This story is by Simran Singh and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
How does one sum up their entire life into one final goodbye?
I wonder that as I watch my daughter collapse to her knees in front of my gravestone.
I once imagined death would be a scene out of a horror movie where I’d sink into the memories that have led me to this point. I imagined resisting Death’s clutches with every fiber of my being. I was always left stumped by the unfairness of it all. An inhuman being that hadn’t lived my life was suddenly given the right to rip me away from everything I knew. For some reason, I always imagined death to be a little poetic. I thought it would have at least rain when I died, there wasn’t even a hint of gray in the sky.
I stand behind her quaking figure, recalling my last day alive in a helpless attempt to figure out how it came to this.
The morning of my death I woke to hiss at the intense sunlight that spilled through the hospital’s curtains. I always despised everything about hospitals, having to be in and out of hospital all my life. My respiratory system has always been frail. The scent of disinfectant made my stomach churn. The walls were so thin that the bustle of the city and the hospital staff rushing in the hallways might as well have taken place in my room. I laid in my hospital bed trying to figure out what my final words should be. I avoided the gaze of the one person who my death would have mattered to.
“You have to talk to me soon” a soft voice murmured from my bedside.
“And soon you will have to leave” I deadpanned.
“Mom, please talk to me” I winced at the way her voice almost broke. I adamantly ignored her.
At the time I couldn’t handle the thought that she would grieve my presence. I had ignored her since the day I was admitted knowing that Death would soon greet me. I convinced myself that if I could make her resent me she would move on with her life faster. We were never close as I was normally strict with her. Nonetheless, she made it her job to be an eternal tick. It’s just like her to put her life on halt for someone else. The girl was far too trusting, an exploitable trait.
I felt a rough tug on my arm. I finally met her eyes, stiffening at the sight.
“No matter what I’m sticking with you”
She looked far too much like me. She bore the same ebony hair that flooded her shoulders. Her dark circles were like bruises on her youthful bronze skin. Pain glowed in her bloodshot eyes. They had been like that ever since the doctors expressed that I only had a few weeks left. I resisted the urge to cave in and embrace her tightly. Instead, I forced my face to remain a blank slate.
“You’ve been nothing but a pest. Get lost”
She had appeared stung by the comment but swiftly recovered with a heated glare.
“I’m not leaving you” she bit back, appearing as though she wanted to press further when a doctor walked into the room.
He glanced at the two of us, wary with the uncomfortable atmosphere.
“Helen, may I speak with you?” he requested.
She nodded before glancing back at me.
“We still need to talk.”
I met her words with bitter silence. She left with an exasperated sigh.
I clenched my fists into my blankets with the urge to throw something. I wanted her to let me go. I didn’t want her to remember me as a decrepit, bedridden memory. In desperate need of distraction, I switched on the television. I grimaced when it showed the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton.
“You once wished to live like that. To marry some prince and have your future set for you. It’s almost as what mortals like to call a fairy tale ending.”
I jolted, startled by the ominous voice. My eyes widened when I saw a familiar, young girl sitting at my bedside dressed in a Cinderella costume.
“It’s almost cruel to romanticize such unrealistic expectations”
I stiffened, unable to look away from those piercing, ethereal eyes that were filled to the brim with ink. I thought Death would have come with a scythe in a hand dressed in black. She came looking exactly like my younger self.
“Please, I will have the money soon” I heard my daughter tell the doctor from the other side of the door.
“This is a business, Miss. She doesn’t have medical insurance and you don’t have the money to keep her here” the doctor responded nonchalantly.
My stomach wrenched in guilt. I turned up the volume to drown their voices. I contemplated ways I could get her to loathe me enough to stop paying my hospital bills. The worst thing about being a parent who couldn’t provide was finding yourself staying up at nights, beating yourself as to why things turned out this way. It was worse when I used to see rich families having to do nothing but be born into their parents’ wealth. I hadn’t been so lucky. Helen’s father and my parents wanted nothing to do with the child I decided to keep.
“It’s almost ironic how someone’s life can be altered by something as frail as a greenback” Death mused, “You would know that better than anyone, Mrs. Midas. No older than thirty-six and you have no more than five dollars in your bank account”
I recalled irritation filling me to the core at those words. Everything about Death from the clothing to her soft voice had been like staring into a reflection of my former innocence.
“Why are you here?”
“You’re scheduled to die from a heart attack in the next few days” she answered, leaning forward.
I blinked away my tears of frustration. I waited to fear for my immortal soul, for the urge that many get to beg God for a kind afterlife. That fear never came.
“And what makes you think you have the right to force me out of this world?” I sneered.
History nor Death cared about how I was left to birth and raise her alone. They never knew the blood, sweat and tears that went into the multiple jobs I took to support us. Death didn’t know the guilt of not being able to provide the life you wanted for your own child.
“I thought if you had time to say goodbye then you’d make taking your soul an easier job for me” Death explained, pulling at the unraveling hem of her dress.
“Then don’t take me at all!” I snapped.
A few days wasn’t enough to help her pay off the medical bills. I remembered thinking that she wouldn’t have been able to afford my funeral bills. I questioned whether she even have a house after my death.
That was when Death offered me a solemn smile as she handed me a piece of paper.
“Care to strike a deal?”
I blinked to find that Death had vanished. In her place, my daughter stood over me. Tears flooded her eyes. My hearing was muffled aside from the erratic sounds that came from my heart monitor. There was a blur of nurses and doctors behind her who tried to make her leave the room. She refused.
“Stay with me” her lips read.
Death’s question resounded in my head.
‘Would you sell the remainder of your life for your daughter’s financial security?’
I moved to comfort her but my body didn’t respond. Regret began to seep through. I chose her financial security over the last few days I could have had with her. I remember believing that if I said yes that she would live the life I fought hard to give her. I just wouldn’t be there to see it.
I internally cursed this world that made a piece of paper a means for living. If only I could turn back time to the days where she was a child, before she had to worry about money. The first time I held her, her tiny hands grasped my thumb, trying to anchor me to this world.
That grip wasn’t enough.
As my ghost stands beside her my mind is loud with all I wanted to tell her. Regret stings my chest. The last thing I told her was that she was a pest. She would never know how I savored the remainder of my time with her. The words that I wish to say will remain unvoiced.
I turned to Death behind me, taking the contract from her. The words read ‘In God we trust.’ Burned into the dollar bill at the bottom was, ‘And with Death, we bargain.’
In reality, there weren’t any words that could have expressed my goodbye.
There was just deafening silence.