I’ve been aware of it for a while, of course, in an abstract sort of way. The weight dropping off my body, the fatigue settling into my bones, the feeling like all the power and strength I’ve accrued in ninety-six years is slowly seeping out of me. I’ve known since the chemo stopped that I won’t leave this year alive. But I’m feeling it now in a different way. Death as something concrete, as something personal, has crept up upon me. Now I know it in some deep cavity below my wisping lungs.
Ananya, I think now. I haven’t thought her name in all the time I’ve been sick. I’ve been waiting for the right moment.
“Mom, can you hear me?”
My son is standing beside my bed. I think he might be holding my hand, though the pressure on my fingers is so distant I can’t be sure it’s really there. His face goes in and out of focus; I can’t read his expression, except that his eyes are bright with tears he isn’t shedding.
I do my best to smile. I have no words for him; my throat is closed, probably for good. My words are flying somewhere else.
“It’s good to see you, Mom,” he says.
I’m still aware of myself. I’m propped up on hospital pillows, bright lights above me making everything glow impossibly white, and I’m as comfortable as I can be on this thin bed with these tubes tickling the inside of my nose. I think other people are in the room too, and my son is just the only one close enough for me to see. But I’m aware, too, of something vast and other that I’m teetering right on the edge of entering.
Ananya, I think, and my voice, as it echoes through that other space, is too powerful to have come from this spent throat.
She was a star from the moment I saw her. All those years ago, when I was a young twentysomething actress nobody wanted, she was dazzling everyone with her voice. The first time I saw her was the night - at the end of a cold, exhausting week - when she auditioned right after me. When she sang the leading woman’s song and the notes echoed straight from her chest to mine. When I saw the joy on her face, that utter unchecked passion, as though she’d forgotten she had an audience at all, as though she didn’t care, and I knew she was the greatest performer I’d ever seen in my life.
It had been a long time since I’d seen passion like that. I was bitter and bold and thin and angry then, full up of the people who had hurt me. I almost cried to see the way she smiled.
Ananya. I’m coming for you.
“We’ve all come to say goodbye,” says my son, and I drift easily back to the half of my reality in the hospital room. “I brought the whole family. Do you want to talk to Beth?”
Beth is his wife. I give him what I hope is an encouraging look, and he retreats, and she appears in my vision with a child in her arms. The child looks at me solemnly. Somehow I can focus better on his face than hers, and I listen to her voice - a kind sort of voice, quiet and earnest - without meeting her eyes. When she retreats I’m met with a nephew who I’m sure takes my hand, and whose tears are not so well-concealed as my son’s.
I’m dying. I’m settling into it gradually, letting it fold over me. I expected fear to come when death finally turned from future to present, but I plumb the depths of my spirit now and can’t find a shred of fear anywhere.
That otherness is waiting to welcome me. That wide-open space, behind only the thinnest of gossamer curtains.
Ananya got the lead in that production I saw her audition for. I was put in the ensemble, an honor unmatched in my life before, but I found I was less excited at the prospect of a job than I was at the thought of being on a stage with her. I even managed to speak with her within the first two weeks. I managed to tell a joke, to pull something besides resentment out of the quiet festering place between my ribs, just to see her eyes sparkle when she laughed. I practiced a hundred other jokes after the first to see if I could get the same reaction.
And wonder of wonders, she seemed to like me. She invited me for coffee a month and a half in. Someone stopped her on the street to ask for her autograph while we walked, and she gave it out with the same easy cheerfulness she gave everything. And on the walk back she took my hand.
There was a certain perfume she always wore, on the nights she performed. It was a scent like wildflowers growing in the woods. I never asked her what it was, never attempted to get it for myself; it was so uniquely hers that I couldn’t imagine it existing apart from her. On nights I sat awake drinking myself into a stupor, sometimes I’d catch a whiff of it on the clothes I’d worn to the theater and feel, for a moment, like I was whole.
That was how it started. Ananya and her heavenly voice, and her happiness, and that flowers-in-a-forest perfume. I still remember it so perfectly.
My son is in front of me again. He’s standing farther away now, or maybe I’m farther back in my mind. In any case I can’t see his face anymore. I only see a vague movement when he opens his mouth to speak.
“I love you,” he says, and it sounds like he’s calling from the other end of a stadium. “I’m going to miss you.”
I let out a little sigh. I’d tell him, if I could speak, that I’ll miss him too. Yet I can’t feel the grief I know he’s feeling. The curtain is splitting apart, and I’m so close to going, and I’m so utterly ready for what’s on the other side.
It was sometime in that first year that I first heard her talk about life after death. It made me angry, for a little while. I thought she was being ridiculous. She was an adult; hadn’t she outgrown all that make-believe nonsense? Didn’t she know, the way I knew in that festering place within, that we were all dying every day, and killing each other faster than we could die ourselves, and that nothing sweet or good could possibly be behind all this emptiness? Hadn’t she been hurt as I had by those who claimed the world was like that? But she believed it. As fully and as deeply and as joyfully as she sang, she believed it. And I couldn’t stay angry at that for long.
