A Novel by Mira Steffan
The following weeks blurred in the routine of everyday life. The conversation with Dorothea faded. Office, household, child demanded her full attention. Charlotte and Justus met in the kitchen for breakfast in the morning and in bed in the evening. Then both immediately fell into sleep mode from exhaustion. Then Charlotte’s life unhinged. And transformation was about to begin.
Her father’s voice on the phone sounded toneless and crushed, “Do you have time to come over this afternoon? Let’s say 3:00?”
“Yeah, sure. What’s up?”
“We want to talk to you in private. Come alone, please.”
And before she could ask further, he had hung up.
A diffuse feeling of fear and cold spread inside her.
“I have pancreatic cancer.” With her usual directness, her mother brought the nightmare to a climax. Her hands tugged at the cloth handkerchief in her lap. Pale, she sat next to Charlotte’s father on the sofa. He had his arm around her shoulders. Her strong mother looked small and fearful. Involuntarily, Charlotte clenched her hands until her knuckles hurt. Pauline looked from one to the other with eyes widened in terror.
“How bad is it?”, Charlotte heard herself ask.
“If the surrounding tissue is cancer-free, surgery can be done in three days. After that, the doctors can say more,” her father’s voice said.
“Oh, Mom,” Pauline rushed to her mother and hugged her fiercely. Bravely, she patted her on the back.
Charlotte remained seated on the sofa as if pinned down. Her wonderful, strong, cheerful and loving mother had cancer.
“Maybe the doctors got it wrong. Maybe they mixed up the medical records. None of this is true,” Charlotte said, her very voice booming in her ears.
The disconcerted look on her father’s face made her pause. Through the haze of bewilderment, anger, fear, confusion and helplessness, Charlotte realized that she was about to deny and argue away her mother’s illness.
Over the next few weeks, surgery and chemotherapy were to follow. Hope and despair alternated. Three months later, another surgery. Then another. Six months at the most, the doctors said. Charlotte felt nothing. Her sensations were frozen. In a brick of ice that sat in her stomach. But she functioned. Like a clockwork. Reliably and mechanically, she did her work, took care of Emma, and spent more time at her parents’ house than she ever had since she was a child.
The phone rang, “Come on, she’s not feeling well.” It was all.
It was 7 p.m. Justus had just come home, Charlotte an hour before him. Emma was playing in her room.
“We have to go to the hospital. Mom’s not feeling well.”
“I’ll drive,” Justus said, reaching for the car key he had placed in the bowl on the hallway dresser when he came in.
Charlotte stood in front of the phone, with her arms hanging down. She heard his voice, which sounded so distant and muffled, as if it were underwater.
“What are we going to do with Emma,” Charlotte looked at him in confusion.
“We’re taking her to Dorothea, as we discussed,” Justus’ voice sounded calm and collected.
In a daze, Charlotte remained in the car while Justus escorted Emma to Dorothea’s apartment. It took less than three minutes. Then he was back, reliably and prudently steering the car through the streets toward the hospital.
Charlotte was focusing on the passing scenery. Everything seemed larger than life and surreally stark: the flowering trees, the white-painted houses, and a woman’s sweeping red skirt.
At the hospital entrance, Charlotte saw pink tulips in a flower store. She bought them because her mother loves them so much.
In the hallway, they met a male nurse.
“She’s been transferred to room 310,” he said.
A young doctor came to them, “Her condition is critical.”
She entered the room. Her mother turned her head in her direction. Realization sparkled briefly in her wonderful, big, blue eyes. Next to her bed, her father sat in an armchair. He had dozed off. The gray stubble of his beard gave his face a sad pallor. Charlotte put the flowers carelessly on the nightstand and sat down in an armchair on the other side of the bed. She took her hand, “I’m here. We’re with you.”
Her mother weakly pressed her hand. Charlotte smiled lovingly at her.
There was a rustling on the other side of the bed. Her father had awakened and was whispering to Justus. Pauline came in and sat down next to her father. Charlotte focused on her mother again, caressing her hair gently. Outside, it grew dark and brightened again. Charlotte was startled. She had drifted off in her armchair. Numbly, her eyes searched her mother’s face. Her cheeks looked hollowed. Had it been like that before? Charlotte perceived a movement.
“Justus left two hours ago to pick up Emma at Dorothea’s and take her to school. He didn’t want to wake you earlier,” her father said quietly.
She nodded, “I’m going to the bathroom for a minute. I’ll be right back.”
In the restroom, Charlotte ran cold water over her wrists and rinsed her mouth. She looked into the mirror with blind eyes. This couldn’t be real. This was not real. She looked in the mirror again. That woman, who was that? This room. How did she get here? With great effort, she turned away from the mirror and the sink and went back into the hallway. It was noisy there. The door to her mother’s room was open. Charlotte perceived a nurse. Mechanically, Charlotte resumed her place at her mother’s bedside.
“It’s coming to a close. Your mother is passing away,” the nurse said.
Shut up, shut up, she hears you, Charlotte thought, as the stream of tears that flowed inexorably from her eyes rendered her mute. She turned back to her mother. Her breathing had changed. Charlotte heard a rattle. The rattling grew louder. With difficulty, her mother took a breath. Then silence.
An eternity later: stunned and wordless, Charlotte and Pauline cleared their mother’s clothes from the locker and the nightstand into her small suitcase. Together with their father, whom Charlotte and Pauline took into their midst, they left the hospital.
Shortly after, they entered their childhood home, which seemed cold and empty without their mother. They made a phone call to a funeral home. Things had to be settled. And that was good. It distracted them from the overwhelming pain that was hammering them with force. The three of them drove to the mansion with big white letters above the door. “Funerals,” it said. Formalities were taken. Then they went down one floor. The coffins were displayed in a large hall, neatly labeled with prices. Again, that surreal feeling came over Charlotte. Knowing what was going to happen and then actually experiencing it was not the same.
The air was sultry and humid. Silently, Charlotte, Pauline and her father walked to the parking lot. In front of his car, he handed his car keys to Charlotte. They got in. Charlotte sat down in the driver’s seat, paused, and then powerlessly lowered the key she had used to start her father’s car.
“Let’s go out to dinner,” Pauline said.
The food tasted like cardboard.
When they left the restaurant, it was raining. On the way home, the rain intensified. Lightning twitched in the sky.
Outside the entrance to the house, they remained sitting in the car.
Absent-mindedly, her father looked at the rain and said, “She liked lightning and thunder. She used to say, “I can sleep best during thunder and lightning.”