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A bluebird tapped at the windowsill. Its azure wings fluttered with sore contrast to the hospital’s grey and black. In a strange coincidence, the happy trills of the bluebird’s song synchronized with the rhythmic clicking of the IV pump. Catherine wished the mesmerizing melody would end. Her son’s hospital room was no place for summer cheer.

Isaac looked as pale as the sterile walls that surrounded him. His dimpled cheeks sunk back to the bone, and the oversized hospital gown deepened his skeletal appearance. Every breath brought a pained look to his face. Between his oxygen mask and the patchwork sensors connected with tangled wires, he looked more machine than human. And his smell—salt and sweat and medicine—made Catherine’s nose wrinkle.

Isaac turned towards the window. He paused for a moment, and his eyes grew wide as a goofy smile crept across his face. As he strained to pull himself up to the siderail, Catherine realized he looked more human than ever.

“Mommy, look! A Bluebird! It’s just like the picture books!”

Catherine slumped back in her plastic chair. “Just like the bedtime story.”

“Do you think it lives here too?” he asked.

“I’m sure he does, honey.”

“When we go home, can we build a bluebird house?”

Catherine swallowed hard. Isaac grinned his toothless smile and waited patiently for her answer. She loved and hated that smile—she could never say no to him—and this time, she didn’t want to.

“You’ll have to be very careful, and promise not to use any tools if I’m not around.”

“What if Adam is there instead?”

Adam, the only man with a smile as bright as Isaac. He was like a father to him; maybe that was why Catherine liked him so much. Isaac adored him. But right now, given the grim circumstances, the halfhearted hope of a family burned like the cancer in Isaac’s chest.

She sighed. “I don’t think Adam will be there, sweetie.”

“Oh, that’s too bad,” he said. He appeared to lose his train of thought, focused on the small and simple bird that pecked at the glass. Isaac had always been so inquisitive. With a frowning, child-like wisdom he added, “It looks lonely.”

A nurse knocked gently on the door.

Catherine was glad for the interruption. She walked around the hospital bed, rubbing her wrists and preparing her best fake smile. The door opened a crack as she peeked out into the hallway.

The aroma of coffee and fried eggs wafted from the food cart. The attendant, Eric, stood behind. His smile was contagious, creeping around the edges of his yellow mask.

“Good morning Miss Anders. I’ve got Isaac’s favorite pancakes right here—and I’ve made coffee just for you—two packets of creamer,” he said. Leaning close, he dropped his voice to a whisper. “I snuck an extra packet of syrup, just under the lid.”

She set the tray down inside. “Thank you, Eric. You’re too good for us.”

“I’m just doing my job, Ma’am. It’s a beautiful morning and I wouldn’t start it with anything less. And when Isaac is all settled, you’ve got a visitor waiting for you near the front desk.”

“Who is it? Did he say anything?”

“I’ve got a feeling you already know who it is,” Eric chuckled. “And no, ma’am, he didn’t say a thing. I won’t ruin the surprise, but you better get down there before another nurse steals him away.”

“That’d be Adam, then,” she said.

“Well, Adam must be one lucky man.”

Catherine flashed a weak smile and waved goodbye. Lucky? More like cursed. Thrust into an impossible situation with no end in sight and no golden medal at the end of the marathon. No, Adam wasn’t lucky at all; and neither was she, or Isaac, or anyone else in the whole damned hospital.

“Pancakes again,” she said. How could Isaac enjoy pancakes over and over again? She couldn’t understand. Yet here he was, sitting upright and struggling to pull off his oxygen mask. “Honey, do you feel like eating?”

Isaac nodded. “These pancakes are almost as good as the one’s dad used to make!”

Not even close, Catherine thought, but that didn’t matter now. Their griddle rusted away in the attic—along with the drill press and the golf clubs and the wedding photos—and there they would remain, until the memories no longer stung with bitter tears.

She was afraid to ask if Isaac remembered his funeral.

With Isaac happily drowning his double stack in sweet, sticky syrup, Catherine risked a visit to the front desk. A few minutes alone wouldn’t hurt him. Isaac was safe. The bluebird was still flapping at the window and Isaac was safe and happy. Nothing would change that.

She kissed him on the forehead with a promise to return.

Her footsteps echoed down the silent hallway. Closed doors menaced like prison cells, guarded at every station by a cold and stoic nurse. There were no smiles in the last hours of the third shift. Even when the shift ended—and the staff had their reprieve—it would only begin again. A never-ending cycle of sickness and heartbreak.

Her coffee was dark and bitter and tasteless. Little grinds stuck between her teeth as she sipped and waited for the elevator. On other days she would have worried about the bags underneath her eyes and her frizzled, curly hair. She hadn’t showered in days. Between her strained back and lack of sleep, she looked as pale and sickly as the patients.

When she stepped out into the lobby, eight floors down, Adam ran to embrace her. They met in the middle. All the noise and commotion vanished as if they were the only two people left in the world. He held her close, swaying slightly. His jacket smelled like lemons and diesel fumes.

