Tissue Paper

by Menaka Raman Wilms
winner of the Foundation's first Arts and Letters Foundation Youth Award for the Short Story


Her skin was so delicate, pale gray like porridge, and the blood didn't seem to fit. It was the colour that was bothering Helen. There hadn't been that much of it, but it had slipped out in little round droplets on the icy sidewalk, an audacious shade of red, that of cherry syrup. Like a snow cone, Helen had thought, and then hated herself.

A bit of blood had now caked brown on the outside of the bandage. It was just gauze really, wrapped tightly around her mother's head to help the scabbing, and Helen wondered if they would have to replace it with fresh pieces every day. Wound care, she'd heard one of the nurses down the hall say. He'd been talking to another patient, but the words had traveled up and back down Helen's spine.

It was dark on the ward now, and even though visitors weren't supposed to stay overnight, a nurse had brought in a chair and told Helen they'd look the other way. Her mother had become anxious after the man in the next bed had died.

You're a sight for sore eyes, the old man had said as Helen and her mother had first come into the room. Helen couldn't tell which one of them he was talking about, or if he was being sarcastic or sincere. He had hard white stubble all along his chin. They ignored him, and as the nurse helped her mother into the bed, Helen pulled the dividing curtain.

They'd only overlapped for an hour, and the whole time he'd been moaning and mumbling for the doctors to do something more. What's wrong with him, Helen's mother kept whispering to her. Then he went silent, and a whole bunch of nurses came in and Helen could see their feet moving around beneath the curtain. Then they wheeled him out.

Her mother was sleeping now, the fine hairs above her lip fluttering every time she breathed out. She was okay, everyone had agreed, her hip was just bruised and they'd taken care of her head, but they wanted to watch her overnight. Every couple of hours a nurse would walk into the room, smile at Helen, and check the IV, the monitor, and her breathing.

Helen had found her mother lying on her side that afternoon, staring at a patch of white ice over the pavement. I must have fallen down, she'd said, more to herself than to Helen.

They'd been in the kitchen just before that, her mother sitting at the table drinking tea while Helen washed a chicken in the sink. She had one hand up inside the bird, scrapping out the innards, when Jenny had come downstairs and started screaming about salmonella. Her daughter was becoming a germaphobe. She told them how she'd read online that bacteria sprayed everywhere when you washed raw chicken in the sink.

Jenny ran to get disinfectant, and then Helen's mother put down her cup of tea and said that she needed to mail a birthday card. It's for your brother, she told Helen, and pulled out a yellow envelope from between the pages of a magazine. It already had a stamp in the corner.

We'll mail it in a little while, Helen had said, and then Jenny came back and started spraying Lysol on the sink and the counter and Helen told her to stop. She was getting it on the chicken. Jenny wanted to move the clean dishes from the rack on the other side of the sink, because she said that they all had to be rewashed. She dropped a pot and the sound it made bouncing against the counter and hitting the floor made Helen want to yell.

Staring at her mother's face in the dimness of the hospital room, she realized that she'd left the bird sitting in the sink. The thought of the goose-pimpled flesh made Helen cringe now. It was so easy to poke a pin through it, to separate skin from muscle and hold it between her fingers.

Jenny had been in one of her moods that afternoon. She'd stomped around the kitchen, telling Helen her chicken was going to make them sick. She dramatically pushed all the washed dishes into a plastic bag so they could be rewashed later. That was when Helen had looked up towards the table and didn't see her mother.

She's probably in the bathroom, Jenny said.

But she wasn't. Then Helen had remembered the birthday card. Her mother's boots were gone, and Helen had opened the door, just to peer down the street and check, and saw her mother a few feet from the mailbox, lying on the ground.

In the emergency room, nurses had put her in a wheelchair and started asking questions. What day is it? What's your name? What's your daughter's name? I already asked those things, Helen told them, but they continued anyways. They removed the wad of paper towels that had staunched the bleeding and said she'd get to see a doctor right away. You shouldn't have gone out alone mom, haven't I told you not to go out alone, Helen kept saying, but her mother just closed her eyes.

The doctor was young and flirted shamelessly with his patient. Helen watched her mother blush and giggle, completely forgetting that she had a gaping wound on the side of her forehead. My son's a doctor too, she'd told him. A podiatrist. The words came out funny because she had a fat lip. Both her front teeth were cracked.

