Good Morning, Mrs. Washington
Ruth Z. Deming
When I open my eyes, the woman I see has chocolate brown arms and long white nails, newly filed. When I hold my fingers up, I remember that as a child they assumed the shape of Mother Mary, Father Joseph, and the little finger was Baby Jesus. What a comfort they were to me. The palms have many creases. I clench them back and forth, back and forth. The creases fold and unfold like an accordion. Then I take these same hands and pat my hair. Soft hair, luxurious soft hair, ringlets that feel and smell newly washed. I swirl my hands around my hair, like a child playing in the grass.
The white room is chilly. A loose white blanket is wrapped around me. On the windowsill is an assortment of plants. I think I can smell them from my bed, that unmistakable smell of God’s green earth, pretty purple somethings that look like a trumpet. The word “petunia” comes to mind, though really I don’t know how that word got into my head.
Pictures line the windowsill, all enclosed in frames, gold frames, silver frames, frames with leaping frogs on them. Who are all these people with their various shades of cocoa-colored skin?
“Ah-choo!” I sneeze a couple of times and hear a beep off to my left. When I look up I see something like computer monitors flashing on and off. I laugh. This certainly is a funny dream. If it is a dream. I really don’t know. Looking out those huge windows, I see the blue sky dotted with silver clouds like huge floating ships. An American flag waves far away. Looking at the flag gives me a thrill. Beginning to shiver in this cold room, I feel afraid. Where am I? A hospital, certainly, but why?
I will call for help. I open my mouth but no words come out. No words at all. I am thinking words like “Help” but my mouth won’t speak. Now I am really frightened and try to figure out how to escape from this place. Where is the door? There it is, over on the opposite side of the windows. I stare hard at it, hoping someone will come in and save me.
I must have fallen asleep. When I awake, a face is looking down at me. A kind face, I can tell.
“Bernice!” a woman in a green uniform says to me. “Bernice! Can you hear me?”
I stare up at her. She is a black woman and speaks with an accent. I am certain she is a nurse. I have never seen her before.
“You have been asleep for thirty-nine days. Now your sleeping is over. You’re back with the living.”
I have no idea what she is talking about, although I hear the words. To me, they are simply words. Meaningless words.
“I will be back,” she says in her foreign accent. “I am getting the doctor and your husband.”
Soon a tall man enters the room. He is tall as a basketball player. And good-looking with big black eyes and a smiling upturned mouth. He bends over the bed and stares at me.
“Bernice!” he says. “We almost gave up on you, woman, but the Lord brought you through. I knew He would. We prayed and prayed.”
He kisses me on the cheek. I quickly wipe his kiss away. Who is this strange man kissing me? I am a good girl and shake my head, “no.”
“Bernice, don’t you remember me? I’m your husband. Roy. Roy Washington.”
I snort through my nostrils and turn my head away.
The black nurse with her all-green outfit returns through the opening followed by a man in a white lab coat.
“Good morning, Mrs. Washington!” he exclaims. “This is a great day for all of us at St. Vincent’s. You have come out of your coma. What is it, Crystal? How many days?”
“Today it is thirty-nine days, doctor,” she says in that lovely accent of hers.
“Thirty-nine days,” I think to myself. “Lord have mercy.”
The first words I am able to say are, “Please pass the milk.”
The man who is supposed to be my husband and I are eating breakfast in the kitchen nook in our brick row house in Philadelphia. There is a beautiful white dishwasher with many buttons and beside it is a refrigerator which does a magic trick. You put a glass under a rubber udder and out comes freezing-cold water. You press another button and ice tinkles out. We are living in the future.
The man who thinks he is my husband has poured me a bowl of Rice Krispies. I stare at them. Sitting in that white bowl, they look forlorn. I run the lifeless-looking flakes through my fingers when suddenly words pop out of my mouth.
“Please pass the milk.”
The man with the smiling face looks up and stares at me. He grabs the carton of milk and hands it to me.
“Bernice, see if you can pour it all by yourself.”
My hands are unsteady.
“Hold it with both hands,” he says.
In goes the milk, slowly. I look up at him and smile.
“Say my name, babe,” he says. “Say my name.”
He waits a moment. I am thinking. I look at this man who told me we have been married for thirty-four years, and I press my hands together and try to remember his name.
I shake my head.
“Ron,” he says. “It’s Ron. Say it please.”
“Ron,” I say. “Hello Ron. I’m pleased to meet you.”
That night he invites me to sleep in the big bedroom with the big king-sized bed. On the bureau is a photograph of our wedding day. I am wearing a white gown, a beautiful lacy gown that trails on the floor like I’m a real princess.
“Ron, I just can’t,” I say, looking up at him.
“Tell you what,” he says. “Just lie next to me and see if you feel comfortable. Otherwise, you can go back into Rashid’s old bedroom.”
I’m in my furry green pajamas. He’s in his navy ones. I look at his big black eyes. He’s one good-looking man.
“You’re the mother of our four children,” he says. “You laid down with me at least four times. How do you think we got Rashid, Keisha, Tiffany and Ron Junior?”
He gestures toward the tall dresser, where gold and silver frames enclose photos I have studied and studied, with a woman who comes over every day to help me.
“So? Just for one night? You’ll try it?”
I smile at him. “All right, Roy, I mean Ron,” I say with a laugh.
I lay down next to him, next to my man, and you know what? It felt so natural. So real and honest. And you know what? That’s when my mind began to heal, like stitching up a torn apron on the sewing machine.
Lying there with my honey night after night, we went over what had happened to me. As a hairdresser at Venus, one of Philadelphia’s finest hair salons, I was combing out my last client of the day, Desiree Mitchell. Now, I don’t remember this, but Venus herself, the owner, talked with Ron and Ron told me the story.
The comb dropped from my hand. I slumped to the floor. And there I lay. Desiree got up from her chair, wearing one of our black and white capes, knelt over me and told Venus to call the ambulance.
St. Vincent’s Hospital was only five minutes away, a very special hospital with a stroke unit. Me! A healthy woman coming down with a stroke. Please pass the aspirin. Yes, I take it every day.
The Lord is good, the Lord is great. Today I rode the 55 Bus downtown, passing fried chicken restaurants, Dunkin’ Donuts with their pretty pink and purple lettering, the Oak Lane Diner, shaped like a long silver space ship, and watching all the nice people board the bus.
I walked into the salon and saw Desiree Mitchell and gave her the biggest hug I could manage.
Not as big, though, as I gave my man. My husband, Ronald Lincoln Washington.