The Beginning of the End
I remember everything, everything except for one indefinable moment. Setting my foot in the same place I had so many times before, and it giving way to the tiny puddle that had formed beneath it from the water trickling down my leg. I remember the moment my head met the corner of the boat, and the floating, face down, feeling nothing: the waiting. I had assumed she’d seen me, had known that it would be only a moment before I would feel my mother or her boyfriend’s hands lifting me from the water and then, just darkness.
I remember, too, when my grandfather was alive and he would talk to his plants. I thought he was crazy, standing over a fern or a weeping fig, water flowing from a tin can as he nurtured them with his words. Now I see, I can relate, because somehow I’m more like them than I am my own family, living yet inanimate. Persistently vegetative, that’s what the doctor had called it, while trying to explain to my parents that at this point euthanasia was the best and only answer to this unanswerable question. I couldn’t disagree with him more.
My parents are arguing again, their recovered love being once more tested. My mother was never very affectionate, but still I am amazed that she’s the one siding with the doctor. I’d thought there was some kind of invisible bond between mother and daughter that would make her want to die rather than to see her only child go before her. She had once remarked that I had just finished college, that I had so much potential and how unfair all of this is. I’d thought the same thing many times, so maybe love was really just that—an agreement.
—You know how I feel. I don’t want to talk about it anymore.
—We have to talk about this, Janet. It’s our daughter. It’s Sarah!
When they fight like this, it’s like I’m five again and invisible. I want to say Mom—Mom—Mom—Mom—Mom and I want her to turn to me and yell again Can’t you see I’m talking to your father!
I am no less skeptical of their renewed tenderness than I was the first time I saw their low-hanging hands interlocked by the fingertips. They would come together the way water molecules do in winter, forming something solid, yet vulnerable, the cold bringing them slower and closer until together they froze.
There’s a new woman in my room. She’s dying too. She said also that I was lucky, that life was good, but she likened my situation to that of a stranger letting you cut in a long line at the supermarket, like all of this was a trivial, but somehow positive, thing. I don’t think I’m going to like her.
I remember the word I spelled correctly to win my third-grade spelling bee, E-X-P-E-R-I-E-N-C-E. And the candy my grandmother would bribe me to sleep with when I stayed at her house as a child, that I remembered before only as a charming family story, but now as though I were present in her living room, wrapped up on the couch and picking through the crystal dish to find the red candy because it’s my favorite color, I remember birth. It’s as though my whole life has been reduced to a series of movies that I can move through at will. And it’s strange, but my past feels more real to me now than it ever had while I was really living, and the present—the right now—feels like the dream.
The woman asks me do I like Carter, and without me saying a word she says, me neither. Do I mind watching the debate? I do, but she puts it on anyways.
—That Reagan’s really something, isn’t he?
I can’t understand what a dying woman’s interest in politics would be. From what she tells me, she’s not going to be around long enough to see who wins anyways. The men at the podium are arguing: Are you better off than you were four years ago? No, Mr. Reagan, I’m not. But I doubt there’s anything you can do about it even if you do get elected.
—Did you see him in, oh, what was that movie. The one where his legs get amputated—Kings Row. His star was really rising, then. When he came out from being under he said, Where’s the rest of me? What a line! That’s something I think you and me could relate to about now, huh kid?
She’s prying open pistachio shells with her fingers mostly, sometimes her teeth. She eats them constantly; good for the heart, she says. The sound of it alone could make a girl want to pull her own plug. I wish my eyes would close. At least then, I could pretend I’m anywhere else.
There’s a nurse here that comes and visits with me and the other woman. She brings with her each time a red leatherette Bible, and at home at night, she must mark off the scriptures she wants to read to us because she moves through that book like it has an accompanying map, one that shows you how to get to all of the right places in it that talk about heaven and death, or whatever her daily message is. I used to think there was a heaven. Even for a while after the accident, I believed. But having had seven years to reason it all out, I started to think that if there was one, I would have been there rather than the nowhere I was in the moments between me floating in the water and when I came back in the rear of an ambulance. That part that was missing was what led me to believe I wouldn’t survive my body; that all that existed of me now was a disoriented consciousness.
I’ve heard my father say that when they take out my feeding tube I’ll slowly melt away, and he asks my mother can she even stand the thought of that. I wish he could understand that it’s not my body I’m worried about, it’s my thoughts. They will grow thin, thinner, thinnest, melting into themselves until they cease, and then that will be it. They’re all I have left now. Sometimes I start to wonder if any of this is real, or if it’s just shadows of memories playing themselves out, the way images linger on the television set for a few moments after it’s turned off—if I’m not, in fact, already dead.
—So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.
