Darren Montufar: Nothing Changes but the End

“I’m tired,” Ramona said to Henrietta. “It’s my heart arrhythmia.” 

That was the diagnosis of her doctor back home. Ramona’s once-estranged daughter, Carrie, had scheduled this meeting with a practitioner, Henrietta, hoping to ease her mom’s symptoms. The appointment had been made as a sign of goodwill, but also of love.

“Consider this stuffed bear,” Henrietta said, setting a stuffed bear on a table within reach.

Ramona looked at the stuffed bear. “What kind of doctor are you, again?”

They sat in matching rocking chairs, facing one another, in a windowless room that had Henrietta’s name on the door.

“I’m not a doctor.” Henrietta said. “Now, envision the world of a small child,” she invited Ramona. “Just think,” she said, “about the doldrums of childhood. Inside voices, eat your vegetables, use the potty—all day, rules. Now, imagine what a child understands when she sees the stuffed bear.”

“Probably not that she’ll be charged one hundred dollars an hour to look at it,” Ramona quipped.

“Our first visit is free,” Henrietta replied. “And you get to take the stuffed bear with you—also free.”

Take it with me? Ramona thought to herself.

When she’d found out about her heart arrhythmia, she’d called her once-estranged daughter as a courtesy. “They’ve given me blood thinners, a talk on defibrillators, three months to live.”

“Don’t joke like that, Mom,” Carrie had said that day on the phone. “Move to Minneapolis.”

Ramona had reminded her daughter that laughter keeps the heart young—it doesn’t care what kind. And why not joke about the silliness of your own life? Isn’t it a laugh when the end is nearer to you than your own daughter?

Returning to the stuffed bear, Henrietta said, “The child knows that the stuffed bear is her pass to silliness. The bear is imbued with a creative entitlement, and the child understands that holding it allows her to break from the doldrums, to make possible what is otherwise not.

“Now,” Henrietta continued, “think of an adult holding an object an adult would hold—a briefcase, a lawn sprinkler. Man or woman holding it, tell me what they feel holding that, what is understood just by holding it.”

“I’m not sure? At the very least boredom.”

“Good, now you hold the stuffed bear.” Henrietta picked up and held the stuffed bear out to Ramona.

“My daughter scheduled this appointment to help with my heart arrhythmia, you know that, right?”

“Of course. Why else would we be doing this?”

Again, Henrietta held the stuffed bear out to Ramona. “Now, you hold the stuffed bear.”

Romana took the stuffed bear.

“I’m going to turn off the light, so that you know I can’t watch you,” Henrietta said. Then she turned off the light.

“Now we’re in the dark,” Henrietta said. “Do not actively think about play or anything related to play. Just hold the stuffed bear.”

Ramona inhaled through her nose and out her mouth, and she situated the bear in her arm. She could hear a fan whirring that she hadn’t noticed before. The bear was soft and small. She felt more aware of its softness, its size, in the dark. She moved the bear to her other arm. 

“This feels silly.”

“Good. Just hold the stuffed bear.” 

The two sat in silence for another thirty seconds. Ramona could tell that the fan she could hear was an oscillating fan.

“Your husband passed, yes?” 

“Yes? Maurice, nearly three years ago. Goodness, Carrie told you that?”

“I asked her to tell me about you.” 

The two sat silent for another fifteen seconds. Ramona could hear a door close somewhere else in the building. She cradled the bear, unconsciously, the way a child might.

“You’re on medications for the heart arrhythmia?”

“Yes,” Ramona replied. “They’ve had me on everything—blood thinners, beta blockers, sodium channel blockers, a whole laundry list of fancy-named thingamajigs.”

Henrietta asked Ramona how the medications were working.

“Oh, they’re working just fine. I thought I’d come hold a stuffed bear in a dark room for laughs.” 

Ramona apologized, backtracking. She explained that no, the medications were not working. Her symptoms were only getting worse. First it was the heart double-beating sometimes, followed by labored breathing. Then things compounded.

“Now on top of those first things, I’m fatigued all the time. Dizzy,” Ramona said.

“How is your sleep?” 

“Sleep is terrible. God in heaven, sleep is terrible.” 

“How long has your sleep been terrible?”

“Since Maurice passed. I have bad dreams. Two of them are recurring.” 

