How much pain can the human heart endure was more than a rhetorical question for Jill at this point – it was more like how much pain could she endure, or continue to endure, because every day she had to endure it, and endure more of it than the day before, or so it seemed. The times when Anne was lucid were becoming less frequent, but Jill lived for those times, when Anne looked up from the bed with those sparkling brown eyes and remembered who she was. How are you, dear?, she would ask, more concerned for Jill than for herself. Are you getting enough to eat? You look thin as a bird, for Chrissakes. I should cook you something.
Jill always smiled at this, one of the few times she smiled anymore, but it quickly became not so funny. Anne had not cooked in years and did not remember she was in a hospice. A few times she actually tried to get out of bed, going Heat up the stove for me. Do we have any flour? I’ll make biscuits and jam. Jill feared these times because then Anne would look around her and realize she was strapped down to the bed and become alarmed, then frightened. She did not understand what was happening to her. Why are you doing this to me, Jill?, she would say, looking up at her with the eyes of an uncomprehending child. Jill would whisper softly to her, trying to keep her own emotions in check. It’s for your own good, she would say. We can’t keep having you walking off in the middle of the night so nobody can find you, now can we? Anne would look at her, puzzled, but the effort of trying to think, to piece things together, was too much for her. Her eyes glazed over and she left again for the other place. Most of the time now, she was in that place. At least there, Jill thought and believed, she was safe, free from all this.
Jill came every day now. She used all her vacation time and then took an unpaid leave of absence. Carl was able to take care of himself and the girls most of the time and keep his plumbing company running but he had to hire on another guy which he was fine with. He had told her to go and be with Anne. He would do the same thing if he were her; it’s not as if she had a choice. Anne was all alone. Sometimes Jill brought photo albums. When Anne had clear moments she sometimes took them out and they went through them and had good laughs. She had not taken the albums out in weeks now. The clear days became a few good moments in the course of a week; Jill never knew when Anne would open her eyes and not know her anymore, and when she didn’t know where she was or who Jill was she started to have panic attacks. She would ask for people. Tell James I want to go home, she said one day all of a sudden. Call James, I said. Tell him to come and get me. She became insistent and Jill tried to calm her down, but she told her the truth. James is dead, Anne. He died a long time ago. Don’t you remember?
Jill brought a CD player. When Anne was lucid she put on Louis Armstrong. One day Anne started singing to What a Wonderful World while Jill held her hand and cried. That was the last time Anne spoke, but Jill still played songs as long as her eyes retained a glint of recognition, until Jill knew Anne was no longer listening. The last time she came she had waited until evening; one of the girls was sick and Carl couldn’t manage alone. Anne had soiled herself and she smelled. The nurses had not changed her all day. Jill screamed at them; she cursed them. When Anne was clean and her bed changed Jill sat beside her stroking her hair. She could see Anne wasn’t coming back from the other place anymore. They were giving her morphine now and the nurses had showed Jill how to program the analgesia infusion pump next to the bed. She quickly reset it, then kissed Anne on the forehead. Goodnight, Mom. I’ll see you in the morning, she said, squeezing Anne’s hand. It may have just been a reflex but Anne squeezed back. Jill pressed the pump and felt Anne’s hand relax. Then she pressed it one more time.
Author’s Note: The Canvas Sextet is a collection of six volumes of provocative flash fiction – 300 stories altogether – consisting of mostly realism that crosses a range of genres. My “canvas” is one blank sheet of paper, 12 point, Times Roman, single spaced, around 800 words. The stories must be contained within that space, just as a painter is bound by a single canvas to convey a complex story through visual imagery. “More Love Tomorrow” is the title story from Volume Four, due in 2015.