The beads had broken and scattered. Ann Marie stooped to gather them as they rolled over the backstage floor. What was wrong with that girl, pulling them off like that? They had been her mother’s—four strands, with a tiny crystal between each rose-colored iridescent bead, with a silver filigree clasp. She remembered gazing at them, touching them, rolling them over in her small fingers, as she sat on her mother’s lap. That was so many years ago.
When she was 21, her mother said, “Don’t marry that man,” but she did. On her wedding day, only a few months after her mother had died from an aggressive cancer, Ann Marie had begged her father, “Don’t let that woman sit next to you where Mom was supposed to be,” but he did.
On her honeymoon, under a clear blue sky on Wingaersheek Beach, she lay on her tie-dyed shawl. She called to her husband as he walked along the waves. “Don’t be long,” but he was. She waited until the sun was going down—alone, with wind off the ocean chilling her to the bone. The once-clear blue sky looked more like her transparent shawl, now wrapped around her shoulders—fading blue, streaked with gray and yellow, which made her cry.
Since then, he had been “disappearing,” which left her in a constant state of confusion—wondering: Where did he go? How long will it be until he returns? Does he even realize he is missed, or that he is expected back at all? Doesn’t he remember that he intended to finish the job he started at home, that he was supposed to meet me for lunch, that he is going to miss dinner with the family—again? Whenever she tried to figure out the how and why of it all, her thoughts raced to a vanishing point, and she told herself it really didn’t matter after all. She wondered—they found there was very good reason for her husband’s scattered, seemingly inconsiderate antics. Finding the reason did not change things much, even with medication and therapy, which he did not wish to continue.
What worried her most was the his dental patients showing up for their appointments when, more often than not, he wasn’t there. One day the few remaining appointments were cancelled, and he “retired” from a dwindling career. That was more than 20 years ago now. Then there came Ann Marie’s struggle to reconcile her resentment with acceptance, to be more tolerant, to be more understanding—the contraries!
Sometimes life’s problems are like that—irresolvable in the end.
These are the thoughts that randomly arose for her as she carefully searched for and collected the scattered beads. When she no longer could find another bead, she put the ones she had found back into a silk drawstring bag. She got up and looked around. The students were to hang their costumes, put accessories on the table beneath the clothing rack and move the props from the stage. As usual, they left everything in disarray, and slipped out the door, leaving the clean up to her and a few loyal students.
Ann Marie had always brought some of her mother’s jewelry and other items for the plays she directed each year. She liked finding use for the rescued items. This year the carefree girls wore her mother’s beads, pins and earrings for their roles as high society Victorian ladies. Then one of them carelessly tugged at those strands of memories, sending them into the shadows behind the stage curtains. The treasures, she had always kept in silk drawstring bags, and a small carved wooden chest in her dresser drawer. She had salvaged them from her childhood home in a forlorn, upstate New York town, along with a yellow Bakelite clock in the shape of a teapot, ruby red wine glasses, a few sets of dishes, hand-painted Italian bowls, and some old letters she found in her mother’s desk after the funeral. These were touchable memories to take comfort in when her husband wandered off.
Driving home this night, she kept thinking, Things are breaking, coming apart, irreparable. That very morning, as she dressed for school, she had brushed against the small plate hanging on the wall—the one her mother had given her before entering the hospital that last time. On the sky-blue and white memento, written in silvery script was: “Baby Ann Marie, born November 10, 1964, 7 lbs. 4 ozs.” She left it shattered on the floor.
Almost home now, she loosened her fingers on the wheel as she drove down the tree-lined street. She recalled that sense of freedom she once had felt, driving along the Massachusetts Turnpike, to her uncharted life—to all that still lay ahead singing to herself, “Boston, you’re my home.” Later, she found herself having to get away from her new home when, one too many times, her husband didn’t show up for dinner, or she had to make excuses to angry patients, or he had forgotten to call for heating oil, and she came home to a frigid house. Then there were those maddening, one-sided conversations—he constantly interrupting her with unrelated questions and non-sequitur comments, until she had to laugh or go insane. Who am I living with anyway, Salvatore Dali? She usually laughed, but when she couldn’t, it was time to flee.
She would pack up the car and head west with her two small children to visit her father and her stepmother—the woman who had seen fit without consideration to take her “rightful” place as new wife next to Anne Marie’s father in the church pew—the one who ever-after resented the futile request of a motherless bride.
