A Passing Storm
The cats are restless. The big tabby stalks about, tail tip flicking to and fro whenever one of us looks at her. The small black one cannot be seen but makes her displeasure known with the occasional yowl and scratch scratch scratch at the closed door. She pauses a moment before mewing and rattling the door once more.
I can't blame them for their discomfort. No one's ever really thrilled to be stuck in our basement. It's unfinished, ugly, cold, with a concrete floor, exposed pipes, and naked bulbs for lighting. As I lay on the couch with a blanket over me, watching my younger sister do her homework on the other couch, I shiver, remembering my childhood fears of serial killers breaking in through the little rectangular window and monsters living under the stairs. I've always been creeped out by our basement and avoided it accordingly.
But that doesn't matter tonight. We have to stay down here. The cats have to be down here with us. I have to seem calm. Because I'm the adult tonight. Because the basement is the safest place right now. Because there's a tornado heading right for us.
Or so the man on the radio says.
The little white and silver emergency radio sits on the rug between us, lecturing in the unendearing computerized monotone we're familiar with in these situations. "The National Weather Service has issued a tornado warning for the following counties." Lightning flashes outside, followed immediately by thunder and the broadcast crackles and fades to static for a moment; I adjust the antenna and it comes back. "-county until 12:50 AM."
"That was helpful," my sister comments without looking up from studying. We are the only ones home since she has school in the morning and I'd thought it'd do me good to get away from there.
"Wasn't it, though?" I roll my eyes and get up to look out the small window, watching the branches of a nearby bush come alive with spasmodic swings and taps on the glass. "Not that the suspense will kill us or anything since the TV's already told us our county's screwed." We've never taken tornado warnings seriously; there hadn't been a tornado in the county in decades, as far as we were aware.
"At 11:32 Doppler radar indicated a severe thunderstorm capable of producing a tornado 2 miles west of Sullivan moving east at 45 MPH." Radio Man continues his dull recitation, oblivious to our discussion.
"Great. We've got it. Can you turn that off?" my sister asks, gesturing at the radio.
I shrug and go back to the couch, then decide against it. "Nah, we should leave it on. You know, in case we're about to die and the nice robot decides to warn us."
"Whatever." She puts on her headphones and turns her music up so loud I can hear the lyrics across the room. "If that happens, let me know."
"Turn down your music, genius, and you'll be able to hear it yourself."
And thus I am left to my own devices, my own thoughts, my own worries.
I wander the basement for a few minutes, glancing over the bric-a-brac and boxes accumulated in the almost thirty years of my parents' marriage. The big gray metal drafting table juts out of one corner, untouched for untold months, beside bins of technical manuals and a university diploma. My dad's a smart man. The patents framed and prominent on the wall at the end of the stairs bear silent, dusty tribute to that.
I sigh and go back to the couch, covering myself with the blanket. The tabby cat stalks over to investigate; I pat the sofa cushion beside me and she hops up to settle, purring, on my belly. Her tail twitches against my legs and her eyes and ears remain alert but she cuddles close to me for comfort, putting up a front of disinterest in the storm raging outside but her tail still twitches indicating she thinks there might be something dangerous in the air. I close my eyes and let the sounds wash over me.
Thunder booms, an irregular bass countering the softer but more consistent rhythm of the cat's scratchy rumble. In the background, providing accompaniment, the rain rat-tat-tats like a toy drum, a tinny, staccato performance from the percussion section. The wind, prima donna of this performance, shrieks out a manic-depressive anthem, alternately wailing and whining, then screaming for attention.
I try to imagine what is happening in this theoretical opera created by nature. Why is the heroine so distraught? What's with all the dramatic flourishes in the background music? How could someone be happy during all this, for the cat seems content…?
She, for this is clearly a female lead, howls madly, insane with rage or sorrow. It's hard to tell. She's suffered some hurt and now she wails her unhappiness upon the world, to no avail. There's no reply; it falls on deaf ears and the people continue on with their lives, blissfully ignorant of her turmoil.
Despite my best efforts to resist, I fall asleep right there on the couch, imagining the characters mingling.
And then I am back there.
I sit in the chair beside the bed. It isn't the most comfortable position available in the room. The bed's metal rails prevent me from getting right up next to him so I pull the chair over to the gap in the rails at about the middle of the bed. I hunch over with my head on my hand, leaning against his arm.
My mom is there, and her sisters, and his sister. My siblings are there as well, all surrounding the bed in the dim light of early morning. They stand around us in silence, watching with somber faces.
I raise my head and look at him, a wax doll replica of the man I once knew. His hair has fallen out in clumps; I touch it now and it comes away on my fingertips. His lips are chapped and dry, open to allow for his gasping, rattling breaths. Each exhalation brings the stench of decay; it's been ten days since he last ate, five since he drank anything and it's taken on a sour rotten smell that hits you and curdles your stomach.
