The Living Room
– Nonfiction by Kimberly Brookes –
Citrine colored paint covered every surface but the cigarette-burned parquet floor; the living room was tired and ready for renewal. Would these two prospective residents, Kim and Susan, see beyond cosmetics? Would the living room be able to harbor these women, as it had the family that had just moved out, and the families before that?
Kim shook rain off her arms and wiped her hands on her work slacks. She muttered that this house was out of their price range and that nice woodwork oughtn’t be painted. She leaned against the cold, silver-painted radiator, squinting down at the burn marks. “Those look like signs of neglect,” she said. “This house needs a lot of work.”
Across from Kim, Susan stood, feet planted firmly, legs apart, arms behind her back. “Yes, but we can do a lot ourselves.” Her voice resonated throughout the first floor of the empty Victorian. She listed the house’s assets: tin ceilings; no vinyl siding; lots of space; on a quiet, winding street, near the subway into Boston. “Besides,” she added, “It has strong bones.”
Kim’s view shifted. She felt the spaciousness of the living room’s four windows sheltering them from the rain outside. She looked through its two doorways into more rooms, all with original, shellacked woodwork, and calm off-white walls.
“You think we can really take care of such a huge house?” Kim asked.
“Absolutely,” said Susan.
Kim trusted her partner that this should be their home. Though they squabbled over the little things, they always agreed on the big ones.
The living room was ready for the fresh air of a new family. Susan and Kim took ownership by painting the walls pearl gray, the ceiling a darker blue-gray, and the woodwork around the doors slate blue. Susan meticulously painted each concentric circle of the corner rosettes alternating colors. They stripped the backs of the doors using a paint-dissolving goo they’d learned about from their new subscription to Old House Journal.
The doors, with their mostly bare wood, were left mottled with a few stubborn spots of yellow. The couple hid the still-yellow trim around the windows with big white curtains and added a soft-gray carpet that concealed the burn marks. They brought in a couch for lounging, and upholstered, mismatched, hand-me-down chairs that fit the room’s elegance, though not its new colors. Kim liked to think that guests saw not eccentricity, but charm.
Attended to and rejuvenated, the living room gave them a comfortable place to spend most evenings and held countenance to the laughter, arguments and concessions of daily life.
When Susan complained about socks Kim left around, Kim said, “You never know when you might need a different pair.” When Kim complained the thermostat was set to only sixty degrees, Susan countered, “If we’re always in the living room, why waste money by heating the whole house?” Kim put on thicker socks and joined Susan under the blankets on the couch.
“Let’s keep the curtains drawn. I don’t like people looking at us,” Kim grumbled. Susan said, “I can’t stand feeling closed in.”
As a compromise, Kim opened the curtain covering the side window that faced the neighbor’s yard. She fastened the tiebacks onto brass hooks. The curtain, and the blinds that later replaced it, stayed open for most of twenty years.
Three years after Kim and Susan moved in, Kim told Susan, “It’s too overwhelming. I can’t just decide to become a parent. I wish it could happen by accident like it does for straight people. How would we pay for college? I can raise a strong girl, but a gentle boy?”
“I’ve always wanted to be a mother, to give birth,” Susan said. “Kim, I need to do this. Can you at least stand out of my way?”
Kim did. Nine months after an IVF-implanted egg finally stayed put, Susan delivered the couple’s beautiful boy. Kim’s love for Bobby was instantaneous and fierce.
Kim and Susan became Mommy and Mueti (Swiss-German for mother), and the living room had new needs to fill. A pile of baby blankets appeared. A rocking chair moved in. The carpet sprouted train tracks. Floor space shrank as the number of toys stored around the edges grew. The room filled with kids’ TV theme songs and tantrums that resulted in loving reconciliation.
As their financial confidence grew, Susan and Kim gave the living room respectability. A seasoned carpenter sanded out most of the cigarette burns and refinished the parquet. A painter brushed over the window woodwork, so it matched the rest of the molding. The oversized white curtains gave way to inset blinds that could be lowered from the top; the inside could now see the sky through all four windows, without outsiders seeing in.
