In my creative writing fiction class we did an exercise where we picked one of a variety of prompts to start a short story. I picked the prompt that said to write a story about a man at a lousy parent’s deathbed. Below is what I came up with. Hope you enjoy it.
It had been ten years since Barry Fitzsimmons had last seen his mother—two since he’d learned she’d been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. He’d been checking in with his half-sister Karen once a month, wanting to know the answer to a single question, “does she still remember me?”
“Yes Barry. She always asks why you never visit, but–”
“I’ll check back with you next month.” Click.
Yes, Barry Fitzsimmons might be the only person in the history of the world that was glad to hear his mother had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Of course, only Barry and his five half-sisters knew what it was like to have Maggie Fitzsimmons-Newton-Nugent-Young-Williams-Rukeyser for a mother – although she usually just went by Maggie Fitzsimmons for short—much to Barry’s chagrin.
It wasn’t that he planned on never going to see her—he just wanted to wait until she couldn’t remember who he was—because then, and only then, could he have any chance of forgetting who she had been. And Maggie Fitzsimmons had been a lot of things; awful things. Sure she hugged Barry. She hugged him right after one of her six ex-husband’s knocked on his face like a policeman with a warrant knocks on a door. And sure she spent time with him. She took the time to weep in his arms when those same ex-husbands went to jail, went to bed with another woman, to a rehab facility, or even one-time, left a note saying he had joined the circus.
“Ma, what do you expect when you fall for a guy you ran into on the street riding a unicycle juggling mangoes?”
“I’ve fallen for so many jerks, I just thought a nice guy like Quincy would last.”
“Ma! Marrying a complete idiot is no better than marrying a complete jerk… In fact, it’s almost worse. Nugent may have been an abusive alcoholic, but at least he was a functional alcoholic who brought home a fat paycheck.”
And so, Maggie went back to marrying jerks. It wasn’t the way Barry intended his advice to be taken. By the time Maggie told him she was going to marry Adolph Rukeyser, he’d had enough. At first he begged her not to do it. “I love you too much to see you get hurt again, Ma.” But she hardly heard him, just continued reading her Cosmopolitan magazine. That one time they came out with that issue about “how to blow his mind in bed.” So finally, he gave her an ultimatum; “if this guy ends up leaving you, I’ll be right on his heels out the door… Ma? Ma! Did you hear me?”
“Good Lord Barry! What?”
“If this guy leaves you I’m leaving with him. So if you’re going to tie the knot again, you’d better make sure this time it’s not around your throat.”
The wedding bells a month later sounded more to Barry like a funeral march, or Darth Vader’s theme song. “Adolph Rukeyser…” he said to himself splashing cold water on his face as he looked at himself in the mirror of a foolish cathedral bathroom before the ceremony began. “The guy sounds like an SS Officer.”
It turns out, Hans Rukeyser, Adolph’s grandfather, had in fact, been one of Hitler’s cronies. Pretty high up in the ranks actually. Adolph himself was not a Nazi. But his genetic heritage still made him one mean son-of-a-bitch. His relationship with Maggie ended when he drove his Volkswagen Jetta through their house in a drunken rage because he didn’t like the new carpet she had installed in the living room as a special surprise for him when he got back from one of his business trips.
And so Barry left. Over the next 30 years he made it on his own with the talent of survival he could have only inherited from his mother. She may have had issues, but Maggie Fitzsimmons had always shown him how to do that. He’d survived and found a wife that was nothing like her. He would be survived by four happy kids that grew up nothing like him. And he’d survived community college and state school to make a successful career for himself as a marital counselor; he found out he’d had a lot of practice growing up. In a way, he owed almost all his happiness to the mother of all his pain.
Then the day Barry had been waiting for finally came. He was playing catch with his second child– a son he named Nugent—when his phone shook like an earthquake in his pocket, and Karen’s name flashed on the screen.
“Bear… she’s had a stroke. It’s accelerated the Alzheimer’s so bad she doesn’t even cry anymore when she sees a Jetta drive by her window. I’m sorry brother. I tried to tell you to come see her when she’d still remember you—but I’m afraid it’s too late. They’re giving her 3-6 months.”
“I’m leaving right now.” Barry said with a smile and hung up the phone.
The nurse led him solemnly to room 6X. “Brace yourself. She’s pretty bad. Are you sure you want to do this? She might not even recognize you.”
Barry smiled and hugged the nurse like he’d hugged his mother after the circus fiasco. “Thank you. I’ll be fine.”
Maggie was sleeping quietly on her back. He kissed her creased forehead and gently nudged her. Her eyes opened tenderly and she smiled like grace.
“Hello. I’m Barry.”
“I’m Maggie.” She said offering her hand up like a peace treaty—he took it.
Then he said two things to her man ever had. “Hi Maggie. You’re very beautiful. Would you mind if I took you to the movies sometime?”