I look away, tears coming to my eyes. A moment later I notice how quiet it has become in the room. I turn back to the bed. I grab his cold hand and put it to my face like he once did, but it's all wrong now. He doesn't respond to my touch, doesn't move a muscle. Doesn't breathe.
Voice catching in my throat, I whisper, "Dad?"
A deafening crack of thunder wakes me in an instant. Startled, the tabby digs her claws into my skin before bolting for the stairs. A brief scuffle ensues as the two jumpy cats collide and chase each other around the poles and boxes. Hisses and snarls continue for nearly a minute in a far corner of the basement before the tabby emerges and slinks under the coffee table. She glowers at the corner for quite a while afterward, while the little black cat sits there and cleans herself, tension resolved, as though nothing has happened, before nonchalantly returning to her post at the top of the stairs.
"Well, that was fun," I comment, sitting up on the couch and readjusting my blanket.
"Sure. I loved the way you freaked out at that thunder," my sister says with a laugh and screams in mock panic, "Oh no! Big boom! We're all gonna die!"
I throw a pillow at her and discussion ceases. She goes back to her homework and I go back to my musings.
I know the dream was just a nightmare; that hasn't happened. Not yet, at least. Still, I can't shake the extremely valid fear that it could happen…and I might not be there when it does.
It's been a month since my dad was home, since he was admitted into full-time hospital care for terminal brain cancer. Before that, he'd belligerently insist the frozen chicken was fully cooked and how dare anyone correct him like he was stupid! He'd hold conversations with people we couldn't see, be calmed by familiar music like a baby listening to white noise, and run away from home when things weren't going how he wanted. When he arrived at the hospital, he didn't recognize the doctor who'd been treating him for eight years and tried to escape because he knew they were trying to kill him. He didn't recognize our pastor, his friends, his coworkers.
It's been two weeks since my dad recognized me.
Eventually he calmed down as the disease destroyed more of his brain and he got weaker, too weak to tackle orderlies to the ground. They transferred him to a hospice a few miles from our house. My mom has stayed there every day and night for a week, as have I. From hospital to hospice, I followed wherever he went, stayed by his side every night.
Glancing at the time on my cell phone, I wonder if it's too late to call my mom. It's only 12:30; I know from experience that everyone there will still be awake, probably for a couple hours yet with the storm and everything… I decide to try.
One ring. Two rings. Halfway through the third ring, she picks up. "You miss me already?" Her words are light but the tone is tired, strained.
"Of course. Among other things," I reply, not wanting to say exactly what is bothering me so it won't upset her. "How's everyone doing?" I listen closely to the sounds in the background, searching for that familiar sign of life.
"Well, your aunts were freaking out earlier listening to the thunder in the car and all." My dad is a well-loved man and the hospice room too small to accommodate everyone who wants to stick around. My aunts take turns sleeping in the back of their rental van to give our family some privacy but still be on hand should the worse come overnight. "They're spending the night in here, I guess, because they didn't want to stay out in the storm."
"Sounds crowded. And how's he doing?"
She pauses a moment and in the background I hear his sudden intake of breath. Loud and rattling, overly deliberate and labored, but the most wonderful sound I can think of right now. I almost don't hear her response. "Same as when you left."
The conversation dies off. She hands the phone over to one of my aunts, who insists on making sure we haven't gone the way of Dorothy and been sucked up, house, pets, and all, into the storm. I reassure her we're all intact, except the tabby, who's been on the losing end of a feline boxing match.
"By the way," she whispers conspiratorially, "we all appreciate you staying home with your sister tonight. I can see how much it means to your mom that she can stay with your dad and not have to worry about the house or your sister being left all alone."
With everyone staying at the hospice, my older brother drives our sister home every night and stays in the house until she leaves for school in the morning, in case she needs something. But tonight, because of the storm, he is staying at his girlfriend's house rather than risking the road conditions. My sister has to be at home overnight and leave from the house in the morning…so I volunteered to see her off. Already, I regret that decision.
I sigh. "I'd rather be there."
"I know, girl, and we really appreciate it more because of that." I hear her blow a kiss at the phone. "Get some sleep, sweet thing."
"Can't. Gotta wait for the storm to go away. Loitering bastard."
She chuckles. "Well, take care then."
As I hang up and put the phone down, I mentally add to the conversation "I don't want to sleep if it means more of these nightmares." I'm living enough of one as it is.
The monotone of Radio Man interrupts the oldies music that has been playing unheard for over an hour. "A severe thunderstorm warning is still in effect until 3:30 AM."
I switch off the radio and wave dramatically in my sister's face to get her attention. When she takes her headphones off, I say, "Go to bed. I'll be up a while yet and let you know if something comes up." She barely acknowledges me and packs up her things. I wonder when I became the mother in this house but know it's all connected to a man in a bed.