Once, during one of those spontaneous trips, that awful woman had called her selfish and disrespectful when Ann Marie said, “I’d like the children to eat before Dad gets home from work. They usually are in bed before 7:00, and it’s been a long day with the drive and all.”
“Well, your father won’t be here ’til 8:30, so they will just have to wait. It won’t kill them to not get their way for once.”
Ann Marie had already laid a crisp white cloth, as her mother always had and begun to set the table with the china she found pushed to the back of the cabinet. It was the set her mother had used for family meals—pure white plates with a border of green ivy. “I don’t think he would mind if the children ate early, Charlotte,” she tried to reason. She called the children to come to the table, but before she had the words out, there was a sharp sting of Charlotte’s hand across her cheek.
“You never could show respect. Well, you don’t get your selfish way around here anymore.”
Ann Marie dropped the plate she was holding, put her hand up to her face and blinked back the hot tears welling up, so the children wouldn’t see, but they heard Charlotte’s harsh words. They saw the plate broken and their mother reaching down to pick up the pieces.
Charlotte pulled the shards out of Ann Marie’s hands and put them into the trash can. She went to the cabinet, took out the rest of the china set and threw it away too. “I’ve been meaning to throw those old things out for the longest time.” Then she returned to the cabinet and handed Ann Marie a set of drab brown plates and pointed to mismatched glasses on the shelf: one a Coke glass, one with Peter Pan and the Darling children flying away and three with painted watermelon slices. “Now, finish the job, and we’ll wait for your father to come home!”
Ann Marie mechanically made her way around the table with dishes and glasses. She took comfort thinking of her mother’s thin-stemmed, ruby-red glasses in her own kitchen at home. Can people just be replaced like broken china?
After everyone was asleep that night, Ann Marie took the plates out of the trash and put them in her suitcase, intending to fix the broken one when she got home. She loved her father deeply, despite his betrayal and “o’er hasty marriage” where,” the funeral baked meats did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables,” lines she had quoted from Hamlet to her husband on the day of what she called her father’s “unholy union” with that woman.
Lingering with that thought after she had parked car, she shuddered at that incident. Hurtful as it was, she also remembered that when her father had come home that evening, he hugged her and said he was glad she had “come home.” It never felt like home again without her mother. Home, home, is it a place or a feeling?
She was glad the long day was over, as she gathered up the bags in the back seat and looked up the front steps with a sigh The chestnut tree at the curb’s edge rustled its leaves—a welcome in the balmy night air. She was worn out and on edge, she felt one weight had lifted with her director duties over for the year. With more effort than she could muster, she made the stairs to the front door, then up the staircase to the second floor landing. She stood facing t two doors, one to the living room, the other to the abandoned dental office. The-antiquated equipment loomed inside, the streetlights casting dark reflections of branches and leaves dancied on the ceiling and walls, like a crazy light show in the useless room.
She pushed open the other door with her foot and dropped the plastic bags containing a plaid smoking jacket, a blue chiffon dress, brown suede heels, a silver cigarette case, a blonde wig, a straw handbag, a bunch of yellow paper roses, a box of jewelry and a pink satin bag containing the broken beads.
She had intended to go straight to bed, but the sofa looked inviting, and besides, she was too tired to walk the extra few feet. She flopped down, grabbed the remote and found an old movie. Staring at the TV screen, her mind drifted to what her friend had said when they met the week before for a walk on the beach at Nahant, the tide rolling in over the narrow shore.
On the worst day of Ann Marie’s life, her friend had said, “If we could see things from the highest perspective, it would all be good.” It was thoughtless and rude of her to say that. Hadn’t she just heard the bad news Ann Marie brought from her doctor’s office? For many years, the women had confided in each other, pondering whether life had any meaning, and, if so, what could it be? Then they would look at each other and say, “It is what it is; it will be what it will be.” But now it all seemed different as she knew what would be.
They had read about karma and considered it a more sensible alternative to heaven/hell, or nothingness. They agreed that everyone seems to have an identifiable life theme with recurring questions, challenges, and an individual destiny, but also there are choices to be made, hopefully informed by increasing self-knowledge. They neither entirely believed, nor disbelieved that our life experiences are chosen by us before birth in order to live that karma.
