The Hardest Thing in This World by Nicole Eva Fraser

Hardest thingMelody Sawyer, home health care nurse, suffers through the death of one of her two daughters, Renee recently dropped dead at age 24. Renee’s ghost, however, keeps popping in on the family. Meanwhile Melody’s married daughter, Kayla, continues her clandestine affirm with professional baseball player Baron Lee Presley. Drama and disaster await the women of the Sawyer family.

Chapter 1

After it was all over that summer—after my daughter Renee dropped dead in July at twenty-four and I stole the urn with her ashes from the memorial service and rode away with it on the ferry and ate some of the ashes before I washed the rest down my kitchen sink—after all that was over, Renee’s ghost came to visit me.

I heard it in a dream…Renee’s singsongy toddler voice…

“London Bridge is falling up,

Falling up,

Falling up,

London Bridge is falling up,

My fair pickle.”

And I heard myself in the dream…reading to Renee and my older daughter Kayla.

“There was a little fur family

warm as toast

smaller than most

in little fur coats

and they lived in a warm wooden tree…”

My eyes flew open as I woke up.

Someone was beside me in bed.

Suddenly I felt frozen solid in my summer nightgown. I could still turn my head and I did and there was Renee lying in what used to be my husband Winch’s spot before he moved out. Her wild hair messy on the pillow, wearing her Joe Camel tee shirt and dirty cutoff jeans. Lying on top of the bedspread, looking at the ceiling. Dead Renee…Renee’s ghost. When I gripped my sheet I felt the fabric squeezing between my fingers. I whispered, “Renee?” and I could feel my throat, my tongue and mouth moving to say her name.

“Hi, Mom,” she said. “Don’t be scared. I’m only here for a minute.” It was her voice. Quiet and unconfident, like the last time, like always.

“What do you want?”

“I want you to see me,” she said. “That’s all. Just see me. So you can’t forget me. Please don’t forget me.”

I was wishing I could forget her. I was trying to. It was what I wanted more than anything. So I lied to Renee: “I won’t—of course I won’t.”

“But you washed my ashes down the drain.”

My stomach flipped and I felt like I might puke. I pulled the sheet up over my mouth.

“And, Mom—forgive Uncle Michael.”

“For what? What did he do?” I said, pretending, muffled by the sheet. “He didn’t do anything,” like I didn’t know.

But Renee knew. “Please, Mom,” she said.

My jaw started clattering.

“Because what does it matter now?” she said. “It doesn’t matter anymore. Cry when it hurts, but remember the good things.”

I was warm again, and the bed felt light.

“So that’s the deal, Mom,” Renee said. “Then we can let things rest in peace.”

I pulled my sheet off and breathed. I wanted to think what a nightmare but when I put my bare feet on the rug, I smelled it—she’d left a smoke trail of unfiltered Camels behind her. And I understood what she meant: the only way I could stop her from coming back was to do exactly what she told me.

***

That same day I called Visiting Nurses and said I was ready to come back to work. They put me on the schedule for the next morning. It actually felt good to put on my uniform again, carry my supply bag out to the car, and drive somewhere with a purpose other than escape. My first job of the day was repacking the appendectomy wound for a Vanessa D’Allessandro, who lived on the skuzzy Near West Side where the Shoreway ran past the Cleveland salt mines.

“Vanessa D’Allessandro” sounded like a celebrity name, young and glamorous, someone with a fabulous story to tell. But most of my patients didn’t live up to any expectation beyond breathing, so I didn’t get my hopes up. And sure enough, Vanessa was just another patient, a plain-Janer in a shitty old sandstone apartment building in the middle of a falling-down block around the corner from The Big Egg all-night diner.

Vanessa was my age but, unlike me, she looked it, with her scraggly gray hair and cigarette wrinkles. She opened her apartment door with the chain still hooked.

“Ms. D’Allessandro? I’m Melody Sawyer from Visiting Nurses,” I said, flicking the photo ID that was pinned to my breast pocket, supply bag in my right hand.

Vanessa said, “Come in.” She undid the chain and hung onto the door while she opened it. She was wearing a pink flowered bathrobe that screamed Walmart, and after letting me in, she staggered to an old brown corduroy couch in the stuffy living room. I didn’t see a fan anywhere. Vanessa struggled, first to sit, then to lie on the low couch, groaning all the way. I didn’t help because she needed to be doing things like that on her own.

I picked a work surface—TV tray table by the couch—and cleared it off and sanitized it. Then I started arranging my scissors and alcohol and saline and Purel and my various non-sterile and sterile surgical gloves and gauze rolls and gauze pads and tapes.

