February 26, 2009

Emily's Last Day
Deanna Hershiser

On the trip to Emily's house, Neil rode beside his brother Ben, who drove. Passing Harrisburg, Neil reached into his ear and pulled out what looked like a small wad of Playdough. He tapped the minuscule antenna. "I got hearing aids."

"Good for you, Neil. About time."

Neil grinned. "When you and I go out to the lake in April, I'll notice the birds. If a trout splashes, I'll hear it."

"I'll have to get a better reel," Ben said.

Neil settled comfortably into his seat, glad to talk fishing. He decided if Emily had been with them she'd likely have commented, "Enjoy the day, boys. No long faces."

At last they parked in front of her house. Their other sisters and their nieces hugged them at the door. Beyond everyone, Emily lay in a hospital bed, her eyes closed. She lay on her back, the family nose aimed at the ceiling. The cancer had ravaged her frame, and the blankets tucked to her chin couldn't soften her emaciated form.

"Emily," Neil said. "You snore like I do."

She closed her mouth.

"Hey, she heard me!"

The women nodded. "She's aware of us."

They went to the kitchen for food. There were orange wedges, triangle sandwiches, and paper plates. Then they sat in the living room, balancing the plates on their laps, surrounded by Emily's knick-knacks and paintings. The orange tasted sour.

Emily had never married. She had worked all her life, and her coworkers stopped by to pay respects. With his new hearing aids, Neil listened to soft conversations humming. Finally people began to drift away in the late afternoon. His sisters, who'd been caring for Emily for weeks, looked weary. A hospice nurse would be in later to stay the night.

Neil lingered at Emily's bedside, wishing she'd open her eyes.

"Let's sing a hymn," Ben said. The family grasped hands and almost encircled the bed. Neil didn't know all the words to Amazing Grace, but he listened intently to the haunting song. In the silence afterward, he bent to hug Emily's wasted shoulders.

"I'll never forget," he whispered, "how you saved me from Billy Hanson when he had me down that day in second grade."

Neil kissed Emily's cheek and her face twitched. "I couldn't beat anyone," he said. "So you did. I saw his bloody nose. Good punch."

Emily's breathing shifted slightly. He knew she'd heard him.

"Thanks, Sis. I love you." Neil kissed his sister again and let go of her hand.

A few minutes later, the brothers said their goodbyes and stepped into the evening air, where Neil stood on the porch for a moment, listening. He could hear sparrows singing hymns in the trees.


Deanna Hershiser lives in Oregon with her family and a small dog and large cat. Her essays have appeared in Relief: A Quarterly Christian Expression and Runner's World, among others. She blogs here.

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