Authors: Isla Morley
“I am going to stay here again tonight,” Jenny says, and I nod, feeling sorry for her because she has suddenly become a ninety-year-old woman, babysitting two bodies of inertia. She must tow me to the table to the bathroom to my bed. Deadweight.
“Want a couple more?” she asks, holding the little bottle of pills as I collapse in the disheveled remains of a troubled bed.
“I am afraid to sleep,” I say. “I keep forgetting, and then I wake up and it starts at the beginning again.”
“I know,” she says, and slips two pills into my hand and passes me the water.
“Jenny?” I say, getting onto my bed with an armful of Cleo’s dirty clothes from the laundry basket.
“Will you lie down next to me?” I ask.
“Sure, honey.” She eases herself under the cover of Cleo’s quilt and accepts the tiny top, still fresh with Cleo’s scent, that I hand her.
“Do you think you might see her?” I whisper.
“I’d give anything to see her again, but I just don’t think so. That little girl of ours, knowing her, has just too many things to do.”
“I hope you are right.”
The last thing I hear is Jenny’s soft breath and the abrupt sniffs as she swallows her tears, closing her eyes on my empty room.
OCCASIONALLY, as the hours rot away, there is the weight of another next to me, sometimes the sound of a small groan, or the slight shift when the bed is mine again. Greg, I imagine, comes and goes, but I do not have the strength to turn over to check. It is, I know, not the weight of my child. I suppose days are going by because there is always a different arrangement of food petrified on the tray beside my bed whenever I step over it on the way to the toilet. Sometimes Jenny insists I sit and eat a few bites, and when I have the stamina I tell her no. Otherwise I nibble a bit of this or that so she will go away with her Madonna eyes. Other times it is Greg, who never tells me to eat but just sets the food down and sits on the floor, leans against the closet door, and props his head up with his hands. His hair, I notice, is turning white, like the hair of the man who lost his sons off the coast of Maine.
Today I have to get up, he says, because we are going to talk about the funeral. It is not enough to hold your dead child, to pray without ceasing for Death to jab its crooked finger at your heart, to replay the events of her last living day a thousand times, changing every possible thing you said a thousand times more. No, now we are required to plan a funeral wherein the promises of God are read to the faithful. Closure, they will say. A final goodbye. But it is a charade, a charade in which my husband expects me to participate.
WHO DECIDES how best to bury a child? Who sets the protocol, the list of choices childless parents must make? Did the clergy do it or the pasty-faced owners of funeral parlors? All these questions with their multiple-choice answers amount to nothing, circumventing the only choice parents wished they had had: that she lived. Instead, we are called upon to pick hymns, to choose the appropriate wood stain for a half-size coffin, and to decide from a hundred just the right bulletin cover. Some choices, I notice, have already been made: that banana bread is served on the china we use only for company instead of store-bought cookies on paper plates; that a pot of tea accompanies it rather than coffee; that we will assemble in the living room instead of at the congested dining room table.
The little delegation of funeral professionals has arranged itself in my house, as out of place as the gaudy bouquets alongside them. I am instructed by an anorexic middle-aged woman with a precisely bobbed Purdey hairdo and Siamese-shaped eyes to look through a folder of plastic-clad bulletin covers. She sits across from Chuck Burton, an army chaplain and Greg’s longtime clergy colleague.
Did you ever watch
? I feel almost compelled to say, but don’t. Is she the Avenger, the one come to mete out judgment and reverse the wrongs?
“This one is nice,” Purdey says, and I see that her teeth protrude way past her lips. In a former life Jenny and I would have exchanged only glances, no hint even of a smile, enough to say, See, it could be worse—you could have your problems
look like that. This time I gaze down, following her twig-thin finger. “Nice” is rays of light beaming through gilt-edged clouds. I dutifully turn the plastic page. “Nice” to Purdey also happens to be monarch butterflies circling springtime flowers. I turn another page.
“Do you have anything in black?” I ask, tired already of the charade.
