye, surprising her. Betty patted her shoulder, and Martha felt too guilty to respond. She covered her mouth with her hand, as if to prevent herself from speaking the obscenity. The tear fell not for Frank, but for the sweet possibility of a future without him.
“Mom?” Her son’s voice brought her head up. “Oh, Mom,” he said, when he saw the tear gliding down her cheek. He stooped in front of her.
“I’m okay.” She looked around and saw open space in the corner. “Let’s move over there, David.” She wished Betty good luck and moved to the other side of the room.
“I’m so glad you came,” she said.
David’s gaze was fierce. “For you, Mom. Not for him.”
She felt as if she were choking on the tension between them, the silence heavy with his unspoken criticism. David pleaded with her over and over to leave. Divorcing Frank might be the only important thing she’d ever refused her son. Martha’s eyes begged David not to start the argument again. His, gray like his father’s, insisted she admit her stupidity. “This is not the time, David. Not here. Not now.”
He relented. “Have they told you anything?”
David left her there and approached the admissions desk. “Wiley,” he said. “Franklin Wiley. Can you find out his condition?”
While he waited, she tried to answer the question David had asked her so many times: why did she stay with Frank? The easy answer did not exist, at least not a single explanation. Instead, she had a whole host of reasons, each one binding her to Frank as the years passed. First, she’d been raised to believe the man should be the head of the family, so she accepted his dominance as her duty. Second, at the time they had married, good people did not get divorces; marriage was a vow to God. Of course, Frank’s threats, which she’d never discussed with David, intimidated her. Initially, Frank promised to kill her if she left, and Martha had believed him. Anyone who took the beatings she had would believe him too. The day he threatened to harm their son, she stopped loving Frank. Letting go of the love had been, in a way, a blessing, because his insults no longer hurt her much.
When David grew up and Martha contemplated escape, she just plain quaked at the thought. After all, she’d been forty years old, had never worked, never rented an apartment, never bought a car, never had her own bank account, never even traveled on her own outside her hometown. The idea of doing all that by herself paralyzed her. Frank did his work well. She felt incapable of doing anything without him.
David rejoined her and explained Frank had suffered a rather severe stroke. The staff was trying to get him a little more stable. “They say he has a fifty-fifty shot.”
She turned to him. “At what? Living?”
“Yeah, and apparently if he makes it, he will most likely have problems walking, speaking, even eating. There’s rehabilitation, I guess, but they don’t really know yet how extensive the damage is.”
Martha’s eyebrows lifted. “Disabled?” A new possibility, and a difficult one. Frank would so despise being unable to do whatever he wanted. Most of all, how would he be him? How would he torment her?
“You’d put him in a nursing home, Mom. You’d have to.”
She started to disagree, but paused to think about the options. To bring him home and give him the kind of attention he might need would be a full-time job. Taking care of him would be the right thing to do, but could she bring herself to do see to his needs, to his comfort? Home health care would be some support. Nurses and assistants could do a lot of the physical stuff, but she would be alone with him most of the time.
I would be the strong one, she thought. Martha swallowed hard and closed her eyes, searching within for the mercy in herself she always wanted from Frank. Not finding the compassion within her, she panicked, and turned to her son.
“David, I, uh, I don’t know if I could be kind to him.” David nearly grinned, and she gripped his shoulders. Her voice dropped to a whisper. “No, don’t do that. I’m talking about me, about who I am. I don’t know if I have enough compassion after everything. What if I’m not a good enough person to take care of my husband?”
“Mama, of course you’re a good person. I don’t know anyone who…”