“If we have to do it, you should have do it too,” my students told me when I explained the extra credit assignment on their final exam was a creative writing assignment. As this was a college Freshman Composition class, they were used to writing essays, not fiction. I suggested they write down one word and let that word be their inspiration; and then I assured them I would not grade on their ability to write creatively, but on their ability to use the writing techniques we had practiced during the semester. They agreed if I would also do the assignment, except in my case they were going to give me a word. After a brief meeting between the students they came up and wrote my word on the board: ladybug. This is the short story I wrote and read to them at the end of class.
A ladybug was on my mother’s hand. I would have gently brushed it off but it was too intimate of a gesture what with the doctor and nurse standing there watching and waiting.
Instead I quietly recited the rhyme I had not thought about since childhood—“Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home; your house is on fire and your children alone.” But the ladybug didn’t fly away. She sat as still as I did while the doctor and nurse told me how sorry they were for my loss, and that someone from administration was on their way to answer any questions I might have about dealing with “the body.” However, that was not the information I wanted; instead I wanted to know how the ladybug managed to get past “visitor registration” and the monotone nurse who reminded me daily for three days, “ICU Visits are limited to fifteen minutes.”
“Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home. Your house is on fire and your children alone,” I whispered.
“Excuse me,” said the doctor. “Did you say something?”
“No,” I said watching the speck of red open up revealing black wings. Then the ladybug flew—but not home. She landed on the white sheet. Fly I wanted to yell. Fly and escape the invasive tubes and monitors, now silent. Fly past the monotone nurse, past the row after row of hospital rooms that all look alike, into the lobby, and then wait for the perfect moment when the electronic doors open, and set yourself free. But the ladybug was now a spec of red on the white pillow.
“Mrs. Craig, you can wait in the lobby. Someone from administration will meet you to go over procedures.”
I looked down expecting my mother to tell the doctor she would be happy to wait in the lobby, free of the IV I had watched them jab into her vein spreading a stain of painful dark purple on the back of her hand, a hand that used to fly across black and white piano keys playing “Bumblebee Boogie.”
But the doctor was talking to me, and I corrected him. “I am Miss Craig, not Mrs. Craig,”
The nurse held out her hand, as if she were offering condolences. However, she wanted me to go with her, and I followed past the monotone nurse, past the rooms that all looked alike, into the lobby and next to the hand sanitation dispenser I pumped out of habit, for nothing would ever remove the stain of death from my hands. It wasn’t like in the movies when the murderer washed the blood down the drain; the evidence of my culpability was not bright red. The proof of carrying out my mother’s advanced medical directive not allowing heroic measures was the absence of color—the absence of life—and I remembered the ladybug, the speck of bright red on the white pillow.
“I forgot something,” I told the nurse.
“We will make sure her belongings are returned to you.”
“No, this is mine, ” I said backing away from her as she once again held out her hand, and repeated, “Everything in the room will be collected.”
“Not this,” I said. Then for the first time in three days I did what I wanted to do; I ran back towards my mother’s room, and the nurse followed.
But when I got there the red speck was gone. The only thing remaining on the white pillow was my mother’s pale, lifeless face—not the face I remembered, and not the face I had inherited. That is when I realized I was now the only one of us with full lips and high cheek bones, and I looked away out of respect. And that was when I saw her, the red lady bug on the edge of the white sheet. I quickly scooped her up and walked past the nurse who stood in the doorway holding her hand out.
Maybe this time she wanted the lady bug; I couldn’t take a chance. So I ran past the monotone nurse, down the hall past the hospital rooms that all looked alike, into the lobby past the hand sanitation dispenser, and through the electronic doors, leaving the nurse behind to deal with administration, who no doubt had more directives for me. But I didn’t want them; all I wanted was to set the ladybug free.