Death and Intuition
They had just been left alone; the girl’s name is about to be changed. She stood at the foot of the hospital bed. Loretta May’s eyes were trained on her while Loretta May, whose intuition had grown deep and strong by now, lay in the bed.
There had been ten members from her church, and she would not have found the group complete without Reid Brown, her husband, and Mother Laird, her daughter’s godmother. They had both been a part of the circle around mother and child, and they had all been shepherded by Loretta May’s pastor, Reverend Paul Robby. The grizzled man often used prayer to eschew superstition. Loretta May appreciated him in a new way because she now felt that he provided every one of them with perspective and clarity, through his familiar authority: just as Christine formed and informed Loretta May’s burning care and intuition, so he formed and informed the group’s singular purpose. He pacified the now hand-joined circle while he walked her through the Valley of the Shadow of Death.
“For we fear no evil, dear Lord, for thou art with your servant Loretta May with your rod and your staff. They comfort her. You’ve prepared a table before her in the presence of her enemies, you’ve anointed her head with oil—”
Loretta felt a heavy hand lie on her forehead.
“Her cup runs over. Surely thy goodness and mercy shall follow your servant even unto eternity!”
She heard the circle groan.
Tears had pooled in the folds under Loretta May’s eyes. She reopened them.
One twisted; another rocked from side to side; and Mother Laird winced and wept. Loretta knew that their sorrowfulness was an expression of their gratitude for the time that they had had with her as their church sister. And she also knew that that time was going to be as brief as what it would also be for both her and her only child.
Loretta locked eyes with her now. She thought that there was a change in Christine. In fact, she knew that something was wrong with her. That something lingered until it took permanence even at the hem of the window curtains.
Loretta turned inwardly, but without taking her eyes off her. Something sinister was going on with Christine. It was in the room. Lying in this cumbersome bed, she felt that sinisterness, which was unwieldy and unbearable. She feared what her mother-intuition told her as she had never feared anything before. The fear and the sinisterness had given her something more than reason to beat back that shadow of death. And so Loretta commenced the best beating of anything as she had never beaten anything before in her life.
She was not prepared to leave her only child behind, especially not through the indignity of a disease that had stricken her without warning. She knew that leaving Christine was reckless without the protection that she had perfected as her mother. Leaving Christine was reckless because she, Christine’s mother, did not know what was wrong. Nor did she know what would happen to Christine in the grand scheme of her unfledged life. Worse, Loretta could not even measure the sinisterness for severity. She became desperate to know what had gone so wrong.
Loretta cried out inside her head for Christine: Christine, Christine!
Loretta wanted everyone to leave and the sadness to be over with now. What would remain behind after she was gone—not what awaited her—concerned her. It seemed that they had merely attempted to acquiesce in her earnest request that they leave her and her child alone together, for the gatherers had only dispersed. They ambled about the room concernedly, but to Loretta they were a loitering nuisance.
It was only after a kiss on her cheek or her forehead and a lingering gaze into her eyes did they march out of the room, one by one, mirroring the duty with which they all seemed to have entered it. Then Mother Laird, who was the last to leave, said her farewells. Loretta May looked around and wondered if Reid had been the first to have acquiesced.
As she peered at Christine at the foot of the bed, Loretta squinted. She looked just like a baby again. Then while she imagined that she was pulling Christine to her with her eyes, she also felt her lower extremity retracting something simultaneously. It was as if her womb had been opened and now her baby was back inside her!
Although still unable to place this fear for Christine, Loretta could place the difference between the infant that Christine had just become once more and the twelve-year-old girl: cancelled independence and freedom. That difference in and of itself drew a stark contrast to the benefits of the prayers. Being that their clarity had provided a slow, facile release, Loretta was now not only independent, she was free.
That freedom was so intoxicating that Loretta had accepted death. It was shortly thereafter that she now felt the change in Christine. But she realized that her acceptance of death was irrevocable, so she now had no choice but to fight for every minute, every breath, to remain with her baby girl—to pinpoint what had caused the change and how it had come about. Loretta had just entered a race against her own dying body. The race made Loretta fierce. Loretta placed her strongest stake yet to put her finger on exactly what was wrong with Christine.
“Come to me,” she said.
During and by Christine’s brief walk from the foot of the bed to her side, Loretta now saw the change.
