As I stood at the nurses' station, signing off charts, I heard a familiar, querulous voice. I followed it to a room across the hall and there she was, Aunt Tillie, my mother's oldest friend, terror of my childhood. I hadn't seen her in the ten years since my mother died. Somehow she knew I was there, and turned to direct that awful glare towards me.
"Althea, is that you? Get in here," she ordered, and like always I obeyed. I kissed the translucent skin when she pointed to an acceptable spot on her cheek.
"I didn't know you were sick," I said. Her hand, warm and strong in my memory, felt cold as I took it.
"Dying, dear, or will be soon, if I don't let them cut me open and remove most of my insides."
I struggled to keep tears from flowing. She had always been there: reinforcing my mother's rules as she raised the three of us without a father; holding my hand when I had my appendix out and my brother broke his arm all on the same day and our mother couldn't be with both of us; standing proudly with my mother the day I graduated from medical school. Our estrangement led to my neglect of her all those years.
"What is it?"
"Cancer, dear. In the womb. I think it has spread from the way they talk."
"There's treatment for that," I said, relieved.
"No, Althea." She squeezed my hand. "Look at it straight." The old admonition, whenever I broke the rules, or was unrealistic.
"Dr. Lang said they can't cure it, but can help me live a while longer. I said no. I'm going home today. They're arranging home care." Home care. Strangers cleaning her house and her body.
"Are you okay with that?"
"No, but staying here is worse." Suddenly tired, she closed her eyes and drifted into sleep.
Tillie had been with my mother during her last illness, when I'd been in London, working on my fellowship. There'd been no words of reproach for my absence, but I thought I saw it every
time she looked at me at the funeral. I grew a hard knot of anger and resentment then and carried it still.
She'd been Mom's constant companion after my father left us. I owed her for loving my mother and caring for her all those years. My own guilt had kept me away. Now as I looked at her tired face, I knew that I'd been hurt and angry at the change in their relationship from friends to life partners. A change I wasn't able to acknowledge or accept until now.
She opened her eyes again.
"Do you want to come home with me?" I heard myself ask.
"It won't be easy, Althea. You know how we clash." I heard the words,but saw the hope and relief in her eyes.
"Nobody promised easy," I said her own old words to her. She smiled, and squeezed my hand and drifted again.
I took Tillie home, settled her into a chair on the front porch and made us tea. I watched her rocking gently in the warm summer air, felt the lightness in my heart and knew that I had come home, too.
Virginia Winters lives in Lindsay, Ontario Canada. Her work has appeared in Confabulation2, Wynterblue Publishing, and Pine Tree Mysteries.