Far below me, a woman as tan as tree bark lay on her back on the sand. White-tipped frothing waves came in from the ocean, and life went on down there.
I was looking down from the high balcony of my sister Sharon’s hospital room. Sharon was in bed in the room behind me–not asleep, yet not fully awake, but in a dazed state between because of the morphine they gave her all through the day and when she called for it at night. Her pain was very bad.
I watched as a few hundred feet away people in white outfits played tennis on green courts on the roof of a tall pink hotel. I knew they should not be blamed for their happiness, any more than Sharon for her misery. But I was thinking that somehow it was unfair that they were running so, graceful and strong, close enough to wave and smile at me while her disease had spread through everything. Everything was gone.
I had seen on the floor of her kitchen the scale that was there to measure the dwindling of her existence, and sheets of paper on a clipboard hanging from a nail on the wall that recorded it: ninety-eight pounds, ninety, eighty-eight…, and a calendar that had Xs on days she wasn’t healthy enough to work that in recent months had become all Xs. Against a wall was a full-length gold-framed mirror that had once held her face and her shape as she turned to adjust a blouse or straighten a skirt. The mirror was dusty.
All that remained now was the steady withering of her small, faltering body, the daily indignities, the terror and inconceivable loneliness of dying, the sorrow of leaving this world. When I stood over her bed that late afternoon she looked at me with shamed eyes and said, “I’m a mess aren’t I,” and my heart broke. What could I do but tell her she was still beautiful? How will I ever remember without pain her looking up at me so gratefully and saying “Thank you brother,” as I handed her a glass of water?
Her mind was in a tangle because of the morphine–sensations and floating dreams blended together like a band of swallows swooping and falling and words from the voices of people slipping in sideways, echoes of words, as words spoken in a museum closed for the night might sound, or a murmur, or just splinters of sound descending like coins in a pool. Images were loose in her mind of such memories as that of an ironing board, a dress with a faded floral pattern, a photograph of her sitting at a desk smiling, then the suddenly remembered sensation in her finger tips of peeling an orange or pulling strands of hair out of a brush. And all the while she was a sponge soaked with emotion: love and despair and courage and fear.
At times she felt she was merely a body beyond repair, but there were moments of great clarity when she realized she was truly a person. Then she became suddenly proud and triumphant: “I am alive. I am a human being. I am still of value.” And then shortly the dreaded thought returned: It will end; soon it’ll end. It was all so sad, she thought: the sun would last, the earth would last, and there would always be stars, but not she. She was greedy for life–another day, another hour–but didn’t a person so young have a right to be? Only thirty-seven. There should be more shouldn’t there? Above all she mustn’t lapse into self-pity, mustn’t wail, “Help me please, I am suffering.” That was all there was to it, she thought, the only victory, as outside in the priceless world flamingo clouds drifted by.
The room was regaled in yellow chrysanthemums. Sunlight spread across the balcony and the warm breeze thronged in as visitors arrived to pay their respects. Sharon wasn’t resentful or jealous of their good health, that irresistible glow they had, that incandescence, and looked forward very much to their bringing their good cheer and love, smiling like children, she knew, to keep her spirits up. Someone told a joke that was followed by laughter. How hungrily a person’s thoughts swarm over joy among sorrow.
When visitors were talking among themselves she lay back, listened, and felt one of those hundreds of emotions for which there are no words. She knew some people thought compassion was a useless emotion, but she thought it the kindest. It didn’t alter the fact that soon her life would end, but yet there were glimmers of light just knowing that one person could care so much for another, asking nothing in return, opening a secret door and entering on the private island on which the other person lived, and then you and they weren’t so lonely, if only for that time. A nurse slid a thermometer between Sharon’s lips business-like, glanced at her briefly and impersonally and with cold, gray, restless eyes gazed out at the sky while she waited for the thermometer, took it out, looked at it, and said, “One o one, not bad at all.”
How do you explain life? What does a person live for? Sharon wondered as she was turned over, grimaced, and was sponged. You expected the answer to become clear if you lived long enough, and to be profound: the meaning of life was X or Y, perhaps Z. It was a question worth asking. It was probably joy. Yes, that was it all the time: the joy one feels. And she had known joy. No one could say she hadn’t known exquisite joy.
