Belinda – Runner Up, Story Slam, 2009.
Behind the hospital curtain, she lies gaunt and grey but lucid. We hug so close I can smell the second round of chemo running through my sister in law’s veins and in our tears.
“The kids can’t wait to see you”, she promises, in a voice as fragile as her life. I almost choke thinking how much I’ve missed those kids since my last trip back a year ago. My niece, Daniela is five and hilarious, wanting to know everything about everyone, happiest when there’s someone to talk to, or about.
Thomas. Three. Irresistibly cheeky. Easy to cuddle through a temper-tantrum – content to play alone for hours. Mostly, his forehead smells of paradise when I kiss him.
I ask how she copes when the kids visit? She’ll never let them see her hooked up to all these tubes, it’ll freak them out!
I disagree. Not seeing their mum for two weeks will freak them out – but her glare slices me into silence. For all of us, this illness is depth-charged with emotion and more unspoken undercurrents than a raging river.
Belinda is in denial, the children are left guessing what’s going on and my brother is furious – at God, her disease, and doctor’s orders. A couple of days later, doctors order Belinda home with a box of drugs and little hope. It takes her half an hour to climb those mountainous stairs.
The kids are ecstatic – cuddling up as close to mummy’s body as she can take without wincing. In his excitement Thomas bounces about on the bed and hits his mum in the thigh.
“Ooww. Get out of here” she cries out in agony. He runs out, bawling his tiny eyes out. Eventually, he believes me – mommy’s body is broken and he must be gentle. Happily he takes his favourite car to play on Belinda’s bed, while Daniela interrogates her. Did the doctors hurt you? Was the food nice? Very soon, Belinda, one hand on her heart, the other on her daughter’s, gives in to sleep.
“Will I be able to see mummy if she’s in heaven?” Daniela demands over the dinner she’s devouring. Her father and I field these questions as honestly as we actually know, our hearts shredding into heightened states of surreal and terrifying sensitivity.
The children live this sensitivity all the time, unprotected, in the moment – happy and safe one second, bereft and insecure the next. I vow to let them be my teachers.
One morning, my brother just can’t drag himself to work. He and Belinda stay in bed, exchanging sweetness. And her dad drives up from the country for a surprise visit. We are all in and out of her bedroom all day, playing, reading stories, hugging, having lunch and reminiscing.
By four, she’s exhausted and insists the kids get some fresh air. We go to the playground and run around like banshees.
When we get back, we call out, “ Hello!” No answer. Belinda’s bedroom looks like it’s been blasted by the wrath of God. In their wake the paramedics have left a contact number and map of where she’s gone.
“Where’s mummy?” Thomas cries and runs into my arms.
A week later, I ride Belinda’s bike through roaring traffic to the registry office, filled with records of births, marriages and deaths. All I can do is marvel at how incredible the children have been since their mother’s death: Dancing one minute, distraught the next. Laughing again within seconds, hungrier than ever for food and love.
THIS is innocence – no comprehension of death and therefore no fear of it. Same with animals, I muse, just survival instinct in the moment.
The registrar signs Belinda’s death certificate with a fountain pen. All of a sudden, I’m flooded with a subtle, exquisite euphoria…. And I KNOW this a taste of where she is now. In this moment I know why I’m alive – To face death, fully aware of what it really means, on all levels and greet death with childlike innocence.