Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Hard Thing, by Erica Orloff

The Hard Thing

By Erica Orloff

My family calls me Speed Dial.

Someone in the family is pulled for a DUI at 2:00 a.m. and can’t walk the straight line, my number is the one they call from jail.

I am also Bail Money.

I’m the person my siblings call when they are arrested, or when they are considering doing something to get themselves arrested, like when their husbands leave them for the babysitter, when their wife shacks up with their son’s seventh-grade gym teacher. There are six siblings—split down the middle. Three boys, three girls, and that figure multiplies exponentially given my family’s propensity for fuck-ups of epic proportions. We’re now into second-generation fuck-ups. One of my nieces is pregnant. She’s sixteen, so I’m guessing we’re going into generation number three. We like our traditions.

Two a.m. is usually the DUI call. I rolled my eyes when I saw the county lock-up come up on caller I.D. Then I mentally calculated how much I had in my bank account to cover bail. Only this last call wasn’t a DUI. It was nine plain words.

“Your father has been arrested for murdering your mother.”

There are bail calls. And there are rock your world to its core bail calls.

It was days until I could see him—that’s how they processed him. When I finally was frisked and walked through metal detectors, squinting in the buzz of fluorescent lights, I saw how the orange jumpsuit swam on his 96-pound frame, casting him as some murderous scarecrow.

He didn’t apologize.

“I’ll be with her soon. I pray every night for that. I dream of it, and when I wake up, I’m just sad it hasn’t happened yet. Soon, though.”

And that much I knew. The pancreatic cancer had ravaged him.

“Love does the hard thing,” he sighed.

At first, she couldn’t count change. A math teacher who couldn’t count to 100 pennies. She got lost on the way to the supermarket that was a half mile from their house. Then she got lost in the supermarket by the frozen raviolis and started crying.

She forgot my siblings, one by one. Forgot their dramas (which was a good thing). Forgot the days of the week. She actually thought every day was Tuesday. She didn’t know the name of the president of the United States. Then she forgot she lived in the United States and told me she lived in Guam.

She forgot me, finally. Until he was the only one who could get through to her. He would hum her this song. “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.” From when they were dating 55 years ago. And she would smile and become compliant.

Then she forgot the song. Even just to hum it.

And finally, he slipped away from her, too, like disappearing into a thick fog.

Then she forgot words. Sometimes, it was as if she rattled around in her own head searching for C-A-T when their Siamese moose of a cat sat on her lap. But those three little letters could not be found.

Then she could not remember how to swallow.

And that was when he decided.

He made sure the sleeping pills were the very last thing she ate, spooned gently into her mouth in a soupy applesauce, him massaging her throat to help her remember how to swallow, spooning it back on her tongue when she pressed it forward through her lips like an baby learning how to eat rice cereal. He laid her down. When she snored, he put a plastic bag over her face and held her hand. She never struggled. He said he thought it was sort of like when babies die of SIDS. She just went to sleep.

He’ll be dead before the trial.

He confessed to everything anyway. The D.A. was a female without compassion, eyes black as a crocodile’s.

“I’ve got one question for you. Did you ever stop to think that maybe what you did was wrong? Wasn’t the answer?”

He pondered. “Love hesitates.”

Then, looking up at the ceiling, he whispered, “But love does the hard thing.”


Jude Hardin said...

Love some of the images here. Dad as some murderous scarecrow and Mom crying by the frozen ravioli.

I had a patient with severe Alzheimer's last week. It's a sad thing, and very tough on families.

Great job with this, Erica.

Erica Orloff said...

Hi Jude:

Again, because these are short-shorts, it's interesting what you end up picking to go with in your words. AND . . . since mine is following E. Flanigan's . . . . it's interesting to see we had a similar element. If totally different. But . . .


Melanie Avila said...

Wow. Just wow.

My grandfather died of Alzheimer's and the last time I saw him alive he was spitting his mushy food back out of his mouth, exactly as you described it.

My mouth dropped open when the call about her father came. I love how you set it up so at first we're thinking "oh, this is where the kids all get it from" but then you realize he was driven by love. Wonderful.

Erica Orloff said...

Thanks, Melanie! And yes, eventually people can forget how to swallow. So you know.

It's heartbreaking.


Heather Lane said...

Erica-- what a vivid picture you paint. I sat with my grandfather as he died of Alzheimer's. It is good when others Know.

And, growing up, my family had a Bonehead of the Year Award for all the boneheaded things that everyone did. Nobody ever went to jail, our stuff was on a smaller scale, but your story reminded me of that, as well.

Impressive writing.

Erica Orloff said...

Thanks, Heather. There was one year when we had . . . I'm thinking three arrests, but maybe not. However, the arrests seemed very clumped. The last one was my dad. LOVE those calls at midnight. Love 'em. LOL! Yes. I earned my gray hair. ;-)


Natasha Fondren said...