Ramona told Henrietta about one of the recurring dreams, where she is on a moving train. The details vary sometimes, but she’s usually on the train at night. The seat next to her has Maurice’s things—his jacket, his book, his hat; but Maurice is gone. Through the train car comes an officer, checking for IDs. Everyone is obliging, presenting their IDs, digging out their tickets for the officer. The train is accelerating, jostling on the track, and as Ramona pulls out her ID, she sees that she is faceless in the picture. The ID has a name she can’t read—her ticket is the same. The train is careening down the track, coming undone under the sheer pressure of speed, and Ramona only has the faceless ID to show. As the officer scrutinizes her ID, she finds her reflection in the light on the window and sees she is faceless. The dream always ends there.

“Did you and your husband share a bed?”

“We shared a bed for fifty-one years, if you must know.” Ramona clutched the stuffed bear close to her ribs. 

“I believe I know why your ticker is off, Ramona.” 


“You’ve heard of a mother birthing her child and during her screams of pain, the husband is there to hold her hand, and this lessens the pain?”

“I may have read that in a fantasy novel or something.”

“It’s physiology. The analgesic effect of a partner’s touch during times of heightened stress and pain. You have been without the touch of your partner now, during this period of most heightened stress. This impacts everything in your life.” 

Ramona made a small sound of curiosity as she rocked back and forth in her chair, clutching the stuffed bear in her arms. 

Henrietta continued, “When you share a bed or any intimate space with a partner, after a while your breathing patterns will start to mirror one another’s and your heartbeats sync.”

Henrietta explained that since Maurice’s passing, Ramona’s heart had lost its natural regulator, which led to its erratic beating, affecting her breathing and sleeping. “What else did you have in your life, aside from Maurice, that gave you joy?” 

“We had the euchre club, and we gardened. But I couldn’t continue with either. They felt too empty.” 

Henrietta asked her how her relationship was with Carrie.

“What relationship? She didn’t even make the trip when her father died.” 

“Carrie mentioned that she would sometimes categorize your relationship as ‘contentious.’”

“Is there anything that you don’t know about me?” 

“Would you agree with Carrie’s categorization?”

 “Let’s just say she wasn’t an easy daughter to raise, but I know I wasn’t an easy mother, also.”

“But now you’re a grandmother, I’m told.” 

“Well, the girl is four years old now, four or five,” Ramona said. “I’d only met her the one time before I moved out here.” Now she had her arms hugged around the stuffed bear, pressing it to her chest as she rocked the chair. “When I look at her though, I see Carrie when she was the same age, and I guess because of that, I’ve prophesied the trouble she’s likely to be.” 

“Do you want my honest opinion, Ramona?”  

“My curiosity is piqued.” 

“Your entire world was Maurice, but he’s passed. Even the activities you enjoyed with him you no longer continue. We know the why of your heart arrhythmia but, to correct it, you need to invite other, happier things into your life that can replace the soothing effect that Maurice had.” 

Ramona slowly stopped rocking her chair and her left hand squeezed the foot of the stuffed bear. “Well, I don’t feel I need anything new in my life. I’m a little old for new things.” 

“Perhaps it’s not something new that you need but, instead, to nurture something you already have. You could have a great deal more happiness if you would allow for it.”

“Well! I feel that’s enough wasted time for one day.” Ramona got to her feet, the room still in total darkness. “My life is filled with happy things, but how could you possibly see that?” 

“Please take the stuffed bear with you, I think you’ll find that it’ll come in handy. And call when you’re ready for your next appointment.” 

“I’m taking the bear only out of spite. Consider this Goodbye.”

That afternoon, Ramona was seated at the kitchen table in Carrie’s house with a pile of brochures and pamphlets to one side of her. The papers detailed multiple apartment homes and condominiums in the area designed for 65 and older, and touted independent living. To her other side was a notebook in which she listed the pros and cons of each. The air was quiet as she wrote. Suddenly she was interrupted by the double-beat of her heart, the classic palpitation that had been the initial symptom of her ailment. Its force and jarring feeling sent her back in her chair.

As she recovered, she heard a car pulling into the drive—one door closing, then another. A woman’s voice and that of a small child’s followed, the latter overly loud.

Carrie and her daughter entered through the front door.

“No, you may not have another Mr. Joe. No more until tomorrow. You’ve had way too many today,” their conversation from the driveway carrying into the house.

“Aww,” was the girl’s response. 

“Hey Mom, what are you doing?” Carrie said to Ramona as she set down some bags. 

“I’m looking for an apartment home; there are a lot of communities around here.” 

“An apartment? You’ve only just moved in with us.” 

