This is an excerpt from my novel, the story of a young woman on the verge of adulthood who is coming to terms with the impending death of her alcoholic mother. Each chapter is named after a self-help book, of course. (-: Also, this is the second-to-last chapter, and although my novel is semi-autobiographical this is not how my mom really died – I found that trying to write about her death as it really happened was too painful, so I re-wrote it this way – I let the character choose her own ending.
Chapter 17: The Road Less Traveled
Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult—once we truly understand and accept it—then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.
—The Road Less Traveled
No one saw her get out of bed in the pre-dawn hours and step into the sheepskin slippers that lay beside her bed, the ones Rudyard had given her for what would be her last birthday, her fifty-fifth. No one saw her step into her favorite lavender ball gown, sit at her vanity, apply the false eyelashes she wore for formal occasions, dot her wrists with Chanel No. 5, and shakily apply to her lips the plum lipstick, the same lipstick with which she wrote on the mirror in titanic, sloping letters: FORGIVE ME.
She must have padded unseen down the hallway, passed the wall of family photos, the kitchen, the ticking grandfather clock, and made her way to the front door. She left it open behind her. Did she think that one of us might wake up, see it open, and run after her? Or was she simply too weak to close it? Did Bacchus follow her? Did he stand in front of the front door and try to block her exit? He would have. He must have. Outside she must have made her way slowly over the mossy brick courtyard, past the fishpond and the ferns and stepped into the Hill-O-Vator. She must have seated herself on the bench beneath the canopy in the cool of that darkness and clicked the door shut as she had done so many times before. Out of habit, she might have arranged the pleats in her gown so as not to wrinkle them. Then she would have pulled the tiny lever that would conduct her down the cliff to her fate.
It was August 29, 1989, the seventeenth anniversary of Leah’s death. Gently the Hill-O-Vator would have lurched forward, humming on its descent in the pre-dawn cold. It would have moved past the side of the house and the lavender bougainvillea vines that reached up along the cliff. Lavender had always been her favorite. It would have passed the hoary white and gray rocks, the oaks, and the dilapidated tree house where years ago she had conducted our teddy bear picnics, letting us eat the tuna fish sandwiches that tasted of Chanel No. 5 off bone china. The Hill-O-Vator would have passed the 162 steps that Bacchus lumbered down as he did when she used to take him for walks. After fifty-five seconds, it would have come to a stop at the beach where it would remain until we discovered it later that morning. Fifty-five seconds. Had she been that sure?
It was my father who woke at six without her in the bed beside him; my father who saw the plum-colored words sloped across the mirror; who in his tartan bathrobe took the 162 steps, two at a time, fell and tore the skin off his knees and palms and ran wildly to the beach where he found Bacchus pacing by the shore, barking at an empty horizon. It was my father who ran toward the sun rising over the bay, and, as he ran let out a howl that gushed out of his heart and transformed itself into a sound I wouldn’t forget, a terrible sound that woke us all from our sleep just as he reached the shoreline and saw her floating in the unending water.
Where did she get that kind of courage? Or did the lure of elsewhere propel her effortlessly? Bacchus would have barked at her from the shore, reminding her of the impact that these few steps would have, how this would shatter us.
I knew even before I reached the shoreline that she was dead. I knew that everything I had ever feared had in an instant come to pass. As I ran on the beach in the early morning sun, purposeful, numb, I heard nothing but the soles of my bare feet on the pebbles and my pounding heartbeat. I felt sick; I wanted to turn and run in the other direction, run from what I knew, from all that preceded what I knew, and the monumental sorrow that was to come.
The tide had brought her back to the small inlet. She was face down in the water floating back and forth in her final silent waltz, her gown billowing. I could see the stillness that had formed where her movements should have been, a single sheepskin slipper on her foot, soggy with ending. I imagined for an instant that she might lift up her head, open her eyes, and paddle towards us like those ladies who did synchronized swimming back in the Forties. She would say, “This water is ridiculous! It’s downright ARCTIC!” and: “Rudyard, get me out of here.”
I reached the shore in time to see Rudyard drop to his knees in the sand. He placed his face in his hands and howled and then got up and ran into the water up to his thighs. He dove then, swam wildly toward her and with his arms outstretched landed on top of her. Gripping her whole body he lifted her, taking her back from the sea, back to the shore like a re-discovered, irreplaceable treasure. Then he was high stepping backward like a trained horse until he was just ankle deep in the water with the new morning sun shining like a spotlight directly onto him. He fell back and landed in a sitting position in the shallow water with his wife, his lover of three decades, in his arms. If you came upon them from a distance, sitting on that beach, you might think they were lovers caressing in the waves.
Her head was tilted back at a strange angle, her lips outlined with too much of the plum lipstick. A false eyelash curled off one of her closed eyes. Was it true? That she had dressed for death? Had, with shaky hands, applied the lipstick that now lent a freakish mask to death itself, for their only meeting?
There it was: the dolphin pin. My father fingered it between his thumb and forefinger, pressing against her in the water, kissing her face with his saltwater kisses until I placed my hand on his shoulder. He looked up at me for an instant, squinting like a boy in the bright sun, then stopped and wept without sound, burying his face in her chest. The bay was sated, motionless beneath the coat of summer sun. There were no sounds anywhere and I thought of running back to the house for help, but I stopped myself. Who would be able to help us? No one. No one. I didn’t hear Garcia running up behind us until the sound of his sharp lament broke the silent morning, causing a flock of gulls to fret upward off a piece of driftwood and gesture at the sky. Then Garcia didn’t move.
Dee and Raj came down the beach toward us—Raj shirtless, mute, dropped down beside my father. Dee, barefoot in her cow-print pajamas, fell to her knees in the water and gently shook our mother, saying Mom? Mom? as if she might snap out of it and wake up. Above us was the house: the turret, the sloping veranda, the Christmas lights, the wicker chairs; the eucalyptus, bay, and oak trees now gone still in silent homage to one who had watched and admired them for years. My father ran his hand gently up my mother’s shoulder along the curve of her neck to her face. He leaned over and rested his forehead against hers.
“Oh, my queen,” he said.
Note: Several readers have asked where they can buy my novel. If you would like to get a copy, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll send you the link!
Linking up as usual with Yeah Write.
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