A doctor she didn’t know then came into the room to see her, and looked at her, looked at her eyes, and jumped back as though he had been punched, and said, “I feel your power coming out to me. You have a very strong will.”
It was the silence that settled as softly as pollen on the hospital room when toward evening everyone went home that I will recall. “I remember once when,” Sharon said, thumbing through her stack of memories. Suddenly she said, “Do you remember that summer day at the lake the wind was so wild and the waves were as tall as buildings, the library when I was looking for a book?”
That day when as children—she eight, I ten–we inhabited our bodies with inexpressible joy, she on the sand holding my hand, laughing. Suddenly a wind picked up and into the air flew a thousand birds. Clouds raced each other headlong across the black sky, and wave upon wave –a procession of liquid walls—rose and rose and rose majestically, ascending one after another like great hills of water that then lunged and plunged like a field of gray-green wheat bowing under the wind, shattering on the shore into a multitude of broken stars. Hills of water that seemed to pause for a long moment at their fullest height and then to crash to earth with the sound of artillery, our hearts beating with excitement, with awe, with fear, with terror. Just a moment before there had been not a breeze, not a breath of wind, but now all the wind in the world seemed to be concentrated on that strip of earth– a lion of a wind, unleashed, untamed, cool, cold, with a bite and sting, bringing–pouring in to us–the odors of water, of fish, and of the wind itself, the steady hoarse roar of the foaming waves filling the air like thunder, my losing then all sense of physical existence, being liberated and free. Behind us bathers took their children’s hands and dashed for the shelter of the beach house, and strong men dragged rowboats higher up onto the beach away from the surging water, leaving behind ruts in the sand. Nothing was the same; everything in motion, everything in flux, everything changing: wind, waves, sky, everything. That same day she stood on tip-toes on a stool down the aisle in the stacks at the library, reaching for Little Women, and watching her I realized in that instant that she was irreplaceable; I could not do without her.
“How fast life goes” she whispered weakly. “It isn’t much longer than a mosquito’s life. Why does it go so fast?” The world is such a huge, well-traveled place; yet when the end of a life nears, all distances collapse and it comes to that: a little room, a little bed, a pair of eyes looking on, someone weeping.
The pain had flecked Sharon’s black hair with white and it was short from the treatment and no longer long and flowing. Her once-pretty face was gaunt, her cheeks gray, her body tired of suffering. Her long pianist’s fingers were so thin that her ring had slipped off and was lost. But there in her gray, lonely, fading beauty there was still about her that same gentleness you could ruffle with your breath, the same fury in her fierce eyes, the same poise, and the same mystical elegance.
Night came; the day was gone. Over the city shone a blue light and the chrysanthemums stood in a black vase on the table. Beyond the glass door and beyond the stars was darkness upon darkness. The faintest light lay on her face, and on that face was neither pain nor resignation nor fear nor sorrow, but peace. I placed my hand flat on her chest–she could feel pain no more–and she opened her eyes and looked into my face with a gentle sweetness. And then looked down at my hand and placed her left hand lovingly upon it.
I only regret that I was helpless to shape into words all that I was thinking of her and hoped she understood how I loved her and how I would carry with me and cherish the memories I have of her, that every year I would commemorate her birthday; that whether I am bending to tie my shoelace or asking for a fork she never leaves my thoughts. In my mind all my life I will see her long black hair flaring in the wind that day with the wild waves bursting, our lives passing, changing, and flowing like those waves; her dying young.
I felt such tenderness toward her that could I, I would have died for her and was so regretful that I could not suffer her pain for her, and was powerless to help her, and that she is now gone entirely from my life and from this world. Until I die I will feel the immense weight of grief for her and now I ask her forgiveness for any sadness I ever caused her through thoughtlessness or selfishness; and wish her somehow to know that I intended no harm and am so terribly sorry.
In the parking lot I saw Sharon’s favorite nurse and called to her and caught up with her and told her of my gratitude to her for the great gentleness and goodness she had shown my sister. I told her I would never forget her kindliness and thoughtfulness, and that I would think about her in the future and would never forget her. She told me what a good patient Sharon had been, how she had never complained and was always so nice and had good manners, and how it made her very sad to say goodbye to her.
I did not know as a boy that memories of that day at the lake, though intangible, would persist through all the successive years, nothing as real. Or that our lives would change so immeasurably as had those waves under that wind.
© 2014 David J. Rogers