Christine had a noticeable curve in her right side, so when she walked, she had a slight lean in that direction. Loretta thought that the lean could be as precise as the attitude of flight, a term which Christine had used and described when Christine had told her that she wanted to fly, work on airplanes. Loretta wondered if this airplane-axis lean was an affectation. And although she knew that death was sharpening her senses, she also knew that it was diminishing her ability to hold on, too. Loretta wondered what more—how much more she could see through her new razor-sharp ability if she held on a little while longer. She tried to negotiate for more time. Loretta put up both a mother’s love and a mother’s prayer to purchase with, but she had quickly realized that neither could buy her the time. She groaned. Weak body, sharp mind.
Married to her mother-love, that sharpness afforded Loretta May observation. She had groaned with dignity that in such a state she had been granted a sharp mind. She had seen, and she now knew, what seemed to defy words if not the intellect.
Death, Loretta May figured, in its eminence and its imminence, had its advantages.
Christine stood at the foot of her mother’s hospital bed. She measured her mother’s every breath with a precision matched by the machines to which her mother was still attached. They beeped ominously, yet they blinked coloured lights as if to confirm that her life had not been snuffed out—yet. Christine was impatient for her mother’s life to be over and everything else done with. She hoped that these outcomes would be the case. In fact, Christine would pray for this expediency.
As the way that she had seen her parents still fed her shame, so the doctors’ prognosis fed her guilt. She believed that having seen them in that way was the reason that the disease had begun to rapidly eat away at her mother’s body. In the same way, Reid’s eyes, and now even more of him, were still eating away at her every waking and dreaming hour.
No one was going to hear from her lips what had happened later that same day she had seen her parents. It looked as if Reid had not told anyone a thing, either. It would be hard, she imagined, for anyone to know what their child’s having seen them in that way could cause. It could be something as bad as this.
She kept her shame and her guilt under the tentative shield of silence, and she prayed for her mother to go. Ovarian cancer, it had finally been discovered, was eating away at her. Auntie Brown had told Christine that the doctors had told Reid that. Christine had been relieved since then, for she believed that the diagnosis concealed her own culpability: she thought that if cancer was the cost of having demanded her mother’s attention that morning, then she herself was the cancer, her mother’s silent killer.
While it was clear that the doctors and the medications were both failing her mother, Christine could not be certain whether her mother’s palliative state had already altered her mother’s ability to discern or perceive. She hoped that her mother would soon lose the ability to think. Instead, let her do all the knowing and the thinking.
Christine could tell that the prayers by the church members had been only an exercise in finality. They seemed to have marked the conclusion of, rather than to have suggested saving, her mother’s life. So she had accepted and reverenced those prayers. While they had seemed a necessary course of action, and a remedy, there clearly was no lifesaving course or remedy.
Especially ardent ones had been said for her, the soon-to-be bereaved child. The ones for the soon-to-be bereaved husband, who had embedded himself in the hand chain, had sounded like pontification to her. She now remembered that he had said that the doctors had said that there wasn’t much time left. On the heels of that pronouncement, he had delivered the message from her mother that everybody should come. Then as they had held hands, Pastor Robby declared let us pray.
Christine had been numb to the invitation, but she was not unaffected by its delivery or the messenger. As if he were God Himself, she thought of Reid while Pastor Robby prayed. Being the messenger didn’t make him so! Nor did he exist—not to her. She was relieved when the praying was over, and now at her mother’s request, everyone had finally left the room.
Then she said something, the words a whisper, although her voice did not have any of the hoarseness that it had shrunken into over the last couple of days. Christine might have heard it somewhere before: “A mother always knows.”
Christine stared at her mother’s sunken cheeks. Her once robust body was now the size of Christine’s. That transition had taken exactly two weeks.
“Come to me,” her mother, half-raising her head from the pillow, said.
The hoarseness was back, Christine thought as she went and stood beside her.
“Why do you walk like that?”
Christine’s heart jumped. Did she walk funny? That would mean that something about her body had changed. Now she was afraid that her mother was still lucid. The prayers could be the reason, now giving her mother sharp eyes that put to shame A mother always knows, the possible object of which she convinced herself could only be a supposition.
Her mother gazed up at her. “I can barely make out your face. You’re so far away.”
Christine lowered herself so that her chin was at the level of the bedrail and placed her hand on her mother’s chest, which rose and fell with shallow breaths. She could tell that the next one could very well be her last.
Then her mother said a name and asked a question.
“Uh-huh,” Christine said, without a single thought about either. She only hoped that it would be made fast. Just hurry up and let her go! she prayed in her mind.
