From the kitchen came the sounds of bubbling soup and tinkling silverware, the baby’s giggles and the mother’s quiet humming. His email program chimed, and he eagerly clicked the bolded message. As he read, his face darkened, his smile faded. Cheeks ruddy from smiles turned ashen, and his breathing shallowed. Sweat formed on his palms. A whirlwind in a sundress blew through the door, babbling baby in hands, trilling “Dinner’s reaadddd…” before trailing off in mild confusion. “Honey? Dearest? Why aren’t you singing?” The screen shone in his glassy eyes. “Honey?” Silence. “Honey?!”
She watched her three year old play on the gray, grimy carpet, happily burbling and moving his second-hand toys against each other with his own explosive sound effects.
Pushing a wisp of blond hair behind her ear, she turned back to her husband, his legs hanging limply from the wheelchair, his one hand in his lap and the other twitching idly in space. Her throat contracted as his eyes moved lazily and emptily across her face without acknowledgment, and settled on the single oil painting on the wall.
It was a painting of no special quality, a million of its kind existed in such apartments, an eastern fishing town bay in mid-morning, a sailing ship pulling out and a man in rowboat holding a lantern.
He would stare at that painting all day, his eyes only straying for seconds at a time, even when she placed their young son into his lap, and his hand atop the youth’s curly locks, he could only show the faintest memory of a smile.
Samuel? Samuel, my name is Doctor Harrison. Do you know why you’re here?
I see your mother calls you Sam. May I call you Sam, too?
Sam, your mother asked me to talk to you. We don’t have to talk if you don’t want to. Do you mind if I sit here with you?
Your mother loves you very much, Sam. She wants me to talk to you and see if there’s anything you want to tell me, anything you don’t feel like you can tell her. Is… do you like lemonade, Sam? (Lana, get a lemonade, please. With a lid.) Sam, we’re getting you some lemonade. Do you like the train toys? My son David loves them. He will make the longest trains, all through the house. Sometimes I’ll step on them in the middle of the night and fall down. (Thank you.) Here, Sam, would you like this lemonade?
[looks at the cup]
Well, I’ll just set it here and you can take it when you’re thirsty. So, Sam… when I step on the trains, and I fall down, it hurts! Sometimes I fall and it hurts my arms. It’s not very funny, really, but I guess it looks funny. Mostly it just hurts.
[runs a train along the ground]
Do you know what “hurts” means, Sam? When something happens that your body doesn’t like, and you want it to stop. That’s what hurts means.
[runs train into cup of lemonade softly]
Go on, you can have the lemonade. It’s okay.
Sam… the incident with your father… do you remember?
[runs train into cup of lemonade, less softly]
You… you pushed his wheelchair, do you remember that, Sam? You pushed it down the hill. Do you remember that?
We don’t need to talk about it, although I’d really like it if we did. Is that okay?
I can tell by your silence that you want me to keep speaking about this. When you pushed his wheelchair down the hill, did you know that it would hurt your father? Did you know that?
[pulls lemonade cup closer]
Go on, you can have the lemonade. Go on.
[looks at cup]
Sam, your father is what we in the medical field call a vegetative quadriplegic. That means when you pushed him down the hill, he couldn’t do anything to stop you, or to stop his wheelchair as it rolled down the hill. It went partly off the sidewalk, do you remember that? Do you remember when two of the wheels went off the sidewalk, and his body slumped over the armrest and his hand dragged the pavement, faster and faster?
[picks up the lemonade]
Do you remember what happened next, Sam? Do you want to talk about it? Do you want to talk about the trash can? Or the car? Or the swimming pool and the birthday party?
[drinks the lemonade]
I know you don’t want to talk about it, Sam. But your mother wants you to know she loves you very much, and she loves your father, and she wants to know if you know what “hurts” means, Sam. Do you know what “hurts” means?
Okay, Sam. We don’t need to talk about it if you don’t want to. I don’t want to rush anything. I’ll come back and talk to you tomorrow, Sam. Do you want me to come back tomorrow? I’ll come back tomorrow and we can talk some more about this.
[runs train car back and forth on track]
I’ll see you tomorrow, Sam.