Corinthians. I recognize it from the Bible classes my mother made me attend as a child, more for show than for any kind of spiritual enrichment. I wonder if this nurse would have so much faith if all she had was sight, if it was her body lying here instead of mine. My mother walks in and tells the nurse that it’s nice what she’s doing, but that she needn’t bother, because I can’t hear it anyways. The nurse doesn’t argue. She closes her book, looking into my eyes like she’s searching for something that would mean everything to her, before walking over to hold the hand of the old lady next to me. Albina, I hear her say.
When she leaves, my mother walks over to the window where she takes out her needlework and starts meddling with it. She could say hello—she could tell me how much she misses my voice, or that my father and her are living together again, which I suspect already because they show up here now within ten minutes of each other regularly, and because before my mother only came mornings and my father evenings. But she doesn’t talk to me much these days. Even patience, my mother’s one good quality, eventually expires.
It really wasn’t so much them getting back together, as it was why they were getting back together, that bothered me. It’s that, when I was fifteen and at the mall with my mother, and we walked past that little restaurant in the corner by her favorite department store, and I begged her to eat before we shopped, and she growing tired of my begging turned us around, and when we walked into that restaurant, and we walked right into my father holding hands across a table with another woman, I had begged my mother to give him another chance. I might not have understood a lot about love then, but I did understand family. I did understand that I needed both a mother and a father, but she had selfishly let her pride and her feelings get in the way of us being together. It’s that she could have done it for me then, but she didn’t, and now that it doesn’t matter one damn bit she’s all of the sudden rushing back into his arms.
The day it happened, my mother had taken me out on her boyfriend’s boat. It was the summer after college graduation, and I’d come back to live with her while I sent out applications for teaching positions in New York and Los Angeles—I wasn’t going to spend the rest of my life in rural Georgia. They had sweaty cans of Ansells Bitter in their hands. The more they drank, the more they argued. It and the heat were too much; I dove into the soothing waters of Lake Juliette. Bohemian Rhapsody crawled out from the portable stereo between their bucket seats, and I swam several yards away, far enough to reduce them to actors in a silent film.
The sun was immediately overhead, and I floated on my back trying to stare into it, like I was trying to blind myself, though from what I don’t know. I kicked one leg and one arm slowly, so that I moved in little circles, seeing incredible patches of color each time I closed my eyes against the light. After some time at this I neared the boat again, and saw when I opened my eyes my mother motioning wildly for me to get out of the water. The way she was going at it, you’d have thought sharks had infested the inland water and my life was at peril. I lifted my head, and the scene became whole, her yelling we were going home this instant in a tone that matched perfectly her overwrought gesticulations.
I’ve tried many times in my life to pinpoint tangible points of departure from the perfect life I had assumed had been laid out for me from birth. I was destined for something, even if was just a small greatness that would fall within the scope of the life I‘d been born into. But there were missteps. There was the boy I‘d loved in high school, and when he left me it was, was the shirt I wore on our last date too low cut? Or maybe if I’d slept with him? I’ve also often wondered if my mother–this other man’s Janet–hadn’t been so preoccupied with her boyfriend that day if I’d still be on that path, or at least not so completely derailed from it. But then other times I think those thoughts are like the stripes on my well-meaning visitors‘ chair. Red-green-black-green-orange, red-green-black-green-orange. Maybe that pattern repeats itself a hundred times before there’s a purple or a blue or a yellow that you could have never seen coming. Seasons, too, and night and day: illusions of order. My life has been filled with these little empty promises of knowing.
My father walks in, and she puts down her needlework and walks to him. They embrace, without even looking to see if I‘m watching them. Maybe even he’s starting to get used to the idea that I’m not really here, and I feel it closing in on me. My head lolls to the other side so that I am watching Albina work a crossword, rather than my parents playing footsy in the corner of my hospital room. Being spared having to watch this I believe for a millisecond that there really is a God. Albina looks over at me and winks before turning a page.
When they leave they walk out arm-in-arm, my mother resting her head on my father’s shoulder in a show of helplessness or womanliness, rather than waiting the customary ten minutes between their departures. I knew they were living together, and if I could tell my mother anything now it would be how hideous that magenta turtleneck looks on her.
—They certainly seem to be getting along well these days. Well, you must be glad.
She looks again away from her crossword puzzle and at me.
—Or maybe you’re not happy about it. I could certainly understand that. My parents got divorced when I was very young, and I could imagine that had my father tried to come back into the picture, I’d have resented him for it a bit. Oh, I would have eventually come around. Being together is always better than being apart.
I would imagine that were my parents not getting back together because I was dying, I’d eventually have come around, too.
—Maybe you can help me. Good death, for Greeks. Ten letters, and the third letter down is T.
