Saturday, October 15, 2016

Student Writing: "The Prisoner"

Teaching writing is hard work, but it's also enjoyable and rewarding, and almost always a learning experience in itself. It's wonderful to witness students realizing that language is a tool, one they can learn to master, and that once mastered, it can be used to powerful effect.

Illuminations is the Southeast Community
College magazine of literature and the
arts. This student essay is reprinted with
permission of the author and of the
And sometimes along the way, we teachers encounter a student who loves and respects the language, who is willing to work hard, and who learns to wield the language with both tenderness and ferocity.

This is one of those. Donna is a strong writer and a wonderful person; a former student of mine, I'm now proud to call her a friend.

Compared to the length of my usual posts, this is a bit of a long read, but it's a worthwhile one.

The Prisoner
By Donna Salas

It was a beautiful October afternoon in my small home town of Scottsbluff, Nebraska. The weather was warm and inviting—as if fall had forgotten to be cold and gloomy, had an identity crisis, and wanted to be spring for a day. The trees had started their annual art crawl across the city, painting its neighborhoods with splashes of red, gold, orange, and yellow. Even the trees that had completely shed their leaves added a beautiful nakedness to the landscape. The seasons were on the cusp of that beautiful blending that happens as spring slides into fall. It was the time when the earth started to settle in for a long, cold nap, and Mother Nature started to slow life down. It was on this beautiful and perfect day that he decided to settle in, too. He couldn’t have picked a more perfect day to die.

I woke up early in the small apartment in the basement of my parents’ house. I showered quickly, threw on jeans and a t-shirt, and raced upstairs. My mom stood in the kitchen, her back to me, making tortillas. The smell filled my nostrils and woke my stomach, stirring it to growl. She turned toward the stove to flip a tortilla. I could tell she had been awake for hours already. “How’s he doing this morning?” I asked my mom as I kissed her cheek. She looked tired and worn out. Her hair was pulled back in a loose ponytail; small frayed ends of hair framed her face and stood out like fragile wisps at her temples.

“He had a rough night. Didn’t get much sleep,” she said and turned back to the counter to start rolling another piece of masa. I poured myself a cup of coffee and headed out of the kitchen toward his bedroom at the front of the house. I suddenly wasn’t hungry anymore.

His light was on, and the door was open. His TV was on the Spanish channel Telemundo, but the sound was turned down to a muted muffle. His oxygen tank breathed in and out in a raspy hiss like an aggravated cat by his bedside. The police scanner buzzed and beeped on the night stand; disembodied voices broke through speaking in code every now and then. His eyes lit up when I walked in the room.

“Good morning, Dad. How’d you sleep?”

He smiled and said in his most serious voice, “With my eyes closed.”

We both giggled. This was a running joke we said every morning to each other. I kissed his cheek and sat in the big red recliner at the end of his bed.

We made small talk. How’s work? How’s the truck running? (I had been having belt issues with my truck, and he had walked me through changing the belts and setting the timing over the phone.) We talked about everything except his illness. I didn’t ask how he was feeling because I could see how he was feeling. I knew he was in pain every waking second. His body had swelled to twice its normal size. He was an athletic man of 5’9” and about 250 pounds. I remember thinking, “My daddy is the toughest, strongest man alive. Nothing can defeat him.” I could have never in my life believed that he’d be done in by a 12-ounce aluminum can of beer. Now here he sat, his body so swollen that he couldn’t move or walk; he literally could not lift the weight of his own leg. All he could move were his arms and head.

We talked briefly about nothing special when I asked what time it was. I had to leave for work soon. He told me I had about ten minutes until I had to leave. He fell silent at those words. A melancholy fell on him, and he suddenly looked so sad. I pretended not to notice; I refilled his coffee and kissed his cheek. “OK, Dad, I gotta go. I love you, and I’ll see you after work.”

He looked straight ahead, a blank stare filling his eyes, and said, “OK. I love you, too, mija.” He said these words to the nothingness outside the bedroom window, not making eye contact with me. I knew deep in my soul that something was wrong. He didn’t say “I’ll see you later” back.

I worked an uneventful eight-hour day. For some reason, I decided not to call home at lunch like I normally did. I know now I was scared that I would get bad news. I would call, and Mom would have to tell me that he had taken a turn for the worse, and I should get home now! I had told my mom that if she needed to get a hold of me during the day to call my boss’s office phone, and she would come get me. But as my day progressed and Marilyn never came out of her office to get me, I began to think my fears of that morning were just paranoia. Maybe I was overreacting.

3:30 p.m.—I had made it! I’d worked all day and had no word from Mom. As I walked confidently through the parking lot toward my Toyota pickup, I thought about stopping by the grocery store to pick up a loaf of bread and other odds and ends to get me through the week. I had my hand on the handle of the truck door when Marilyn came running out of the building.

“Donna! Your mom just called. She said you need to get home now!” My stomach tightened, and my throat closed. For a moment, I just stood there trying to process her words. It was almost like they had been said to me in a foreign language that I knew only the curse words to. The ten-minute drive home seemed to take an hour. I don’t remember much about the drive, but I remember thinking, Please let it be something stupid, like, “Get home now! Your dog made a mess in the basement.”