“You know me. I like my space and my quiet. And anyway, we’ll still be in the same city.”

“Well, okay. How did your appointment go with Henrietta?”

“Oh, that new-age, mumbo jumbo? What a laugh! Did you know she wasn’t a doctor?”

“Well, she’s a life coach, a practitioner. I’ve heard nothing but great things.” 

“She had me sitting in the dark, holding toys!”

“Get your finger out of your nose!” Carrie had turned her attention back to her daughter, Celine.

“Sorry, Mommy.” 

“Don’t wipe it there!”

“Sorry, Mommy.”                                                         

Carrie approached the child with a tissue, wiping her hands and face, then shooing her away.

This one! She knocked over an aquarium at school today. An entire fish aquarium, shattered. Fish and water, everywhere. I can’t understand.”  

“It sounds familiar to me,” Ramona replied. 

“Can you keep an eye on her while I shower? We’ll talk more about Henrietta and this apartment stuff after? And no more Mr. J-O-Es, she’s a fiend for those candies.”

“I can spell!” yelled a little voice from another part of the room. 

Once the shower sounded, Celine’s small footsteps approached Ramona and stopped directly at her side. Ramona set down her pen and turned to the girl, who was dressed in a royal blue jumper, with a matching bow in her hair.

“Can I have a Mr. Joe?” 

“No, you may not have a Mr. Joe. I don’t even know what those are, but your mother said No, anyway.”

“Are you and Mommy friends?” 

“Well,” Ramona began, “I’m your mom’s mom, so, we’re friends the same way that you and your mom are friends. Does that make sense?” 

The little girl only swayed side to side, one arm clasping the other behind her back.

“Were you a bad girl today at school?” Ramona said. 

“Can you read me a story?” Celine deflected.

“I don’t have a book to read from, but how about this, instead?” Ramona reached into her bag and pulled out the stuffed bear from her appointment with Henrietta. She presented it to the little girl.

Celine’s eyes widened, and she lunged for the bear, engulfing it in a hug. “A teddy bear!” 

Ramona watched as the girl snuggled the bear, excitement and wonder on her face. A warm feeling spread across her own face and chest.

“Will you tell me a story?” Celine said as she climbed onto her grandmother’s lap, leaning her back into Ramona’s chest.

“Oh, I don’t know. What sort of story do you want to hear?”

“A good one! A spooky one.” The girl clutched the stuffed bear to her chest, the same as Ramona clutched the girl to hers.

“A spooky one. Okay.” 

Ramona searched around the room for building blocks to a story as the child continued to situate herself onto her lap. Then it came to her to tell Celine of the second recurring dream she’d been having, the one she hadn’t told to Henrietta.

“Once upon a time, there was a woman—a nice woman. And one day the nice woman walks out of her house that she has lived in for years and years. In front of her she sees a man she knows but his back is turned to her. She never sees his face, but she knows he’s someone very special to her. When the woman tries to call to him, the man only walks away from her. She follows him through their neighborhood that they have known for years—all the familiar houses and trees—but, as she continues to follow the man, she sees that a jungle is growing in the neighborhood. The farther they walk, the more trees grow up. Slowly, the houses in the neighborhood are overtaken and are replaced by dark jungle with green vines and bushes. The farther they walk, the harder it is for the woman to see the man because of all the trees. No matter how hard she tries to keep up, he just keeps getting further away from her. Finally, she begins to run after the man to catch him and—” 

“The dragon eats him!”

“A dragon eats the man?” 


“What dragon?” 

“The dragon that’s there!”

“Oh, my! Okay. The dragon eats the man. And then, the woman stops running and turns—”

“And the bear rescues her!” 

The girl jutted the stuffed bear out in front of herself with both hands, wriggling it, soaring it around with her hands like an airplane.

“The bear?” 


“Hey, who’s telling this story, little missy, me or you?”


“Okay then! What happens next?” 

“The bear carries the girl on his back to the jungle, away from the dragon.” 

“Is the bear big enough to do that?”

“Yes, the bear is big. It’s a lot bigger than the dragon.” 

“Okay, the bear is big. Then what happens?”

“The bear is so big that when they get under the trees in the jungle they lay down on the grass and the girl takes a nap on the bear because he’s a stuffed bear, like a pillow. And they both fall asleep.” 

“The girl and the bear both fall asleep?”

“Yes, they are very asleep. They are snoring. The end.”

“Oh, what a perfect ending!”

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