It was late afternoon when Margaret’s doctor told us that her condition was deteriorating, that it was time to talk options. Mom sat closest to Margaret’s bedside, with her back to the window. Dad and I hunched forward in taupe, plastic chairs positioned around the foot of the bed. Margaret’s doctor stood in his white lab coat opposite Mom, a clipboard resting on his waist.
We sat quietly as poor Margaret, reclined in her faded blue-flowered gown, methodically licked each forearm from elbow to knuckle. Starched white sheets covered Margaret’s legs while a beige leather restraint was fastened around her neck. A mobile of cartoon-shaped blue jays twirled overhead.
Mom pushed herself from her seat with one hand on the bedrail, before plopping back down with a whimper. What do you mean, options? Mom’s soft blue eyes had transformed over a matter of days into puddles of moist redness.
The doctor nodded slowly. Margaret had something called “maladaptive evolutionary disorder.” Quite rare, he said. Although not yet fully understood, the disorder caused rapid cognitive decline, unusual cellular mutation, and, unfortunately, a mortality rate near certitude. He knew that this was a lot to take in. A nurse hovering by the door scampered out.
Our hope was that the wisps of straw blond hair covering Margaret’s body were hormonal. The hissing we attributed to her temper. Like our childhood vacation trip to Adventure World, when Margaret threw my stuffed mouse into space canyon after I licked her ice cream. The yellowing eyes concerned us.
Margaret’s doctor reviewed the battery of procedures she had endured. During that time, wide-eyed nurses had quietly tiptoed into Margaret’s room and left with exaggerated frowns. Teams of lab coats periodically entered and encircled us. They observed Margaret and spoke with muted voices. We had quickly become landscape.
Mom’s face was buried in a wet stain on Dad’s shoulder, while Dad’s calloused palms rubbed against his whiskers. Meanwhile, Margaret clawed at her neck restraint. Patches of hair covered most of her face. The parts that were visible expressed intense curiosity. Sometimes her eyes fixed on us. Sometimes she squinted at the tree branches that scraped the window’s glass.
The doctor informed us that Margaret’s condition was incurable, untreatable. Exciting research lay on the horizon, but it undoubtedly was too late for Margaret’s sake. He was afraid that outpatient care was no longer permitted, too many disemboweled rodents on doorsteps. He told us about this nice farm with hospice care just outside Lombard. That it had customized scratching posts, catnip buffets, miles of yarn, you name it, really. He confirmed it was a real farm.
The doctor paused before he also told us that, in some respects, modern medicine owed much to veterinary medicine and that end-of-life care was another option. That, if we so chose, with a final pat on the head, and some sedatives, Margaret might finally find some peace and that 29 years was a long life for any Midwestern girl. He understood that, this was a difficult decision.
The next few days brought hope and remembrance. We saw momentary signs of improvement. We sought a second opinion, which confirmed the first. We told stories about Margaret. Like during that same trip to Adventure World, when she and I went off by ourselves and I nearly choked on a piece of licorice. She performed the Heimlich and saved my life. That was the thing about Margaret, she had always been the hero. I used to wish that she would suffer a manageable accident, one that only I could remedy. I always regretted that feeling. As I helped Mom clip Margaret’s overgrown toenails in the hospital bed, I felt even worse. She did not deserve this. If any of us, certainly not her.
But, with each day that passed, Margaret ceased to be Margaret. We read stories to her, looking for hints of recognition. Dad told jokes, the punchlines landing quietly. Once, I returned to the room to find Mom stroking the sheets covering Margaret’s legs, musing about what they might plant in the garden that spring. That night, Margaret scratched a nurse’s cheek so badly you could almost see bone.
Because the words were too hard to utter, we spoke about how we hated to see Margaret in this condition. We talked about how we couldn’t stand the thought of Margaret wasting away on some farm with a bunch of strays. We talked about how no one knew what we were going through and how there was nothing else to mortgage. Margaret would not have wanted this. We spent the night mostly awake. In the morning, Dad went into the hallway and signed the paperwork.
That last day, Dad said goodbye first. Then Mom. I hugged Margaret. I told her that I loved her. I asked her for forgiveness. I loosened Margaret’s restraint as a nurse drew out liquid from a vial with red labels. The whole time, Margaret laid still with her eyes focused on a small notepad on the bedside table. We thought that maybe she was already catatonic, but the nurse assured us that nothing had gone in yet. I picked up the notepad and cautiously set it down on the sheet. I asked the nurse to let me borrow the mangled Bic from her mouth and set that down next to the notepad.
Margaret dragged the pen and notepad closer to her body, her face now staring up at a cartoon blue jay eating a cartoon worm. Margaret’s hand, by this point more like a jagged mash of hair and nail, barely held the pen as she moved it across the paper. Slowly at first, she gained speed. I leaned in to see the notepad and immediately recognized the two round ears, the pants with two big buttons, the wiry tail, and the oversized shoes. I looked around to see if anyone else saw what I had seen. I never asked if they had. Margaret’s eyes were so big and joyful.