This was my entry for the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge 2014, Round 1, Heat 3
The assignment was to write a Drama that contained a Stay-at-Home Mom and a Volcano
I was preparing for an eruption—not the geological kind—but the life-just-got-blown-up kind. It would be my first, but for Mom it would be the second time, and she was understandably resistant.
I had told Mom that if I didn’t qualify for the transplant list, I wanted to just stay home at the end. She called me, “Little Mister Sunshine,” trying to lighten things up a bit, but I knew there was fear behind the joke.
I wasn’t eligible for the list because of my ongoing infections, and there was a sort of finality in that. Not necessarily welcome, but it did settle quickly, the way a book is firmly closed when the reading is over. In my story, the closing lines would never say, “And they all lived happily ever after,” so I guess Mom wasn’t sure what she was going to do when left alone to write the sequel.
But of course, she wasn’t totally alone. We both always had support. She had some of her old co-workers and Uncle Brian’s family. I had some guy friends, the closest being Pete, who had been my best friend since Middle School.
I called Pete the day I found out that there wouldn’t be a transplant in my future. Things got pretty awkward as he realized what that meant, but I tried to just keep talking, avoiding a hard drop of silence—I asked him to help me think through some things I wanted to do ‘before the time came’ and reminded him how much I hated the phrase ‘when the time came,’ because it felt like a cop-out for such a hard truth.
There were people I wanted to see, a few things I wanted Pete to help me record or write down somehow, and one thing rose to the top of the list—a valiant “Thanks” to Mom for being such an amazing Mom/Dad, Nurse, and Friend. Pete threw out some good suggestions: a gift, maybe jewelry, photos, or a written letter she could keep? I’d have to do a little more thinking.
By the time the phone call ended, I was confident that the next months would be as good as possible, and that felt great. By the time I was ready for my evening therapy, I had decided what I’d do for Mom, which felt . . . amazing.
On Saturday morning, I woke early to the steady hum of wind and light rain against the window screen. I rolled over, trying not to pull out my oxygen cord, and bunched a warm, fleecy blanket up around my neck. Ugh, I really hope this rain stops in time.
Reluctantly, I crawled out of bed and started my morning routine: clean up, shave, dress, eat breakfast plus protein shake (I was really having trouble keeping weight on), and take vitamins, enzymes, and antibiotics. Then I puffed on my inhalers and hooked up for a half-hour nebulizer treatment.
It took almost two hours for me to be finished with everything (which was the main reason I’d started sarcastically referring to the process as ‘The Gauntlet’). I had to do it, just had to take it slowly. Take time to breathe and cough.
There was still no stirring from Mom’s bedroom, so I decided to check on her. I knew she was tired—she’d been doing so much lately, and I knew she’d had that conversation with Uncle Brian last night where he’d been trying to convince her that she should move back to Illinois ‘after.’ Mom told me she wasn’t thrilled with him trying to fix things she wasn’t ready to say were broken.
Of course, I loved Mom for being that available. I never felt like I was losing her to worry or to the future, even though I knew there were a million questions boiling under the surface of every conversation, every hug, and every trip to the hospital.
I pushed her bedroom door open just a few inches. Everything was grey and silent with silvery shafts of light falling across her bed. I tip-toed into the room, trying to be as quiet as possible, but then a coughing jag caught me off guard, and she stirred just a little, “Olyver, is that you?”
“Yeah, Ma, it’s me,” I sat on the edge of her bed, handing her the hand-made card from behind my back and the reading glasses from her bedside table. “Here, take a look at this.”
“Well, I must say, this is highly irregular,” she teased, shifting enough to be propped up on her pillow. She looked down at the card on which I’d collaged some photos of us from over the years.
“Oh my goodness, what was I doing with my hair in the nineties?” she asked, pointing to one where she had a stellar perm and I was in a Star Wars costume.
There was one of Pete and me, sporting the mohawks we’d gotten when I found out I wouldn’t be able to join him at Washington State after high school. My health was getting worse.
