Brigit’s Flame post Week 1, July
Genre: Sentimental Fiction
Word count: almost 2,966
Title: “In My Time of Dying”
Partially inspired by songs by The Be Good Tanyas including one titled “In My Time of Dying” which is quoted in part of the story.
“Why couldn’t it be winter? Everything dies in winter.” Maizie dropped the gauzy curtain, turning away from the window. She hugged her wasting frame and studied Pappa’s lined face.
“What is your objection to summer, Love?” he asked Maizie softly. Pappa caressed her shoulders gently and smoothed the top of her hair.
She leaned into his chest and played with a thread escaping his sleeve. His arms felt so warm around her; he smelled like dryer sheets and the cheap aftershave she’d been buying him since she was eight. Maizie realized she had never really liked the scent in the bottle, only the way it smelled on Pappa and how it seemed a part of him; a part she’d given him.
“I’m sick. I feel like I should be wrapped in blankets. I’d like the comfort of a heavy quilt and a soft cardigan that’s a few sizes too big. But it’s hot,” Maizie pouted, “I look out there and I see half-naked Brach twins running through the sprinklers and getting sticky from melting popsicles. They make me sweat just watchin’ ’em,” she grumbled.
Momma called from the kitchen, “Then don’t look out the window.” She came into the living room with a cup of tea and a squeeze tube of honey. “Sit down and drink your tea,” Momma ordered.
Maizie flopped on the couch (because Momma hated that) and glared at the tea cup. “I don’t want tea. It’s too hot. I want lemonade,” she pouted, eyes drawn again to the light through the curtains as the twins squealed at their fun and carefree lives.
“If you aren’t ready to go, Bluebird, wait for the winter. We don’t mind having you,” Pappa said as he pulled the heavy drapes across the sheer curtains. Maizie watched his darkened silhouette over the back of the couch and smiled sadly.
“Maury, what are you doing?” Momma asked in that way — blending stern and resigned in the form of a question that she always knew the answer to before asking.
“Turning the summer off for a little while so Maizie can get some rest.” Pappa shrugged at Momma. The spoken answer was a courtesy they always practiced even though the shrug should have been sufficient.
“Maizie, please drink the tea,” Momma said, placing emphasis on each word.
“Maury, you cannot just pull the drapes closed and call the summer off. And Maizie can’t just decide to stay. It’s not a semester abroad, it’s leukemia.”
Maizie had been squeezing the honey bottle’s contents into her mouth, she tipped the bottle back to upright and watched Pappa’s reaction to the conversation incursion by the ‘L’ word. For a moment he looked so lost and alone, and angry.
He pointed a finger at Momma that looked like an accusation, but when he found his voice all he said was, “I’m gonna put the A/C down to sixty and find a quilt.”
Momma huffed, but before she could verbally protest Pappa’s voice came floating down the hall in a rant, “Bluebird wants to be comfortable then she damn well will be! What am I paying the electric bill for anyway? I provide the money to keep my family happy and comfortable, and since my money doesn’t seem to be doing a damn thing to keep my daughter healthy then I’ll spend it to keep her happy!
“Semester abroad,” he grumbled. “Talks to me like I’m the fool. It’s just tea, Cheryl!”
“You and your father,” Momma said, shaking her head, “It’s like you don’t even need me in the picture.”
Maizie sat forward and put the tea cup to her lips. “I was just waiting for it to cool, Momma. I’m still hot from the car ride.”
“I thought it might soothe your stomach.” Momma opened her mouth to say more then looked away, considering. She started again, keeping her voice low. “Maizie, I don’t just assume…I mean, there’s no reason to think that the treatments won’t work. Remission is a reasonable assumption at this stage. Even Dr. Keel says he is hopeful. I just… …your father’s a dreamer. I don’t have to tell you that, you are his daughter –”
“You can’t tell a man what to dream, Cheryl,” Pappa interrupted gruffly. “Bluebird, I’m not sure we’ve ever had a quilt, but I found this old sweater in a box in the closet.” He held it up. It was her grandmother’s sweater.
It was definitely too big for Maizie and there was a hole near the elbow and another at the place where the arm was attached. Maizie was transported to the memory of how that hole was made. They had lost Gams when Maizie was eleven. The grieving child had worn it for months; she had even slept in it. Momma eventually insisted the sweater must be washed but Maizie had fought her on it. She knew that washing it would change the smell and Gams wouldn’t be there any more. The fight escalated into a juvenile tug-of-war that ended abruptly when the sweater popped a seam.
Momma recognized the sweater, too. “Good god,” she said, “I thought we gave that old rag to Goodwill.”
Maizie crossed the room and accepted the sweater from Pappa with a smile. “Thank you,” she said softly as she hugged him tightly for a beat.
“Thank you for the tea, Momma.” Maizie gave her a quick peck on the cheek before walking down the hall to her old room.
