An excerpt from Christina Kapp’s The Tea Party

“The Tea Party”

The nurse follows the daughter into the room and replies with a “thank you” when the daughter indicates a chair set out for her next to the king-sized bed. On the side of the bed near the chair, an aged, immobile woman breathes noisily. The nurse blinks as if her eyes are adjusting to a low light, although it is a clear afternoon and threads of sunshine have wound their way through the trees and into the room. She notes that the tools she requires are present: a laundry basket, a garbage pail, fresh linens. She also sees that everything—the bedspread, chair cushion, and an old blue ottoman—is coated in a light layer of fur, clearly the product of an unseen cat. The room feels thick and mustardy, so she looks again at the windows and is surprised to find them open. She also notices that beneath the windowsills, the wallpaper has brown stains from water damage, making it seem as though even the April day has become ill.

“Well, it looks like spring is finally here,” the nurse says, her voice churning out into the room. She approaches her patient and runs her fingertips down her arm, smiling. This woman was young once, just like the nurse’s sister, who is two days overdue with no sign of a baby yet. This woman once sat in a chair, her belly hard and round with child—the daughter who is caring for her now. “Look at the days growing longer and longer.”

Despite her smile, the nurse dislikes the situation immediately—the cat hair, the moldy walls, the translucent sheets—but it is not her place to judge. People do the best they can.

“She’s been like this for a long time now,” the daughter replies, lowering herself onto the ottoman. She is not young herself, fifty at least, and she moves as if her years are weights hanging from her limbs. She is wearing an old, grey Mickey Mouse sweatsuit and her hair is salt and pepper at the crown but yellow and frizzy, like buttered popcorn, in the ponytail she wears at the base of her neck. Her mother is clearly extremely ill—she is dying—and lies awkwardly, half on her side, half on her back, supported by a row of pillows. She is wearing a pair of plaid flannel pajamas, most likely men’s, and her skin looks like shellac over her skull. Her mouth and eyes are open wide, giving the impression of hollowness. One of her arms is thrust forward, making her look as if she has been captured midfall in a photograph. The daughter leans over and peers at her mother’s body, considering the angle. She shoves one of the pillows farther under her mother’s back and says, “Much better.”

The mother’s face registers no change.

Despite her smile, the nurse dislikes the situation immediately—the cat hair, the moldy walls, the translucent sheets—but it is not her place to judge. People do the best they can.

She checks her patient’s pulse and respiration and records the information in the notebook on the nightstand. She also chronicles the wet rattle, the inelastic skin, the shallow breaths and the durations between them. As she works, the daughter makes shushing noises in an effort to soothe her noisy, rattling mother like a parent quieting a disruptive child in church. People did this. They tried to snuff away noise with soothing. However, life is noisy. Death is noisy. Birth is noisy. People like to pretend these things are magical, like the finger of God will come down and touch you when it’s your time, but they are wrong. There is noise and pain. There is blood and mucous. There is agony and waiting. Her sister doesn’t know that yet—she is a buyer for Bloomingdales—but she would. Soon? The nurse thinks about the cell phone in her bag. Her sister had promised to call if anything was happening.

“I wish I could do more for her,” the daughter says, jangling something in the front pocket of her sweatshirt. “It seems so cruel for her to go on like this.”

The nurse sets her mouth at a sympathetic angle. “These things can take time.”

“She hasn’t spoken in weeks,” the daughter insists. “Every nurse Hospice sends over says, ‘Any time now,’ but she just keeps going.”

The nurse shifts her patient from side to side so she can roll off the sheets and replace them with fresh ones. She changes her patient’s pajamas and undergarments, which are clean, more or less. Lack of hydration has shut down her kidney function.

“Why don’t you tell me a little bit about your mother?”

“The thing is—I think she’s scared,” the woman says.


“Well, obviously she’s hanging on for some reason. Look at her; she’s literally disintegrating. Her skin, well, it’s been peeling off.” She reaches out as if to show the nurse but her hand stops in mid-air. “It’s not supposed to be like this.”

To read the entire story, purchase issue one of apt in print or PDF.

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