– Fierce Fiction by Isabella Mori – January 3, 2019
Outside, the hot August sun branded everything in its path, seeking out every cleft and angle. But not here. Room 263 of the Samaritan Home was just this side of cool; warm enough not to require a cardigan, cool enough to provide welcoming shelter from the relentless heat out on the streets.
My hand, then, was just the right temperature to connect, sense, soothe. A flutter of movement stirred under it, on the thin blanket covering what little skin, flesh and bones was left of Ms. Dorothy Watson, Professor Emerita. I sat on the chair beside her bed. On my lap, an old photograph.
I looked at the picture. Two big branches reaching up, an orange bird on a smaller, third branch. More birds flying far in the distance. A big red ribbon tied around the tree trunk. It seemed out of place in this otherwise bland old colorized photograph. I stared and stared at the image. I am not a detective; I am an end-of-life doula, I help ease the journey of dying. What this picture meant, I did not know.
A tiny, tiny sigh now. I looked up. No, nothing. The face had not changed. To anyone not schooled in the many faces of rest, slumber, and REM states, it would have seemed like sleep – this old woman not moving, in a prone state, eyes closed: she must be sleeping. But look at her: gray skin on a face that used to be shiny black, cheeks concave like a deflated hot air balloon, mouth not animated for months and months now by the chatter – red lipstick chatter – that she had been so famous for. When you bent closer, there was expression on the face, and it spoke discontent: the corners of the mouth disinterested in lifting, a hint of furrow between the brows, cheeks not just sunken but flabby, eyelids drooping more than necessary. No, this was not restful sleep.
“She doesn’t have much longer, Shirley,” Darla had said to me. “I went to see her as soon as I heard. I – didn’t know that there were hardly any family or friends left. Only me.” Dr. Darla Wiley, Dorothy Watson’s cousin’s granddaughter, less connected through family than through a common Alma Mater. She had looked out the window, exquisitely manicured fingers crossed over her legs. Exquisite legs, too, of course; to be expected for a woman of her stature. “I don’t have much time, and to be honest, I am not good at this sort of thing. Not at all. But I owe her. We all do. The ones who have gone already and all the others who don’t even know her – but she paved the way. I think she’ll understand.”
Understand that Darla had hired me, a doula, yes, but really, a stranger. For twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, for however long it took, I was to sit here in this chair, sleep in the little cot, eat at the nice little round table in her room, water the old woman’s flowers, read to her, and accompany her, finally, as she exited this life. Why me? I was one of the least experienced doulas around but I was available, and “I see you have an artistic background. That will be helpful.” That’s when Darla pressed the photograph in my hand, and left. What did she mean?
I don’t know why I kept staring at the image. I had it memorized: The varying shades of brown and gray on the smooth, slender trunk and branches, three of them, dividing into a few smaller ones (thirteen branches altogether, was there a meaning to that number?); the tuft of leaves on the smallest set of branches, with that orange bird perched strangely on two twigs, one foot on each, wings wide open; the blue, just slightly hazy-cloudy sky (was that thing in the middle a grease stain or another cloud?); the five birds flying way in the background. Above all, a sense of quiet, almost empty expansiveness. And that silly red ribbon. When Darla had given me the picture, I was so perplexed by her quick decision to hire me, it never occurred to me to ask her what she knew about the old photograph. Since then, five days ago, we had only texted – not the right medium to discuss mysterious ribbons on tree trunks.
In the meantime, I talked to Ms. Watson about the photograph, the way you talk to people in a coma – gentle, but normal, about familiar things. “I’m looking at this photograph, Miz Watson – ” That’s one of the things Dr. Darla had told me, the ‘Miz,’ clearly pronounced, was important to Dorothy Watson, a celebrated early feminist, not nearly as important as the ‘Doctor’ she had worked so hard to earn. “This photograph, it looks old, I bet it’s important to you. Darla thought I’d appreciate it because I’m an artist. I wonder what it would be like to talk to you about art, about Picasso and Rodin …” She had a little sculpture of Rodin’s Thinker on her nightstand, and three prints of Picasso’s colourful cubic period. They probably meant something to her.
With a sigh, I stood up. I needed to move around a bit. I walked to the open window, admitting to myself that I felt incompetent, lonely and antsy. My practicum had not prepared me for this. Kuebler-Ross’s stages of grief, yes, fighting relatives, yes, the physical ugliness that can come with death, yes – but a more or less comatose old woman and an old photograph with pretty much nothing on it? What was I supposed to do with that?
A sudden gust entered the room, stirred – no, whirled – the toothpaste-white lace curtains. I knew it would be good to meditate a little now, or go for a walk around the block, maybe spend a moment in the chapel downstairs; I knew it but just didn’t feel like it. Unease tugged at me, spiky little things running through my veins, insisted on rooting me: stay here, with this irritation. There wasn’t much to see outside, just the sun glinting off the windows of the green VW bug and a baby blue SUV parked across the narrow side street, a two-story yellow building with a red roof off to the right, a nondescript church tower in the background, an older man wearing a gray cardigan (in this weather?), walking a waddly, overweight dog. I crossed my arms, bored, dissatisfied, guilty for feeling that way. Behind me, in the hallway, a bit of noise; they were probably getting the afternoon tea ready. The gust that had come through the window turned into a steady wind; I moved, maybe I should close the window? More noise from behind, some sort of –
“Don’t.” Yes, that’s what it was: don’t. It took me a second to realize that it had come from the bed. Ms. Watson? I was so surprised to hear from her – she had not said a word in weeks, according to the nurse – that I turned towards her but then just stood there.
