Dad said quietly, “It’s not a scary place. Just a plain old room with a plain old bed. I wouldn’t lie to you, Bret. Your mom looks just like she used to … only she’s sleeping.”
“Why wouldn’t you let me see her in the beginning?”
“Truth? Because of the bruises on her face. She didn’t look very good, and the machines were scary. Now everything is fine. It won’t scare you to see her, Bret. I promise. It might make you sad, might even make you cry, but sometimes when little boys are becoming big boys, they have to let themselves cry.”
“You swear she’s alive?”
“I swear it.”
Bret wanted to believe his dad.
“She needs to hear your voice, Bretster. I know she has been missing her favorite boy in the whole world.”
For the first time, Bret wondered if maybe he could wake her up. After all, he was her favorite boy and she loved him more than the whole world. She always told him that. Maybe all this time she’d been waiting to hear him. “I could sing to her,” he said softly. “Maybe that song from Annie … Remember when she took me to see the show? That song, ‘Tomorrow,’ she always sang it to me when I couldn’t sleep.”
His dad started to sing, very softly, “The sun’ll come up … tomorrow—”
“Bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow …”
Bret joined in and they sang the whole song together, and when it was over, he didn’t feel so much like crying anymore. “I could go see her tomorrow—before school.”
Dad’s voice was quiet now, a little shaky. “That’d be great. Hey, you want to sleep in my bed tonight?”
Together, hand in hand, they got out of bed and headed out of the room. All the time they were walking, Bret kept thinking about that song; it kept spinning through his head until he was smiling.
The next morning, Bret got up early and took a shower—without anyone even asking him to. He dressed carefully in his best clothes, a pair of black Levi’s jeans and a plaid flannel shirt. Then he raced back into his dad’s bedroom and stood by the bed.
“Daddy,” he said, poking him in the arm. “Daddy, wake up.”
Dad rolled onto his side and opened one eye. “Hey, Bretster,” he said in a scratchy voice, “what—”
“Let’s go see Mommy.”
Dad gave him a smile. “Okay, kiddo. Give me five minutes to get ready.”
Bret moved nervously from one foot to the other. He hurried downstairs and turned on all the lights. He snagged his backpack from the mudroom floor and slung it over his back.
True to his word, Dad was down in five minutes, ready to go. They jumped into the Explorer and headed for town.
Bret bounced in his seat all the way to the hospital. Last night he’d dreamed of his mommy for the first time. In his dream, she woke up when he gave her the Mommy Kiss. That’s what she’d been waiting for, all this time. The Mommy Kiss.
At the hospital, he held Daddy’s hand and dragged him down the hallway to her room. But at the closed door, Bret felt all of his confidence disappear. Suddenly he was afraid.
“It’s okay, Bretster. Remember, it’s okay to be sad. She’ll understand that. Just talk to her.”
Bret pushed through the door. The first thing he saw was the baby bed, with the silver side rails. Not a grown-up bed at all. There were no lights on; the room was painted in dull gray shadows.
And there was Mommy, lying in the bed. Slowly he moved toward her.
She looked pretty, not broken at all. He could imagine her waking up … Just like that, she’d sit up in bed, open her eyes, and see Bret.
How’s my favorite boy in the world? she’d say, opening her arms for a hug.
“You can talk to her, Bret.”
He let go of his dad’s hand and moved closer to the bed, climbing up the silver rails until he was leaning over his mom. Then, very slowly, he gave her the Mommy Kiss, exactly the way she always gave it to him. A kiss on the forehead, one on each cheek, then a butterfly kiss on the chin. At last he whispered, “No bad dreams,” as he kissed the side of her nose.
She lay there, unmoving.
“Come on, Mommy, open your eyes. It’s me. Bret.” He took a deep breath and forced himself to sing, just like he’d promised himself he’d do. He sang “Tomorrow” three times.
He slid off the bed and turned, looking up at his dad through a blur of tears. “She didn’t wake up, Daddy.”
His dad looked like he was going to cry. It scared Bret. “I know,” he said, “but we have to keep trying.”
The measure of a man comes down to moments, spread out like dots of paint on the canvas of a life. Everything you were, everything you’ll someday be, resides in the small, seemingly ordinary choices of everyday life. It starts early, this random procession of decisions. Should I try out for Little League, should I study for this test, should I wear this seat belt, should I take this drink?
Each decision seems as insignificant as a left turn on an unfamiliar road when you have no destination in mind. But the decisions accumulate until you realize one day that they’ve made you the man that you are.
Liam had let himself be overshadowed by his father.
He had gone all the way to Harvard, learned how many roads fanned out from where he stood … and he’d come home to Last Bend, where it was safe.