He did tests and she didn't seem to have a concussion, but he wanted her to rest and stay quiet anyways. No wild parties for a few weeks, he told her, and she smiled like a hockey player.

She'd had falls before, but they'd been small: she'd stumbled in a coffee shop, she'd lost her balance getting into a car and ended up on the driveway on her bum. After that second incident, Helen and her brother had decided she shouldn't live alone anymore. One weekend he'd flown in from Boston and they had three free lunches at three different retirement homes. Her brother had loved it. He chatted up the staff, collected activity pamphlets, found rooms at each of the places that he thought would be perfect for her.

He wanted to sign her up then and there, but she wanted to think about it. After he'd left, Helen's mother had grabbed her hand. Don't make me live there, she'd said.

Helen got up from her chair and left the room, careful to close the door quietly. There was a yellow glow down the hallway, a light hum of noise that signaled the nurses' station, and Helen walked past it to get to the coffee vending machine. She fed in two loonies and pushed some buttons. Nothing happened. She pushed harder, tapped the machine lightly, then hit it with the palm of her hand. One of the nurses looked over. It's broken, he said. He disappeared and came back with a mug of coffee.

She took it back into the room and stood at the window. Jenny didn't seem to care either way that her grandmother had moved in with them. She was out most of the time, between field hockey and soccer and her friends, but she'd been upset today and had cried when she saw her grandmother bleeding. Helen was touched. They'd left Jenny at home, but she'd called every hour to see how things were.

Helen wondered if Jenny had cleaned up or had left the chicken in the sink. She realized that she had no idea what her daughter would do, and she suddenly saw how she didn't know her as well as she should. Every part of her mother, on the other hand, was familiar to Helen. She knew what her voice sounded like when she was tired, which vegetables she preferred, what she looked like in the bath.

Her mother was so small now. She'd gotten shorter, and her hair had thinned so that Helen could always see the outline of her scalp. Helen walked over to the bed and touched her cheek, and when she moved beneath her fingers, her face crinkled like tissue paper.

She hadn't mentioned the birthday card. She'd fallen before making it to the mailbox, and Helen wondered if she'd forgotten, if it would come up tomorrow, or the day after, sudden and persistent. Helen knew what she would say. She'd tell her mother that there were more important things to think about, like that fact that they'd stopped the bleeding, the fact that they'd gotten her to the hospital. The card was not significant.

But Helen knew exactly where it was. She'd seen it when she was lifting her mother up off the ground, and it had still looked pristine, sitting cleanly atop of the ice. It was next to those alarming red spots of blood. Before she'd half-walked, half-carried her mother away, she'd stepped on it.

The stitches would leave a scar, the doctor had told them. She'd gone almost eighty years with a clear complexion, but now she would have an unsightly, jagged line across her temple. Tomorrow Helen would have to take her to the dentist to get her front teeth bonded. There were footsteps outside the room, and Helen peered around the curtain to look towards the door. A kid about Jenny's age opened it and stood in the entranceway, his shoulders hunched. He looked at Helen.

I'm sorry, I don't wanna bother you, he said. His eyes settled on the empty space on the other side of the curtain. I just came for his glasses.

Helen stepped out and watched as he walked over to the bedside table. He had a look about him, like he was trying to make himself small. He picked up a pair of black-framed glasses that were sitting on the table and walked back towards the door.

Was that your grandpa? Helen asked. She whispered, not wanting to wake her mother.


He looked back at her then and she knew she was supposed to say something, like she was sorry or that she'd pray for him, but nothing came out. The kid would probably cry tonight, she knew, and maybe at the funeral, and then for a couple of weeks his house would smell of sympathy flowers. His family would remember all the good things about their grandfather, would maybe tell funny stories and look at pictures. And then they'd work on falling back into their lives, on figuring out how things fit together without him.

The kid stared at her for another moment and then left the room. He closed the door gently behind him, and Helen looked down into the last inch of her coffee and thought about Jenny stomping around the house, about her mother watching TV and needing reminders for when to take her pills. She saw herself then, what she must look like standing alone in the kitchen holding a pot or a frying pan, trying to decide what to make for dinner.

She dumped the rest of the coffee in the bathroom sink. There was a long fluorescent bulb above the mirror, and it buzzed like mosquitos.

Menaka Raman Wilms is a graduate from the University of Toronto's M.A. in English in the Field of Creative Writing Program. She currently works at Nudge, a Toronto based start up. As well, she is a singer and blogs about politics and is currently working on a novel.