“Your new walk made me think of it,” her mother said. “And now I’ve made it your new name. It’s like a parting gift to me. A fashion model on a Paris runway. I see you and me. Together. In Paris. I dream . . . of you and me together in Paris. How about that, huh?”
Her mother laughed, and there was a rattle at the back of her throat. It was awful and it chilled Christine. She grafted her cheek onto her mother’s, which was warm. Christine grazed their cheeks against each other, loving the silken feel. She stayed that way for a while and tried not to think about her new name at all. Instead, she focused on the silence of the room, for the space was now devoid of pomposity or zeal. Then the silence had given way to its companion: Christine’s new name. She accepted it for a cover-up. She accepted the name for a trade-off between not having told her mother and not having, she hoped, to tell anyone else the truth.
Together her approaching end and her daughter’s new beginning, both of which were marked by the emergence of an altered physique, stoked Loretta May’s mind. They also filled it with fancies, fantasies and fairy tales. Collectively each took turns taming yet taunting her in her sorrowfulness. But she preferred such mind games to her race against death, which, cocksure, beckoned her over.
Although she sensed that the dark cloud of death had already rolled in, it could not prevent her from knowing what she, a mother, already knew: a sinister thing had been done to her child. She had perceived as much (couldn’t be little, she thought) just in the nick of time. That lean was no affectation. Christine had acquired it!
All Loretta May’s bad thoughts concerning Christine’s new gait now dissolved. Better there was no judgment—of right or wrong—when your roll was being called. Wasn’t hers being called? She could feel, almost hear it. She smiled and surrendered to the charm of Christine’s new posture and gait, telling herself that there was nothing sinister about them.
Loretta felt her limbs go as light as feathers. But oh—her infant, her baby daughter—oh how she glowed. How pretty she looked with plumes of incandescent light dancing atop her sweet head. You are mine. I will always love you. I’ll call your name. You are my child. But I still want you to tell me. I still want you to tell me why you walk like that. Tell me.
Her baby-daughter’s face was now hard to see, and Loretta said so. Then she felt a tiny little hand on her breast. The touch reminded her of her overgrown baby’s walk. Her daughter’s new posture—such a lovely walk—made for a lovely new name.
“Lean-a,” Loretta May said with a smile. “Can I call you by that name?”
The baby cooed its answer, which pleased and made the mother very happy.
After a while Loretta May closed her eyes, for she had felt herself go free from her own weight in the bed. But there was still that tiny hand. It pressed the side of her face against the infant cheek as if their faces could be moulded into one.
Loretta May was now unable to see her daughter for the grown child that she was. But as she touched that same child for the last time, she could smell her. She smelled brand new. She had not forgotten that smell since she had given birth to her. And now here she was at least innocent again, Loretta May thought. The moment of reminiscing about smells, and replacing letting go with holding on by way of touching her reborn child, an idea which Nicodemus had questioned, was vital. And Loretta May knew that that edible, soft cheek belonged to Christine, not to Leana.
“Must be something I ate,” Loretta May said, looking up at Christine from the sofa, on which she lay. “I’ll be all right. You know that.”
Christine did not. She just did not know anything anymore, except that the Canadian winter was in full swing and that today had been the final day of school. While the day had dragged on, it had gotten cold and grey until the early evening could be nothing but freezing and dark. And while the hours had hollowed the day out, Christine’s thoughts had filled that space right back up. She had spent the entire day at school thinking, no, plotting rather than having been exhilarated along with her classmates about the Christmas break. She had expected an end to her worries and her fears, but she now realized that it was not the end at all. Not with her sick mother.
And now that Christine had learned that the close of the day did not mean the end of the day, she accepted that she was not a good plotter and that good ideas not only preceded well-laid plans but also indelibly tied themselves to such plans. If any one of her ideas had been feasible—or at the very least supportive of her objective to have never ever returned home—she would have followed through with it. As if the embarrassment alone caused by her unintentional intrusion upon her parents that morning was not enough, she thought. That embarrassment had exploited her fears by a million perceived consequences still flitting in and out of her mind.
Throughout the school day Christine had pined for a plan to escape the feeling that she had made the biggest mistake of her life. She knew that hiding away at a friends’ would rouse suspicions, which that friend’s parents could put to rest with a simple phone call, while the last-ditch plan to sleep in the janitor’s closet or a classroom would only isolate her temporarily. And it would also be scary and foolish (what about food? she thought), but so were all her other manufactured solutions, which reminded her of what could become of vulnerable girls. She finally accepted that running away was entirely out of the question.