Aww, that's so sad. My best friend is that kind of strong. I'm not, no matter how much I love, LOL.

I loved the way you set up our expectations and then surprised us several times.

Erica Orloff said...

Hi Natasha:
I didn't find it as sad as some people who have already emailed me privately. I felt a sense of heroism. Definitely SAD, yes . . . but . . . maybe there was GRACE in the decision.

I don;t think I am that strong either. My father used to make me "swear" I'd kill him with an OD if he got Alzheimer's. I can swear all I want. I'm not going to.


Sarah Laurenson said...

It is the hard choice and one my wife is hoping I will make when the time is right. Not looking forward to it - at all. I can't even squash a cockroach.

Very well done. Thank you!

Erica Orloff said...

Hi Sarah:
I don't think I can. But there is someone in my life with Alzheimer's right now and it casts a huge pall over . . . our whole world here in my house.

LurkerMonkey said...

Nice! There are some very sad moments in here. You know, this is a decision I hope I never have to make, but I like to think that, if the time came, I could make it (especially if I had pancreatic cancer). And I'd want my wife to do the same for me ...

Anonymous said...

That was an excellent short-short. Just so you know. You don't have to respond to this comment.

Erica Orloff said...

I think if I had pancreatic cancer, it might make it easier. Life on death's edge has more clarity.

Anonymous said...

I loved it. I loved the unexpectedness of the call and the sadness of losing someone before your eyes. My one quibble (and it's small) is that, perhaps, you could've done with one or two fewer examples of her deterioration—they're all powerful and speak for themselves. PM

Erica Orloff said...

Point well taken. I definitely wondered about that. There is a difference between Alzheimer's a moments of confusion/senility/dementia. So I wondered if everyone knew the progression. If I could assume that.

Good point, though. Especially in a short-short.


Jude Hardin said...

There's a very real ethical question here, and I have to think what the dad character did here was murder. We can't go around killing people just because they have Alzheimer's.

E. Flanigan said...

Sorry this comment is coming kind of late in the day .... I was at work with no computer access.

What I wanted to say is that my job is in the field of swallowing, and I was just talking to a coworker about how the failure to swallow is often the signal to families that the end is near. That showed insight on your part.

I also like the idea that love hesitates but does the hard thing, because it shows the ferocity of love. At work I tell mothers of sick kids they need to find their inner mama bear .... Sometimes love needs to be bad-ass. Your story captured that kind of love!

Erica Orloff said...

I 1000% disagree with you. But it's one of those very divisive arguments that will not often find a middle ground so I don't see any sense in debating it. My will is pretty clear on pulling the plug, denial of food and water (euthanasia) and so on. When someone can't swallow, that represents some divide of no return. Your "we can't" is a judgment . . . we CAN if that was the spoken desire of the people at the center of this story or of any real-life story. I have no sense that this was murder, but again . . . it's a highly emotional argument. So . . . one of those agree to disagree things. I wrote this as a very clear love story. Not a murder story.

Erica Orloff said...

Thanks, E. I am a mama bear through and through. :-)

Jude Hardin said...


I 1000% AGREE that there are cases where death would be preferable to what technically passes for life. No argument there at all. But with something like Alzheimer's, it's really tricky. The patients I've seen still have moments of what seems to be joy, and there's no way to tell what's really going on inside their minds.

I know you meant for this to be an act of love, and I can see that this character thought it was, but at what point would one make such a decision? It's not quite cut and dried, like it might be if someone was on a vent with flat EEG waves.

Richmond Writer said...

Excellent story.

Really very well done.

Erica Orloff said...

It's a work of fiction, not my political agenda. I have a vast set of living will instructions, have thought this out extensively, and seen it in my life played out. But it's a work of fiction . . . not my political and medical treatise. If you as reader want to take away that the father committed murder, that is out of my hands and writer and is what happens when people read fiction. The way I handle fiction is my work stands on its own, take what you wish.


Jude Hardin said...


Well, the best fiction makes us think, and you really did present an ethical dilemma whether you meant to or not. And, I'm pretty sure most people would agree that feeding someone sleeping pills and then putting a plastic bag over their head is murder.

Erica Orloff said...

No. Not everyone would agree in the context of this loving act.

Joe Barone said...

To me, it is not a matter of whether you agree with the act or not. It's a matter of who the character is and how he sees love. I found that to be one of the most powerful parts of what, for me, was a moving story.

Erica Orloff said...

Thanks, Joe. He loves his wife very much. And, not sure if it was noticed, but the fact that he believes he will JOIN her very soon shows the tremendous faith he has that their love is ETERNAL. Bigger than the love story of their life on earth--it will continue somewhere else, without ceasing.


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