Publish the Word
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Angelus -- Chapter 28

 

 The Lord gave the word: great was the company of those that published it. Psalms 68:11

                              Chapter 28

 

 

She was going to die and that was that.  The doctors had been right.  Bravo!  And now David could gloat because he was right too. How long?  A month?  Her final scene before the velvet curtain.  The addio.  She was exiting this life.  Fifty-five years gone in a flash.  La commedia e finita.  Almost midnight and her clock was ticking down.

As she lay in bed reluctant to surrender even a couple hours to sleep, she thought about how the angel had tried to console her.  You will pass from life to life, whatever that meant.  Really, what did that mean?  What kind of life?  Her own inclination was to remain in this life, anchored in her present body.  Let the cancer go away.  Let her muddle on a few more years.

She didn't want the little bubble of her life to burst yet.

But be honest, she said to herself.  You saw it coming.  Was she all that shocked?  Was she?  Not really.  Her root of bitterness grew deep and from it had sprung the cancer.  If you could slice it halfwise and count concentric rings, one was Jeffrey's death, another was David's infidelities -- oh no, add about a dozen rings.  Why you could probably trace cancer right back to her embryonic core, couldn't you?   A genetic anomaly, a black, cankerous  speck where the cells mated -- what did she expect?  A normal life?  Followed by a long and happy death? 

She wanted to scream inside and outside herself, shatter the air and the house wide open.  She wanted David to fall on his face and beg, yes beg, with tears flooding his eyes for her to live.  She wanted all her children to live, every unborn one which had died inside her and been swept away, to live as a continuation of her -- all the generations yet to come.  Hadn't the angel said that?  To leave only one daughter and a few crummy paintings seemed like such a wasted life.


Stepping out of this body and into the next world wasn't her first choice, no matter how she ached for her lost son.  How did some people just sigh peacefully and let go of this life?  Does the soul just slip out and then does it rise or fly or float or hover and does it glance back over its shoulder with just a little nostalgia for the old, familiar body and all the simple pleasures it enjoyed with the mouth like rich cappuchino, and the nose that buried itself in lilac blooms and the memory of warm sheets and baked bread and sun on your skin and robins singing their hearts out?  She didn't want to die, not now, not yet or next year, not at all.

Forget the stages of dying, she thought:  the knot of emotion in her chest was denial, anger, bargaining, rage, acceptance and remorse all at once.  The real cancer wasn't physical.  No, no, no to the umpteenth no, she said, rolling her face into an herbal scent her hair left on the pillow.  It was the scent of all the April mornings she would never smell again.  She didn't want to give up mint chocolate either.  Or frozen yogurt.  Amaretto and Irish Creme.  Sand between her toes.  Summer rain.  The farmer's market like a Van Gogh painting.  Oh, for one more syrupy baby kiss, any baby.  Her silky skin after a bath.  A dog barking at night and trains in the distance.  So much to leave behind.

Could the next life, even if it were a realm of unimaginable heavenly delights, offer so much?  Why was God so maddeningly silent out there in his universe?  But he wasn't.  He had sent her the angel, hadn't he?

She got up to open a window.  She wanted the frigid air to scald her lungs.  The elderberry beside the patio was leafless and seemed forlorn.  How ironic, she thought, that as the birds and animals put on their winter coats, the trees shed their leaves.  What sense in that?  Was it a drawing in of energies, of consolidating?  The trees looked dead.  They were brittle and she could easily snap off their branches in the cold.  The sap was frozen.  Where was the life?  In the roots, in subterranean blackness, down below the frostline?  She felt so brittle herself.


In bed again, eyes closed, she began to cast weird images upward through her eyelids to the ceiling where they coalesced.  She saw the hidden I-beams and pylons behind the nightsky.  She saw the wires which lit the stars.  The angel was pointing out how everything worked but his words flowed through her like water and dribbled away before she could process what he said.  She shivered from the cold.  She was flying, wingless.  No, she was falling, she realized, though she could not orient herself toward any object, not the blue marble of earth or the moon's tumorous skull or the ivory bonechips of the constellations which she could not identify anyway.  Her body felt frozen in the cryogenic sleep of deep space.  She and the angel were crossing to the next life where the souls go.  His voice inside her mind was reassuring.  She did not like to travel, she remembered saying in the moment which lingered when she re-entered the atmosphere of her room.