“Look at this,” I said, pointing to one where I was fourteen but holding up a crayon-drawing of a Zebra with three pointy legs. “Remember? This was just after you left your job at the lab. Director Harrison had lost patience with you needing personal time to take me to the Doctor or be home with me, but I knew you missed it, missed that sense of normalcy. I’m sure I did all kinds of weird things trying to cheer you up.”
“Yeah, I think you thought you could convince me that my new ‘stay-at-home’ gig would be full of wonder and merriment, like a young Mom with her first toddler.”
“Well, I’m still as cute as a preschooler.”
“Suuuure you are.”
After a few minutes of looking at the other photos, Mom turned the card over and read the little poem I’d written:
You’re really, really great,
Your love is like a fountain,
Before it’s too late,
Let’s go to the Mountain.
She looked up at me skeptically. “I don’t know if that’s a good idea. You haven’t been well—what if you catch a cold?” She knew that by the Mountain I meant Mt. St. Helens. We’d visited there hundreds of times over the years. When I was younger, Mom had still been working there. Afterward, we had gone back a lot to visit old friends or just take in the scenery. “I don’t want you back in the hospital.” Her words sounded cautious, but I could tell she wanted to go.
“It stopped raining,” I prodded.
“But how are you feeling?” I knew rain wasn’t the issue.
“Well, I feel like my lungs are failing and like Chomping Frostymitus is killing me slowly with every breath I take,” I paused for pitiful effect and then added, “BUT today’s not my day.”
Mom scowled. “Seriously, Oly, I wish you wouldn’t joke around about the Cystic Fibrosis. You’re breaking my heart.”
I did feel a little guilty. “It’s just . . . you know . . . hard to answer the same question a million times without wanting to embellish.”
“Well, let me think about this proposed trip.” She slid out from under the covers and into her fuzzy pink bathrobe and slippers. “You’ve eaten I assume?” she paused while zipping the robe. “I’m sure if I say I’m going to fry some bacon, you’ll find a way to eat a bit more.”
Soon enough, Mom had decided that we could give my surprise adventure a try. I had bacon in my stomach, and we were in the car, headed west. Mom had loaded up a ‘Mom of the Year’-worthy carload of supplies, including my wheelchair, oxygen, snacks, extra bottled water, and even the disposable medical masks and gloves. I could tell she was glad but also on the defense. She talked excitedly and navigated by instinct.
Twenty minutes later, we parked in the lot near our favorite trail. Mom helped me into my chair and we started to roll. I started to cough again—the air was so much different here at the Mountain. Mom looked down at me with worry, but I waved off the gaze.
“I’m fine,” I assured her. Actually, I felt wonderful—I leaned my head back and stared at the open sky. It was steely and there were only a few clouds lingering from the morning rain. I took a few breaths of the fresh air and was happy to see some familiar plants.
“Mom, remember when I was younger and had that field journal? I used to insist on stopping to draw everything.”
“Of course I remember—I gave you that book, and it was fun to see you so intent on every single rock and twig.” There was a smile in her voice.
We rolled along for another fifteen minutes or so, and then Mom stopped. She crouched beside my chair and pulled some of the water bottles from her backpack.
“I love this place,” she said.
“You can say that again.”
“I love . . .”
“Oh boy. That’s too corny, even for you!” I teased. She chuckled, and I looked up at the summit in the distance. It seemed even higher than I remembered, and it looked so strong. Hard to believe it had once so totally blown its top.
“Mom, I was wondering if you’d tell me the story again . . . the story of my Father and the Mountain?”
For a second she seemed surprised, but then she nodded yes. I wasn’t really the typical fatherless kid always asking about ‘that guy,’ but she probably knew why I was asking right there at that moment.
“I might as well get comfortable if we’re gonna do this,” she said. Standing up, she took off her puffy jacket, wadded it into a makeshift cushion, and then sat down on it.