Catherine buried her damp eyes in his shoulder; she didn’t want him to see her crying. He said nothing, but his silent presence said more than words ever could.

“Isaac saw a bluebird this morning,” she said, sniffling. “And he’s still got his appetite. Pancakes—he’s eating pancakes with all the syrup. I don’t know how he can manage to smile, after all, they’ve put him through here, but he’s so content.”

“He’s a tough kid. He’ll get through this,” he said.

“I just… I don’t know if I can do this anymore. It’s so draining. And the tumor isn’t shrinking or growing or responding at all. I know that they’ll keep going and keep fighting, but I don’t know how much more of this I can take. I want it all gone. I just want Isaac home again.”

“Look at me.” Adam put a hand on her shoulder, staring down with his fierce eyes. “It’s going to be alright. We’ll get through this, and I’ll personally say, ‘I told you so’ when Isaac eats too much cake at his coming home party.”

Catherine choked back a sob. “If he’s up all night from your chocolate cake, I’m breaking up with you.”

“It’s a risk I’m willing to take.”

They broke off their embrace. Adam got a chance to look at her—really look at her—and the smile shrunk from his face. She wondered if he was more worried about her or Isaac. It was a toss-up on which possibility she found more frightening.

Adam nodded towards the white shopping bag in the waiting room. His bulky, black laptop bag sat next to it, clearly overstuffed. Catherine closed her eyes.

“You don’t have to stay here,” she said.

From the shopping bag, Adam grabbed pink roses and a pack of crayons. “For the room. And for Isaac, if he has the energy for it.”

“Really. I’m fine here, Adam. I don’t want to put you through this.”

Adam ignored her. “Isaac’s condition is stable? And the doctors and nurses here are top-notch.”

“That’s not the point.”

“When was the last time you went home; or took a long bath with a glass of wine; Or, for that matter, had a full night’s sleep? Please, let me stay. Just one day. I don’t even have to spend the night, but I want you to go home and take today for yourself. Please?”

“Is this really how you want to spend your day off?”

“Absolutely,” he said.

They settled the matter long before they walked back to the room. Catherine knew he was right. She knew that Isaac would smile and laugh at the silly face Adam made when he walked through the door. She knew that Adam would spend the rest of the day immersed in boredom and she loved him even more for it.

“Is there anything I can get you at home?” she asked Isaac on her way out, “I know you like the bedtime story about the bluebird, I can bring it back for you.”

“Yeah,” Isaac replied, still immersed in pancakes. “And gummy worms!”

Catherine smiled. “Okay sweetie, gummy worms it is. I’ll be back tonight. Promise you won’t give Adam trouble?”

Isaac grinned. “It’s okay, I don’t think Adam will tell on me.”

Adam shook his head and winked.

On the drive home, Catherine gripped the steering wheel and screamed until her voice cracked and her throat stung.

Dandelions grew rampant around her overstuffed mailbox. Abandoned newspapers collected dust on the front porch, keeping company with the wilting patio flowers. Catherine stepped into her garage and was at once hit with the thick musk of the forgotten garbage bin.

She slammed her clothes into the washer and threw the bluebird book into her car. Then she scrounged the refrigerator for a half-opened, slightly stale bottle of Moscato. It was enough to do the trick. The sweet wine smelled of orange blossoms and stained her lips with bitter regret. Catherine showered in scalding steam, wondering if the bottle or the hot water would run out first.

It made her feel a little more refreshed and a little more human.

Afterward, she walked barefoot through the quiet hallway, staring at the pictures. One caught her eye: the day Adam took Isaac to shave their heads. It was right after Isaac’s first treatment; he had already gained his ghostly pallor, but nothing could dampen his smile. They held waffle cones with triple scoops of strawberry and she captured the exact moment when Adam’s cone slipped, splattering the sidewalk. Right afterward, Isaac laughed so hard that he dropped his cone.

The memory made her eyes water. It was a perfect moment, finding joy within sadness. Simpler times tempted her with these false-promises. How could she live a happy life—a normal life? How could she and Adam ever return to the way things used to be?

She traced Isaac’s smile with her fingertips. It should have made her smile, but instead, her pulse rose, and her throat turned to dry cotton.

Catherine couldn’t smile in her mind’s eye. She imagined the looming stack of bills on the counter, the pile of unwashed sheets in the laundry room, and the black-and-grey door to Isaac’s hospital room. Worried thoughts sapped her energy until she could bear it no longer; the rest of her life could wait. She crashed on dirty bedsheets as sleep took hold of her.

She woke, hours later, to frantic buzzing as her phone fell and clattered onto the floor.

Twelve missed messages.

Her hands started to shake. Her pulse rose, her skin prickled, and a pit formed in her stomach. On the screen: eight messages from the hospital and four from Adam, with his latest text, “911, pick up the phone!!”

