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Mary sat at the bedside, book in hand, listening to the sounds of machines counting down a life. She hadn’t read a word of the book, but it helped her feel like she wasn’t waiting for something else to happen. But she was waiting for something else to happen, and she hated herself for it.

“There’s a good dear,” said the nurse, lifting the old, frail version of her mother forward, gently wiping her back with a sponge. The water smelled of lavender. It was horrid. “Thank you, dear,” said the nurse, and let herself out. She didn’t speak to Mary. None of them spoke to her anymore.

She looked at her mother, the eyes staring at the ceiling as if something were there, wetness at the corner of her mouth. Mary used to wipe that away. She couldn’t bear it anymore. She turned the page in her book, but backwards, and stared at her lap.

“Mary,” said her sister, Julia, sliding open the door quietly. “Any change?”

“Hmm?” asked Mary, looking up from her book. “No, no change. Where’ve you been?”

Dr Parsons entered the room behind Julia, clipboard in hand, looking gravely from Mary to her mother, and then at his notes. No one spoke for a moment. Mary closed the book, stared out the window as if she were suddenly alone. The room stayed silent but for the machines.

“I’ll leave you two to it,” said Dr Parsons, and let himself out. Julia sat at the bottom of the bed, squeezing their mother’s feet beneath the thin, starchy sheets.

“You have to make a decision, Mary,” she said. “This can’t go on forever.”

Mary tried looking her in the eyes, but it was too much. She took her mother’s hand and squeezed it, and the heart monitor skipped a beat. She sighed, trying to regain her composure.

Mary,” said Julia, “you can’t keep coming here. You have a life. I know you do. She wouldn’t want this, not for this long. We can’t fight about this anymore.”

“Mom always stopped our fights for us,” Mary said, blankly.

“Mom’s not around anymore,” said Julia. “It’s your choice now. You have to make it.”

“I can’t do it,” she sighed. “I can’t make that decision.”

“She’s not waking up,” Julia said, almost inaudible.

Mary’s eyes were full of tears. She wouldn’t let go of the hand to wipe them away. They ran down her cheeks, across her mouth, squeezed shut, and down her neck. Julia started to cry too, but refused to let it overtake her. They sat there, facing each other, quietly grieving while the machines beeped away.

“I was so awful to her,” Mary said finally. “I was so, so awful to her. She wanted to come visit me, and I said I was busy. I was busy.”

“You can’t blame yourself for—”

“You know the last thing I told her? I said ‘I can’t talk now, call later’, and I hung up! I hung up on her! She must have hated me!”

“Dear god, Mary, are we taking about the same woman here? She was rougher on us than that! She wouldn’t think twice about—”

“Sincerity hurts more,” Mary muttered, wiping tears away finally, letting them fall on the cover of the book. “I can’t let her go. I need her to wake up. I need her to know what I really meant.”

Julia said nothing. In the hall, a trolley wheeled by, its wheel squeaking over and over again, piercing the quiet. The slam of a door brought Mary back to the present.

“It’s my decision, and I’m not letting her go,” she said. “I understand why you… why you don’t agree, but I can’t do it to her. I need her to know I didn’t mean it.”

“She knows, Mary…”

“How can you be sure?” snapped Mary. “You’re hardly here, you don’t see what I see!”

“Don’t you dare try and lay a guilt trip on me because I choose not to abandon my family to—”

“I haven’t seen your family here in almost a year! What kind of family is that? It’s awful, Julia! Just awful!”

“What’s awful,” growled her sister, “is you venting your anger on me when you’re the one prolonging Mom’s suffering because you feel guilty about—”

“It’s my decision to make!” yelled Mary. “Mine! If you can’t accept that, maybe you shouldn’t be here!”

“Maybe I shouldn’t!” Julia yelled back, getting to her feet. “You know what? I came down here to keep you from ruining your life. But you seem pretty intent on doing it anyway!”

“Get out!”

“On my way!” Julia snatched up her bag and stormed for the door. The second she touched the door handle, the machines turned to a steady whine. Both women stopped, but didn’t look back. Mary barely took a single breath. Julia’s eyes closed, and she spoke a silent prayer, but still, didn’t look back.

“She’s gone,” Mary said, her voice a tiny shadow of its former self. Julia let go of the door handle, lowered her head.

“I guess we need to learn to stop our own fights from now on.”

And they laughed, just as their mother had wanted.

This 1kStory is for Wis Geysen ("mothers & daughters").

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