The winter after Bobby turned twelve, Susan’s high-pitched coughing fits began to drown out the TV. Kim and Bobby took care of it by shushing her and turning up the volume, but the living room was starting to shift. When the family was together, the atmosphere was as bright as usual, but after Bobby went to bed, the air filled with words like “biopsy” and “cancer.” When their son asked, they shared whatever they knew, but they tried to protect him from the worst of it.
One night, Susan’s place on the couch was empty.
Kim said, “You know how Mueti had some fluid taken out of her lungs last week, and her cough got better? Today, the doctors are making it so the fluid won’t get back in. She should be home tomorrow.” Kim asked if he wanted to know more.
Bobby scrunched up his nose and shook his head.
Several days later, when Susan came home from the hospital, a wave of relief swept through the room. Susan sat on the couch and peered at her laptop through half-glasses perched on her nose. She used the “hunt and peck” method—tap, tap, tap—to answer work email. Beside her, Kim’s fingers ran like a bullet train, updating friends and family. On the couch between them was unspoken tumult about the future. The floor, on the other hand, held their son solid. His game cards strewn around him, he interrupted his parents’ work to explain the characteristics of a particular deck he’d constructed—its powers and weaknesses to good and evil.
A few days later, the clouds outside followed Kim and Bobby into the living room. Susan’s spot on the couch was empty again.
Kim told him, “We went back to the hospital today. Mueti has to stay there a while.”
Bobby shifted his feet, grimaced, and asked if he had to go visit her. “I don’t like how she looks in the hospital,” he said, “but I don’t want to hurt her feelings.”
“It’s okay. You don’t have to go.”
“Tell her I love her and I’ll see her soon. Give her a big kiss from me,” he said.
When Susan was missing for the third time in a month, Kim’s mother sat in the green armchair in the living room, reading and knitting. Kim passed through once a day, pausing to talk about ovarian cancer, now known to be the root of Susan’s lung problems. The living room missed all the conversations between Susan and Kim, or them and Bobby; those were at the hospital or upstairs in his room.
Absent for what felt like forever but was not quite two weeks, Susan came back, and the family of three resumed their living room lives.
One day Bobby asked, “Can we play restaurant?” Kim said, “Sure, what’s on the menu?”
The boy disappeared for a bit, then swooshed open the door. “Good evening,” he said in a deep voice. “Here are your menus and some water.”
Susan perused the menu, then exclaimed, “Look! We could have bread OR toast. This must be a fancy restaurant.”
Another day, Susan eased herself down, one hand cradling her sore belly, and told Bobby there were still cancer cells inside her. “I have to have ‘chemotherapy.'”
Kim asked him, “What word does that remind you of?” The twelve-year-old answered, “Chemical?”
Susan began drawing dots on a piece of paper, “Like Pac-man: they’re going to eat all the cancer dots. You want to draw a picture?”
Bobby knelt beside the coffee table and grabbed the pen. “Maybe they have little swords and stick them into the cancer.”
Kim nodded her head, “Sure. You also need to know Mueti will get a little sick.” Susan reassured, “Just a little, not much. I’ll probably lose my hair. And be tired.”
Their son asked, but gave no space to answer, “When? Are you going to be bald? You said my head looked really good when I was little and didn’t have hair yet. Know what? Today, my friend gave me two great Digimon cards . . .”
The living room became a sanctuary: safety only occasionally breached by the truths of life and death the adults rarely acknowledged, even to one another. When alone together in the living room, Kim and Susan stuck to logistics and mechanics: who would do after school pick-up, what was happening at work, where the next appointment was. They didn’t talk about how life had changed, and never about when death might come. For nearly three years, the family adjusted to each new normal Susan’s illness dealt, all the while enjoying eating and watching TV together in the living room—despite Susan’s occasional lament that they “eat in the dining room, like civilized people.” The room couldn’t assuage their pain but it did what it was able–give them a semblance of normalcy.
The time came when alien devices barged into the living room. Three small canisters took their turn atop a three-foot-high, blue machine for filling them with pure oxygen. On the side of the loud, droning device was a long plastic tube that could be attached to Susan’s nose. At first, Susan needed only a little extra oxygen to feed her lungs; she put a canister in their son’s old backpack and carried it on walks. When her need for oxygen became constant, Bobby, by then fourteen, learned how to turn off the flow of a dying canister, take off the tubing, move it to a full one, and restart the flow.
