I can't say how long I stood there, with Mrs. Linden looking up at me. Eventually, she stood, and walked to the door. She left and I found myself taking deep, gulping breaths, which only made me wonder why I was still breathing.
The door opened again and she re-entered, carrying a small glass of water, which she handed to me. I realized that my hands and knees were shaking, and I sat.
There were so many things that made no sense. My mind felt crowded and jostling, like an airline counter when a flight is cancelled at the last minute, leaving all the passengers stranded and wanting answers. I clutched the glass and looked at the water. Mrs. Linden took a deep breath and began to speak.
"When I was 68 years old, I celebrated my 45th wedding anniversary by going on a cruise to Alaska. We had a spectacular time, my husband and I. I had retired from teaching. He had sold his business. I was looking forward to visiting my children and two grandchildren. But, toward the end of the trip, I didn't feel well. A very short three months later, I found myself here, in a room very much like this."
I felt a flash of annoyance, shifting in my chair, wondering why we were talking about her life, when it was MINE that had just ended. MY life that had just been stolen.
Calmly, she continued, "Like you, I was confused in the beginning. Bewildered and, eventually, angry. I was so young--not as young as you, obviously--but, still..." she caught my eye "I felt much like you do."
"You were expecting a baby, your first, I believe. I can imagine that you had dreams of raising that baby, and others perhaps."
Mrs. Linden said the last sentence kindly; carefully. Her tone brought my dry eyes to her face, which was set intently towards mine. "You suffered a fatal embolism, Anna. Instant and painless. There was nothing you could do--there was no way you could fight it or see it coming."
I could feel my emotions at the edges--like a tsunami, the numbness was temporary and fragile, the tide of my emotion being pulled out so that it could come crashing down on me with greater force and intensity.
Again, I whispered hoarsely "What is this place?"
"This" she answered, "is your waiting room. It is the place for you to mourn your own death. It is the place for you to ask your questions. You can remain here, as long as you need. If there is anyone you would like to see, I can bring them to you. It is the place for you to say goodbye. When you are ready--you can just open the door and leave."
She stood, smoothing her corduroy jumper with her hands, and in a more business like tone said, motioning to the heavy brocade drapery "Behind that curtain is a window to your old life. The people that you love and left behind are there. Sometimes we need that--we need to see that they're alright. I would advise you to watch with caution... but that is up to you."
Turning to me, she grasped my arms in her hands, and looked into my eyes for a moment. She nodded slightly and said "I'll be back to check on you. Let me know if there is anyone you need to see." With that, she slipped out the door, letting it click quietly behind her.
With two long, desperate strides I crossed the room and wrenched back the curtain.
Friday, August 20, 2010
The room was small and square. Sparsely furnished, the main piece was a set of two simple, blue wingback chairs that reminded me of something my mother would've chosen for the living room. In between the chairs was a slender cherry wood table and a silver lamp, which was turned on, casting a warm glow on the room. Next to the lamp was a short, round bud vase holding a single white peony. It's fragrance tinged the air only slightly--more like the scent of a memory than anything else. A curtain hung over one end of the room, made of a heavy dove gray brocade, and on the opposite wall was a door. Looking around, I took all of these details in quickly, rubbing my hands on my arms. The room was pleasantly warm, but I felt slightly chilled--like I'd come in after being out in the cold for a long time.
I moved over to one of the chairs and sat in it, watching the door. I wasn't sure where I was, or quite how I'd gotten there. But I didn't feel anxious. That surprised me, slightly. It occurred to me that, not knowing where I was should have made me worry. But it simply didn't.
I closed my eyes and sunk deeper into the chair. For all their simplicity--it was very comfortable. For the first time in months, I felt like I could fall asleep and sleep for hours and hours, uninterrupted. As I sat, waiting, time seemed to move quickly around me.
A very soft knock at the door opened my eyes as the handle turned with a click.
I stood as it opened and I found myself face to face with a kind, familiar face.
My second grade teacher, Mrs. Linden.
Her face, just as I remembered it, smiled at the surprise she saw play across my features. Her gray hair, plaited into a braid. Smile lines around her mouth and eyes. I even glanced down to notice her hands, which had always been dusted with chalk as she waved them around energetically. They were clean now, but still looked just as wrinkly and soft.
Stepping forward into the room, she put her arms around me briefly and reached up to touch her cheek to mine. I was surprised to find that I was taller than her. When I'd seen her last, that had been different. Some things had changed.
"It's good to see you, Anna" she said, cheerfully, "I have to say I wasn't expecting to see you yet, but I'm glad just the same."
"You too" I responded automatically, pausing briefly to wonder what she meant by "yet." I hadn't really expected to see her again, ever.
She gestured to the chairs, "Please, sit! Let's catch up and chat for a few minutes. I'm sure you have questions."
I took my seat again and she went and sat opposite me. I looked at her and was aware that her hazel eyes were looking at me very intently, if kindly. Searching for something. I was the first to look away and down at the peony.
"I love peonies. But they're out of season right now."
"Yes, I would've imagined you'd like them. They're some of my favorites as well."
After a pause, I looked at her again. She sat back in her chair. She had on a forest green corduroy jumper with a peach turtleneck under it. Just like I remembered her.
Finally, I took a breath and said "I don't know where I am."
She nodded, but said nothing.
"I don't even really know how I got here" I laughed, embarrassed.
"Don't worry about that. I think you'll find if you think hard enough, you'll remember. But it's really not important" was her easy reply.
"Oh, well. I guess if it doesn't matter... can you tell me where I am, though?"
And as suddenly as I had uttered it, I felt a tremble of unexplicable sadness that took me by surprise. My eyes sought hers and suddenly there was a flash of remembering. I realized that tears were springing to the corner of my eyes and my hand flew to my mouth. Mrs. Linden knelt quietly by my chair, her hand on my knee.
I was shaking my head, trying to decipher the memories that were suddenly spreading out before me. Memories that didn't seem to be my own, because I wasn't in them.
Placing her hand on my cheek, Mrs Linden lifted my head and said "Yes, Anna. What you're remembering? Yes."
I stood suddenly, and she knelt back--looking up at me.
"I'm dead." I whispered.
"Yes." was her soft, sympathetic reply.