by Alex Hiebert – Contributing Writer
In observance of Women’s History Month (March) this year, Creative Writing students’ final assignment for the fiction unit was to write a short story in which a contemporary women’s issue (American culture provides a depressingly deep and varied grab bag of these, as the all-female Creative Writing class can tell you) appeared as a theme in story. Alex Hiebert’s “Saving Grace” centers on a young woman whose parents suffered a tragic accident. The story captures daily challenges faced by a primary caregiver, as well as the pervasive assumption that it is a woman’s duty to provide care—while putting her own life on hold—when care is needed. – André Swartley, Creative Writing Professor
At first glance he looked lifeless, just as he did every other morning. Yet Grace knew as she got closer to him she would be reassured by the slight rise and fall of his chest. Every time she entered her father’s room she was taken off guard by how small he looked in the big bed that he used to share with her mother. A man she once thought was bigger than the world now dwindled away with each passing day. Grace sat next to her father on the bed and reached for his hand. His fingers felt like ice as she squeezed his hand, gently trying to wake him. She had been surprised that he hadn’t stirred when she opened the door. Ever since the accident he had been a light sleeper.
As her father woke, Grace helped him through the daily morning routine. She helped him sit up and slide into his wheelchair off the bed. Even though it had been seven months since the accident, she still hadn’t gotten used to seeing her father in that wheelchair. The legs that she once sat on as a child, that he used to chase her and her brother around the house playfully, and that he was supposed to use to walk her down the aisle now lay limply in the chair, useless. Grace wheeled him to the bathroom, where she had to help him maneuver himself from the chair to the toilet. She never imagined that she would have to help her father use the bathroom before he was even fifty years old. A task that once took two minutes now took fifteen.
After settling him back into bed, Grace headed to the kitchen to make his breakfast, two pieces of toast, one egg sunny side up, and a glass of orange juice. She made his plate and ran it to his room as she threw a couple pieces of bread in the toaster for herself. She placed his breakfast on his bedside table, made sure that he was okay, and fled to the bathroom to get ready.
Staring at herself in the mirror, Grace wondered when her eyes had started to develop the dark circles that took residence under her eyes. Her blonde hair lay flat around her colorless face. No longer wanting to meet the gaze of her own eyes, she looked at the picture she had taped up of her and her mother from last year. People were always telling her that she looked like her mother, especially since the accident, as if it’s supposed to comfort her. But what good was a face that looked like her mother’s when her father could barely stand to even look at her anymore? And anyway, she felt she didn’t do her mom justice. The stress had worn on Grace’s body, her toned figure now gone, making her look frail. She couldn’t tell if she looked older or younger than her 21-year-old self. She quickly threw her hair up in a ponytail, brushed her teeth, told her mom she loved her, and left the bathroom. She didn’t even bother changing from the t-shirt that she had worn to bed.
Grace went back to check on her father before leaving for class. As she peeked in his room, she saw him asleep, his food practically untouched. She would have to talk with him later about how important it was for him to start eating more. His doctor was getting concerned after his last appointment. Grace tucked his blankets tightly under him, remembering how cold he’d felt to her earlier. His eyelids fluttered there in the dim light. Was he fighting off a nightmare about the accident, like she did every night? She waited a few minutes until he seemed to fall into a deeper sleep, and she left for class.
School was the perfect escape for Grace. While the college she attended now did not live up to the big university that she had gone to just last year, it was still helping her work toward her dream of entering the medical field and one day becoming a doctor. She’d had to move home to be with her father, but she refused to let go of school, transferring to the local college just ten minutes from her house. The first school was just one more thing she had given up in order to care for her father. While she couldn’t take as many classes as she wanted to, she still had eleven hours a week to get lost in the books and medical jargon.
She had always been interested in the medical field. Her mother had been a nurse for over fifteen years before she died. As she sat in class, Grace remembered all of the nights she’d spent waiting for her mom to come home. As soon as she’d walk through the door, she’d scoop Grace up in her arms and give her a kiss on the forehead, the smell of the hospital lingering on her clothes. She would carry Grace to the kitchen and together they would share a peanut butter sandwich while Grace would ask her mother question after question about work, always starting with “Did you save any lives today?” to which her mother would laugh and reply “not a single one.” Grace never believed her. Her mom was a hero. If single kiss could heal her own ouchies, she knew her mom could save all sorts of lives.
Grace was startled back to reality when she heard people closing their books around her. The remembered smell of the hospital filled her nose and she wiped it away. Now at the age of 21, she wished she could go back to her five year old self. More than anything she needed a mother’s kiss to make her world better.
After the accident and all of the days spent in the hospital with her father, she was surer than ever that she wanted to follow in her mother’s footsteps. She would watch the nurses care for her father, seeing him slowly get better. Grace knew that she couldn’t prevent accidents from happening in the world, but she wanted to be there to help when they did.
On her way home, Grace stopped by the post office to get the mail. The bills had been piling up lately and Grace knew that she’d have to start looking for a second job soon. Her parents’ savings were quickly vanishing and it wouldn’t be long before Grace would be expected to help. She understood, but it still frustrated her. She used be carefree, not having to worry about anything but school and her social life. She’d had parents who loved her and would do anything to help her reach her goals. Now, she felt like an old housewife. The person who cooked and cleaned and watched over the children, or in Grace’s case, her father.