Still, she felt that for her friend to have suggested that anything was good about Ann Marie’s diagnosis was just wrong. Is this my destiny? Did I choose it? Can I change it, fix it, get well? She didn’t know what to believe. Is the highest perspective heaven? And why do I have to sink so low to get there? As thoughts crowded in, she looked around her at the cluttered room.
Her husband shuffled in and stood in front of her. He was hardly ever there to greet her when she came home late. Sometimes he was on the sofa asleep. After 25 years of marriage, she knew there was no predicting what she could count on him for, yet he loved her and she loved him—that was never in question. He was not unfaithful. He was not unkind, and he always wandered back home to her. It had just taken a lifetime of adjusting and lowering expectations to realize that she could depend on him only for the things he was able to do, and not always for those she wished for or needed. Is that part of my karma, or of his? Her mind fogged over with the mystery of it all. She was happy to see him and grateful for those things he could manage.
“How’d it go?”
“Oh, the kids did a great job. Everyone loved it, but I’m glad it’s over.” Though she was still upset about the broken beads, she didn’t have the energy to tell him about it.
“Want something to drink? There’s some leftover pizza.”
“No, I’m fine. Hey, are you coming with me tomorrow?”
“ Ehh…what time?”
“My appointment is at 2:00. I’ll be home around 1:00.”
“I’ll go with you,” he said, padding back into the kitchen. He came back with a glass of cranberry juice. “I’m going back to bed.”
“Okay, I’ll be there in a few minutes,” wondering if he would really be around to go with her tomorrow, or if he would be AWOL, as the family referred to his absences.
She leaned back against the soft cushions to focus on the movie, but then closed her eyes, listening to Spencer Tracey and Katherine Hepburn banter. When she opened them again she saw “THE END” in big white letters on a grainy black background. She roused herself, and though exhausted, she dreaded another sleepless night. She sat up staring at the bags on the floor, thinking again about high perspectives, low places, broken beads and dishes, karma and cancer treatments.
She undressed slowly, put on her favorite nightgown, and eased into bed as quietly as she could. She stretched out, then curled up, edging her back over toward her husband, as was her habit. Tomorrow is another day, but not an ordinary one, she thought, closing her eyes. Images of her children’s faces appeared.
The hardest thing was telling her family about her diagnosis and prognosis—seeing their sadness and the apprehension of grief after she was gone. There was a long silence. Then her daughter was in tears, and her son said, “I want you to get well.” Her husband just put his head down.
The oncologist had told her she would not get well—that, at the very least, she would be in treatment for whatever time she had left. Since then the family talked only of practical matters: treatment options, appointments, the details of “getting things in order.” She shielded her children from most of it, taking on the burden of their pain as well as her own.
Still, she had hope; she had the will to live, if not the strength to face whatever treatment she had to endure in order to even get the chance to live—however long or short a time. She wasn’t sure how miracles fit into her life’s theme, her free will or her destiny, but she believed in prayer and miracles.
It was all new to her—being caught between hope and despair.
“Out of everyone I’ve ever known,” her friend had said to her, “you are the bravest, strongest, most positive person.” Funny though, she didn’t feel strong, positive or even like a person—but rather like a shadow of the self she tried to build and sustain in this lifetime. She felt parts of herself were missing, wavering, like the quivering branches on the ceiling of the abandoned room at the top of the stairs--a shadow of something real, but not real.
“You love life and live life,” her friend had said, as if she needed a reminder, especially now, and it’s not over until it’s over.” She closed her eyes, listening to her husband’s quiet breathing. Every thought, feeling and image of the day swirled together, then faded into the dark future, into sleep.
At the hospital the next day, as she sat waiting, she stared out the window at the vast, clear blue and cloudless sky.
“Ann Marie,” a nurse called and came over to stand in front of her— blocking out the blue. “We’re ready for you, come on back.”
Ann Marie stood up on trembling legs, looked at her husband—lost child—not even pretending to be strong for her. He smiled and lifted his hand. She carried his smile with her down the long corridor and into the sterile room.
The nurse got her settled on a bed, turned up to a sitting position and prepared an IV drip with a bright red liquid in it. Ann Marie was grateful to be opposite a window with a view of the bright blue sky. In the closed palm of her hand, she lovingly held one of the rose-colored beads. It had nothing to do with the rest of the beads now. It was beautiful and perfect all on its own. She loved its smoothness.
She closed her eyes and imagined being bathed in the soft glow of its color and felt herself to be looking down from a very high place—a place where she could see everything exactly as it was.