Catherine bit down on her tongue so hard it bled.

She sped back towards the hospital, driving erratically as she conversed with the doctors. They used terms like ‘reaction’ and ‘spreading’ and ‘couldn’t have predicted…’ and only one thing mattered. Isaac might not survive the night. Her son, the one thing that brought joy to her frozen heart—the one thing she couldn’t ever bear to lose—teetered on the knife-edge of life and death.

When she burst through his door, her broken heart melted.

Isaac’s eyes had sunk back into a hollow, vacant expression. His breaths came in rasps. When she embraced him, he struggled to wrap his arms around her. The effort made him cough. It was a guttural sound, filled with a deep sense of wrongness as if there existed a demon within his chest that meant to escape. There was fear in his eyes and the smell of blood on his lips.

But there was nothing that could keep Isaac from smiling.

“Mommy, you’re back so soon,” he said.

“I’m here, darling,” she whispered, struck by the absurdity of it all. “I forgot the gummy worms.”

“That’s all right, I forgive you,” Isaac said. “But the bluebird flew away. Where do you think he went? I hope we find him again.”

“I’m sure we will, sweetie.”

Catherine helped him lie back down. Then she glared across the room at Adam, who sat in the corner, a stone-cold expression plastered on his face.

“You,” she said, her words spitting venom, “Get out.”

“I’m so, so sorry,” Adam said.


Adam’s face twisted in a pained expression. His fierce eyes softened. The mighty wedge forced its way between them—as he failed to explain that he couldn’t have known—how would he? That he had called right away and tried his best to comfort Isaac. None of that mattered to Catherine.

“Get out!” she said, nearly sobbing. “Don’t ever come near me or my son! Do you hear me? Don’t ever come back, I never want to see your face again!”

He nodded in understanding. In silence, he stood and grabbed his bags, and his silent exit said more than words ever could.

Catherine slammed the door behind him. She turned back towards Isaac, but he wasn’t smiling anymore. The sterile light caught and reflected in the pools willing up behind his eyes. She stopped in her tracks.

For the first time, she noticed Isaac’s drawing laying on the table: A bluebird with red feathers and a black beak; a brown home and a yellow sun; and a stick figure family with Catherine, Isaac, and Adam. Isaac colored it with crayons. He wanted it to be a surprise.

“Mommy, why did da-Adam go?” Isaac said, “I wanted him to stay!”

It was the first time Isaac had ever called him ‘dad.’ Catherine realized; it would likely be the last. Adam would never know. Isaac would never understand how much that would have meant to him.

It was all Isaac wanted, to be together. As she ran her fingers around the edge of the paper, she realized they had been so close—and now, never so far—and nothing else mattered.

“Adam left to find his bluebird,” she said.

Looking down at her son’s damp eyes, she made one more promise. She meant it for Isaac—and more so for herself—a small glimmer of hope in their world. “We’ll find our bluebird too.”

Isaac looked back up at her. “What if we don’t find him before winter?”

“Then the bluebird will fly south. When the spring comes, he’ll fly back north and make a brand-new nest, and if you’re very good and very lucky, the bluebird will build his nest right in our backyard.”

“They fly back and forth that every single year? That’s a lot of work.”

“Every year, again and again. Bluebirds don’t mind. They like building nests, it makes them happy. And they’re always looking up to the sky, and they’re always smiling.”

“Me too, honey.” Catherine closed her eyes. “I’d like that too.”

The minutes ticked by like hours. Isaac pulled the sheets up to his neck and sunk back into the shabby pillows. The hallway lights dimmed. Visiting hours ended. Time wound down for her and Isaac.

Catherine prayed in silence.

She prayed to any god that would listen. Pleading for Isaac to survive the night. She begged for his life. She begged forgiveness for all the times she had failed him. She begged for a second chance.

Of all the things she wanted, most of all, it was for Isaac to live a happy life. If Isaac passed during the night, she prayed that he would pass with a smile on his lips and joy in his heart. It was the last thing she could give him.

Isaac’s eyes drooped with one last request. “Can you read me a bedtime story? The one about the bluebird—I’d like to hear that again.”

“Ok, sweetie,” she said, grabbing the book from her bag. Her voice dropped to a whisper. “The one about the bluebird.”

She held the book with trembling fingers, and as she read to him, Isaac found his bluebird.

Bluebird chirps his cheerful tune,

“will someone come and play?

The sun is shining brightly,

it’s such a lovely day!”

Fluffy clouds float overhead

and blue-sky blurs to grey.

Bluebird never bows his head,

“It’s just another day.”

Bluebird waits for rain to pass

then soars up in the sky.

There’s hours until eveningtime

when Bluebird says goodbye.

Bluebird snuggles down to sleep

and waits for warmer light.

Folds his wings for sweeter dreams

and chirps one last goodnight.

Recommended1 Simily SnapPublished in Adventure, All Stories, Fiction, Memoir

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