When Grace got home she set the mail on the kitchen counter and headed straight to her father’s room. He was in a trance, staring at the TV, watching reruns of Everybody Loves Raymond, her mom’s favorite show. She said a quick hello and then returned to the kitchen to make him a sandwich. He barely noticed when she came in, only acknowledging her after she sat down beside him on the bed. She handed him the plate with his sandwich and he set it on the bedside table next to his cold, untouched breakfast.
“I’m getting really tired of this,” she said to him. “You have got to start eating. There’s no way that you’re going to gain any strength back if you continue this.”
“I’m not hungry,” he replied.
“I don’t care. You have to eat. If you get healthier, it’ll be a lot easier around here. You’ll be able to move yourself around on your own a little bit, you know, gain back some of your independence.”
“Yeah, okay. I’ll try,” he said without even taking his eyes off the screen.
Grace knew it wasn’t true. She began wondering if he even wanted to get better. The doctor had told her that he should eventually be able to live on his own and even get a job. That, of course, was considering his physical health, which was being controlled by his emotional instability. Grace understood that he was broken and hurting, but she was too. It wasn’t fair that he was allowed to sulk while she had to take up every single responsibility that he was neglecting.
She got up from the bed, telling him his sandwich had better be gone when she came back. She left the door cracked so she could hear him in case he called her. She went just down the hall to the kitchen and sat down to eat her own sandwich. But before she could, her phone rang.
“Hello?” she answered.
“Hey, sis, how’s it goin’?” Danny’s voice was bright, too cheery. He hadn’t visited since their mom’s funeral. He lived up in Chicago, working as an accountant. He refused to come home, saying he “had too much going for him” to just up and leave, and that taking care of their father was job more fit for her anyways.
“It’s going. Dad’s still not eating, I swear he gets skinnier and skinnier every day.”
“Give him time, he’ll get better. He just misses Mom.”
“I know he misses mom! We all miss mom. But he’s not trying to get better, he just wants to waste away in that bed, leaving me to cook and clean and care for him like I’m some housemaid. He never thanks me. He cries in his bed, probably wishing that he could just die and leave me here on my own. Please just come home. We’re running out of money. I can’t balance dad, school, and work. I’m going to have to find another job and drop out of school. There’s no way we can make it like this.”
By now she was weeping into the phone, her heart was aching. For the first time since the accident, she realized the pain was turning into hate. First she lost her mother and now her father was trying to leave her too, and her brother didn’t care about any of it.
“Calm down. You know I wish I could come and help you, but I just can’t. I’ll start sending you money, but that’s all that I can do right now. Please, Grace, just—” She hung up. She couldn’t stand to hear his excuses anymore.
Grace went to the bathroom to clean herself up. As she was drying her face she heard something from her father’s room. It wasn’t him calling or the TV, but more of a thud, and then she heard him yelling for her.
Grace ran to his room, both afraid and frustrated. Last time he’d fallen out of bed it had taken an hour to get him back up. She’d have to call the doctor and have someone come check on him, and she had another class in less than 45 minutes. As she entered his room, she stopped in her tracks. There he was, on the floor, sobbing with every ounce of his strength. His hands covered his eyes and his legs lay tangled below his waist.
“Dad, are you okay? I need to get my phone to call the doctor, I’ll be right back.” She was getting up from the floor beside him when she felt his grip enclose around her wrist.
“I’m…so…sorry,” his voice came between each gasp of breath as he cried. He was now holding her hand, and she knew in her heart he wasn’t talking about falling out of bed.
“What? Dad, it’s all right, let me go call the doctor. We need to make sure you’re okay.”
“I heard you talking to Danny. I tried to get into the wheelchair by myself, but… I wanted to be with you.” Grace’s heart sank. She looked back on the conversation and realized how horrible it must have sounded.
Grace laid down beside him and placed her head on his shoulder. For the first time in seven months, they really talked. Her dad made himself vulnerable, explaining the pain he was feeling and how it had turned him into a bitter man. He knew he had been hurting her, expecting too much of her, allowing her to spread herself thin. He saw the life drain from her each and every day, and he knew it was his fault.
They laid there on the floor and cried. They cried for their lost wife and mother, for the past long seven months, and for each other. Drained both physically and emotionally, and they found themselves unable to keep their eyes open.
Grace shook awake with a pounding headache. Her back was hurting from the hard floor. She looked up at the clock by her father’s bed. It was four in the afternoon. She’d missed her class and now had only half an hour before work.
She wiped her face, feeling her swollen lips and eyes which felt as though they’d swallowed every last tear she cried. She slowly and painfully stood up, cracking her back, and looked down at her father who was still sound asleep on the floor. She still needed to make that call to the doctor, just to make sure he was okay. Before leaving the room to get her phone, she placed a pillow under his head and covered him with one of his blankets. As she left the room, a sense of peace swept over her. For the first time in a long time, she knew that everything was going to be okay.