by Pete Fleming
Thanks to the international date line, the day lasted something like 42 hours. I started in Australia and ended up at my mom’s death bed. The Australia part of it was a belated “I passed the bar exam” trip, because my post-law school “I passed the bar exam” was me putting my possessions in a U-Haul in Chicago and driving 24 hours straight to Orlando in the dead of summer to start a government job. When the two-year government job was over, I decided to go to the other side of the world for three weeks before I spent the rest of my life sitting in a Chicago office accounting for my time in six-minute increments.
The death bed part of it was a long time coming, although I certainly wasn’t equipped to realize it at the time. My mom got cancer when I was in law school, beat it, and then got it again when I was in Orlando. For the past year, I had been making trips up to Chicago to sit in wards where bald people shuffled by in hospital gowns and grim-faced doctors pointed at white clusters in X-rays, while we talked about “fighting it.”
My mom last spoke directly to me the morning I left for the other side of the world. I don’t remember what we said, because I assumed we’d have plenty more conversations when I got back. The night before, we’d gone to my cousin’s wedding and we’d danced a little bit. I don’t remember the name of the song, but she got tired and had to sit down before it ended. There’s a picture I just found in my trip diary. She’s very bald and even skinnier than usual. Her eyes are hollow. But she’s smiling.
I talked to her a few times from the other side of the world. No matter how many times I double-checked the time difference, the phone always ended up ringing in Chicago in the middle of the night. She seemed out of breath, but excited to tell the nurse that her son was calling from New Zealand, Australia or wherever I was standing in a pay phone at the time. I was excited to tell her what a great time I was having, and that I would see her soon — when I got back in a week. I told her I was happy that I’d be closer to home now that I was working downtown, that I could help Dad take care of her.
I turned my cell phone on in Los Angeles for the first time in three weeks. I didn’t listen to the many voice messages, but I did call my old man. I guess I was jet lagged as I stood there in the security line: we’d left Sydney on Thursday afternoon and landed in Los Angeles on Thursday morning, I think. My body was screwed up, but I did register the odd note in my dad’s voice.
The ambulance was coming. Or was it already there? She was going to the hospital, and I should hurry. I looked at the security line, out the window, past the LA skyline, all the way to Chicago.
Would I like to speak to mom?
Hi, Mom. How are you? How about a bad joke, because that’s what sarcastic people do to keep from showing emotion.
Nothing but ragged breathing.
Oh shit. Shitshitshit. Don’t cry in the security line. Can I skip the security line? Please? It’s important.
I get on the plane, although I’m not sure how. I think I spoke to my brothers. There weren’t as many odd notes in their voices, but that’s because they weren’t equipped to realize what was going on at the time either.
I watched a Charlie’s Angels sequel on the plane. I tried not to cry because it didn’t seem polite to my seat mates. But I had that bubbling feeling of anxiety welling up in me, like the one that happened when I figured out the first girl I loved was cheating on me. The kind that made my fingers and toes tingle in a dark way.
Upon arrival, I shoved my way up the aisle and hit the jet way running. Years of competitive racing meant I could run faster and longer than the people around me. I ran to the rental car bus, then I ran to the rental car. I drove the rental car quickly and broke many laws. My luggage circled endlessly at the airport.
As I drove, I listened to a song again and again. I remember this song. Eddie Vedder covering the Beatles. I didn’t have any seat mates to offend now.
In the last mile of my drive, some woman wouldn’t let me cut in front of her. I rolled down the window and asked her if I could please go to that turn lane over there. She asked me why, and I told her. I can’t believe I took the time to tell her. Why do you even care if I go first? Don’t you already know?
I ran through the hospital parking lot and asked the woman at the front desk where I should go. She took her time. I asked that she hurry up and told her why. The woman hurried up.
I ran to the elevator bank, then down a hallway past my crying uncle.
The room was crowded, and everybody looked like I felt. Especially her.
I made it.
About the author
Pete Fleming lives in Florida with his wife. At work, he accounts for his time in six-minute increments.
When I wrote to you and asked if you would write a story for this blog, you said you returned home from a party, read my email, and wrote this story. I’m glad you did. I found it to be a comfort and I think other readers will too.