Michael O'Neill

Loch Ness Mother

When I saw you in the bathtub, cotton robe hung around your shoulders, waterline oozing up the fabric, I thought that was what bathing looked like. My 4-year-old eyes glimpsed your semi-naked figure, vanilla skin pulled tightly over a frail wireframe of bones. Shut the door, honey, you said.

You were so brittle I feared the next soap bubble that floated your way would envelop you, morph over your body and drag you under, spiraling together down the drain.

And then there was the time in 7th grade, coming home from school, when I witnessed you sitting on the roof, knees tucked to your chest, bare feet beginning to bleed on the coarse, tar shingles. There’s cereal in the pantry, just don’t use all the milk, you called down to me. That night, through my telescope, I scanned the rooftops of all the other neighborhood homes, recording whether there were other moms perched atop. 

You looked like a bird with two broken wings, one holding a lit cigarette, the other the stem of a wine glass, as if you had no idea that you could fly or that you were broken.

The day of graduation, you couldn’t get out of bed. I brought home the diploma and set it on your nightstand, sunlight sliding through the plastic blinds, illuminating your opaque eyes. You were so sunken, so concave, I could have walked right through you.

I laid my head next to yours and heard the hurricane of voices parading through your skull, crashing like waves against your brain. I imagined your mind as a game of pong, two-dimensional pill bottles sliding up and down, slowly batting back and forth your now-dead impulses – except there’s no joystick. There’s no joy.

If I inserted a stethoscope into your ribs, I was sure there would be some tentacled beast to grab ahold of it, some leviathan that would finally rear its head, revealing itself for the first time in decades, as if the Loch Ness Monster had invaded your body and lived deep in the underbelly of your disease.

I could throw a spear through your heart, releasing your demons, but I could never know whether that would only awaken an even darker side of you, or if such an act of daring would truly put to bed forever the terrible genetics that dictate you.

You lived two more years in your vegetative exile, which was just shy of the timetable any of us could afford to keep paying. Every tube and catheter and needle and poison was a line item on your outstanding medical bills, and unrolling the long scroll of your past-due notes was like watching the ending credits descend into a coffin, your name appearing so many times one would think you were the producer, director and star performer of your life. But we all knew that to be untrue. You were the unpaid sideshow act who went off the rails early in your career, your family playing the role of handlers and agents and enablers.

And we were sorry for it. Sorry for you.

Michael O'Neill is a fiction and poetry writer residing in Chicago. His work has appeared in Maudlin HouseWhiskeyPaper, Journal of MicroliteratureUnbroken Journal and Great Lakes Review, among others.