When I finally pulled in the drive, I noticed my Aunt Cathy’s car parked in the street. Nothing unusual there—she would often come and spend the whole day with my dad. My grandmother had moved in when dad got sick, so my aunt would come over and visit her, too. My aunt and my dad were as close as a brother and sister could be, and there was no place in the world she would rather be than with her baby brother. They shared a birthday, and twelve years later, just a week short of my dad, they also shared their final breath.

What was out of place was Andrea’s old maroon Toyota Camry parked outside. Andrea was a good friend of the family, and I’d known her my whole life. She was also a hospice nurse and had been assigned to us when my dad was put on hospice two months ago. She had been to the house only a few times during the day to help Mom bathe Dad in his bed since he couldn’t get out of it and to change a dressing on his leg when he came down with thrush. Most of the time, she was there was as a friend. This was not good.

I ran into the house through the front door since that was closest to his room. He was laying in his bed, his arms folded on his chest; the fleece blanket Mom had made him a few years ago for Christmas covered his bloated body. We had bought him a hospital bed a few weeks ago, and it took up so much of the room that we had to put it in at an angle, covering up the closet door. My aunt stood on his left, my grandmother was at the foot of the bed, and my mom was standing on his right. I pushed my way into his cramped room and took my mom’s place on his right. I took his hand; it felt cold and still. I scanned the room looking from face to face and saw that everyone looked worried. “I think it’s time, mija,” my mom said as she put her hand on my shoulder.

“Did anybody call Adrian?” I asked, just then noticing that my brother wasn’t there. He would be crushed if he couldn’t be there. He would never forgive us! Looking back now, I know that a small part of me didn’t want him there. I felt that if he wasn’t there, then Dad would not leave. It was a childish wish. My aunt nodded and said he was on his way. Dad’s breathing was so shallow it was almost non-existent. We stood watching him sleep, nobody ready to cry just yet.

Adrian finally ran into the room and took up post on the left side where Cathy had been standing. He took Dad’s other hand. We looked at each other, and a quiet understanding passed between us. We both leaned in at the same time and whispered in his ear, “It’s OK, Dad. You can go now. We’ll be OK.” A silence fell over the room, like someone had sucked the air out of it and we stood in a vacuum. A clock ticked somewhere, and the angry cat hissed in and out on the nightstand. Then, like that, he was gone. We all just looked at each other. Andrea came into the room and checked his pulse and looked for a heartbeat. She shook her head and said he had gone home. And just like that, on a beautiful fall day in October, my dad went to the clearing at the end of the path.

The most profound heaviness fell on me, and I ran out to the front porch and wailed. I cried like I had never cried before. The weight of my grief fell on me like a 20-ton cement block, and I collapsed to the floor. I felt paralyzed and numb from head to toe. My girlfriend scooped me into her arms and carried me into the living room. People all around me were in different stages of sorrow. My brother was in shock and just sat at the dining room table. My mother and Aunt Cathy were holding my grandmother. I went to her and hugged her. I began to cry again. I told her I was sorry that she had to see this. I was sorry she had to watch another son die. No mother wants to see her children suffer or feel sad, but deep down, all parents are selfish and hope to pass away before their children. In the end, nobody wants to lose someone they love and would do anything to not have to feel that pain.

Someone called hospice, someone called my Aunt Joanne, and someone called the rest of the family. I had moved to the back yard with my girlfriend and my brother. He had called his wife, and she was there, too. We began to tell stories about how funny Dad was, and we started to laugh. Our laughter floated into the house, and before I knew it, everybody was outside. One by one, we each told a story, and our tears of sorrow were replaced by tears of joy.

The funeral home had come to take Dad, and they waited with us for over an hour until the last of the family could see him. Family and friends came and went for the remainder of the evening, and by 9:00, we had said goodbye to the last of the visitors. It was just Mom, Grandma, my girlfriend, and me. We stripped his bed and cleared all his medication from his room. We cleaned that room until it was spotless. The hiss of his oxygen machine had been silenced. The TV had been shut off hours ago, along with his police scanner. There was a sense of peace now, like the weight of his sickness had made the room sick, too, and now it was healed.

It had been an exhausting day, and I was surprised to find myself yawning. We were all drained and needed a good night’s sleep. I said goodnight to my mom and grandmother and went with my girlfriend down to the basement apartment. As we lay in bed, she asked me if I was OK. I laughed and said, “Not really—my dad just died,” but I was going to be OK.

I rolled over and looked at her. “I never thought it would be like this. You prepare and prepare, but when the time comes to say goodbye, you’re never really ready. It hurts like hell that he’s gone. It hurts so deep in my soul that I am forever changed—forever. But I also feel this sense of relief that it’s finally over. I’ve lived on edge for months now. I’m not afraid of the telephone ringing anymore. I don’t have to worry about getting THAT call.”

She stroked my arm. I could see the tears running down her face. “But you know what else I feel? I feel honored to have been there. I felt dignity come back to him. He isn’t this sick person that can’t take care of himself anymore. He is a whole man again. He’s not trapped in that body filled with disease and pain.”

I began to cry again, but these were tears of joy. My dad was free, and I didn’t have to worry about him anymore. He wasn’t in pain, and he wasn’t scared! Death had given him his pride back and taken him out of a world of pain and shame. The cell doors had been opened, and he was free from that prison of a body. Death had given him freedom, and because of that, I was happy to let him go.

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