Prologue: Final Word
Copyright 2010, Rus VanWestervelt
So the sun shines on this funeral,
Just the same as on a birth.
The way it shines on everything that happens here on earth.
So long, old pal.” ~~james taylor
Three Years Earlier
I stand just inside Room 3117, a step back from the others. Mary Beth’s family has formed a circle around her bed. Most whisper prayers; all of them are crying. They cannot stop. Directly across from me, just behind Mary Beth’s left shoulder, is Theresa.
Mary Beth has just whispered what may be her final word, and we all wait for the beat—beat of the EKG to slow, to fade into that inevitable flat line.
We let Mary Beth’s final word settle in us uncomfortably, not sure what to do with it.
I look around the room and see the lives that I have destroyed beyond Mary Beth’s. Her mother, Sonya, keeps busy by trying to straighten the covers on the bed, smoothing them incessantly, tucking them comfortably under her oldest child’s chin. A frown of sorrow falls from her face as if tiny weights pull at the muscles in her brow, her cheeks, the corners of her mouth. Her eyes are wet, swollen from standing sentry these past three days. Since last Thursday, she has cried enough tears for all of us here.
Her father William, who always presents himself as the strong one, is perhaps the most devastated. That’s Daddy’s Little Girl lying in front of him, I think, and he’ll never get to have that dance with her on her wedding day he’s always dreamed about. He is in shock, and that’s the only thing protecting him from a complete breakdown. The shock will turn to anger in the days and weeks that will follow her passing, and I can only hope he takes it out on me.
Mary Beth’s two younger sisters—the twins—are here. Molly and Amanda are just three years behind Mary Beth, and they stare at her now, knowing fully well that they will soon be the big sisters who will absorb all of Mary Beth’s responsibilities to their mother and father, not to mention Stephen, their younger brother. They don’t want it, though. They have spent their entire lives playing with and antagonizing their big sister. It is their job to be the wild ones. The word “responsible” simply doesn’t work with either of them, much less the two of them put together. They are angry today more than they are sad. They cannot believe that Mary Beth will die, and they still believe there is something they can do to reverse what is happening. They can’t, of course. But still this is what they believe, and their anger makes Mary Beth’s dying that much harder on their mother and father.
Through that anger, they pray for a miracle.
Next to the twins is Stephen, who is 9. He is suffering alone more than any of the others. It was Mary Beth who was a second mother to him while their real mother worked late nights as a paralegal. It was Mary Beth who taught him how to write his name, tie his shoes, and blow bubbles. She encouraged him to pursue the arts at such a young age while his parents did what they could to rush him through childhood to free up even more adult time without him. Stephen wasn’t an afterthought or a mistake, but the person who cared for him most lay motionless in that bed in front of all of us. When she is gone, he will have no one to lean on, no one to cry to, no one to comfort him.
Behind Mary Beth’s right shoulder is Grand-Mama, confined to a wheelchair because of a stroke she suffered nearly a year ago. The whole time I look at her, she never stops shaking her head a little to the left, a little to the right, saying over and over again, “It’s not supposed to be this way. . . .” Occasionally she looks at her granddaughter and mumbles something about wiping her hands of the dirt from a child’s grave.
Finally there is Theresa. She stands directly opposite of me, and I can no longer put off her stares. This whole time, she has been waiting for me to look back so she can hold my gaze and not let me go. She has so much to say to me, so much that she wants to do for me, but I do not deserve it. I do not deserve any part of what she is trying to give me. I reject it all.
Mary Beth’s breathing becomes shallow. She struggles to inhale, and the air just falls from her as if she is too tired to push it out anymore.
I look instinctively to Theresa. She pleads with her wet eyes to help me. Please let me in, she begs. Please.
But I will not let her. How dare she try to help me when she should be saying her prayers for Mary Beth and not for me.
Mary Beth takes a deeper breath, and with it we all hold ours. The twins hold each other a little tighter, Mom’s face flushes with the reality of the moment, and poor Stephen looks nervously to each of us for understanding. He senses something is happening now, but he is not quite sure what it is. He looks to his father, to me, to Theresa. And when he looks back to Mary Beth, the one he wants to comfort him the most, he sees her looking at him.
How beautiful she is at this moment. Content, relaxed, at peace. She offers Stephen a slow, soft blink of her eyes, a gentle smile on her lips. And then her eyelids begin to fall.
Lower, lower they go as she never lets go of his own eyes. Even when they close for the final time, I can see that they are still on him.
“Oh, Bethie,” Her mother whispers in this still silence, where there is no sound of her oldest daughter taking in another breath.
I close my eyes, repeating Mary Beth’s final word over and over, shaking my head in disbelief that I’ll ever be able to do it. Not after this, no.
At 5:51 p.m., the room is filled with a steady, high-pitched note, and the quiet sobs return. They rise into wails of No and Please and Oh God as the nurse flips a single switch and the high-pitched note ceases.
“I’m so sorry,” Theresa whispers to me.
I finally stare into her eyes—give her what she wanted all along. My tears blur her away anyway. I blink, and the last traces of love I have left roll down my cheeks.
Amid the wails, the sobs, the hugs that flow around me, I become cold and stiff.
I understand now, though. I understand what I had refused to believe the last time this happened. Now, with Mary Beth dead too, I have finally died with both of them.
And there is some peace in that. Some peace in knowing that, at last, I will never hurt anyone again. You can’t hurt, if you don’t love.
So damn her Last Word, that Last Look. I turn and leave them in this room, discarded waste left on the floor, only to be picked up with the rest of the traces of what we all used to try and save her life.
In the end, none of it made any difference at all.