“Abbe,” says Greg softly. I consider changing my name. But the Avenger is not offended. She looks at me sympathetically—she has been through this many times—but does not pat my knee.
“This one,” I say in gratitude for that absent act of artificial affection, if nothing else. It is a picture of a shadowed canyon above which a
lone eagle flies. According to Purdey, it is not merely “nice” but “perfect.”
Greg has written a poem that he will read during the service. The poem will be recited after the first lesson from John 14 is read, Chuck explains. The ubiquitous tray with the uneaten banana bread and the teapot centers our gathering, but the smell of it and that of the flowers is suddenly overpowering, nauseating. I look around and the house is just too damn neat, not how I remembered it with Cleo’s toys strewn everywhere. It is a set, and I wait for someone to yell “Cut!”
“Alex will be co-officiating and he will read the second lesson,” explains Chuck. Reverend Alexander Takamura is the superintendent of Hawaii’s calcified collection of Methodist churches. He is Greg’s boss or Greg’s pastor, depending on what mood he is in. Lately he has been in the “boss” mood, meeting with Greg two times in the last few weeks to discuss complaints he has received from undisclosed disgruntled parishioners, a.k.a. Kelsey Oliver. Greg is nodding, listening to Chuck outline the order of worship, with his face turned to the west and the gusty trade winds blowing in through the louvered windows. Chuck warbles on and Greg does not interrupt, not once.
“. . . What do you think, Abbe?” asks Chuck.
I look at his nutmeg-brown face and fail to recall what specifically I am called upon to have an opinion about. “I’m sorry,” I say. “Could you repeat that?”
“Do you want to open the mike for anyone who chooses to share remembrances, or would you prefer to limit it to a few predetermined folks?”
Both men wait for me to answer, as though there might be a grand prize behind my reply. A trip for two to the Cayman Islands, ladies and gentlemen.
“I don’t know,” I say, but they keep looking at me; I have not answered correctly.
“Limit it,” I say, and Greg lets out a sigh while Chuck nods and
says, “Yes, I think that’s probably a good idea so the service doesn’t go too long.”
This exercise is for my benefit, I suddenly realize. I get up. “You decide the rest, okay?”
“Please, Abbe, don’t make this any harder than it already is,” Greg pleads.
“No, that’s fine, Greg. Let’s just pick the hymns and I can do the rest. Okay, Abbe?” Chuck suggests.
“She liked ‘The Wheels on the Bus,’ ” I say without rancor, but Greg looks out the window again and for a moment I want to say, Forgive me if I don’t feel like singing praises to the Great Almighty right this minute. But instead I say, “ ‘Jesus Loves the Little Children.’ The first song she learned to sing.” The first song I taught her how to sing. Purdey purrs her approval.
“That’s a thought,” says Chuck. “What if we sing just children’s hymns?”
While he and Greg select two others from the hymnal the blood drains from my face and the stars that have been absent from the sky these past few nights suddenly collect in my eyes. The smell of the African bush fills my nose and cicadas ring in my ears.
Greg is fanning my face with Purdey’s binder when I come to. “She needs to eat something,” he says. Once I am lodged on the couch, propped with pillows, Chuck picks up a piece of the banana bread, breaks off half, and hands it to me. The symbolism of this tiny gesture is not lost on me; he might have said, The Body of our Lord broken for you. I take it and eat it reluctantly, and without thanks. “There is one song,” I say.
I had been trying to teach Cleo the song in its original Zulu, and although she could get some of the words, she much preferred the actions: marching around the house, just as the song instructed, in the light of God.
After they leave, Greg and Jenny watch the evening news and I move to the dining room, not bothering to turn on the light. Between the baskets of food and the flower arrangements, at the center of the
table is still that lone white envelope leaning against the vase of now wilting lilies. I pluck it from its station, sever the seal, and pull out the card. Scrawled, as though carelessly, at the bottom of the note are four impossible words:
I love you, Abbe
. Not in the hand of the Reverend Gregory Danforth Deighton, the writing of curls and flourishes, but no less recognizable.
