A strange man shushes her. He is fat, gray, and bearded. He wears round glasses and a big blue floral print aloha shirt. Is he a cousin? He seems at once strange and yet oddly familiar. He must be another cousin.
'It’s me mom, It’s your son, Aaron.' The man lifts a spoon of mashed potatoes to her mouth.
'Who?' She opens and swallows, to be polite, but she is not hungry. She closes her eyes, remembering something for just a moment, somehow, but then she reopens her eyes and whatever it is fades away.
Who is this nice man feeding her? She cannot recall, but she does recall a baby, her baby, resting in her arms on a warm summer night, so long ago. The window is open and a cool sweet breeze wafts softly through the nursery. She rocks her baby, singing him a soft lullaby and shushing him back to sleep. 'The nightingale’s calling, the first star’s in sight, and the Man in the Moon softly whispers goodnight.' Her voice grows strong and steady, then, and now. 'Come into my arms, where a dreamer can meet, the lullaby lady from Hushabye Street.'
'That’s lovely mom, but shhhh, it’s eating time, not singing time.' This man next to her, some cousin or something, he taps his index finger to his lips. 'Shhh, you have to eat, okay?'
He offers her another spoon of mashed potatoes. She is still not hungry, and besides, it’s not dinner time. Not to her. It’s the middle of the night more than half a century ago and she is rocking her baby boy back to sleep. She resents being shushed by this stranger, but still wants to be polite. So she pretends to swallow the food he places into her mouth, but then secretly spits it out into a paper napkin in her hand. She balls it all up and hides it under her chair.
She remembers holding her baby - and so she is holding her baby right now - and so she returns to singing him more of his favorite lullaby, 'Hush-a-bye baby to a rock-a-bye beat, and we’ll go rockin’ down Hush-bye Street,' She sings louder, then too loud, 'Rock away through the morning, Rock away through the night, Rock away in the arms that are holding you tight.'
This man sitting next to her puts down a spoon. 'Shhh. You must be quiet.' He shushes her. 'I can’t afford to move you again.' He seems sad and behind his glasses, she can tell that his eyes are teary.
She holds his hand and squeezes. 'It’s gonna be okay. It’s all going to be fine.' She takes another napkin from the stack in her lap and offers it to dry his tears.
But then eighty years vanish and she is a little girl again, also with a stack of napkins in her lap. She is being shushed once more by her first grade teacher. 'Shhh. You must be quiet.'
And so she closes her eyes and tiptoes quietly through decades of memories. A nursery, this classroom, schools, churches, graduations, jobs, her wedding, a maternity ward, then a nursery again. But this time she is the mommy and she is the one doing the shushing.
Sometime later, a man taps her awake on the shoulders. She opens her eyes to see a large white cake with so very many candles, a large '8' and '7' written on top with thick purple frosting.
'Happy Birthday Mom!'
'I just became a mom.' She smiles, then frowns. 'But it’s not my birthday.'
'You’re 87 today.'
'No I’m not!' This man, this cousin or something, he is trying to make a fool of her. 'When are my parents coming to pick me up?' She asks. The people here are teasing her. ' I want to go home. I need to get ready for school.' She tries to rise from her chair but her legs are too stiff. 'I really have to go - I’m singing in church this Sunday so I need to practice!'
'Mom, please calm down.'
Her son is just a baby and couldn’t possibly be this big hairy man. In her memory, and so in her mind now, she swaddles her baby boy in a bright blue floral print blanket, then places him back in his crib as she finishes his lullaby, 'The last star of evening will soon fade away, a new star of morning will brighten the day, the lullaby lady, her vigil she keeps, ‘til evening greet morning on Hush-a-bye street.'
'That’s beautiful Mom, but shhh you need to be quiet.' This fat man sitting next to her, who might be some relative or friend, he lights the candles on a cake in front of her. There are so many candles. 'Make a wish and then I’ll help you blow out your candles.'
She wishes no one would shush her. She wishes she could be quieter. She is just too loud, just about always. She is too noisy at that first funeral, decades later at the next, again a few years after, then yearly, soon monthly. It is hard to be quiet surrounded by so much death, so many silent goodbyes to rooms filled with family and friends. Her body outlives them all, yet her mind still lives with them, even now.
A strange man who is also somehow a familiar boy is sitting and crying next to her. She reaches out and taps him on the shoulder. 'When is your mommy coming to pick you up?'
'I’m 60. My mom has dementia. She doesn’t even know I’m here.'
'That’s terrible. I’m so sorry. Maybe there’s something the doctors can do?'
'They try to help, but there’s no cure.'
'Well, I hope your mommy can still come and find you.' She offers him one of her paper napkins to dry his tears.
'I do too.' He blows his nose in the napkin, then rolls it into a ball. 'If it’s okay by you, I’m going to stay here a bit longer and keep waiting for her.' He holds her hand.
'Don’t worry, your mommy will be here soon.' She squeezes his hand, shushes him softly and hums more and more of his favorite lullaby.
About the author
Adam Strassberg is a retired psychiatrist living in Portland, Oregon. His work uses the intersection of psychology, religion, mythology and magical realism to explore the human condition. When he's not writing or napping, he often can be found updating his website at www.doctorstrassberg.com/fiction
Did you enjoy the story? Would you like to shout us a coffee? Half of what you pay goes to the writers and half towards supporting the project (web site maintenance, preparing the next Best of book etc.)