At the top of the stairs, the tabby rubs up against me, meowing a succinct request to let her the hell out of there. As soon as the door is opened wide enough, she pads out into the darkness, the black cat chasing after. My sister goes up to her room. I listen for a few minutes as she gets ready for bed, footsteps creaking above me as she moves from the hall to the bathroom to her bedroom, then relative silence as she settles into bed like it's a perfectly normal night.
I don't understand her reaction to everything concerning Dad and the imminent lack thereof. Every day we spend at the hospice is like a party to her, an opportunity to talk to her friends and play games, eat junk food and hang out. I'd wonder if she didn't get it but sometimes she gets that long stare, the one we all have from time to time. The walls disappear and we're watching something far off, or maybe so close it's only in our heads. Those are the times I worry about her the most. She understands…but she still doesn't seem like she knows how to reach out, to find someone who understands what's she's going through. What if she never does?
Flopping down in the recliner, I turn on the TV and put the volume down low. The captions tell me what they're saying if I really want to know but I don't. I let the characters speak for themselves in my mind, watching them interact with the storm as their only soundtrack. Thunder rumbles, accentuating the tension building in the woman's face as the man gestures wildly in front of her. "You're such an asshole," the captions say, but to me it seems more like a "You're the one who left me, remember?" He turns away and walks out the door. She slams the door after him and bursts into tears, sliding down the door. She's thinking she'll be okay without him…someday.
I drift in and out of consciousness.
The little black cat paws at the back door, mewing a loud question to the world at large. She does it again and again until I get up to investigate. It's nearly morning but still dark under the storm clouds. Rain still strikes the house in windblown sheets and thunder growls at us every so often but the storm has mostly passed.
Paws on the glass door, the cat looks up at me, pupils wide in the dim light. She meows conversationally and gazes out the window.
"Whatcha lookin' at?" I ask, stroking one of her ears before looking.
He stands there on the patio step looking dejected, heartbroken… I scream and he turns away, shoulders hunched. He looks back at me over his shoulder and I know he is asking why I'm not there. Why I left him.
I fumble with the door lock and charge out after him into the rain. Lightning flashes, thunder booms, then he's gone. I shriek his name into the storm but there's no reply, save the tremulous echo of my own voice. "Dad!"
I wake to the final beep of the emergency broadcast system alert tone. Rubbing my face, tired and miserable, I turn the TV off. "Shut the hell up."
I wander the empty halls, chasing the black cat until she wanders into the office; I have nothing better to do. Surveying the dark room, full of filing cabinets and dry reading, my eyes linger on a pear-shaped object next to the desk, perched on its own stand like the prized pet it once was in times of stress. For a long moment, all I can do is stand in the doorway and stare at it in the dark, aware the cats are watching me from the hallway. The black cat rubs up against my leg, rousing me from my stupor and I reach down to stroke her sinuous body before flicking on the light and closing the office door.
Fingers absently caressing the smooth, worn wood, I pick up the guitar and spin the desk chair around, settling onto it the way he showed me. "Fingers like this, and this," I intone. "Feet like this, and this." Placing my fingers carefully, I strum one note, two, and then a little song we made up once, on a whim. A relaxed beat, and the notes echo back to me like I'm playing a duet again. It's a mellow song, for quiet times and close moments.
Now, though, with the lights out, the empty house, and the storm pounding the walls…now it seems wrong. I stop in the middle of the chorus, poised for the next note but cut off by an ominous roll of thunder. I beat a hasty retreat, looking back only as I close the door and the guitar disappears once again into the dark recesses of our home.
Later, it seems like much later, my sister's alarm goes off. We watch TV together while we eat breakfast, then in a rush of jingling keychains and clomping shoes, she disappears out the door to walk to her bus stop a little way down the road. Business as usual for her.
Once again I am alone, this time for real. Utterly exhausted, I lie down on the couch, TV still playing in the background, and drift to sleep.
I am back there again, in the uncomfortable position, crouched over the bed with my head on his arm. It's quiet this time, with no one else in the room. His loud breathing has stopped.
Before I can look up, before the sob escapes my throat, his arm moves. He strokes my hair, lifts my face and holds it in his hand like I'd wanted him to do for so long. He looks me in the eyes and I know he sees it's me, knows it's me. He smiles and says, "You comfortable?"
"Not really," I reply honestly.
He gestures to the chair. "You should sleep."
I hesitate. "But I want to be here when…"
"Go ahead, I'm not going anywhere just yet." He smiles and touches my head again, pointing me toward the chair. "So for now…"
"Alright." I lie down in the chair and close my eyes. "Dad?"
I smile to myself, knowing he's listening. "Goodnight, Dad."
"Sleep tight, babe," he replies.
I curl up on the couch.
Thunder rumbles halfheartedly in the background, no longer the crash of cymbals but the light, steady beat of little drums. The rain taps out the slow, sweet tempo; the wind whispers a lullaby. I fall asleep and know I'm being watched over for a blessed little while.