Tangled -- creative nonfiction by Ariana Wang
The shoes my mother wore that day were gray. They were closed-toed and pointed at the end, though the toe cap was already beginning to lift off of the rubber sole from years of wear. The sky was gray, too. In the air drifted puffy clouds, stagnant and swollen and still, like someone had captured the puffs of smoke from a forest fire and pinned them haphazardly in the sky. My mother used to say that every cloud has a silver lining, but all I could see that day was gray.
I tore my eyes away from the sky. The bright, blinding white of the hospital’s fluorescent lights made me wince. An onslaught of heat greeted us as we trudged through the hospital doors, offering sanctuary from the incessant snowfall outside. The comfort of warmth lasted for only a brief moment, however, before the heat began to consume me, coiling around my body and permeating the barrier of my skin until it had settled at the very base of my bones. I found myself wishing that I were still outside in the cold.
The woman at the front desk smiled at us sadly as we approached. It was a smile I was used to seeing, one that only counted by definition: with the corners of the mouth turned up. If the lower half of her face was covered, it would have seemed like she was frowning instead.
“Here to visit again?”
Again. I didn’t like that word very much anymore. I’d heard it too many times in the past few days, over and over until it all began to sound meaningless. She’s getting worse, again. She’s not eating, again. She hasn’t woken up, again.
“Yes. Down the hall?” my mother asked, as if we hadn’t been in this exact position five times in the past three days.
“Same room,” the woman said like she did every time, and I let her secure the gray wristband around my wrist. She always strapped them a little too tight, and as soon as I had my hand back to myself, I wriggled two fingers beneath the band and tugged until it stretched out. “Last door on the left.”
“Thank you.” My mother put on that voice she used when she was trying her hardest to sound sincere. She didn’t do a very good job, but the woman smiled all the same.
The hospital corridors formed a labyrinth, but we navigated them easily, following the familiar paintings on the walls like Theseus and his trail of thread. A left at the bowl of fruit. A right at the lilypads, another left at the woman with long, silver hair. Seven doors down. The door we stopped in front of looked like every other door in the hall. I’d tried to hang up a picture once, a collage of colorful cut-outs from a magazine, but someone must have taken it down because it was gone the next time I visited.
I rested my hand on the doorknob, took a deep, steadying breath, and stepped inside.
Immediately, the air felt thicker. I could almost taste it on my tongue, the musk that curled sullenly about the room. Dim, overhead lights, flickering uncertainly like a live flame, cast quivering shadows onto the walls, as if they were flitting in and out of reality. The room was small, just large enough to fit a twin-sized bed and a single plastic chair in the corner for visitors. The headboard of the bed was pressed up against the wall, yet there was still barely enough space between the footboard and the wall on the other side for a single person to fit through. My mother squeezed through the gap to where my aunt sat, leaning down to kiss her on the cheek. I lingered by the door.
They spoke in hushed whispers, but I caught the harsh g in again, again, she’s holding on by a thread, again. My clothes clung to my skin, my body sticky with sweat. I hooked my fingers beneath the high neck of my sweater and peeled the fabric from my throat.
“Come say goodbye,” my aunt said, smiling that smile again, the one that didn’t quite reach her eyes but idled dutifully around her mouth.
I approached the bed slowly. The woman lying on the mattress didn’t seem to notice my presence. Her skin was pale, so much so that she seemed almost ghostlike in the tarnished glow of the overhead lights. My grandmother, the woman I grew up with, but I could hardly recognize her.
“She’s asleep,” my aunt murmured. “She hasn’t woken up yet.”
Even when she was well, she hardly woke for anything at all. My grandmother, for as long as I could remember, was a stubborn sleeper. I remember crawling into her bed as a child during a particularly fierce thunderstorm, the kind that shook walls and rattled windows. I was sure that someone had uprooted the entire house and was shaking it around like a Magic Eight Ball. Is the storm ever going to go away? Ask again later. Through it all, my grandmother never stirred. I envied the way she slept with so much determination, forbidding even the gods from waking her.
How fitting that, even now, she remained asleep.
I reached out with a shaking hand to brush a strand of gray hair away from her face. She never let me touch her hair as a child, worried that my clumsy fingers would leave knots and tangles. She never let me do my own hair, either. As I ate breakfast before school each morning, she’d stand behind me with a hairbrush caught between her teeth and weave my thick strands into perfectly even braids. She stopped as I grew older, but each time I stayed with her, I let her braid my hair. As her adept fingers carefully constructed my hair into something beautiful, I let myself crumble. I knew that she would put me back together.
I didn’t know what I would do now that I was going to lose her.
My hands were shaking by my side, and I balled them up into fists and jammed them into my pockets. I was angry, I realized abruptly. Seeing her look so utterly defeated in a hospital bed kindled an unbridled rage in me that after all these years of suffering, it had come down to this.
“Why didn’t you try harder?” I whispered, my nails digging deeper into my palms.
I didn’t know who I was asking. The doctors, for not doing enough to save her, or my grandmother for not fighting hard enough.
I blanched. That wasn’t fair. I was being selfish.
The doctors did the best they could, and my grandmother fought with every last drop of strength in her body, and what had I done? I’d stood here, and I’d cried more times than I’d cared to count, and I’d smiled that stupid smile until my jaw ached. Who was I to blame them?
Yet, for a moment, I let myself drown in my selfish thoughts. It was easy to pin everything on real, tangible people. When it was the doctors’ fault, or my grandmother’s fault, I could trace the problem back to the root and see the solution: work harder, fight harder. I found a sick sort of satisfaction knowing that even the biggest problems had obvious solutions if you tried hard enough.
But they really didn’t, did they?
Because it wasn’t the doctors’ fault, or my grandmother’s fault, and, try as I might, I could draw no red strings between the problem and the root and the solution. This was out of my control, out of their control, and there was nothing any of us could do.
There was nothing we could do, but I hoped that a miracle would occur, and she’d rise out of bed. She’d smile and tell me to sit closer, so she could braid my hair, and she’d say, “You’ve grown so much taller,” and I’d say, “Just a quarter of an inch since you last saw me, Grandma,” and she’d laugh, and I’d laugh. I’d tell her about my problems at school – math is getting harder, my English teacher doesn’t like the way I write, all of my friends have partners except me – and she’d tell me, “It will work out in the end,” and I’d believe her because she would never lie to me, and it would all be okay.
It would all be okay.
The beeping of the flatline made me flinch. I bowed my head, shivered, and clutched my arms. My aunt cried, a horrible, strangled sound that made me want to cover my ears. I realized that I was crying, too, hot tears sliding down my cheeks and catching in the collar of my coat.
This was my grandmother’s coat. I was ruining it as it became soaked with my tears. If she woke up, I promised that I would clean it, and I would sew up the hole in the pocket like she was always telling me to, over and over again.
Again. Where was that word when I needed it? If someone said, “She’ll stabilize, again,” or “She’ll wake up, again,” maybe she’d be alright, and I’d see her tomorrow with her coat cleaned of my tears and the hole patched up.
Nobody did. I was ushered out of the building. I sought comfort in the clouds that were still stagnant and swollen and still and my mother’s shoes that were still gray. I found none.
I’ll learn how to braid my own hair, Grandma, and when I see you again, you can be the one to judge my skill. Maybe you’ll even let me braid your hair. I promise I won’t let it tangle.
Ariana Wang is a sixteen-year-old writer from Dallas, Texas. Her work has been recognized by the National YoungArts Foundation and The New York Times, among others. She is passionate about the color purple, iced chai lattes, and navy-blue walls in art galleries. Her most prized possessions are her Spotify playlists.