The beads had broken and scattered over the backstage floor. They had been her mother’s—four strands, with a tiny crystal between each rose-colored iridescent bead, and a gold filigree clasp. She remembered gazing at them, touching them, rolling them in her small fingers, as she sat on her mother’s lap. That was so many years ago.
When she was 21, her mother had warned, “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, she 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 an island beach, she lay on her tie-dyed scarf, the sun beating down, with a cool breeze off the surf as the tide came in. She called to her husband as he walked along the waves. “Don’t be long,” but he was. She waited alone until the sun was going down—the wind chilling her to the bone. The once clear blue sky seemed to resemble her transparent scarf, now wrapped around her shoulders—fading blue, streaked with gray and yellow, which made her cry.
Since then, he had been “disappearing,” leaving her to wonder and worry: Where does he go? How long will it be until he returns? Does he ever realize he is missed, or even that he is expected back at all? Doesn’t he remember that he intended to finish fixing that door, that he was supposed to meet me for lunch, that he will miss dinner with the family—again? Whenever she tried to figure out the how and why of it, her thoughts raced to a vanishing point. She told herself it didn’t matter after all.
What worried her most was her husband's patients showing up when he might not be there to receive them. One day the few remaining appointments were cancelled, and he “retired” from a dwindling career. Later they learned there was good reason for her husband’s seemingly inconsiderate antics. Finding the reason did not change things much, even with medication and therapy. It could not be fixed; She would have to adjust to the new reality—and struggle to transform her denial into acceptance, her impatience into tolerance, and her resentment into understanding—the contraries!
These were the thoughts that arose in her as she looked for and collected the scattered beads. She had brought in some of her mother’s jewelry for the high school girls to wear in their roles as aristocratic, Victorian ladies: the beads, broaches and earrings. One of the careless girls tugged at those strands of memories, sending the beads into the shadows behind the stage curtains. Christina would take them to a shop for repair. The beads would be back on all four strands—like new. What was wrong with that girl anyway?
She liked finding use for what she had salvaged from her childhood home in a forlorn, upstate New York town. Besides the jewelry, she had a yellow Bakelite clock in the shape of a teapot hanging in her kitchen above the stove. There were six ruby red wine glasses, a set of dishes trimmed with dogwood flowers, hand-painted Italian bowls—arranged in the glass-front cabinet, as her mother kept them. Most cherished were old letters and cards she had found in her mother’s desk after the funeral—touchable memories to take in her hand, hold to her heart for comfort when she could not mange be accepting, tolerant or understanding.
Driving home this night, she kept thinking, Things are breaking, coming apart, irreparable. That very morning, as she dressed for the long day, she had brushed against and dislodged the small plate hanging on the wall—the one her mother had given her before entering the hospital for the last time. On the sky-blue and white memento, written in silvery script was: “Baby Christina Marie - Born November 10, 1974 - 7 pounds 3 ounces.” 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 the sense of freedom she had once felt, driving east on the Massachusetts turnpike to her uncharted life—to all that was still ahead of her, singing out, “Boston, you’re my home.”
Later, she found she had to get away from her new home when, once too often, 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—constant interruptions, with unrelated questions and non-sequiturs until she had to laugh or go insane. Who am I living with anyway, Salvatore Dali? She usually laughed, but when she could not, it was time to flee.
She would pack up the car and head west with her two small children to visit her father, but that also meant seeing the woman he married—the one who had seen fit ,without consideration, to take her “rightful” place as the new wife next to Christina’s father in the church pew—the one who ever-after resented the futile request of the motherless bride.
Once, during one of those spontaneous trips, that awful woman had called Christina selfish and disrespectful when she had said, “I’d like the kids to eat before Dad gets home. They are usually in bed by eight, and it’s been a long day…with the drive.”
“Well, your father won’t be here ’til eight-thrity, so they’ll have to wait. It won’t kill them to not get their way—for once!”
Christina had already laid a crisp white cloth, as her mother had always done. She began to set the table with the her mother’s dishes, she found pushed to the back of the kitchen cabinet. The plates were pure white with a border of green ivy. “I don’t think he would mind if the children ate early, Charlotte,” she tried to reason, and called the children to come to the table, but before her words out, there was the 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!”
Christina 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 broken plate and their mother lean over to pick up the pieces.
Charlotte grabbed plates already on the table and the shards from Christina’s trembling hands. She tossed them into the trash can. “There! I’ve been meaning to throw those old things away.” She removed a set of drab brown dishes from the cabinet and held them out to Christina. She pointed to mismatched glasses on the shelf: a Coke glass, one with Peter Pan and the Darling children flying away, and three others painted with watermelon slices. “Now, finish the job, and we’ll wait for your father to come home!”
Christina mechanically went around the table with the dishes and glasses., taking solace in thoughts of her mother’s thin-stemmed, ruby-red glasses in her own cabinet at home. Can people be replaced like broken china? In the quiet of night, she returned to the kitchen, took the plates out of the trash and put them in her suitcase, intending to mend the broken ones 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 had referred to as the “unholy union.”