She woke and sat up to sneeze, then she brayed into a tissue.  Her nose left a pink flower in her hand.  She turned it for inspection.  She dabbed her nostrils and left smaller blossoms. 

Her nose bled intermittently until late morning.  Not good, she thought, these messages her body was sending.  Blood was a telegram you didn't ignore.  She felt drained again, depleted and cold under her sweaters.  Her skin seemed so thin.  She stared at the dry creekbeds in her palms, the blue canals underneath.

After a cup of noodle soup and a couple carrot sticks, she briefly thought of pulling on her thermal suit and waddling up to the studio.  She hadn't painted in days, hadn't even left the house.  Instead she read the newspaper, then phoned David to see when he might be home.

Are you all right, he asked, his voice difficult for her to hear because of mechanical noises behind him.  I'm sorry, he said.  They're welding.  Let me step outside.  When his voice returned, he said he could be home for a late dinner.

I'll put a roast in the crockpot, she said.

It might be eight or nine, he said.  She tried to visualize where he was -- the expanse of green lake, gulls and whitecaps and icy froth and fishing boats under the same muddy sky.  He said, the roads are getting bad.  It's sleeting.

Ava glanced out the kitchen window and saw everything was silver glazed.  Her studio seemed shrink-wrapped with ice.   Stalactites hung from the eaves.  Here too, she said.  You better stay.  I'm fine.

Fine was of relative meaning, she realized, over the next several days.  Fine was the have a niceday you told others about yourself, the smiley face lie.  Fine was not the ache, not ice in her bones, not bruises which rose to the surface of her skin.  Anemia was not fine, unless you were already dead, she thought.  Consider the alternative.  Not fine.

She startled herself two days later on Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving when Julie arrived home and she hugged her daughter and saw herself mirrored in Julie's eyes and saw the soundless O of shock form at Julie's mouth.  She had seen the look before in movies just before something terrible happened to the heroine.  And she had said to Julie, losing weight's not so hard if you just stop eating.  But I feel fine.  Fine.  Such a transparent word, she thought.

But Julie recovered and said, I hope we're having turkey.

With all the fixings and pie and all that fattening stuff, Ava said.


David and Julie stuffed the turkey the next morning, then cooked yams and mixed vegetables under Ava's supervision.  She perched on a kitchen stool, wrapped in Julie's crocheted shawl from Paraguay.  A low-grade fever and chills had sent her to bed last evening before David returned home.  She had missed the family conversation around the fireplace, she mostly liked being the principal topic, she and her cadaverous appearance and she and her cancer, her silent killer who was quietly filling her veins with millions of tiny, marauding death cells.  She wondered which of her family would be the first to demolish the pretense.  Not her.

She did try to eat and pretend along with them that this was a holiday like all the Thanksgivings past.  They discussed David's new mall, all the space now leased.  Julie announced she had changed her business major to a minor so she could take more Spanish classes.  Ava described her new paintings and Julie said she wanted to see them and remember Paraguay's heat in the middle of Wisconsin's winter.

I can't believe it's summer there, Julie said. 

That afternoon in the studio Julie asked her mother bluntly if she were giving up.

I would never give up, Ava said.

But you look like you're starving yourself.  You look so old and shrunken and pale.

Ava laid down the canvas she had been holding.  Her hands shook, just perceptibly, the white claws of a stroke victim, she thought.  She heard the tremble in her voice when she said, I can't endure the chemo again.  Months of sickness, vomiting every day, my hair falling out again, no eyebrows, cold sweats.  Back and forth to the hospital>  For what?  To prolong the agony?  I don't want that, Julie.

But I don't want you to die, Julie said, her eyes watery.

And I don't want to die.

Then take the treatment.  Please.  Give yourself a chance.  Julie wiped her nose with the back of her hand.  She stood rigid and tense, her hair fallen over her right eye, her head tilted to the left.  She said, please don't give up without a fight.

I don't have any fight to give, Ava replied.

