Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Thank You For The Hand

…Overhead, overhead
Rushes life in a race
As the clouds
The clouds chase
And we go
And we drop
Like the fruits of the tree
Even we
Even so.

“Can you make oatmeal?” asks Camille. I fear I may be forced to resign from my position as Chief Caretaker for the Day on the spot.
“I can try,” I answer. “How much time have you got?” Ouch! That was almost as tactful as the message I left on the answer machine talking about looking forward to when this is all over.
I navigate the unfamiliar kitchen with its family-style veneer of meals past, the ocean bottom sink-drainer and crunchy floor. However, the contents of the dishwasher are clean and there is a roasting pan and vegetable steamer in the bone-dry dish rack. Signs of life before surgery? Everywhere I look, there is evidence of life interrupted – a suitcase from the recent trip to France, a skirt on the ironing board, laundry beside the machine sorted into a dark and light wash. Then there is evidence of the meteor strike – Steven’s bedding on the sofa, a bloody, gauze stocking-cap nestling with unfolded laundry on a chair, get well cards shuffled with unopened mail.
Camille staggers to the bedroom door. “I’m going to try to sleep now,” she says. Good. More time to figure out how to make oatmeal.

When I arrived this morning, I found Camille lying on a ridiculously cheerful Provencal yellow sheet, wearing chartreuse silk pajama bottoms, gray tank and an orange organza scarf around her head that lent her a jaunty, gypsy look. “Isn’t she the most beautiful person you’ve ever seen after brain surgery?” asked Steven. She glowed under this flattery, but looked to me like a broken doll with the puffy brown bruises around her eyes, chewed up hair and the Frankenstein scar at her hairline.
“I think I’m making progress, little by little, each day?” She looked to Steven for reassurance. I didn’t look at him but suddenly I felt like I was part of a conspiracy; I just couldn’t tell who were the conspirators.

Within half an hour, she is awake and asking for the oatmeal, which to my great gratification she polishes off while I sit beside her on the bed. There is one moment when she dips the wrong end of her spoon in the honey and sucks it, then laughs, realizing she had meant to add the honey to the oatmeal. Apart from that, and believing Bill Clinton is President, I don’t see any other manifestations of the bizarre behavior I had been quite looking forward to. And the Bill Clinton thing is probably just wishful thinking.
She’s tired again and slides down under the naked duvet, resting her head on the bare pillow. That’s why it looks so improvised in here – all the linen is in a pile behind the bedroom door. “Did Steven tell you about the hospital?” she asks. “The intensive care unit?” I shake my head. “The nurses were so horrible!” she says, bursting into tears. I stroke her hand and try to find sufficient vehemence to express my solidarity.
“The bitches!” I manage. “I’m surprised you didn’t bop them on the nose. That’s probably why they sedated you – they were in fear of their life!” She grins through her tears. When she smiles, she looks as impish as her 8-year old son. It’s the freckles, I think, and the way her whole face shines. She looks so tiny under the cover. I’m ready to go finish some business with the nurses at the hospital.

Desperate to be useful, I start folding laundry. My eye catches movement through the front door: It’s Sylvie, one of the mothers from school. She enters full of complaints that Steven won’t respond to her emails, that he’s building a wall around his family, denying us access: “He can’t possibly do it all!” she declares. I settle her with a cup of peach tea and make room in the sticky refrigerator for the soup and fruit she has brought. “I knew he was giving her supermarket soup!” she says as she spies the open carton, offended to her Gallic core. We put her tulips in a blue Tupperware jug since we can’t find any more vases. Earlier, I had made half-hearted attempts to wipe down the kitchen with the grimy dishcloth. Sylvie clicks her tongue as she looks around: “When I come I’m going to clean!” I feel vaguely insulted.
“Well, I wanted to, but there were no gloves…” but she’s already eying the windows and searching under the sink for a bucket. I began to sympathize with Steven. No doubt he would be the first thing to be transported out in the bucket.

After Sylvie leaves, I decide it’s time for lunch, taking my book and salad into the garden. It is very peaceful here, only the clacking of bamboo swaying in the breeze and the occasional bump coming from Camille’s room to remind me to enjoy every last drop of the sunshine and silence. Looking at the bolting rose bush and sprawling plants, I imagine Camille enjoying many peaceful lunches here. At least, I hope she was peaceful. Unlike me, she’s always had an immense capacity for making the best of her life: When I stay at home and do chores, she takes the boys swimming; when I wrap myself in doom and gloom, she does yoga in the sitting room; and when I shuttle between school and my desk, she is to be seen exiting the local coffee shop with a cappuccino. “I haven’t got much work this month,” I said this morning, “so I can spend time with you.”
“And on yourself,” she said, a slight reproach pursing her lips.
“Oh, I went to the beach on Monday, but I didn’t enjoy it. I guess I’m too task oriented.” She made no comment, but I had blundered yet again. The air hung heavy with lost possibilities and my ingratitude.

