SHATTERED LIVES

Elizabeth Bourget

Good Friday, 1968. It is a still, sunny afternoon in a suburban neighborhood in the coastal town of Venice, California where I am staying with close family friends. Normally I spend this holy day at church avoiding the nauseous smell of incense rising from a gold ball swinging across the priestís robes. My mother has cancer, so my father felt it would be best if my five siblings and I split up and spend some time with family and close friends.

A week has passed since I last saw my mother. Every night I drop into a restless sleep, remembering her thick, auburn hair tied up in a French knot. Her sunken face enveloping woeful eyes interrupts my dream. I shiver in this borrowed bunk bed -- frightened, unsure.

Maria and I play with Barbie paper dolls on her overgrown front lawn.

"Are you going out with Ken tonight?" Mariaís Barbie asks.

"No, Iíd rather go out with G I Joe. Ken is a sissy," my Barbie replies.

Mrs. Sanchez comes over and touches me lightly on the arm. I slowly glance up and peer into her pained face. "Itís time to go home now, honey. Letís gather up your things." Forcing a weak smile, I fold my small arms across my body, squelching the tension building inside.

During the drive home I think about Easter Sunday, eager to search for my Easter basket in two days. At 9 1/2 years old, I stubbornly believe in the Easter Bunny. Will my dad remember to pluck some fake fur from one of our stuffed animals and attach it to a partially eaten carrot Easter morning?

Familiar cars line the street in front of my house. The liquid amber trees my mother planted two years ago are covered with leaf buds. Faces fill the large picture window in the living room. From the front porch I hear muffled cries filtering through the screen door. I stammer up the steps.

Many relatives and friends fill the small room. I quickly check the three copper plates hanging on the living room wall and the dusty, forgotten bowling trophies my parents proudly display on the window sills. The red antique ornamental stove my mother cherishes stands near the front door. The only new thing I notice is a hideous black wreath stuck on the front door, its dead leaves heavily spray painted.

I skip around the worn coffee table, ignoring the swollen, red faces -- then rush down the hall to say hello to my mother. "Mommy, mommy!" I look over at her queen sized bed, see small indentations still clinging to the mattress, and run my hands across the sheets, stroking ever so gently as the tears flow. A crucifix hangs on the wall, tilted. The Christ figurine looks down on the empty bed and I feel betrayed.

I make my way back to the living room, seeking comfort, answers. My brothers and sisters arrive and my father gathers us in a back bedroom.

"You know your mother was very sick, but she wonít have to suffer any more. The angels have taken her to heaven. Sheís with Jesus now and will watch over you. I need you to be strong, and together weíll make it. God will give us strength." My father struggles with his words. We weep uncontrollably, rattling against one another, not knowing how to seek solace for our pain.

Tentatively, my siblings and I rejoin the others clustered in the living room. The dim lit room casts shadows across the dusty walls. We wade through the sympathetic arms grasping wet handkerchiefs. The wailing seems endless, distant, uncomforting.

Several hours later the room empties as I lie on my bed on my tear filled pillow, listening to the anguished, inconsolable cries of my brothers and sisters. Only my two and four years old brothers sleep, too young to grasp the meaning of death, nor old enough to struggle to cling to her memory. I am not so vacant. My nightmares will continue. Though I know my motherís cries in the night are over, I can still feel and hear them, as I wrap my young arms around my body, curl up and sob. I can still hear her cry out, "God, please stop the pain." Then the nurse would give her more pain killer.

Today I will see her body for the last time at an elegant mortuary with soft lighting, plush furniture, and gentle music playing in the background. Slowly we walk into her room. From the back I can see an outline of her upper body surrounded by white satin cushioned lining. The upper door of her coffin pulled up, waiting to be sealed eternally over her restful face.

Cautiously I take my turn in line with my head bowed, hands in prayer -- looking towards her. It is my turn to pass. I study her body, taking in every piece of lace from her gown, admiring her gentle hands holding a rosary twisted in prayer. Her face is so lovely, not thin like the months before. She looks peaceful, out of pain, wearing a red painted smile. I reach over and kiss her cheek -- stroke her cool, lifeless face. I feel her smile on me, her strength come into my body. I cry for myself and for her. I tell her, "I love you, Mommy. Iíll see you in heaven someday."