We'll fight it together, Julie said.  I can be strong for you.  I'll transfer to UW Green Bay so I can be closer.  It's almost the end of the semester.  I'll transfer and live at home and commute three days a week.

Don't do that.  I don't want you to transfer.

But I would, Julie said.

I know you would, Ava said.  Julie started to cry.  She glanced away toward the windows as if to hide the soft shudders, her hand at her face to contain her feelings.  Ava stepped closer so she could touch Julie's spilled hair.  Then Julie was in her arms, a girl again needing her mother's comfort, sobbing as milky clouds fogged Ava's eyes and the room about them.  They held each other and Ava said at Julie's ear, even if I leave this old, sick body you know I will never leave you Julie.  I'll be inside you and all around you.  You'll hear me tell you to pick up your clothes.  Don't be out late.  Never stay mad at anyone.

Julie cried harder, dissolving, her little girl head tucked against her mother's body.  It was all the scraped elbows and fallen bicycles and bee stings and fickle boys compressed into this one moment, Ava thought.  It was her mother holding her because now she was crying too, shaking and trying to be fierce and determined for both of them.  Oh Julie, she said, wanting to tell her daughter that life was so beautiful and so painful and that it evaporated like morning mist right in your hands before you could really get a hold of it.  She wanted to pass whatever strength she had into Julie, to bless her, to take her back inside her body and begin all over again, but all she could do was repeat, Oh Julie.


When Julie left Sunday afternoon, mother and daughter had reached a fragile truce.   Julie was free to call collect every day if she needed to, and Ava, composed and cleared-headed, her body feathery, but erect with vigor -- pseudo-energy from adrenaline, she thought -- would let her daughter know if her condition changed in any way.  The semester ended in three weeks and then Julie would be home for nearly a month over Christmas.  Together we can beat this, Julie said when they embraced.

David hugged Julie too and kissed her forehead, the kiss a surprise to Ava.  She searched her memory for the last time he had kissed their daughter, genuine affection, his lips pressed to her smooth forehead, the spot of wisdom.  She couldn't remember when -- years.

Later that day David asked if she would like to go out for dinner.

Ava laid aside the book she had been reading.  Just the two of us?

If you're up to it, he said.  I'm in the mood for scrod or walleye or the catch of the day.

They drove along the coastal highway which in summer would be clogged with traffic, but late November reduced the beach to empty dunes scrawled with tire tracks like frozen petroglyphs and an occasional crow flapping against the sky.  They passed the turn to Peninsula State Park.  She could see the dark smudge of Chambers Island at the horizon.  When they reached the restaurant in Ephraim, Ava was feeling car sick, but the chill wind off the bay revived her and breezed them inside.  She didn't remove her coat until after they had ordered and then she left it loose over her shoulders.

Ava expected David to bring up the subject, but whether intentionally or not, he kept any reference to her illness out of their conversation.  He offered to drive them home by way of Bailey's Harbor so she could see how the mall was progressing.  All right, she said.  If it doesn't begin to snow.  You know how paranoid I get when the roads are bad.

Cold but clear, he said.

After dinner David went out into the failing light to warm the car.  When he signalled for her to come, she buried her face in her fur collar and flung herself into the wind, toward the open door and her husband's outstretched hand. 


When she awoke the second time Monday morning, the angel was sitting at her bedside.  Earlier she had stirred briefly when she heard the shower running and glimpsed David before she dozed off.  But now she lifted herself alert.  The angel was leaning toward her, his hands in a bright ingot of sunlight but his face in shadow.  Good morning, he said.

Yes, morning, she said, pulling the comforter up to hide her frayed nightgown.  Where do you go when you're not here? she asked.

Elsewhere.  To heavenly realms.  On other assignments.

Are there many other angels? she asked.

Multitudes, he replied with an expansive wave of his hand.

She tried to recall all the questions she had wanted to ask him about angels and life after death, but all her thoughts had strayed off.  In his presence all she could do was gape sag-mouthed like a madwoman.  Is it time? she asked, startled to think that perhaps this day she would have to depart her body.  She was being evicted against her will.

No, he said softly.  No, he said, his head moving side to side so slightly, smiling.  She stared at him.  Her mind was blank, a stone tablet, granite.  She felt emptied.  She was warm in goose down and flannel.  But she couldn't think of a single word to say.

