Ellen Orleans

Two dozen roses arrive at the hospital for her birthday. Red, pink, white and yellow. You remove them from their box, put them in a vase. Put the vase on the sill, where your mother can see them, not on the bedside table where she cannot. You are learning.

"Who are they from?" your father asks.

"We don't know," your brother says, "No card."

"Who sent the roses?" your uncle asks, a hour later. Today is his birthday too.

Nurses and visitors ask, "Who sent the roses?" Aides and doctors: "Who sent the roses?  We don't know, you tell them again and again and again. By late afternoon it's a mantra unraveling: Who sent the roses? God sent the roses. God scented the roses. God raised the roses. God raised the dead the dead sent the roses dead sent dead set godsend god rose jesus wept why haven't I ?

It's cruel to spend one's last birthday in the hospital but this afternoon, her birthday afternoon, at least your mother will go home. You sign the discharge papers. No one knows where your father is.

A slow ambulance takes her to a room you and your brother have filled with her pillows and paintings and photos and furniture. Where am I ? she asks, again and again, in this her-room/not-her-room in assisted living. Familiar objects fill unfamiliar space: her mother's coffee table, the vase from Aunt Charlotte, the bowl from Santa Fe. Cousin Rita's chairs. You've pulled one up to the side of the bed.

"It's your new room," you tell her. Your last room, you do not.

You and your brother followed the ambulance, car full of the hospital stay. Blankets and nightgown, slippers and plants, medications, birthday cards, mouth swabs. The roses.

The roses will wither. The roses will die. Everything does. But tonight, they are full, just this side of perfect. Their scent wraps the room.

Late afternoon, after a slice of a cake with a candle, after the how-can-this-be-happy? birthday wishes, your mother sleeps and you all sit around her, you, your brother, your uncle, your father, who slips in and out.

"You two are a godsend," your uncle says, "staying here with her."

"I don't know how you do it," your father says.

"I don't know how you don't," you think.

And now it's the next afternoon, your last day before you fly home. Your brother flew out today, your uncle is back in Manhattan, your father across the street.

The evening's aide arrives. Luisa from East Orange. Quiet, attentive. How does she manage it, how do they all, dropped into such family misery?

Dinner is sipped soup, goldfish crackers, a little rice. Your mother sits up in bed, part here, part somewhere else. "So nice for Danny to send the roses," she says.

"Danny sent the roses?" you ask. He is your oldest brother. "But there was no card."

"The flower box was from the florist he always uses." She tells me this in her new slow voice. But her delivery is steady. She knows what we didn't.

And so it is solved and somehow this lifts the night, the knowing and that she was the one who knew. For a moment, the thorny crown of tensions dissolves, and it is (almost is) simply an evening together, a birthday visit from her daughter, here among her gifts, her things, her birthday bouquet.

As she naps, you look at the flowers and wonder: Do different colored roses have different smells? A silly question, a children's game, like the ones she planned for your birthday parties.

            Guess the number of M&Ms in the jar. Guess the name
            taped to your back. How many objects in the room
            start with 'B'? Close your eyes, place your hand in
            this bag, tell me what you feel. Sandpaper, a pinecone,
            a velvet bow?

When she opens her eyes, you ask it out loud. "Do you think the different color roses have different smells?" You ask because it is something to say, because the Hospice nurse said to engage her senses, because it's the last night before you leave and it could be (though it won't be, but it could be) the last time you ever see her. Because, what else is there to say after this wretched, wrenching week?

"Well, let's see," your mother says. Does she say this because she wonders too? Or because she wants to please you. Or because she also knows this might be her last night with you. Had you thought of that? How she will miss you, her youngest daughter? How she also doesn't know how to say good-bye?

            Close your eyes, hold out your hand. Tell me, what do
            you feel?

So you rise and take a yellow rose from the vase and bring it to her. She smells it. "Springtime," she says. You smell it. Yes, a garden after rain. Luisa smells it. Smiles.

The white one. I can't smell it, your mother says. It's empty, you agree. Luisa sniffs and shrugs.

The pink one. Artificial, you think. You mother wrinkles her face. "Cheap perfume," Luisa says, shaking her head. You all laugh.

"Bad rose," you scold. It's okay to be silly. Isn't it?

You think your mother's had enough but she says, "What about the red one?"

You bring the red rose. Breathe it in deep. The scent is something favored, something once, something gone. (Do the dead miss the living?)

Your mother breathes in the red rose. "Yes," she says.

"It's good," Luisa says.

"Yes," you say. "It's good," you say.

And it is.

Ellen Orleans has recent work in Trickhouse. She runs the Yellow Pine Reading Series in Boulder.

To link to this story directly: http://wigleaf.com/201104risen.htm

Detail of ink drawing on main page courtesy of Andrea Joseph.

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