Every Thursday, when the sun’s warm arms are just beginning to hug the little townhouses that surround mine, and the sleeping city is stirring in the misty dawn, the man comes to bring us water bottles. He sets them on our kitchen table and unwraps them, just like always. “Good day to you ma’am,” he tells Mama, just like always. And he leaves, whistling a tune, as he starts up his big old truck, and rumbles off down the road to the next house.
But today was different.
When the delivery man comes today, we’ll be halfway down the road, in Mama’s old Ford, heading towards the hospital for my baby brother Charlie.
I wipe a tear from my eye, and sniffle. “Don’t drink from the tap, Charles,” Mama always said. But Charlie never listened. It was when we were playing outside in early September, when Charlie started fading. Mama took him inside and told me to stay in the yard. I dropped the flowers I was holding, my dandelion chain long forgotten.
It seemed like hours, before I finally crawled from my spot in the grass and opened the door. Charlie was on the floor, sleeping. Mama was sitting next to him, and looked up when I walked in. “Why is Charlie sleeping, Mama?” I asked.
“He’s not sleeping, baby,” Mama said.
“He’s in a coma,” said the doctor. I look up at Mama. Her face portrays no emotion, no sadness, no relief. But she nods.
I look at Charlie. He still looks like he’s sleeping. “What’s a coma, Mama?” I ask.
“Hush Charlotte,” she whispers. “You’ll understand when you’re older.” I look away from Charlie. He has tubes under his nose, and a network of buttons and computers surround his bed.
“Let’s go Charlotte,” Mama says. She takes my small fist in her gentle hand, thanks the doctor, and leads me toward the exit, never looking back at Charlie.
At home, I sit next to Mama on the couch. Mama watches the television with a look in her eyes I’ve never seen before. She watches it like a hawk, never taking her eyes off the grey- haired man on the screen. I look at the headlines that flash across the page. “Flint Water Crisis: Governor speaking out in front of Flint Children’s Museum.” I listen to the grey-haired man. “The city of Flint will recover! I have done all I can to help with this catastrophic event, and I will continue to help until this problem is solved!”
Mama springs out of her chair like a pouncing cat. “Lies, governor. You ain’t done nothin’ but tell us lies.” I look back at Mama as she clicks the remote, and the grey haired man vanishes as the screen goes black. Mama leaves the living room. Every motion is full of anger and energy, like the swipe of a tiger’s paw.
I have no idea who this governor person is, but I can tell, Mama don’t like him much.
Two days later, we go back to visit Charlie. He still hasn’t woken up yet.
A different doctor stands by Charlie’s bed. She has long brown hair, and bright green eyes. Her purple glasses perch precariously on the tip of her freckled nose, and she smiles at me.
I like this new doctor.
I stand by Charlie’s bed, while Mama asks the doctor some questions. But I’m not listening.
I sit down next to Charlie and touch his hands. They are soft and smooth. I touch Charlie’s hair. It is fuzzy and short; not like my hair, which is long and curly. I put my hand on Charlie’s cheek. It is smooth like his hands, but round like the moon. And I whisper into Charlie’s ear.
“Don’t worry Charlie. We’ll wake you up. I promise.”
Mama is done asking the doctor her questions. She takes my hand and kisses my forehead.
I look back and wave goodbye to the doctor. She smiles and waves back.
I wave goodbye to Charlie.
But he does not wave back.
Today is Thursday. The man with the water bottles comes to our door. He sets the bottles on our table, and starts whistling. Mama smiles at him. But it is a weary smile, a tired smile. The smile of someone who is sad.
Just as he is about to leave, The water man stops in his tracks.
“Where’s the little one?” He asks.
I look at Mama. Her face is like stone. She does not answer.
After a long silence, the water man tips his hat. “Good day to you, ma’am,” he says. And he leaves. I hear the rumble of the engine as he drives down the block, to the next house.
I grab one of the bottles and open it. I hear the crack as the lid falls off the bottle.
“Don’t drink it all at once, Charlotte.” I stop drinking to look up at Mama. She holds her head in her hands. Although I can’t see her face, her body shakes with sobs.
I just stand there, holding my little bottle of water. I don’t know what to do.
Usually, when Mama got home from working a night shift at the diner, she’d sit down at the table and put her head in her hands. But Charlie would always come to Mama’s side, and put his chubby hand in her lap. “Mama, Mama, you’re home!” She’d laugh and smile, her tired eyes sparkling. Then he’d climb up on her chair and hug her, real tight.
But Charlie wasn’t here to come to Mama’s rescue. I had to be there for Mama when Charlie wasn’t. Mama needed me. I set down my bottle and walked towards her. I put my hand on her head.
Mama stopped crying and glanced up. I don’t know what she saw when she looked at me.
A burden? A blessing? Nonetheless, I stroked Mama’s hair. Soft as grandma’s quilt, Mama’s hair barely touches her shoulders
I pat Mama on the back, and eventually lean in for a hug. She hugs me back.