I want to take you on a short journey, the angel said.


As he motioned her to rise, the room drained from her eyes.  She felt swirled by warm darkness like water running off her body.  Her mind was aware of sensations, but she felt detached and unplugged and weirdly disoriented until she felt her feet upon the cold floor and thought, my feet, the floor, and found herself upright as the room settled about her.  She concentrated on the faint glow of the angel at her side.  She was about to ask what happened when she heard a voice somewhere in front of her.  The room was dark, but as she listened, the sounds steadied her.  A man's voice was talking softly, though she couldn't hear what he was saying. 

Closer, she heard the angel tell her.  She moved toward the voice, her eyes adjusting to the dark.  She saw the outline of a dresser with plants on top and an oriental rug with a gold mandala and a tall bookcase to her right.  She could see a curtained window and its periphery of outer light.  A bed.  And two figures entwined on the bed.  She couldn't distinguish their faces.  The man's voice was so musical, she thought, a soft chant intoning and on, almost song.

David, she realized.  His inflection, his voice, merging out of the darkness and into her thought.   No.  She whispered to the angel, no.

He can't hear you.  The angel spoke normally.  She felt him touch her elbow and lead her closer.  She averted her eyes to the window, to the scalloped edging of light, to the light and its peculiar glow.

I don't want to see this, she said.  She knew it was David.  He was with a woman.  Ava felt all at once drenched in sadness.  She felt pangs of melancholy.  She didn't want to look.  Kim, his secretary?  Some woman he followed home from a bar like a tom cat?  She closed her eyes but couldn't disconnect his voice in her ears.  David talking, on and on.  The words slithered inside her.  They curled themselves into nests.  She heard them implode like depth charges.  Words and more words setting off small detonations inside her.  In her memory.  Words.  And then she remembered.


She opened her eyes.  The figures were just visible below her.  The sprawl of covers, the quilt her mother had made, the tangle of arms and David's younger, thinner face turned toward the head on the pillow, her head, tilted against the crook of his arm, her eyes upward as if envisioning their future.  She was gazing past her older self and the angel who brought her back to this night she had vowed would last forever, if only she could stop time.

It was their first apartment, a furnished, one-bedroom with a leaky kitchen sink and a view of Third Avenue.  They were surrounded by dilapidated buildings, but it didn't matter.  They were newlywed.  David was studying for his real estate license.  She had taken a summer job to teach crafts at a park.  She and the kids sat at picnic tables.  They fingerpainted and made potholders on wooden looms.  In July they held a carnival for parents.  The kids created skits and songs on handmade instruments.  She gave out ribbons for the best decorated pets.  This little room and bed, she thought, was their fortress against the world and the boat they would sail into their new lives.  These were the bodies and souls they gave to each other without betrayal.

She could feel the soft wind of his voice against her cheek.  He was telling her his dream.  Someday he would have his own business.  He would buy a plane and fly people out over the countryside and over the fields and farms and rivers and villages.  He would be the flying realtor.  He would build her a house, anything she wanted.  They would have children, a boy and a girl.  He would teach his son to fish.  He would teach his daughter to fly.  Ava was dreaming his dream, smiling upward, her young body a perfect fit to his.

Take his hand, she heard the angel say.

Ava reached down and placed her palm against David's open hand, the right hand which rested upon her uncovered shoulder.

What she felt -- there was no way to accurately describe it -- was the love welling up inside David and flowing into her, the same molten love which seemed to bathe their bodies in a pool of light, love, it was love and she felt embraced and shivered as if voltage had shot through her.  She had never imagined David's love for her, such love so limitless and without measure, boundary or end.


She felt such tenderness to stare at them and remember how secure and content and happy she had been to be in his arms, the man she had pledged her soul to.

With her other hand Ava reached down and cupped the chin of the young woman who lay silent, who seemed to be listening with such trust in her eyes.  The love of the newly married, she thought.  The world opening like an orchid.  Forever without end.  Happily ever after.