“Once upon a time,” she began, “there was a fair maiden named Sally who had traveled to a distant land to study this very Mountain.” Mom made a sweeping gesture, scooping in the scene in front of us. “Sally was young and excited, but she was mostly alone, so she went out of her way to make friends with locals and with her fellow Mountain-studiers.”
“Mountain-studiers, that’s new. I like it.”
“Among the Mountain-studiers was a brilliant, handsome Scientist named Anthony Adessi, known to his friends as Tony. Tony had the reputation of being a ‘man of the world,’ and Sally found him risky and captivating.”
I laughed. I always liked hearing her describe how she had fallen for him. When I was a kid, I’d spent nights staring into the darkness above my bed, wondering what Tony was like. I had decided that if we ever did meet I would refer to him as Tone just to be difficult. He’d had his turn.
“One late-summer day,” Mom continued, “Tony and Sally were standing at the base of the Mountain, just as the sun was resting on it, showering each ridge with shards of rose and gold light. Sally was snapping photos: some of the trees, some of the sky, and some of Tony’s smart brown eyes. He smiled into her camera’s viewfinder, and then he reached out and pulled her toward him.”
“Ooooh, Smooochhhie-smooooch!” I teased.
“Speaking of photos,” Mom said, pulling her point-and-shoot from the backpack, “We should get some today.” She snapped a handful of nature shots, and then we got a few of the two of us—some with regular smiles and some making silly faces . . .
As she slipped the camera back into her bag, she continued, “Well, nine months later, my lab partner, Serita, was driving me to the Hospital at five-thirty in the morning. It was time for my baby to come, and Anthony had left a few weeks before, silently abdicating all driving and, coincidentally, all parenting duties.
I was in heavy labor by that point, and Serita was alternating yawns with encouragement: ‘Keep Breathing. We’re almost there. You can do it.’ The roads were empty, and she was really speeding. I could hear the radio just enough to pick out ominous words like landslide, evacuate, and danger, but they only served as punctuation marks to my frantic breathing.”
“After they had me situated in a maternity ward bed, it was six more hours before I delivered my wildly handsome baby boy. The black and white TV monitors were blaring with footage of the eruption of Mt. St. Helens, and I just knew that this baby and I were tied to that Mountain.”
“And that baby was me,” I said. I knew it was my line.
Mom nodded and followed: “And this Mountain is ours.”
Mom got quiet and looked around at the fields, the Mountain, the sky. After a minute or two, she shook her head as though trying to dislodge a thought. “It’s hard to believe how much this place has regrown—I think there are even more trees now than there were the last time we visited. Everything looks so alive.”
I liked to think of the Mountain as our paperweight; it seemed to anchor us, probably because its peaks that stretched so high into the grey Pacific sky also went so deep into the fabric of our little family.
“I named you Olyver Brian, choosing the ‘y’ because I could only think of one manly Mountain—the mythical Greek one. I may have been young, but I was smart enough to know that ‘Helen’ was no name for a boy and ‘Olympus’ was no name for anyone.”
Mom always stopped the story at that part. She looked up at me with a big smile. I could tell she was still proud of her Olympus and Helen punch line, and I felt like this was a perfect chance to try to express my thanks.
“Seven weeks later, you found out that I had a genetic condition that would explode your life even more than being a single Mom would have. The whole path of your life shifted, but you determined that you would keep working and help me beat the odds. Those ridiculous Doctors told you that I might not even live to go to school, but we showed them!”
I trailed off, seeing that her eyes were filling with tears.
“You don’t have to stop,” she urged.
“Yes, I do. I don’t need to finish the story because it’s not over yet.”
Nodding, Mom wiped her face with the back of her hand and stood to continue our walk.
A little while later, as she slid back into the car, I turned and looked at her. “You’re the very best,” I said.
She reached across the seat and gave my shoulder a gentle squeeze. “And you’re the very best.”
“Mom, when the time comes, will you bring me back to the Mountain?”