West Park Funeral Home looks like a cross between a Best Western and an interstate rest stop, and straddles the corner of Park Avenue and Pikake Street. Inside, the decor is Hawaiian whorehouse, which strikes me as a beautiful irony since all the two-bit hookers in Honolulu stake out their stilettoed turf on the four corners of the bustling intersection outside. A receptionist who greets us as if we are about to check into the honeymoon suite tells us to take a seat. Just as we do, an elderly woman with ashy hair walks out to meet us and identifies herself as Joan Avery. She’s shrouded in the smell of magnolia flowers and quite sincerely says to us, “I’m very sorry for your loss.” Mr. Osaka, the man with whom Greg has dealt for the last two days, has been called away on an urgent matter, she apologizes. Someone else just died, I think. Someone else’s son or daughter.
Would we like to see Cleo, she wants to know.
I turn to Greg and say, “Can I have a few minutes alone with her?”
He looks surprised but nods, and I follow the drifting scent of Mrs. Avery down the corridor. Before she opens a narrow wooden door, she turns to me, eyebrows raised, and asks quietly, “Are you ready, dear?”
WE NEVER DID CUT Cleo’s hair. Greg’s mother sent a little teddy bear box from Neiman Marcus on her first Christmas. It had “Baby’s
First Curl” written on the bottom. You could never tell whether Greg’s mother was just plain thoughtless or if her actions teetered on malice. Everyone knew that a peach had more hair than Cleo, and it was not until her second birthday that anything close to a curl became evident. But one of the things you could count on in life was that every time Greg called Ohio, his mother would ask in her high-pitched acerbic tone, “That baby of yours got any hair yet?”
At three, however, Cleo’s head was covered with corkscrew curls tipped with blond, none of which we could bear to cull. So the box is still in her room on the shelf, empty. At night after her bath, she would have me wet her hair and then brush it so that for a minute or two it would be straight and long, reaching well past the constellation of freckles at the base of her neck. Sometimes, after it had dried back into springs, she would cry and pull at her hair in frustration, “Long, Mommy; I want it long.” The pantyhose wig was my attempt to help out.
Cleo, with a halo of curls, lies perfectly still in the coffin. But she does not look like she’s asleep, the way they say dead people do. Gone is what she is, as though spirited away by Africa’s mythical Tokoloshe, leaving a papery skin that doesn’t quite fit what remains. Her cheeks are not as rounded, and her chin is pointy where it was once plump. She is wearing the Easter dress Jenny bought for her a month ago—the one embroidered with blue butterflies on the hem—and only the straps of her blue faerie wings pressed beneath her are visible around her shoulders. Her hands are folded on her chest. Although the second lid covering her torso and legs is closed, I know her feet are bare, as they always were.
“Do you have a pair of scissors?” I ask Mrs. Avery, who is waiting to be dismissed.
“I’ll be right back, dear,” she says, and passes me her handkerchief.
“Cleo,” I whisper, “it’s Mommy.” I touch her forehead, which is frozen, and my hand withdraws as if it has been scalded.
The quiet is one I have not known before. It is not the crackling, hissing sound of the reef forty feet below the snapping waves at the surface. Nor is it the shushed quiet of Greg’s sparsely attended chapel
services or the quiet of the sandstone caves deep in the Klein Karoo. It is crypt-quiet, a silence abandoned even by angels, where my tears plop noiselessly on a dust-colored carpet.
“Darling,” I whisper, “Mommy’s here.”
I do not hear the door open when Mrs. Avery returns with the scissors.
“Take as much as you want,” she says gently, guessing my intention. “No one needs to know.”
She hands me an orange coin envelope and glides out.
Where to cut? I caress Cleo’s hair, stringy now like the texture of corncob silk. There must not be an obvious gap where the curl has been lopped off. It cannot look like a hack job, even though she won’t be able to look in the mirror and reprimand me for it.