Thoughts of the incident lingered as she parked the car. She shuddered at the memory of it, but hurtful as it was, she also remembered that, when her father arrived home that evening, he had smiled, hugged her and said he was glad she had “come home.” It never felt like home again without her mother. Home…is it a place or a feeling?
She was glad the day was at an end, and that there was a parking place to be had. Gathering up the bags in the back seat. she heard the rustle of leaves from the chestnut tree at the curb’s edge—a welcome in the balmy night air. She stopped and looked up the front steps with a sigh, worn out and on edge. At least a small weight had lifted with her director duties over for the year. She climbed the steps to the front door, and up the staircase to the second floor landing, where she faced the two rooms: one was open to the shadowy office where streetlights cast dark reflections. Branches and leaves danced on the ceiling and walls, like a crazy light show in the room in the abandoned room.
She pushed open the other door to the living room 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 wooden box with jewelry and a pink satin bag containing the broken beads.
She had intended to go straight to bed, but the sofa looked inviting. Besides, she was too tired to walk the extra few feet to the bedroom. She flopped down, grabbed the remote and found a favorite old movie. Staring at the TV screen, her mind drifted to a meeting with a friend a week ago—the worst day of her life. As they walked along the beach, the tide rolling in over the deserted, narrow shore,
Christina told her friend the news she had heard that day at the dreaded doctor’s appointment. There was a long silence. Then 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?
For many years, the women had confided in each other, discussed everything from babies to books. They had pondered whether life had any meaning, and, if so, what it could be. They would look at each other and say, “It is what it is; it will be what it will be.” But now it was different; she knew what was to be.
Together they had read about karma, considered it a more rational alternative to heaven/hell, or nothingness. They neither entirely believed, nor disbelieved that souls chose the circumstances of their existence before birth—ones that would provide the context to live out their karma. They agreed everyone’s life seemed to have theme and pattern, with recurring questions, and challenges to guide them, maybe even a destiny, but also there were choices to be made in life, informed by increasing consciousness and self-knowledge.
Still, Christina thought for her friend to have suggested that anything could be good about the diagnosis was wrong. Is this my destiny? Did I choose it? Can I change it, fix it, get well? Is the highest perspective heaven? And why do I have to sink so low to get there? As thoughts crowded in, she looked around at the cluttered room. She didn’t know what to believe.
Her husband shuffled in and stood in front of her. She was surprise to see he was still awake. Usually, he would be on the sofa asleep or already in bed. After twenty years of marriage, there was no still 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 those years 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 it part of my karma, or 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. We packed the house, and they 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’s at two o’clock. I’ll be home around one.”
“I’ll go with you,” he said, padding back into the kitchen then came back with a glass of cranberry juice and a cold piece of pizza.
“I…I don’t think I can eat….”
“I’m going back to bed,” he interrupted, and walked away.
“Okay…I’ll be there in a few minutes,” she called back, wondering whether he would be around the next day, go “AWOL,” as the family came to refer to his absences.
She leaned back against the soft cushions and closed her eyes, listening to familiar banter between Tracey and Hepburn. 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 felt she didn’t have the strength to undress, but picked up the nightgown she had thrown at the foot of the bed that morning. She saw the shattered pieces of the plate on the floor, and turned away to eased into bed edging back toward her husband until her legs touched his, as was her habit.
Tomorrow is another day, but not an ordinary one. Images of her children’s faces appeared. It had been the hardest thing telling her family—their sadness and apprehension of grief. There was a long silence. Her daughter was in tears, and her son said, “I want you to get well.” Her husband put his head down.
The oncologist had told her she would not get well, and would be “in treatment” for the remainder of time she had left. Since then the talk was only of practical matters: treatments, appointments, and the details of “getting things in order.” She shielded her son and daughter 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 think about whatever she had to endure ahead. She wasn’t sure how miracles fit into her life’s theme, her free will or her destiny, but she believed in prayer…and in miracles.
It was another uncharted place—being caught between hope and despair.
“Out of everyone I’ve ever known,” her friend had said, “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
Christina needed a reminder, especially now. She also was left to hold on to the other thing her friend said, “It’s not over ’til it’s over.”
She closed her eyes, listening to her husband’s quiet breathing, as these thoughts, feelings and images swirled together, faded into the dark future and then into sleep.
In the hospital waiting area the next day, she gazed out the window at the vast, clear blue and cloudless sky.
“Christina,” a nurse called and came over to stand in front of her—blocking out the blue. “We’re ready for you; come on back.”
She got up, 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 of a bright red liquid. Christina was grateful to be opposite a window with a view of blue sky.
In the closed palm of her hand, she held one of the rose-colored beads. She loved the feel of its smoothness. It had nothing to do with the rest of the beads now. It was beautiful and perfect all on its own.
She closed her eyes and imagined being bathed in the 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