The Best Thing to Say
Kate Huong was awakened in the morning by the ringing of a phone. She opened her eyes and blinked them sleepily. Her momentary disorientation faded fast; she was not at home but in the tidy if small guest bedroom of her grandparents’ house, lying on one bed while her younger brother, Zachary, lay on the one to her left.
Yes. In her grandparents’ house. But only Grandmom was home.
Her stomach grew suddenly upset. In response, she curled up and shifted underneath her blankets, too cold to forsake their comfort. The digital clock on the bedside drawer read 6:38 AM. Too early. Kate shut her eyes again, hoping sleep would follow soon after.
The ringing stopped. Her grandmother’s voice filled the silence in its place.
“...Yes... Right, I understand... Thank you...”
Click. Kate tried opening her eyes again. She could hear more voices now: her parents engaging Grandmom in conversation. The murmurs proceeded for perhaps a minute; then footsteps approached the guest bedroom, the door opened, and Grandmom delivered the news.
* * *
The Saturday morning was cold in the manner of most autumn morns, but it was not unpleasant. The Huongs, however, had no time to enjoy it. They, plus Grandmom, were packed in their well-worn black Chevy Equinox and off to the hospital within minutes.
Zach, as most twelve-year-old boys would, complained about the lack of breakfast but was stymied by his mother’s terse censures. This, said Mom, was more important.
They entered the hospital, where the parents and grandmother whisked the children through hallways that looked the same, into a set of elevators with mirrored interiors, and down another hallway into one of the patient wings.
Grandpop’s room number was engraved in Kate’s memory as it was in the gold plate that was mounted beside the door.
He was wheezing weakly when his family entered. Transparent pipes ran up his nostrils and, Kate had been told, down into his throat. Kate had asked her grandfather on a visit some weeks ago if the pipes bothered him, and her parents had made very clear on their way back home that such questions should not (the word “not” was emphatically iterated and reiterated) be asked of a patient, and Kate had learned in her sixteen years of life that vocal disagreement with her parents would accomplish nothing.
The question about the pipes seemed moot then and there, in Grandpop’s ascetic white hospital room, as he took what the doctors said would be his last breaths and Kate’s stomach levitated.
When Grandmom got nervous, she also got fussy, hence why she was asking for the second time if the doctor to whom she was speaking had given Grandpop painkillers.
“Yes,” said the doctor, a dark-skinned woman with braided hair and a nameplate on her medical coat that read Von Dyke, and she proceeded to list a series of names that sounded more dangerous than helpful.
Grandmom seemed appeased. The doctor left soon afterward.
Alone now, the Huongs crowded round the bed. Grandpop’s eyes seemed closed, but his eyelids were twitching. “Can you hear me, John?” asked Grandmom; Grandpop seemed to nod slightly, but the movement could have been involuntary.
“Shh,” said Mom unnecessarily. “Come on, now, tell Grandpop how much you love him. Zach, you first.”
Zach took his place by Grandpop’s head, leaned over, and said, “I love you, Grandpop.” He paused, trying to think of more words, but then sucked in a breath and held it as he moved aside for Kate.
Grandpop’s breaths sounded more painful up close. Kate bent her knees to move her mouth nearer to Grandpop’s ear but couldn’t speak. She breathed through her nose to calm her jittery nerves and thought.
“I love you” seemed inadequate, but “we’ll miss you” was too depressing; “get better soon” was out of the question, as was a simple goodbye; and Kate, at this moment, felt nowhere near eloquent enough to vocalize, without being depressing, how hollow she felt and how sorry she was that her Grandpop wouldn’t live to see her and Zach grow to adulthood. She felt acutely the barriers of spoken language and, on a whim, wished Grandpop could read her mind.
But he couldn’t. Kate knew that. She also knew that her whispered, “I love you too, Grandpop; we all do,” was not the right thing to be saying. If it wasn’t the best thing to say, though, what was?
She sat soberly on the chair nearest the window as her parents and Grandmom said their goodbyes. The sky outside was streaked with clouds that glowed with incandescent colors, red and orange and gold: a beautiful sunrise, but when she was called to leave the room with Zach and her parents led them to the hospital cafeteria, she could only think of sunsets.