~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~
The next morning Maizie waited until Momma had left the kitchen to tell Pappa, “I had a dream about Gams last night.”
Pappa smiled over his coffee mug. “I miss that old lady. Best mother-in-law a man ever had any right to. Why are we whispering?”
Maizie glanced around conspiratorially. “I don’t remember much of my dream, but I woke up with this image of Gams holding something and I’d like to make it. Will you help me?”
Pappa nodded with a wink as Momma walked in to make sure Maizie was eating her oatmeal and had taken her pills.
~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~
For phase one of the project, Pappa helped by buying all of the supplies and tools needed. Then he set up his workshop for Maizie’s use and installed a second air conditioner. Maizie was still wearing Gams’ old cardigan for comfort and to hang on to the feeling that Gams was with her.
Phase two had father and daughter pleating fabric squares into various shapes and securing them with rubber bands. Pappa lined up a row of plastic bottles filled with a rainbow of dye colors and two work stations comprised of cookie cooling racks balanced across tin foil pans. They talked easily of music and art, and reminisced together over Maizie’s childhood.
Over the days they worked on the dye, the duo kept the windows open in the workshop to vent the fumes. They had each plugged their playlists into an old laptop attached to high output speakers. Father and daughter sang with each other through rousing versions of songs in their playlists, from Pappa’s Johnny Cash and Hank Williams Jr to Maizie’s Suzy Bogguss and LeAnn Rimes.
Momma stood outside their clubhouse sneaking cigarettes and weeping silently at the amazing voice her daughter had been blessed with. She wondered, not for the first time, if it had been the compensation for such a short life. Nineteen years was certainly not enough.
During a song Momma didn’t know, she fumbled her cigarette as Maizie sang out:
“Well, well, well so I can die easy”
Then found herself folding toward the boards of the porch as the words, “And if these wings should fail me lord won’t you meet with another pair,” floated to her across the Oleander. The very real possibility that they might lose their little girl struck her square in the chest and wouldn’t let her breathe. Momma wrestled with her emotions, not wanting to make a sound that would alert the family to her spying and early grief. The struggle to keep it together pushed her through the house to the front room where the drapes were still drawn in protest of summer. Momma knelt on the sofa and bawled into the cushions.
~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~
Once the fabric had been prepped, Maizie and Pappa cleared a large spot on the floor and laid the vibrantly colored squares out in a pattern that, once nudged, pinned, and tweaked, formed a scene. At Maizie’s insistence, Pappa climbed up on one of the work tables to take several photographs of the layout. Then Maizie numbered the squares from right to left with a fabric pencil and stored them in a ziplock bag.
The first few days of quilting the squares together went very slowly. Machine sewing was not a skill Pappa had ever honed and Maizie feared she had taken on too much trying to sew the composite pieces by hand. When they only had a few days until Maizie’s next treatment, Pappa enlisted the help of a local quilter’s club. He had barely finished his story when the ladies, many with wet cheeks, swooped in to help them.
Maizie sat with the group on the first day answering questions about her vision for the piece and learning techniques she’d never known existed. Two of the women were school teachers from different points in Maizie’s education, another had been her piano teacher for a number of years. They talked to her about their own memories of her growing up, bringing smiles to Maizie and Pappa’s faces and distracting them for a time with stories of a bold girl with hands on her hips and a song on her tongue.
As part of the original payment plan, Maizie sang for them; taking requests as they pushed their needles in and out of her carefully planned art and kept time with their clicking thimbles and tapping toes.
~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~
“We spoke before the procedure about how radiation could help, but that it was also an aggressive approach,” Dr. Keel stated somberly. “The tests we took this afternoon are not positive. We killed a great deal of the blast cells, but Maizie’s immune system took a major hit as well.”
“What’s the next step, Dr. Keel,” asked Momma stoically as Pappa rubbed calloused hands down his face.
“Maizie will have to be kept in a ‘clean room’ until her body restocks the antibodies. Until then she is critically vulnerable to even the smallest infection.”
“Can we be in the room with her, Doc?” Pappa asked. “Can we bring her anything from home?”
“You can visit with her individually, but you will wear clean scrubs, masks, and gloves. Nothing from home for now, but we can revisit that in a few days after we test her blood again.”
~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~
Momma and Pappa spent a month sleeping in shifts at the hospital. Hopeful every time a doctor came in to discuss the blood-work. Disappointed and heartbroken every time they left.
Pappa found some comfort with the quilters when he wasn’t at the hospital. During his days away from Maizie he would work on the project with them. If he had the night off instead, he would find himself invited to dinner at one of their houses or at the bar or bowling alley with one of their husbands.
Momma had her sisters and a group of society friends she worked on charity committees with. She and her husband passed each other in hallways and parking lots like strangers. They shared information on Maizie’s condition, but found nothing else to say.
