Late Home – a short story

The sisters enjoyed their drive home. They thrived in each other’s company and had much to be happy about. As they exchanged dreams they agreed that prospects were good that New Year’s day. The party in Edinburg had been a success with a classic Scottish celebration. During their hundred-mile drive home they had plenty of time to make plans’ only regretting that they had started off late and would not be home until 3pm.

The red Volkswagen which they drove was their mother’s. She had lent it to them accompanied by the strict provision that they return it by 2 pm. They knew that they had promised, but didn’t consider an hour to be so critical; the worst, they reassured each other, would be one of her dramatic tongue-lashings. They expected that she would give them half an hour of berating. It would be half-an-hour in which she told them how irresponsible they were, how disappointed she was, et cetera, et cetera. They knew the routine and looked forward to the aftermath when they would apologize and kiss and make-up and their transgression would be forgiven and, more important, forgotten.

They were still giggling and happy when they parked the car in the garage next to their father’s Rover. They were a little surprised to see it parked there as he generally returned from his clinic later in the day. They accepted this break in his routine as a good sign, giving an additional boost to their joyous stance. They walked down the drive to their home with happy raised voices. Their father met them at the door, his normally calm face, which generally cracked a faint smile when he greeted them, was bathed in disappointment.

“How could you girls break your word?” he asked. “She had to leave your brother next door with neighbors and call me to come home. Then she had to walk to Dr. Shaw’s office. You know what a long hike up hill that is. How could you girls do that? How could you?”

“We didn’t know. It was only an hour,” hazarded the oldest, although, even as she spoke, her heart sank for she knew that her father was a stickler for honesty and for keeping one’s word. The younger knew that such an excuse wouldn’t appease him. She thought of Rudyard Kipling’s poem If framed on his wall and the maxim of honesty and perfect reliability which formed the foundation of his code.

“It doesn’t matter what you knew, you broke your word. You failed. This is not the behavior that I expect from my daughters.” His accusation carried sadness and disappointment tinged with anger. They shuffled uneasily from foot to foot, knowing how much his approval meant to them and how miserable they were, standing before him, having failed. They both wondered what they could say.

The elder volunteered, “Can we go and pick her up?”

But, just then the telephone rang. Their father answered it, “Durham 43068, Dr. Stevens speaking.” The sisters couldn’t hear the other end of the line, but, from his pallor they both sensed that something critical had happened. “I’ll leave at once,” he said. “I’ll be there in fifteen minutes.”

When he placed the telephone back on its cradle he sighed, “That was Dr. Shaw.” he said. His voice quivered; something his daughters had never witnessed before. From his face they both thought that he looked as though he was going to cry.

“What’s wrong? Is it Mom? Is she alright?” the elder asked.

Their father seemed to be taking his time in answering as the sisters watched the grandfather clock behind him ticking second by second. When he spoke, his voice was quiet with no anger in it, just an intense sadness.

“Dr. Shaw says that he suspects that it is an advanced colon cancer. Your poor mother, she had to walk to the appointment alone.” He paused and put his hand up to his face, shielding his eyes from their view. His voice rasped out, barely a whisper and yet full of intensity, “We all, and I do mean all, let her down, both you girls and me. I should have been with her.” Again he paused and now his voice was a little louder, almost a gentle wail, “She is my wife and she received this prognosis without me. I should have been with her.”

Taking their cue from him his daughters immediately wanted to cry; their mother had always seemed so full of life. What did this mean? How should they react to this change in the year’s prospects?

The following is advice, which no one gave the sisters. It is advanced to all those in similar circumstances:

“When you hear the news, act immediately. Don’t deny this event in trivia for it will change your life forever. Accept the inevitable, and take instant action. Quit your pressing education, career, and normal obligations; leave them behind and go home. In less than a year you can reassume your life with ease: right now your dying mother needs your love.”

“Sit beside her in the garden room among your father’s red fuchsia; enjoy the last whiff of her Fleurs De Rocaille. Talk to her about her beliefs, love her. Of course you love her, but does she know it? Did you show her instead of telling her? Show her when you cook her favorite foods. Let the house teem with the sweet aroma. Coax her to eat. Read with her, listen to her voice and ask her about her life. Immerse yourself in her precious last days. For this short interlude of time savor her life, by forgetting yours.”

© July 2015 Jane Stansfeld