2017 Writing Contest Winner:

Alice Shi Kembel




By Alice Shi Kembel


There he lies, draped in a green and blue quilt. Mostly he sleeps. The ticking clock and his labored breathing are the only sounds in the room. Sometimes it is three seconds, sometimes four, between his breaths.


He is a man distilled: distilled only to that which is needed for life to continue at its most basic level – skin, bones, beating heart, fluid-filled lungs. He is a man distilled to his essence: though he struggles to speak in the moments that the morphine is wearing off, his humor shines through. He jokes about missing out on his nephew’s trip to Las Vegas in 3 weeks. When his daughter-in-law tells him her children are jealous that he is drinking chocolate milkshakes as his final form of sustenance, he whispers, “Let them have milkshakes. As many as they want.”


It is cold in the room. Every once in a while he plucks at the quilt that covers him. His hands are frigid and surprisingly smooth. He keeps the right one out, folded up next to his head. That is the one his wife holds. When he is conscious and has the strength, he squeezes the warmth of her hands.


Outside of his room it is a different world. Seven grandchildren are sprawled on couches and armchairs, equipped with iPads, books, games, puzzles, and old copies of National Geographic. Mostly they are entertained by one another, enjoying this rare time together as cousins. The youngest, a baby not yet one year old, crawls and pulls up on tables and opens cabinets over and over again. She shrieks with joy intermittently. Her parents shush her, but there is something beautiful about the sound in this hushed place where people come to die. It makes the nurses smile.

The adults – his wife, grown children and their spouses – cycle through his room, sitting and watching and waiting. When not in the rotation, they pick through the pastries that cover the communal table, donated by a local bakery. Currant scones are the standouts, but as the week progresses they become dry, inedible. Someone brings in doughnuts every morning. The simple ritual brightens everyone’s mood, particularly the children, who plow through two dozen jelly-filled doughnut holes when the adults are distracted. The soup of the day provided by volunteers always needs salt. The grinding of the ice machine when it spits ice into a paper cup jolts everyone to attention.


Music connects this family. Two guitars camp out in the waiting room and stay overnight even when the humans do not. At any moment someone is strumming a quiet song or playing a majestic piano piece in the fireplace room. Sometimes when he is agitated, a group gathers in his room to sing. They start with his favorite hymn, “It is Well with my Soul,” move to “Hallelujah” and then to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Consecrated voices, harmony and melody. But then somehow they end up at “Great Green Gobs of Greasy, Grimy Gopher Guts.” They laugh. Tears collect in the corners of their eyes, whether from the ridiculousness of the song or their grief they do not know.


The days march on. The children are restless. They discover blackberry bushes along the fence of the parking lot, resulting in pricked fingers and purple-stained lips. A brave soul stands on his uncle’s shoulders to reach the only remaining branches that are laden with fruit.


On the fifth day, signs of further decline. More medication needed, a morning of irregular breathing, whispers of “Help me.” “Hurry.” An entreaty to see the one remaining son who has been out of the country. They call him as soon as he lands in the States: Get here as soon as you can.


The next dose of morphine is delayed until the last son arrives. “Thank you for coming,” he whispers. The next morning is the last time he is responsive, describing glimpses of the other side, seeing his dead mother, prophesying. Then he lapses into unconsciousness.


No one thinks he will make it through the night. But he does. At daybreak, his breathing changes. Raspy and shallow. Then it slows, long breaks in between. Halting. A whiff of inhale. A long pause. Another small inhale. And it is over.


But it is not over for this family, this family that doesn’t speak to one another regularly or gather together despite living only a few miles apart, that doesn’t remember birthdays, that doesn’t talk about hard things, that only calls each other when someone is gravely ill, has had an accident or stroke, or has died. It is not over for this family that operates this way not out of malice or strife but from a passivity grounded in the assumption that their genetic bonds are enough despite their lack of regular connection. It is how they are, and most of them – except perhaps those that have married in – are fine with it.


Maybe it is indeed fine, because here they are, having just ushered one of their own out of this world into whatever is next with harmony and beauty. Here they are, carrying his simple pine casket from the hearse to his carefully selected gravesite. Here they are, watching each of his grandchildren place flower petals on the casket. Here they are, watching him being lowered into the ground. Here they are, singing the doxology. And here they are, meeting at the local ice cream shop after the burial to drink milkshakes in his honor.


Through his parting, this family has also been distilled. But who knows what will bring them together again like the cinched tie of a drawstring bag – a graduation? A wedding? A crisis? A death?


What they do know is that while the cancer has been merciless, victorious, there is no sense of defeat in their gathering. Instead, it feels sacred, unifying, exquisite. And so they grieve, but also they triumph.