When Susan wasn’t able to lie flat anymore for fear she wouldn’t be able to breathe, the living room served as the couple’s bedroom. The couch under the front windows left. Armchairs and the coffee table moved into another room. A poofy, dark brown rocker and a huge beige love seat appeared. Each night, Susan leaned back slightly on the reclining love seat, plastic tube carefully slung over her ears and the cannula’s prongs stuck in her nose. Kim slept fully reclined in the brown rocker. Kim’s snoring, which usually caused Susan to whine, was drowned out by the blue machine as it monotonously drew in air and expelled oxygen to a 6/8 beat. Even when they were asleep, the room felt alert.
Normally at peace during daylight hours, the living room now held Susan whenever she was home, which was most of the time. Throughout her partner’s illness, Kim had remained by Susan’s side, patient and calm, saving her crying for times when she was alone. Now, the more sedate Susan was, the more frenetic Kim became. She popped up from her email to get Susan anything she needed. She ran downstairs for five minutes at a time to refinish a wooden box for Susan’s medicines. She jumped to the door to let in the nurses who came and went.
A portable breathing machine in a rolling suitcase and an adult potty chair joined the new furniture. Susan’s medicine box took over the side table. A nebulizer moved from chair to chair. The living room felt crowded.
Two weeks after starting to sleep on the new love seat, Susan woke up at 3:00 a.m., panicking because she couldn’t breathe. It was no longer enough to push a button to send more opiates into one of her veins to calm her lungs. She began to hallucinate. She looked out the living room door and said, “I thought everyone had left, but there’s someone there.” Kim nervously looked over her shoulder; she knew no one was there, but fear of a phantom momentarily relieved her from the very real nightmare in front of her. On the phone, the hospice nurse told Kim which medicine to give Susan to stop the hallucinations.
“I’m sorry. (breath)” Susan whispered. “You need to (breath) sleep. But I really (breath) don’t feel good. (Breath, breath) I think we have to go (breath) to the hospital.”
The air in the living room was heavy with despair. For the first time during Susan’s illness, worn down by caregiving and worry, Kim couldn’t bolt into action.
Kim told Susan, “I don’t know what to do. I can’t think straight. I won’t be able to help you with the doctors. Can I sleep for just a little bit?”
Susan said, “I’ll try to wait. (breath breath) I just don’t (breath) know how long (breath) I can.” Two and a half hours later, at 5:30 a.m., Susan woke Kim up again. Kim shook herself alert. Susan panted, “We (breath) need to (breath) go.”
Kim said, “On it. But I don’t think I can get you into the car. How do we get an ambulance?” Always the practical one, Susan said, “I guess (breath) you dial 911?”
The ambulance crew helped Susan move from the couch onto the stretcher. Susan told Bobby, “I’m so sorry we have to leave you home alone. I’ll be back before you know it.” Before they wheeled Susan out of the house, Bobby went up to his room. The living room sat bereft.
The next day, Kim’s mother put aside her knitting and answered the living room phone. “Oh dear, my poor Kimmy. Of course, I’ll bring him right away.”
Kim’s foggy presence came home to a living room without Susan. Her parents tidied up the detritus of Susan’s last weeks, ridding the room of dangerous drugs, medical devices, blankets, and sleepwear. The living room, recuperated, entertained a stream of somber people. They brought food. Hugged Kim. Told stories about Susan. Asked how Bobby was doing.
The stream ended. Kim’s parents left. Then there they were. A family of two. In a house with strong bones and a living room ready to hold them. And so, the mother and not-so-little boy began their new lives, sitting together, one sprawled on the beige love seat, the other rocking in the dark brown chair, in the gray and blue living room filled with light from the four windows and two doors, at the front of the tall house on the quiet street.
About the Author – Kimberly Brookes
Until her partner was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, Kim Brookes wrote her blog for the amusement and occasional edification of friends and family. Living with cancer and death led her to more serious topics and a desire to share her work more broadly. Kim is a Boston-area soccer coach with a BA from Oberlin College and an MA in History from UMass Amherst. She formerly worked in technology in higher ed. She has taken classes at Boston’s Grub Street, and Creative Nonfiction. Her essay, “Ways to the End” was published in The MOON Magazine. For her blog, see kimbrookes.com
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