“Do you have any family? Someone who stops by to check on you?” I asked. “You know, someone besides Visiting Nurses?”

“Yes,” she whispered, “my brother Michael”—which freaked me out because of my brother Michael and how Renee’s ghost had just warned me to forgive him. But I reminded myself that Michael was a very common name and that No, the ghost of Renee was not speaking to me through Vanessa D’Allessandro.

I pulled on a pair of non-sterile gloves to remove the old dressings. Vanessa’s couch was so low I couldn’t bend at the waist to reach her—I had to kneel on the ratty carpet.

I undid the laces of her abdominal binder, unpeeled the tape and gauze pads and dropped them in my plastic garbage bag, and sized up the two sections of her wound. The larger hole, below her belly button, looked big enough to hide a softball. The one above her navel looked about right for a golf ball. I decided to start with the big hole.

I started pulling the old dressing up and out of the wound—the pus- and blood-soaked gauze, the incredible stinking gauze, rolls of gauze packed inside the giant hole. The wet stench turned into a stink so strong it was gagging me. It wasn’t an infected funk, but that putrid stench of blood and pus and drainage and the body trying to heal. Vanessa just lay there silent with her eyes closed and her messy hair flung over the couch arm.

The odor was making my head spin, making me dizzy, which never happened to me. I swayed a little on my knees. The problem is, my face is like, right here in her stinking open wound. I breathed through my mouth and tried to think of something else.

Hmm, the long streamer of gauze was kind of like crepe paper. Like the crepe paper I used to hang for Renee’s and Kayla’s birthday parties when they were little girls. Long and swingy and festive. I’d string it all around our kitchen. Happy Birthday, Renee! Blow out your candles! The kitchen started spinning.

***

I opened my eyes and knew right away it was Vanessa D’Allessandro’s ceiling I was seeing. Her voice was asking, “Nurse, are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” I said, sitting up on her nasty carpet. “I don’t usually faint. Sorry about that.” I looked around and saw how close I’d come to knocking my work table over—my work table with all the sterile supplies and the bottle of alcohol I’d left open and the scissors that could take out an eye —mine or Vanessa D’Allessandro’s. If I’d landed another inch to the right…well, thank goodness it hadn’t come to that. I took it as a sign that my luck was finally changing for the better.

After it was all over that summer—after my daughter Renee dropped dead in July at twenty-four and I stole the urn with her ashes from the memorial service and rode away with it on the ferry and ate some of the ashes before I washed the rest down my kitchen sink—after all that was over, Renee’s ghost came to visit me.

I heard it in a dream…Renee’s singsongy toddler voice…

“London Bridge is falling up,

Falling up,

Falling up,

London Bridge is falling up,

My fair pickle.”

And I heard myself in the dream…reading to Renee and my older daughter Kayla.

“There was a little fur family

warm as toast

smaller than most

in little fur coats

and they lived in a warm wooden tree…”

My eyes flew open as I woke up.

Someone was beside me in bed.

Suddenly I felt frozen solid in my summer nightgown. I could still turn my head and I did and there was Renee lying in what used to be my husband Winch’s spot before he moved out. Her wild hair messy on the pillow, wearing her Joe Camel tee shirt and dirty cutoff jeans. Lying on top of the bedspread, looking at the ceiling. Dead Renee…Renee’s ghost. When I gripped my sheet I felt the fabric squeezing between my fingers. I whispered, “Renee?” and I could feel my throat, my tongue and mouth moving to say her name.

“Hi, Mom,” she said. “Don’t be scared. I’m only here for a minute.” It was her voice. Quiet and unconfident, like the last time, like always.

“What do you want?”

“I want you to see me,” she said. “That’s all. Just see me. So you can’t forget me. Please don’t forget me.”

I was wishing I could forget her. I was trying to. It was what I wanted more than anything. So I lied to Renee: “I won’t—of course I won’t.”

“But you washed my ashes down the drain.”

My stomach flipped and I felt like I might puke. I pulled the sheet up over my mouth.

“And, Mom—forgive Uncle Michael.”

“For what? What did he do?” I said, pretending, muffled by the sheet. “He didn’t do anything,” like I didn’t know.

But Renee knew. “Please, Mom,” she said.

My jaw started clattering.

“Because what does it matter now?” she said. “It doesn’t matter anymore. Cry when it hurts, but remember the good things.”

I was warm again, and the bed felt light.

“So that’s the deal, Mom,” Renee said. “Then we can let things rest in peace.”

