Return Passage by Barb Lehtiniemi

Winner of the short story category, Mensa Canada 2017 Literary Contest

“I don’t like it here. I want to go home,” Grace wheedled in a child-like whisper.

Vicky sighed, feeling guilty, but feeling relieved.. She tried to ignore the stench of pee and disinfectant that permeated the corridors.

“Oh, Mom,” she said, “this is your home now. So lucky to have a view. Oh! I forgot. Chrissy will be here soon.”

“Chrissy is coming?” Grace perked up. “Wonderful!”

Vicky grimaced. “She was always your favourite, eh Mom?”

“Nonsense, Victoria,” her mother drew herself up in bed. “You and your sister are different people and I loved you differently. But I loved you equally. Neither of you is better than the other.”

This flash of lucidity drained Grace. She shrank back into the pillows.

“Well, Mom, I’ll let you rest.”

“Yes, dear. I’m tired.” Grace closed her eyes. “Goodness, you girls get on my nerves,”

Grace tightened her mouth and tried to block out the bickering. Honestly, why can’t those girls get along? Too close in age, maybe. Grace allowed herself a smile. She couldn’t help but love them, could she?

“Well, here she is, Mom,” said Vicky. “Chrissy, at last.”

“Girls,” Grace was saying, “it’s so good we’re all together again. I wish I wasn’t so tired, though. I think I’ll take a little nap before your father gets home.”

Startled, Vicky began to reply that Daddy died decades ago. But she saw her mom was already asleep. She motioned to Chrissy, and they crept from the room.

“David, is that you?” Grace wiped her flour-dusty hands on her apron. David’s head poked in the kitchen.

“How’s my lady?” he grinned. “Are the girls upstairs?” Without waiting for a reply, he pulled Grace against him and nuzzled her neck.

“Hi Mom,” Chrissy stood in the doorway.

“Nurse, I’ve been ringing for ages.” Grace looked around, trying to remember what she wanted the nurse for.

“It’s Chrissy, Mom.”

“Yes. Of course,” Grace said distractedly. “I’m glad you came. Vicky never comes.”

Chrissy smiled wanly. “We were both here Sunday, Mom.”

Grace pulled her brows together, concentrating, until she forgot what she was trying to remember.

“Anyway, I’m glad you’ve come. What was your name again, dear?”

Grace felt enormous. She had not been so big when she was carrying Victoria. David teased her she might be having twins. “One of them is bound to be a boy,” he’d say. They already had a boy’s name picked out. Christopher.

“She’s sleeping,” whispered Vicky, holding her finger to her lips. Shrugging off her coat, Chrissy pulled a chair closer to Vicky’s. They discussed Mother’s condition, then traded family gossip. This had become the pattern of their visits for months. No longer did they take turns visiting. Since Mother slept most of the time, they found it better to visit with each other. If Mother wakened, she would look without recognition from one to the other before drifting back to sleep.

“I wonder what she dreams of,” Chrissy said. “If she dreams at all.”

“I don’t know,” Vicky said. “She was giggling in her sleep when I came in, so it can’t be all bad.”

“Higher, Daddy, higher!” squealed Grace. “Make it go higher!”

“Make sure you’re holding on tight!” He pushed the swing higher. Grace screeched with delight. He always pushed the swing higher than Mother. She felt like she was flying.

Chrissy plopped down in the chair next to Vicky.

“She fell out of bed, you know, a few days ago,” Vicki related. “They phoned me at home. Nothing broken. They’ve moved her to a ward where there’s more staff.”

“I thought when my kids were grown and moved out, I was done,” Chrissy sighed. “When did we become parents to our parent?”

Down the hall, Grace smiled adoringly at the nurse’s aide, Rosa. “Now, Mrs. Grace,” Rosa cooed, “we’re just going to clean you up a bit.”

“Now, Miss Gracie, we’re just going to clean you up a bit.” Grace waved her arms and legs at her mother, giving her best toothless smile.

“Am I too late?” Chrissy asked breathlessly.

“No, it’s okay,” replied Vicky. “She’s still breathing—barely. I’m glad you’re here. I’m…. I’m not certain I could do this alone.”

Their mother lay on her side, legs drawn up close to her body. They each held one of their mother’s hands, and waited.

“Push now. Baby’s coming.” The baby, so lately in its dark and warm space, felt the world shift as it was squeezed through the birth canal. She came out into the bright white, her eyes squeezed shut against the glare. Her mouth gasping like a fish out of water.

“There, now,” a nurse patted the lady’s hand. “A beautiful girl. What will you name her?”

“She’s Grace,” the lady replied, stroking the baby on her belly. “Say ‘hello’ to the world, Grace.”

The nurse padded in quietly and checked their mother’s vital signs. She patted Chrissy’s hand, and said, “I’ll be back again in ten minutes.”

Vicky looked across at Chrissy, who nodded. They had talked about this. It was time. Fittingly, today was the anniversary of their mother’s birth.

“Mom,” Vicky croaked, then swallowed hard. “Mom, it’s okay. Chrissy and I are here. Everything is okay. Mom, you can let go. It’s okay. We’re okay.”

The frail figure on the bed did not move. Chrissy blinked away tears.

“Mom,” Chrissy began, then continued more firmly, “Grace. You’ve had a good life. It’s time for the next chapter. It’s time to say goodbye to the world. Mom, we love you.”

Grace’s mouth moved slightly, as if trying to gasp in more air, then was still. There was nothing else. Returning, the nurse confirmed she was gone.

She felt weak but knew she had to continue down the dark passage towards the light.

“Grace,” a voice said, “is that you? Look, everyone, it’s Grace. We’ve missed you!”

Gathering strength, she moved forward. “I know that voice,” she thought, rushing toward the enveloping warmth. “I’m finally going home.”