This is an excerpt of a personal essay titled “Compliance” written by Cory Brown, associate professor in writing. The essay was published in the nonfiction and art magazine South Loop Review and won finalist in Missouri Review’s 2013 essay competition. It will also appear in the local literary magazine States of Mind.
My sister Margaret is dying in a nursing home in the largely suburban Northeast section of Oklahoma City. It’s a one-story, three-winged building with about ten rooms to each wing, small rooms. This one seems especially so with Margaret’s large hospital bed taking up much of the space and a portable tray on either side of it and near the foot of it a good-sized TV. The windows in the rooms are dirty, their screens still on even though it’s January, and right now there’s a weak midday light streaming in from between the blinds. On the wall on the far side of the bed is a bulletin board with a handwritten “get well soon” card pinned to it and below that an 8×10 drawing of a smiley face. On one of the portable trays beside the bed sits a small bowl of stewed tomatoes and a plate of some sort of potato-meat goulash next to some pale green beans, all untouched, and two glasses of juice—one cranberry, one orange—with that clear plastic that stretches across the top and clings to the side. I think to subvert the room’s gloominess, I find myself fantasizing that the stretches of plastic are little trampolines and that I’m small enough to jump up and down on them, but then I imagine the plastic tearing and I picture myself falling into the juice.
Margaret had multiple organ failure a few days ago and pulled out of it, but it left her in a confused state of mind. Doctors say there’s no neurological evidence of a stroke, but the nurses say her speech and thinking present otherwise. I teach in a small liberal arts college in upstate New York and am on winter break, so I flew down to be with her for what my siblings tell me will be her last days. Margaret is sixty-five and I’m ten years younger. We’re the bookends for our siblings—between us are two brothers and one sister. The older brother, Butch, lives in the small town in the western part of the state where we grew up and where Margaret lived before she was transferred here and he took care of her a lot the last couple of years as her health deteriorated. The other brother, Bob, two years older than I, lives here in the city and has been overseeing her care since she was moved here. The other sister, Christine, hasn’t spoken with Margaret in several years and they’ve been feuding for as long as I can remember, I suspect because they have such opposite temperaments: where Christine is bubbly and quick to laugh, her laugh almost a tick, Margaret is serious and intellectual. When Christine does get serious it’s usually to express her conservative Republican politics, whereas Margaret is politically liberal and disdainful of the right in general. It’s been painful to watch these two go at each other over the years and I have to confess it’s one thing about my relationship with them I won’t miss when Margaret is gone. That thought makes me feel awful. I suppose we sanctify life so automatically that any wandering thought that hints at welcoming another’s death makes us feel guilty. I suspect a lot of that goes on, that many of our thoughts about a loved one’s death are about how it will ease our lives. Life is difficult enough, we feel, without the hardship that that person is imposing on us. But the guilt that those thoughts cause is another hardship, so we’re left having replaced one unpleasantness with the burden of another.
Cory Brown is an associate professor of writing at Ithaca College. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.