And then she was back.  Sitting on the edge of her bed.  Her feet solid on the wood floor.  The angel was nodding, though she didn't know why.  His eyes glistened.  Then he moved swiftly to her right and out through the door.  She turned her head to follow him and realized he hadn't opened it.  She also realized her eyes were the ones glistening.  She felt such an irresistible urge to phone David and tell him she loved him -- more than he would ever know.

 

When he came home that evening, David shrugged off his coat on the sofa next to Ava.  I'm weary, he said.  He eased back, shut his eyes and sighed.  She muted the television.  The wind's muffled drums beat at the window.  She laid her hand on his forehead, thought of snow on a brown field.  She felt the metronome under his skin, the steady pulse.  Silent except for the adagio of his breathing and her breathing, she with her feet curled underneath, he motionless, the room began to melt inside them.  In her the ballad was faithful, every thought a haiku.  In him, love was returning from a long journey.

She stroked his forehead, the furrows of worry-lines.  He leaned toward her.  Elixir of touch.  Her warmth now his.  You've been working hard, she said.  He exhaled, a torn sigh.  She thought of a wounded animal.  She felt fluid, her hand mostly water.  David cleared the dark tunnel in his throat so the voice could rise.  She could hear it coming, its plaintive call before the words fluttered out.


I've been angry with you, he said.  And I don't know why.  For letting the cancer win.  For everything that's not your fault.  He let the words flare into silence.  Her hand was cool on his skin, an astringent drawing off the fire.  He was blind, but his eyes were moving under his lids.  She eased her hand along his temples, massaging, her hand liquid and flowing.

I'm sorry, he said.  You don't know how sorry I am.

Her hand touched the scars, their jagged ridge.  I forgive you, she said.

No.  A projectile no.  She stayed her hand but went on flowing.  He said, you should never forgive me.  Not for all that I've done to hurt you.  I've been selfish.  And unfaithful.  You know that.  I haven't been there for you.  Not when Jeffrey died, not when I should have been.  Not now.  I don't deserve any forgiveness.  Not even pity.

She held her hand lightly against the blue stubble and curve of his cheek, his words still travelling about the room.  She thought about his infidelities, now confessed.  She thought maybe love was a river and like the salmon they had to keep swimming upwards, against the churning water, no matter what.  She thought of memory and love flowing together and how the angels are witness when bodies enter the invisible gravity of others, how they flow as one flesh.  She thought of so many days and nights with this man she loved and hated, so many hours and minutes and seconds.  So many hurts and joys.  Why would she not forgive him, she thought.  She was dying.  She loved him and could carry none of this with her.

I will always love you, she said.


His face collapsed under her hand.  And then she felt the press of him, hot and wet and weeping at her stomach, not having held her there so ferociously since Julie was in utero.  He had never cried for her.  Not when his parents were killed in the car accident in Florida his junior year of college.  Not when he lowered their son's bronze casket into the black earth.  Not ever.  Indomitable.  Carve that on my tombstone, he had always joked.

The love she had gathered from their first apartment on Third Ave she now released into him, bending to kiss his hair.  Her eyes, if he had looked up, were shining and radiant.  Her skin was porcelain.  But nothing would break her now and surely nothing would separate them for they were melded together and in this moment, to her, they felt imperishable.

David's body shook in her arms and she thought of Julie, how they had held each other in her studio and Ava had been rock solid for both of them.  As David wept, she forgave him and forgave herself and forgave Jeffrey for dying and her parents for innumerable crimes parents commit in their frailty.  Forgiveness, she thought, was a sky full of doves all flapping at once.

I know I've been a lousy husband, David said, his tortured face upturned toward hers.  All those years gone.  And we can't have them back.  His voice shuddered as he spoke.  I have let you down so many times.  I have failed you.  Please, please forgive me.

She leaned her head against his.  Why did it take dying, she thought, to finally, finally come to this point, the end of a narrow path surrounded by an ocean of infinity?  Is this then what love is? she asked herself.  Is this why we are born?  To only learn at the end how we should have lived?

Her lips tasted David's forehead, salt of sorrow and consecration.  She kissed him.  She kissed his brokenness.

He sponged his eyes against her sweater, against her hand.  She kissed his wet cheek.  Her mouth like a compass found his, true north, home, the long familiar.



 

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