After lunch, I am suddenly inspired to investigate the laundry situation and gingerly open the interior door to the garage. It is a cavern filled with miscellaneous items, but under power tools and laundry baskets, I find a washing machine. I think I hear something. “Louise!” Camille is calling, a slight edge of panic in her voice. I emerge to see her careening across the living room, now in a green silk shirt that comes down to her knees.
“You need a bell so you don’t have to get out of bed each time you need something.”
“No, it’s good for me to get out of bed… but I think I’m going to pass out.” She collapses onto the bench next to the table. Her eyes light on the gold chain and tiny gold heart that I found among the laundry: “Ah, I’m so pleased you found it!” she says, smiling fondly at the necklace. “It belonged to my cousin who committed suicide at 30.” Thirty? Forty-two? There should be some allotted amount of life that is fairly distributed, like a mother serving cake to her children. Why would you give one child a smaller piece than the other? To build character? To show your ‘Grace’ as you comfort the swindled child? I don’t think so! God seems increasingly to be a fan of reality TV shows: Big Brother meets Survivor, with maybe a bit of Fear Factor thrown in. Camille clutches the heart and reels across the room back to bed.

This time, I stick a shoe in the door when I go into the garage, so that I can hear her call. I begin to sort the wash: boys shorts, definitely; Adrian can’t wear swimming trunks to school again. Camille’s exercise gear I put to one side – she won’t be needing that for a while. It is amazing how dispassionate I can be. I am hoping this is a protective mechanism and not that I am some ghoul who is enjoying the drama, escaping her own petty life immersed in the misery of others. Or worse still that my co-dependant tendencies are on overtime. I don’t really believe that of myself, but I’ve learnt that our motives are never really pure, that we can find all manner of ways to hide from our lives and ourselves, including altruism.
I wrestle with the knob on the washing machine. Come on, I tell myself, You’re an intelligent woman, you can figure this out. Finally, the drum churns, the machine bucks and over the sounds of reluctant metal, I hear Camille call. The light is hurting her eyes. She has appropriated a shawl and sends me in search of pins in the boys’ room. There is a mountain of clothes in the middle of the floor. I had seriously underestimated the laundry problem. After I’ve rigged up the shawl across the high window, I sit beside her on the bed. She explains that she is desperate for sleep, but can only knock out for a few minutes at a time. “My mind, it’s racing, racing,” she says, and draws a finger across her forehead as if to describe the trajectory of her thoughts. The notebook beside her is filled with scratchy writing and asterisks to pin down her fleeting memory. “It’s because they operated on my brain,” she explains, gripping my hand hard. “It’s all messed up.” She thinks that’s why she can’t sleep – that and the medication. I wonder about this desire to sleep, which has become an obsession. The body wanting to heal but sabotaged by the tumor growing deep inside her brain. I want to tell her to come out into the garden, into the sun. Soon you may be sleeping for a very long time.
I sit and hold her hand. I feel a bit stupid, to tell the truth, just sitting there. I close my eyes and try to send a stream of warm, healing light into her body. I feel the energy bubble inside me, but I don’t know if it does her any good. When she turns on her side, I gently extricate my hand and return to the laundry. I used to do that when my son was a baby, sit beside him until he fell asleep and then creep away to get the chores done. Now he’s almost grown, I wish I spent more time just looking at his sleeping face, hearing him breathe. When will I learn to savor, to be peaceful in inaction? Probably always too late.

Steven returns to find me folding clothes. I quickly stuff his underwear under the T-shirts, fearing indelicacy. I realize that it will soon be time to pick up my son and I haven’t even started on The Dinner. I had come up with this grand plan by trying to imagine what my most practical friend would do in this situation. It came to me in a flash; she would prepare a taco bar, with all the fillings nicely laid out, so Steven and the boys could fix themselves tacos. The beauty of the plan is that most of the ingredients can be bought, which only leaves the meat to cook. I put oil in a pan and start chopping garlic. A neighbor arrives with flowers and while Steven busies himself preparing to collect the boys, the neighbor and I enter into a detailed discussion about where exactly he lives. I am on my eighth clove of garlic when the neighbor suddenly seizes the pan, which is now smoking evilly. Steven registers the tableau of me and the neighbor holding the pan and a dishtowel aloft, shakes his head, and disappears out the front door. I shouldn’t have entertained him the other night with the amusing story of my uncle setting the house on fire. He’s probably worried that it’s a family trait.

I leave the neighbor pondering the ground beef, hoping that Steven will find the other ingredients still sitting in the refrigerator (that’s the problem when your most practical friend is from South Texas – her solutions may be culturally inappropriate for a domestically disabled Brit) and hasten to pick up my son from school. Sylvie finds me on the play-yard. “What do you know about Camille’s diagnosis?” she demands. Oh, heck! I fudged the answer earlier, not wanting to say anything if Steven had not made the biopsy results public. It turns out she confronted Steven when he picked up the boys this afternoon. I confirm what she has already heard. “I had to put on my dark glasses,” she says. I can tell she is still crying behind them. “He told me before that the tumor is deep inside the brain. So that’s it, isn’t it? There’s no hope.” I can’t contradict her.
“We can just do what we can to help – that’s all we can do.”
“Oh, you are British, aren’t you!” she snaps and turns away.

The children and parents ebb and flow around me. I am greeted by several people I know but it is as if I am underwater. My mind is replaying the sequence of an exotic coral reef fish darting into the sitting room in a green silk shirt. Among the milling neighbors and smoking oil, she pulls her small body against mine: “I just wanted to thank you before you left.” She breaks away smiling the trademark impish smile: “Thank you for the hand.”

© Copyright 2006 Louise Godbold

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