Euthanatos. I think for a moment on the irony of it, until I realize she’s probably made this one up. It doesn’t sound like any question on any crossword I’ve ever done, anyhow. She squints at me, all dramatically.
—Euthanatos, wonderful! I was really stuck. You’ve saved me from yet another failed attempt at completing an entire crossword. I thought by the time I was this old I’d have amassed enough general and useless knowledge to be able to do these things in my sleep. Maybe there’s no use in getting old at all, huh, kid?
—I want to go out on a positive note tonight, so that’s it. Lights out, Roomie.
She flips the switch beside her bed and I’m glad I don’t have to listen to her anymore, but then I’m once again in a darkness I have no control over. When I was in college and needed to stay awake all night to study for a test after too many nights of staying out late drinking, I’d have given anything to be able to stay up all night like this. Now I just move in and out of memories—reswimming those fifty feet to the boat where I would carelessly and faultlessly misplace my foot. In and out of anger—at my mother, who instead of making sure I was safely out of the water, sat like a statue, arms crossed and staring straight ahead in the front of the boat. In and out of fear—
She turns the light back on and she’s sitting up in her bed.
—Yeah, I can’t sleep either. You know, there’s a Reagan movie marathon on tonight. What do you say we put it on, is that alright, Kid?
She walks over and faces me toward the television set before going to power it on. Where’s the rest of me? is the first thing I hear, like somehow she’d planned to turn it on at that very moment.
—What a line, what a line.
Within minutes she’s snoring, and I spend the rest of my night watching 1940’s Ronald Reagan movies. Even though I’m pretty sure I’m a democrat, I’m thankful for the company.
My father told me yesterday that they are living together. Now that I’m not being lied to, it doesn’t bother me so much. I’m just glad he’s talking to me again. For two weeks he’d hardly said a word, and I thought for certain he’d given up on me. But what’s really bothering me is that my mother has started talking to me again. Not much, but sometimes she’ll do things like hold up her needlework and ask me what I think. After the accident, we would talk in our way. Maybe like me and Albina, though it mostly seemed like my mother and I were talking about entirely different things.
—Well, kid. The jig's almost up, wouldn’t you say? I feel a change coming our way.
She’s munching her pistachios again, but that’s not the most annoying part. For one thing, she’s assuming that our fates are somehow intertwined, presumably because we’re both dying, and perhaps by reason of proximity. She must not understand that I could go on like this forever.
—I don’t know about you, but I’m ready. There are only so many crosswords a girl can do and so many reruns a girl can watch before she’s ready for something else. We couldn’t possibly go on like this forever.
Actually I’m starting to like these reruns.
—Oh, you might not know it yet. But you’ll realize soon enough. There’s nothing left for us here. Everything is beyond.
My family is here, my body is here. Everything I’ve ever known is here. There are no guarantees anywhere but here.
—Did you hear? Reagan won the election. I can’t wait to see what this world looks like a few years from now.
You won’t see anything. You’ll be dead. Or else, somewhere far away from here. And then what will you care about the happenings of the world.
—I’ve got grandchildren, you know. I want to make sure they’re taken care of when I’m gone, and I really think he’s got the right attitude to turn this country around.
I think you mean skills. He has the right skills to turn this country around. She coughs a few times and then rolls away from me, mumbling something I can’t make out as she does. I hope I didn’t offend her. It’s just that I don’t have the same rosy views she does about life. But then I remember that I couldn’t have offended her. I can’t offend anybody, because I can’t move, speak, express a difference of opinion—I can’t do anything but think and relive the past in my mind and even that’s starting to feel like it isn’t much. When I was sixteen, I used to scream at my mother that I had no life whenever she’d tell me I couldn’t do something my friends could do, whenever she’d say my curfew was eleven o’clock no matter what Maria’s mom said, or something like that. I wish now that I had reserved that argument for something a little more serious.
It’s morning. Light seeps in through the crack of the curtains, and though I can’t feel it, I see its warmth. The storm last night had looked like a herd of giant, surging buffalo, grey and horrific; threatening to everything in the waning hours of the day. But even the worst storms can’t withstand the scrutiny of light. The sunrise is a magnificent patchwork of colors, stretching out into each other and back into themselves, making new colors and there is no rhythm or rhyme to it but it is, I can say with certainty, the most beautiful and serene thing I have ever seen. It makes the world seem big again. When the colors begin to fade I can still see dust particles swooning in the sun’s rays. The world will never see another sky like this, maybe even hasn’t seen it. Maybe it’s only this beautiful from this particular angle, from this bed in this hospital. My only regret is that Albina isn’t awake to see it with me. To share in it. It occurs to me, now, that she’s been sleeping later often, these days.