“Don’t,” she croaked again, “Leave it open.” I could not make out whether her eyes were open but her middle and ring finger tapped the blanket, weakly.
I finally rushed back to my chair beside the bed. “Ms. Watson, can I get you anything? I’m Shirley Duncan, and I – “
“Never mind.” A wheezy, hoarse sound her voice, barely audible, “Listen.”
She coughed a little, and then some more; she didn’t have the strength anymore to fully clear her throat. She moved her arms, a feeble attempt to dig in her elbows.
“Would you like to sit up?” I asked. Her response sounded like a ‘yes.’
It took a few minutes to settle her in the new position. Everything about her was so fragile and brittle, and what physical energy she had left flowed slowly, haltingly, a thin stream in a dried-out bedrock. Finally, she sighed a tiny little sigh. Her breathing returned to the barely perceptible, uneven rhythm I had become accustomed to, sitting beside her these last days.
But then, suddenly, three breaths, deep for her, and she opened her eyes. There was something behind the glassed-over, dirty brown eyes with the yellowed whites – a sudden, strong beam making its way through old, tired nerve endings and brain cells.
“Girl,” Ms. Watson said, “don’t fret.” Her eyes smiled; it was too much for her mouth. “Gimme that photo.”
I put it in her hands. She held it, lifted her head a tiny bit, laid it back on the pillow. More deep breaths, small noises like a little dog snoring.
“That’s an umbrella tree. Kenya. …… Monastery. That tree out my window, every day. …… Father Victor …” a little smile, a sigh. “Father Victor, yeah. …… He took that photo.” Her head up again, holding the photo firmer, more smile – then back on the pillow. “We couldn’t … I was engaged, he was a man of God, missionary. We weren’t … “ her eyes closed. Was she going to fall asleep again? “… ready, couldn’t do it, prepared. Didn’t know that … that … too young … that sometimes …… you just gotta go for it, ready or not. Get that?” Suddenly her head shot off the pillow, that beam behind her eyes full on, shining its light on me. “ ’member that. There’s never a good time. Rarely. We …” She closed her eyes, almost squeezed them, took another one of those deep-like breaths, then opened her eyes again, beam on at high speed. “We loved each other, get it? Not just hormones, we really loved each other. But we didn’t dare. Didn’t dare. Me with my work, one of the first black philosophy professors and engaged to that other guy, him with his God stuff, we thought we couldn’t do it. Couldn’t get together the way we wanted.”
She shook her head; I don’t know where she found the energy to do that and to talk so much. But I didn’t wonder about that then; nothing existed for me in that moment but the words, flowing from this long-lived woman, each carrying with it a comet-trail of memories, learnings, experiences.
“Every morning,” now a smile, deeper than before. The photograph trembled slightly in her hand. “He’d bring me tea. Then we’d stand, often, looking out the window, he behind me and I could feel, oh I could feel, girl, the air between us as if it was our wedding bed … “ Her eyes closed again. I sensed my heart beat, blood pumping gently, persistently, everywhere, my breath expanding. “29th birthday, he came earlier, woke me up, a cup of tea in his hand and his eyes, oh, girl, his eyes … I thought he was going to … and he took my hand … oh, girl … “ Her smile opened her face like a blossom. “But he took me to the window. There on that tree, look” she found the strength to point at the picture, “he had put that big red ribbon on the tree. He stood behind me …… that air between us, oh, girl … I thought … and then he took this photograph. And left.”
Moisture around her eyes, a deep, deep smile, lips trembling not with weakness but with the power and weight of her long life.
“I had to go back the day after …… he gave me the film to have it developed ….. he died the next month …… an infection.”
She lifted her head, pierced me with that beam again, “Remember, you’re never prepared. It’s never the right time. It doesn’t matter.” Those words came, clear and precise, out of the mouth that a year ago, at 96, was still painted scarlet red, the mouth that had spoken back in the 50s, 60s, 70s to hundreds, no, thousands of women, black most of them, poor most of them, rallying them, burning power into them with that big, sharp, penetrating beam.
Miz Watson’s head was back on the pillow. The photograph slowly fell over. She opened her eyes once more, smiled at me, directly at me: “But I loved him. And he loved me.”
I touched her hand, lightly, so as to not break it. I felt her breath, that wonky, awkward, snorting rhythm. Then it became deeper, more regular. Maybe she would sleep now, and sleep better.
Air came to the old woman slower and slower. A sudden rattle. Her eyelids flew open. Laboured breath, gurgling, finally, a word, “Yes.” With great effort, she swallowed, then: “Prepared.”
She died with her smiling eyes open.
About the Author – Isabella Mori
Isabella Mori is a mother, grandmother, wife, friend, sister. She also writes: poetry, novels, short stories and non-fiction, and has published two books of and about poetry, A bagful of haiku – 87 imperfections, and isabella mori’s teatable book. She has published and blogged over 1,000 articles online and in traditional media, is currently working on The Writers Studio certificate at Simon Fraser University, and has recently won the 2018 Cecilia Lamont first prize in poetry. She lives in Vancouver in a way-too-big house, enjoys being surrounded by houseplants, and takes long walks. She grew up in Germany in a chaotic artists’ household and has lived in Paraguay and Chile. Isabella has a Masters Degree in Education and works in the mental health/addiction field.