This story is by Sinéad Deighton-O’Flynn and was part of our 2017 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
When you have a death sentence, the people around you become dishonest. Their smiles become hollow and toothy. The shiftiness of the eyes gives them away. Their voices become shrill and grating. They mean to sound gentle. They talk to you the way they’d talk to a new born, or a sick dog. When you are dying, you terrify people. You make them feel useless. You make them feel angry and sad.
As a child, death was something that only happened to possums and lambs. I lived in an eternal summer of skinned knees, chewing gum and invincibility. Invincibility makes you careless, and as summer faded and my teen years loomed like storm clouds in my horizon, I saw the face of death.
I grew up along the Punakitere River in a tiny community called Taheke, I live there still. Running around barefoot, my friends and I rarely went to school. When it was hot we’d dive bomb from the cliff’s edge into the clear blue Punakitere, cursing and laughing on our way down. These days the river is brown and oily.
The day Samara died showed the first rays of sunshine we had seen in a week. The river was in high spirits, bursting with life. Me, Samara and a couple of the boys marched across swampy fields and huddled on the slippery rocks staring with awe into the jaws of the waterfall. Our mothers had told us not to go there that day, but we knew better than them.
Michael was the show off amongst us, tall and gangly with irresistable charm. He grew up to be a handsome man, but lost it all to the bottle. He still lives across the bridge, red faced and pock marked. He is a haunted man. He jumped into the water below. We hollered and felt sick as we saw him disappear into the white water. We held our breath until he emerged laughing, and then we gave him hell. He dared us to follow him as he struggled to keep his head above water. Myself and the others were too scared to follow, but Samara didn’t like to be outdone. She was a waif of a girl, in physicality only. She was thinner and paler than the rest of us, with a pointy, mischievous face. We had been friends since we were babies. While I was always getting in trouble for “should-of-having-known-better”, Samara was babied. Adults felt mean telling off a little thing like her. Samara wanted to be trouble and always felt she had something to prove.
She leapt from the rocks in her baggy shorts and T-shirt, hand-me-downs from her older brothers, yelling “Ow, ow, OOOOOOW!” I howled along with her, laughing as I waited to see her impish grin break through the water’s surface. But it didn’t.
I met mortality when I found her that day, her limp body sleeping in the mud. She looked so tiny and fragile. She would remain a child forever. The rest of us were forced to grow up too soon.
Until I had children I didn’t fear death. I challenged it. I spat in its face and flicked my cigarette butts at its feet. Once my first baby was born I found a new reason to be alive, to protect this little person who loved me and needed me so much. Each child I birthed filled me with a new sense of wonder, a new joy for life. I have five children now, four girls and a boy, and sixteen bustling grandchildren.
Friends have come and gone, a number of the old gang have passed on. Each loss tears new wounds in my heart, but since those children entered the world, I have woken up every day with a smile.
Now that it is my turn, I see that dying is easy. It hurts so much more to watch someone slip away. Time has treated me well and without having left this island, I feel I’ve experienced the world. Two years ago I was given my sentence. Six months the doctor said, I was not a young woman anymore. My years of tobacco had caught up with me, my lungs were giving up. What a strange thing to do, to determine someones death day, how bold and pitiful a task.
I move much slower these days. I have grown tired in these last two years: of being treated like an invalid, of seeing tears in the eyes of my adult children, of feeling like a burden. My children have been good to me. My eldest moved back to the family home and I can see that she is unhappy. She smiles weakly and swears that this is where she wants to be, in my creaking little house, but I know better. She had a career in the city, she has outgrown our sleepy town. The others visit regularly. They all have words of advice, different dietary tricks for a long and healthy life. They won’t accept that no amount of kale or quinoa can bring me back. They cry in the kitchen when they think I’m asleep and argue in hushed voices. My endless dying is killing the light in their eyes.
I was at the hot springs awhile back, it helps to rest my aching bones. I carry an oxygen tank with me these days. It makes people stare. Under the stars in the steaming water, a preacher asked about my ailments. I told him I had outlived my sentence, but death was due any day now. The preacher, a man my own age or more, scuttled towards me in the water, his bony hand stretched out towards me. He asked if he could put his hand on my shoulder and pray for me. I told him no. I have made my peace with the powers that be. I don’t need saving now.
I have been bed ridden since last week. Any day now they say. My children are defiant but relieved. I heard them last night, during their kitchen whispers, speaking of my arrangements. They’ve commissioned a neighbour, an old family friend, to build a kauri coffin for me to rest in. This morning they all gathered around my bed and took turns smiling and stroking my hand. It was a beautiful sight to see them all together, like a family portrait, but I wished someone had the strength to cry, to scream, to speak the truth. I longed for them to pull each others hair or argue about who got to snuggle on my feet as they did when they were young. But it was all just broken smiles. I couldn’t stand it anymore. I snapped for the first time, since my diagnosis. I told them I was sick of their weak show of normalcy.
“I want to see it.” I said. They acted confused. “The box. I want to see it. If I’m going to sleep in it forever, I want to make sure it looks comfy.” They squirmed a little, but then my boy laughed. He carried me from my sick bed into his rusty old ute and drove me to see the box. For the first time, he spoke to me using true words. “I’m scared” he said and gripped my hand tight. “Don’t be. I’m not.” I winked at him and he laughed a full bellied laugh.
My neighbour’s yard is a muddy vehicle graveyard. My son helps me to the front door. A peacock gives me a curious sideways stare before pecking the ground and swallowing the tar stained filter of a cigarette. Sam pulls open the greasy sliding door and puts his arms around me. “Hey there, Marmy.” His voice is gruff, his South African accent thick. “Come to see the box? She’s a beauty. Just like you, eh, Marmy?” He lets out a croaky laugh. His smile is real. I’ve always liked Sam, he is an honest man.
I enter the threshold. There it is on the dining table. The box. It is the rich amber of polished native wood. I ask to look inside. My son takes me closer. It looks so small in there. Too small to rest in for eternity. I’ll suffocate in there. I don’t want to go inside that box. I don’t want to lie down and have them close the lid on me. I can’t breathe. My chest hurts. No one should spend eternity inside a box. I never got to see the world. The aching is worsening. The world is getting foggy. I never fell in love. I feel the ground against my bones. I think someone is saying my name. The box is above me, glaring down. I don’t think I’m ready to die. The pain starts to ease. I’m not ready to die. My eyes flicker closed. I hear a voice somewhere distant. “She’s gone, let her rest.”
Please, someone, I don’t want to die.
Sinead! What a great read. You got a whole life of emotion into 1500 words. I’m particularly torn by this – growing up in small town NZ we lost a local kid to a collapsed cubby dug into the hillside. One other kid was only just pulled out by his collar. Lucky I wasn’t there but people I knew very well were, and I’ll never forget the packed funeral and seeing our little town on the TV news. That’s how we played back then!
Great imagery and strong characters, and you did a great job of looking at how we confront death, or don’t.
Good luck! Hopefully see more of your work in future competitions!