She told me, the first night we spent together - in the darkness and the silence, when she lay on my chest in my arms - what she imagined it would be like. A great wide place filled with singing, she said. A place where everyone’s voices harmonize into a chorus the likes of which the living can’t imagine.
You want to sing harmonies for eternity, I asked her?
She laughed. That laugh, when her skin was against mine, made everything inside me glow. Love is like harmony, she said. She said, I want to sing love forever.
I told her they don’t believe in our kind of love up there. It was a cruel thing to say, a statement that rose from the deepest grime I’d let collect in me. But she only laughed again at it. And then she kissed me, and her skin smelled like that glorious flower perfume.
“Mom,” my son says, but I’ve let my eyes slide shut. I barely hear him.
The place behind the crumbling veil is visible to me now. It’s just as wide as she told me, and it’s bright - not in the way the hospital was, not stark and white and sterile, but glowing softly gold and pink and muted green. Like the smudged-out image of a flowering forest, viewed through the window of a train. A view meant for transit.
Ananya, I call, I’m here. I’m finally here for you.
I think I hear music in the distance.
She was so patient with me, though I never told her how I’d been hurt, though I never told her about the flimsy walls of distrust I’d built around my heart. As the years passed she was so slow, so careful, in drawing the shame and doubt out of me. It was the kind of carefulness that someone can only show your pain when they’ve felt it themselves, when they know the precise shape of it and how to be gentle on the edges. It was such a slow process I hardly realized when my steps were becoming lighter.
And we sang together. We leapt from theater to theater, her spellbinding every director she met, getting every role she set her sights on. I landed roles in every ensemble in the city, and once or twice even landed myself a solo. The longer I spent with her the stronger my voice seemed to grow, though Ananya told me she’d always found it beautiful.
We spent twenty years like that. We got married, we adopted a son. And then from nowhere came the sickness.
A thousand light-years away, there are people saying my name. I hear them like a collection of barking seals, all speaking over each other. Every voice blends together. I don’t answer, because the farther they recede, the less I feel they’re of any consequence. It’s the space in front of me that becomes more and more real each moment. I can smell turned earth and spring rain. I can hear harmonies.
I step forward.
The sickness ravaged her body for a year and a half. She lost the ability to sing first, and I was angrier at that than I’d ever been about anything that had happened to me. To steal a voice like that from the world struck me as the most callous brutality even from an impersonal universe. When sickness spiraled over into death, though, the anger bled away into something else. Something Ananya had taught me.
I look behind me. There is no more curtain, no more hospital. I’m suddenly aware that I’m standing upright. My body is no longer the frail shell I carried into the hospital bed; I’m tall again, and my spine is straight, and my hair is dark and cropped short. I look like I did when she knew me.
A shiver runs over my spine. This is it; I’m going.
Ananya. I’ve come. You knew it all along.
She wasn’t frightened, as death closed in on her. In some of my nastier moods, years before, I’d told her she would change her tune about life after death when she had to face it herself. But she didn’t; she had the same smile, the same hope, all the way up to the end. She had a certainty that made me want to throttle her sometimes and other times made me fall ever more in love with her. Even when the weight dropped off her and the fatigue settled into her bones she was cheerful. In the last days of her life she told me she’d meet me again.
I’ll be waiting, she said to me, when I knelt next to her bed. I’ll be singing a song we both know. When you come we’ll make a harmony together.
And when her eyes closed for the last time, I believed her. Somehow she’d drained all the hurt and fear away from me and I was full up with her instead. Her voice in my lungs and her laughter in my mouth and her fingers intertwined with mine.
Ananya, I call, and my words sound like singing. They sound more beautiful than I ever remember sounding before. They echo through this vast, indistinct forest and return to me, as though the world itself is breathing her name. Ananya.
I dreamed of her that night. I dreamed of the first time I saw her, the audition that made me fall in love. And I found, when I woke, that I couldn’t believe she was really gone. She was a star from the moment I saw her, and she was a star still.
I wait. My breath is slower and deeper each moment. Everything still feels smudged out, and there’s a feeling in my stomach as though I’m hurtling forward at top speed - going where, I can’t guess. The singing is louder now. I can’t pick out any individual voices, I can’t hear the words, but it’s filling my ears and blasting into my mind and I’m going forward, forward, forward into something unknowable.
Ananya. I love you. I want to sing your harmonies.
Come and take me, Ananya.
I’m only moving faster. The music is only getting louder. I feel it’s going to dissolve me in its glorious sound. But from somewhere I can’t see, I sense another approach, a slow, deliberate one.
Ananya, I say, and it’s loud enough to fill the universe.
Another smell. Flowers in a forest. A perfume I haven’t sought since her death.
Ananya, I’m ready.
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That was nice! Very inspirational. My emotions rose with the story at the end. I felt what your character seemed to feel as she let go her material world. It was nice to see her true-love as a guiding light as she made the transition. I like to believe it’s like that when we go. Thanks.
Thanks! :) :)
The beauty of your story is in more than just the words in the prose. I love it. Very well written I must say.