He had fallen in love with Mikaela and settled his whole world on the creaky foundation of that emotion. He’d known that their love was measured in unequal parts, but day by day, hour by hour, as their life together unfolded in a series of moments big and small—birthdays, anniversaries, family vacations, nights spent huddled on the sofa, watching television—he’d let himself fall into the sweet narcotic pool of forgetfulness.
Today he faced another crucial choice. He had been grappling with it ever since Mike first blinked. He had no doubt that the decision he made would lay the groundwork for the rest of his life.
He pushed back from his desk. There was a pile of charts and messages, all needing his immediate attention. He didn’t care. Not now. Instead, he grabbed his down jacket, put it on, and walked out of his office. Just before the reception desk, Carol popped out of the X-ray room and bumped into him.
“Oh, Doctor!” she said, giggling.
He smiled. It was the first normal moment they’d had in weeks. “I guess I should be glad you weren’t carrying urine samples.”
Carol’s giggle graduated to a laugh. “Or scalpels.”
“I’m going to sneak out early,” Liam said.
“Good for you. Your mother-in-law called a few minutes ago. The elementary school lost electricity today, so they canceled classes. She said they’d be up at the pond, skating, if you wanted to join them.” Carol pushed the glasses higher up on her nose and squinted up at him.
Liam tensed, knowing too well what was coming.
“How’s she doing?” Carol asked.
Liam hoped he didn’t look as irritated as he felt. “The same.” God, he hated those words. When this was all over, he’d never say them again. Or I’m sorry.
“Give her my best.”
“Sure, Carol. Thanks.” He did his best to smile as he strode through the empty waiting room. He had a flashing memory of Mikaela redecorating this small space. You can’t expect your patients to sit on plastic … and what’s that wall color—baby diarrhea brown?
Now the waiting room was a cheerful blend of primary colors—yellow walls, complete with a sunflower mural painted by Mrs. Dreiling’s second-grade class, bright cobalt blue overstuffed chairs, and a bold red Berber carpet.
He remembered Mike up on a ladder, her face and hair streaked with yellow paint, yelling down at him. Hey, piano man, are your hands too precious to hold a paintbrush? He’d gone to her then, pulled her off of the ladder, and held her in his arms, kissing her soft lips …
He strode out of the room.
Outside, the sudden plunge in temperature was exactly what Liam needed to clear his mind. He glanced down at his wristwatch: 1:38.
Suddenly he didn’t want to go to the hospital and sit by his wife’s bed. For three long days, he’d been beside her, holding her hand, saying Julian’s name over and over again. Not once had she responded in any way.
He flicked his wool-lined collar up and headed down the street. It was one of those moist winter days when the bloated, gray sky seemed to snag the rooftops and tangle in your hair. The mountains peaked above the mist, their snow-covered tips barely distinguishable from the clouds.
He ducked into the Bean There, Done That coffee shop and ordered a decaf latte. Irma made small talk as the milk whipped into a white froth, then didn’t charge him for the drink. No amount of cajoling would get her to take his money. Finally he said thank you and went back outside.
Someone exited the Lazy Susan Bake Shop, and the scent of cinnamon wafted from the open doorway. He was tempted to get something for tomorrow’s breakfast, but the thought of hearing “How’s she doing?” and answering “The same” was more than he could bear.
The sound of children’s laughter rode high in the still, clean mountain air. He followed it to Mr. Robbin’s llama farm. His frog pond, settled comfortably in a flat patch of the pasture, had been turned by Mother Nature into a beautiful silver skating rink. There were already several cars parked around the perimeter of the pond, so that when it turned dark, they could use their headlights to cast tubes of light across the ice. A boom box was on. Garth Brooks was belting out “I’ve got friends in low places.” Suzie Sanman was stationed at the picnic table, heating pots of milk on a camp stove, and Mayor Comfort was roasting hot dogs over an open fire pit.
Liam could see Bret. He was skating with a bunch of his friends. Rosa was sitting on one of the benches near the pond, alone.
He greeted his friends and neighbors as he made his way through the crowd, pretending not to notice their surprise at seeing him here. Beside Rosa, he sat down. Wordlessly, she scooted sideways to make more room for him.
“Daddy, Daddy, look at me!” Bret waved his arms. When Liam looked up, Bret began furiously skating backward—until he ran smack into Sharie Lindley and they both fell down in a laughing heap.
“Life goes on, eh, Rosa?” Liam said softly, watching his son trying to master the skill of skating backward. Last winter that same boy had barely been able to skate forward.
He curled his hands around the paper coffee cup; the moist heat felt good against his lips. He hadn’t even realized how cold he was until he started to warm up. But then, maybe that pretty much summed up all of his life experiences. “She is not doing well, Rosa.”
“Sí. Yo sé.”
“We’ve been talking to her for days now. I’ve said Julian’s name to her so many times, I’m afraid I’ll accidentally say it at dinner. I thought maybe Bret would be the key, but he’s visited every day after school, and … nothing.”