“He’s as good as dead,” they said. “A vegetable.”
They were talking about a man we knew from church. I didn’t know him very well, though he was one of those figures that had always existed on the periphery of my childhood. He was a large man – obese, is what the doctors had said. I remember him as being jolly, which might be typecasting, but he smiled a lot and laughed easily.
I knew his wife better; my family went to her for biannual teeth cleanings, out of a tiny office where she worked as the dentist, dental hygienist, and the receptionist. She was a tiny woman, and like her husband, had smiling eyes that showed over the top of her surgical mask.
“It’s so sad,” my mom sniffed.
“He won’t even be able to see his daughters graduate from high school,” added my dad solemnly.
“Or get married,” my mom said, ever the romantic. “I’m still praying for a miracle, of course.” Of course.
They continued talking about how, when they went to visit his still-running body at the hospital, they had counted over a dozen tubes hooked up to him, pumping things in, draining things out. “Like a Christmas tree,” said my parents, unsure whether that was funny or not. It’s not completely irreverent to joke about the almost dead, I think.
They seemed relieved to have this sobering, sensational topic to talk about. Things had been strained, as they seemed to finally realize that my personal tastes were different from theirs. They had raised me to think for myself, and sent me off into the world for years of higher education and living on my own, but were somehow shocked that I returned with other opinions. I rarely visited home, and when I did, we tried to avoid talking about religion, politics, or my piercings.
Eventually, the topic changed to tomorrow’s dinner or the neighbors or what was on the radio, but they were more anxious than usual, glancing at me every once in a while.
“By the way,” my mom said, interrupting her story about the rosebushes. “I wasn’t sure if you wanted blueberries, but I know you like them, so I got them anyway.”
“And give me the keys to your car,” my dad said gruffly. “It’s about time to change the oil.”
The next morning, before they left for the day, they both came into my room, kissing me on the forehead, which they rarely do, now that I’m clearly a grown-up. “Have a good day,” they said. “When are you coming back to visit?”
I squinted up at them through one eye, half-asleep, annoyed, but noted the looks on their faces. “Soon,” I said.