There was not a single feasible plan that she could think up except for returning home. After she had, she discovered that her mother had not prepared dinner. Nor was she there. If this was her mother’s idea of her punishment, the situation could be far worse than Christine had perceived.
It was only two hours since she had gotten home from school, but Christine felt as if forever and a day had passed during that time. Her hiding beneath her bedcovers was meant to cut off the entire world, but she now heard her mother moaning in the adjacent bedroom. She was finally home now, Christine thought. She furled deeper under the mass of fabric and covered her ears, but then there were also her own screams in her head. Finally, she unfurled herself and came out of hiding. She was sure to knock now.
Her mother opened the door. She held on to the doorframe and with her other hand held a dampened hand towel to her mouth. She suddenly heeled over, and Christine shored her up. They each locked an arm by the crook of their elbows and made their way together into the living room, Christine’s panic building all the while. Her mother fell onto the sofa and straightened her body out. She writhed and her eyes rolled back under their lids like a snail recoiling. They revealed whites so stark they frightened Christine. Christine knelt down on the floor beside her and took her free hand, which was very cold. She pressed the back of it to the side of her face to warm it. The heat from the rest of her body was both magnetic and repellent at the same time.
Christine did not know if her mother would be all right, or so she wanted to respond to her mother’s annoying assumption that Christine knew she would be. She now offered what might help.
“No, hon, I don’t want any tea. Just your warm face on my hands.”
Christine took her mother’s other hand and began to vigorously stroke the backs and palms of them.
“Where’s your father?” Her mother’s eyes were marble-like. They gazed up at Christine as if from a dent in her shiny face.
Christine ignored that question. All she knew, he had disappeared right afterwards. Tears stung her eyes again, but still stoic, she refused to let them come.
Her mother propped herself up by her elbow, sweat sprinkling her forehead but rolling down her temples. “I’ll be fine. Now would you please stop crying?”
“Please, Mother, lie back down.” Christine patted her mother’s face with the towel. “Want me to call an ambulance? You don’t look good.”
“I told you that it’s just something I ate when I went out with Mother Laird. I wish I never went. I didn’t even cook dinner, and now look: I’m sick.” She reached out her trembling hand and touched Christine’s face.
“I don’t care about that,” Christine said. She refused to let go of her mother’s other hand. “I don’t want to eat anyway.”
Christine insisted on getting rid of the reptilian coldness of her mother’s hands.
Just when Christine felt the warmth returning to them, her mother said: “Water. Will you please get me some—” There was a clicking sound when she swallowed. “I need it cold.”
Suddenly Christine got struck. She had neither thought of nor offered her mother, clearly feverish and parched, any water. Her guilt was a sequela of that oversight.
Christine stood up, but a sharp pain shot deep into the cavity of her right side, so she had to kneel back down, the quick-thinking attempt having prevented her from collapsing. She clenched her teeth (she thought biting her lips would be too obvious), but doing so was useless to dull the pain. Tried as best she could—squeezing, tensing and muscling through it—she found that she could not deny it. Her attempts to endure, subdue and disguise it had all been checked. She doubled over.
She had already joined her mother in her pain before she startled her mother into asking what was wrong.
“It’s my period, Mother.”
Loretta May’s death had done an imperfect job of having removed and buried things, for it could not have removed anything from Christine’s mind. Like a river after a storm, death had only piled up the destruction in the corners of her mind. But it had left behind something, part-disguised, part-undisguised, out in the open. That something was unspoken.
Christine took comfort in that unspoken meant permanently put away. As her mother’s body had been buried in the cold darkness of the earth, so the truth had been buried as well, she had come to believe. She hoped, though she did not completely trust, that it would remain there, in the dark. She could not afford a resurrection of any kind, whether ghosts or memories. So she was grateful for death. How it bridled her with her own secret.
Christine also took it that death had ensured her mother’s ignorance when it had keenly, decisively and opportunely slashed (but had not, or could not have, ended) the bonds of parent and child. Death now made the botched relationship that it had left behind merciful in comparison to the unspoken thing.
Then finally Christine became Leana, which eventually morphed into Lena. In that name was the picture and the keeper of Christine’s grief. By the time her father gave her away and went back to Jamaica, she had already formed the fist-tight seal with herself:
Tell no one.