I can tell winter’s coming because I see the signs of it on their faces when they come visit me—the color in their cheeks, the way it takes a few minutes for their expressions to loosen up. I love—loved, I mean, this time of year. At first, I thought of all my favorite things about it and tried to decide what I would do first after coming out of this. Sometimes it was ice-skating or skiing; because back then I think what I really missed the most was movement. But toward the end of winter and into the early spring, when it seemed everything in the world promised to come alive but me, I decided that no matter the season, the very first thing I wanted to do is put my arms around my parents and be able to feel it. No one could imagine, unless they’ve been like this, the ache you feel when your mother hugs you and the only way you know it is because you can see it. I’m starting to think Albina is right, that there is a change coming, and deep down, maybe I hope she is. Maybe it’s the only thing that can save us all.
When my father tells me that in one week they will remove my feeding tube, he doesn’t look down on me in pity or in fear. He hardly looks at me at all. Mostly he looks at my mother, like he’s searching for some outward indication that what they are about to do is wrong. Whatever he’s looking for, he won’t find it. I see it like a memory, like them holding me together when I was born, looking into one another’s and my eyes and saying in that look that this—this was right. We are in agreement. The ice is thawing; we are moving back toward fluidity. I see finally that I was never what was bringing them together—I was only what was keeping them from moving on. We’ve all just been frozen here, stuck in a single moment for an eternity.
When you’re getting ready to be born, you know it. Things start changing, becoming fluid. There is a certain anxiousness you feel, preparing to go from the darkness to the light—I feel that now. They said it could be two weeks, they’ve given me morphine, a medicine that controls the pains of the body through the mind, and I think just how little, in spite of everything he has accomplished, man really knows.
My body is shutting down slowly, organs will soon begin to fail, and though I can’t feel it, I feel it. I woke up yesterday and Albina wasn’t here. Two mornings ago, she’d gotten up from her bed and sat down in a chair next to me, the little illusion of order the nurse likes to sit in while she reads. Albina locked her hand in mine and held it up in front of my face so that I could see she was touching me. She told me she was tired, that she knew it was my turn, but if I didn’t mind letting her cut in front of me, she’d make sure I had a someplace waiting for me when I was ready. I wanted to reach out to her, to touch her back, and even though I know it wasn’t possible, I swear I felt warm liquid spilling down the crevice beside my eye. Maybe she felt it, or maybe it was just instinct, but she’d taken her hand and cupped the side of my face, wiping with her thumb the place where my tears used to flow.
When my parents come rushing in, my mother is still in her silk pajamas, mascara dying patches of skin below her eyes black. My father’s shirt is inside out and his eyes are blood-shot. We sit together in silence for a few minutes, for a lifetime—who can really say for sure. She’s looking down at me, not wholly crying, but there’s a tear clinging to her lower lashes like it knows when it lets go that it will begin to immaterialize, and right after I think it, it’s falling.
—That vase, there. Who put those there?
The way her emotions change so instantly reminds me of what my grandfather used to tell me when I was sad or angry, but what exactly it was slips away before I can see it.
—One of the nurses, maybe.
—Is this a joke? Get these out of here. Now!
—Calm down, Janet. They’re only flowers. This is difficult for all of us—
She cuts him off with a look and grabs the vase, shaking it inches from his face.
—Who did this? I want to know who did this!
My father stands and tries to take the vase from her, but she pulls it behind her and then slings it forward, releasing it into the wall in front of me where it shatters, refracting pieces of light infinitely.
—They’d give water to dying weeds, but not our daughter.
She walks past him and into the hall, just beating the rush of doctors and nurses that have come to see about the noise.
My eyes close, and I move again into darkness. Maybe I’ve just stopped seeing. A few minutes later, I hear her come back, I hear her sit next to my father, and I hear her say she’s sorry, so sorry. When my father says he understands, that there’s no need to apologize, she says to him, I wasn’t talking to you.
The doctor calls them into the hallway, and they move away from me, the space between us again and concretely growing. I couldn’t hear what he said to them, but I could guess, because my mother sounds like she’s forcing air into her lungs after being submerged for too long underwater.
I saw a movie once about a mission to space. The hero was sent out of his shuttle to repair damage done by debris that had collided with it. That wasn’t what was important. What was important was that, through no fault or major error of his own, the cord connecting the spaceman’s suit to his craft became severed. He flailed and struggled like a newborn child as invisible hands seemed to pull him away from his vessel—I could barely see the look of terror on his face through my tears. But there was a moment, right before the end, when he turned away from his craft and toward that fiery globe in the sky—I think now that he saw something that meant everything to him. The end credits started, rolling over the top of him as he floated silently in his white space suit, becoming smaller at each moment in contrast, toward the sun that seemed to beckon him into its light.