No words are spoken; but we both hold eachother tight. For Mama. For me.
The next few days are a blur. I remember going to the hospital, seeing Charlie just as still as before. The doctor switches every time we go there. Sometimes it’s the doctor with the purple glasses. Sometimes it’s not.
Today is Wednesday. We visit Charlie again; but this time, Mama is stronger. She ain’t happy about Charlie, but she keeps her head up. She talks to the doctor with no tremor in her voice, and she looks at Charlie with not sadness in her eyes; but love. She strokes my hair, and hums a happy tune. And I hold her hand all the while.
Before Daddy left, he used to write about Mama and me. He would sit me up on his lap and read me a pretty little poem of his. And I would giggle and look up at daddy’s face.
I always loved daddy’s cocoa skin, and his chocolate brown eyes. When he smiled, his eyes would sparkle, like Mama’s used to. And his laugh was like a drum, big and booming.
When he’d come home from work he’d take off his coat.
“I sure would like a warm cup of cocoa,” he’d say. That was my cue to run up and hug daddy. Feel his soft wool sweater, and breath in his cinnamon scent. I would hug daddy until Mama came in. “Save some sugar for me,” Mama would say. And she and daddy would kiss.
I would always look away when they kissed. But now I miss that.
I remember Mama and daddy fighting. Stacks and stacks of bills piling high up on the table. Daddy getting so wound up until he finally left.
I think of this as I sift through my stuff, only keeping what I needed and cherished most.
Mama was selling a lot of our stuff. Times had been hard ever since daddy left.
I picked out my baby doll, and put it in the keep pile. I had grown up with that doll. I wasn’t about to let her go.
I found my old painting from preschool. I put it in the trash. No one would want some 3-year-old’s art project.
I kept sifting through the junk until most of it was sorted. The only things that remained were a baseball bat, a piece of paper, and a coke can.
I threw out the coke can. No one would want that. I put the baseball bat in the sell pile. It may be old, but someone might want it. Then I looked down at the piece of paper. I gasp as I recognize daddy’s swirly handwriting. And I hold my breath as I read it.
I feel tears leaking down my cheeks as I hug the crumpled paper tight to my chest. I think of daddy and how he used to tuck me in at night. How he’d pull the blankets up under my chin, and how he’d reach under the covers and tickle my feet.
And I cry some more.
I hear the phone ring. It is 1:28 in the morning. “Who is calling at this hour?” I hear Mama say. I turn back over in my bed and pull my thin blanket over me. I try to go back to sleep. The sky is still dreaming, with its twinkling stars lost in the great navy blanket.
I hear a muffled scream from downstairs. I sit bolt upright in my bed.
“Yes, right away. Thank you, thank you, god bless you,” I hear Mama say. Then I hear footsteps as Mama climbs the stairs. Then she opens the door, and light floods into my room.
“What is it, Mama?” I ask, shielding my eyes with my blanket.
“Come quick, Charlotte! Oh, do hurry!” And she rushes out of my room without another word.
I obey Mama, slipping out of my pajamas and into a t-shirt and some jeans. I put on my crocs and rush downstairs. Mama is at the door, wearing her pink bathrobe and her blue bunny slippers. But I ask no questions.
Usually, Mama is a safe driver. Always stopping at red lights, putting on her turn signal; but something seemed to have changed in Mama. She skids past red lights, speeds through stop signs, and doesn’t stop flooring the accelerator until we reach the hospital.
I jump out of the car, my heart pumping. Mama has barely told me anything, but I know what this is about. I race towards the door and throw it open; but Mama is faster. She sprints inside, dragging me up 3 flights of stairs, and practically flings me into the room where Charlie’s bed stands.
And I see something that I never thought I would ever see again. Charlie opens his eyes at our sudden arrival. His big brown eyes, just like daddy’s.
And he smiles.
“Charles?” Mama cries. She hurries over to his bed and hugs him like she never did before. I see Charlie’s hair peeking over Mama’s shoulders. I run in to join the hug that seems to last forever.
When Mama finally pulls away, I see her face is streaked with tears. But I see that sparkle in her eyes that she used to have when daddy was still here. I lean back in for a hug from Charlie.
And he laughs. Boy, have I missed that laugh. It’s like a dozen bells, ringing out their sweet melody. I get the sensation that I’m sailing along a river, with Charlie and Mama by my side,
my happiness keeping me afloat.
At that moment the doctor comes in the room. Mama runs over and hugs her. The doctor stumbles as Mama’s gratitude hits her hard, but she laughs. When Mama finally release her, she speaks. “Charles will be able to return home next Thursday,” she says. Tears silently flow down Mama’s face; but I can tell she’s happy. We both sit down on Charlie’s bed. He looks up at me and smiles his wonderful smile. I take Charlie’s hand in mine, and hold it tight.
And we sit there in silence, cherishing our time together, as Mama whispers.
“My baby’s home,” she says. “Hallelujah.”