I pulled my sheet off and breathed. I wanted to think what a nightmare but when I put my bare feet on the rug, I smelled it—she’d left a smoke trail of unfiltered Camels behind her. And I understood what she meant: the only way I could stop her from coming back was to do exactly what she told me.

 

That same day I called Visiting Nurses and said I was ready to come back to work. They put me on the schedule for the next morning. It actually felt good to put on my uniform again, carry my supply bag out to the car, and drive somewhere with a purpose other than escape. My first job of the day was repacking the appendectomy wound for a Vanessa D’Allessandro, who lived on the skuzzy Near West Side where the Shoreway ran past the Cleveland salt mines.

“Vanessa D’Allessandro” sounded like a celebrity name, young and glamorous, someone with a fabulous story to tell. But most of my patients didn’t live up to any expectation beyond breathing, so I didn’t get my hopes up. And sure enough, Vanessa was just another patient, a plain-Janer in a shitty old sandstone apartment building in the middle of a falling-down block around the corner from The Big Egg all-night diner.

Vanessa was my age but, unlike me, she looked it, with her scraggly gray hair and cigarette wrinkles. She opened her apartment door with the chain still hooked.

“Ms. D’Allessandro? I’m Melody Sawyer from Visiting Nurses,” I said, flicking the photo ID that was pinned to my breast pocket, supply bag in my right hand.

Vanessa said, “Come in.” She undid the chain and hung onto the door while she opened it. She was wearing a pink flowered bathrobe that screamed Walmart, and after letting me in, she staggered to an old brown corduroy couch in the stuffy living room. I didn’t see a fan anywhere. Vanessa struggled, first to sit, then to lie on the low couch, groaning all the way. I didn’t help because she needed to be doing things like that on her own.

I picked a work surface—TV tray table by the couch—and cleared it off and sanitized it. Then I started arranging my scissors and alcohol and saline and Purel and my various non-sterile and sterile surgical gloves and gauze rolls and gauze pads and tapes.

“Do you have any family? Someone who stops by to check on you?” I asked. “You know, someone besides Visiting Nurses?”

“Yes,” she whispered, “my brother Michael”—which freaked me out because of my brother Michael and how Renee’s ghost had just warned me to forgive him. But I reminded myself that Michael was a very common name and that No, the ghost of Renee was not speaking to me through Vanessa D’Allessandro.

I pulled on a pair of non-sterile gloves to remove the old dressings. Vanessa’s couch was so low I couldn’t bend at the waist to reach her—I had to kneel on the ratty carpet.

I undid the laces of her abdominal binder, unpeeled the tape and gauze pads and dropped them in my plastic garbage bag, and sized up the two sections of her wound. The larger hole, below her belly button, looked big enough to hide a softball. The one above her navel looked about right for a golf ball. I decided to start with the big hole.

I started pulling the old dressing up and out of the wound—the pus- and blood-soaked gauze, the incredible stinking gauze, rolls of gauze packed inside the giant hole. The wet stench turned into a stink so strong it was gagging me. It wasn’t an infected funk, but that putrid stench of blood and pus and drainage and the body trying to heal. Vanessa just lay there silent with her eyes closed and her messy hair flung over the couch arm.

The odor was making my head spin, making me dizzy, which never happened to me. I swayed a little on my knees. The problem is, my face is like, right here in her stinking open wound. I breathed through my mouth and tried to think of something else.

Hmm, the long streamer of gauze was kind of like crepe paper. Like the crepe paper I used to hang for Renee’s and Kayla’s birthday parties when they were little girls. Long and swingy and festive. I’d string it all around our kitchen. Happy Birthday, Renee! Blow out your candles! The kitchen started spinning.

***

I opened my eyes and knew right away it was Vanessa D’Allessandro’s ceiling I was seeing. Her voice was asking, “Nurse, are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” I said, sitting up on her nasty carpet. “I don’t usually faint. Sorry about that.” I looked around and saw how close I’d come to knocking my work table over—my work table with all the sterile supplies and the bottle of alcohol I’d left open and the scissors that could take out an eye —mine or Vanessa D’Allessandro’s. If I’d landed another inch to the right…well, thank goodness it hadn’t come to that. I took it as a sign that my luck was finally changing for the better.

***

Nicole Eva Fraser received her MFA in creative writing from the NEOMFA consortium in northeast Ohio, and graduated summa cum laude from Baldwin-Wallace College with a double major in English and communications. She is an adult-literacy activist in Cleveland, Tanzania, and Malawi. She runs 10Ks (slowly), used to speak French, and often can be found putting her foot in her mouth.

Click here to buy: The Hardest Thing in This World

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