Maizie tried to stay bright for them. She would scribble silly poetry on pieces of paper from the nurses and fold them into little origami shapes and paper airplanes for her Pappa. With Momma she would watch adaptations of the classics like Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice or TV shows like Downton Abbey and Mr. Selfridge and make an effort to talk about the shows and appear engaged.
Then a morning came when Pappa kissed Maizie goodbye through his mask and Momma squeezed her hand with a gloved one in greeting, Maizie was exhausted by the effort it took to accept and return these two simple pleasantries. When the nurse took her vitals, Maizie could barely move her arm to proffer her wrist or move her chin to allow the nurse to feel her glands. Maizie’s eyes were hot with fever and her throat too swollen to swallow.
~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~
On an overcast morning when the wet air promised Autumn was on her way, Dr. Keel sat with the family and explained that Maizie was dying. It was no longer a possibility, but a fact. She would be moved to a private room where family members could come to say their farewells.
Momma and Pappa were bookends to Maizie’s deathbed as the parade of condolences came through the door like dry leaves on the wind, piling in the corners and crunching under foot. Maizie tried to smile and be gracious as faceless aunts, uncles, and cousins hugged and kissed her. She felt like a corpse whose eyes hadn’t died yet and whose ears were still picking up distant transmissions. After what seemed like a lifetime, the relatives stopped blowing through the door and Maizie whispered hopefully about a nap. Pappa asked if she could please stay awake for one more group who would like to say hello. He helped her to sit up a little more comfortably while Momma fussed with Maizie’s scarf and adjusted Gams’ sweater to a more refined frump.
The ladies from the quilter’s club filed into the room and stood at the end of Maizie’s bed in a line. Maizie smiled as wide as her energy would allow. She felt a spark of something inside that wanted more than a nap and more morphine. The ladies recited their greetings from the end of the bed and introduced themselves to Momma. Then Mrs. Rhodes, Maizie’s former piano teacher pulled a bundle from a large bag and handed it down the line as she hung on to a piece. Together the women lifted Maizie’s quilt high and let it unfold to the floor.
Bordered in a dark brown micro-suede, the quilt depicted a watercolor sunset over a tie-dyed barn and a patchwork field of greens, yellows and browns. In the foreground was a large, mottled, yellow-brown hen with a brightly dappled bluebird tucked under one wing. In front of the barn was the silhouette of a man sitting on a haystack, hunched over a guitar.
Maizie clapped like a child and her smile overcame the fatigue to spread across her face. Pappa exclaimed over the finished quilt and thanked the quilters with hugs for their perseverance. Momma, confused about the whole thing, stepped forward to thank the strangers for their kind gift. She was perplexed as to why anyone would give the dying a quilt, but there was certainly a lot of work involved and that should not go unremarked.
“This is such a lovely gift, Ladies. It seems to have made Maizie very happy. I’m sure it will be quite a comfort.” Momma smiled tightly. “I recall that only two months ago Maury and I were searching for a quilt around the house at Maizie’s request. So this is a timely coincidence. And lovely…” Momma’s eye was drawn to the bluebird under the hen’s wing. “Such an odd subject,” she thought, “yet it’s somehow…personal.”
“Do you like it, Momma?” Maizie asked hoarsely.
“Of course, Sweetheart,” Momma replied. “It’s wonderful with all of its color and swirls.”
“We made it for you. Pappa and I started it together, but we had to get the quilters’ help pretty early on. We were in way over our heads.”
Momma glanced at Pappa who looked proud of either the accomplishment or keeping it a secret.
“I’ve kept working on it while Maizie was in the hospital,” Pappa said. “There have been days where finishing this thing has been the only thought that gets me moving in the morning.”
Momma looked back at the quilt, but the churning colors blended into a Monet puddle under the well of her tears. “For me?” she repeated in almost a whisper.
The quilt ladies decided the family needed some privacy and quickly folded the quilt and handed it to Pappa. Maizie accepted their warm goodbyes and thanked them again for finishing the quilt for her.
Maizie flopped a hand towards her and Momma took it. “You always feel left out of my life. I don’t know why but it’s just easier for me, sometimes, with Pappa. That doesn’t mean that you are less important or less a part of me. I saw this picture in a dream and I knew it was us. I decided on sewing it because at the time I wanted to sink under a quilt for comfort and I thought, if things didn’t go well for me, you might need some comfort of your own. It’s a really nice flannel on the other side.”
Momma sat on the edge of Maizie’s bed and let the tears slide down her face. There were a million words trying to climb over each other in her throat. The only two that made it out were, “Thank you.” But a little while later, “I love you,” burrowed through. Pappa scrunched himself onto the other side of the bed and handed Momma one side of the quilt to tuck around her and their daughter. Together the family of three laid together in comfort as Maizie explained the imagery of the quilt in a fading dialog that ended in a soft snore as she slipped into sleep.