CBC Creative Nonfiction Prize
"Some Distant World" by Brandee Eubank
In this shortlisted story for the 2014 CBC Creative Nonfiction Prize, a mother desperately dreams of alternate realities during her last visit with her daughter.
I remember walking through the doors of the funeral home that second time more keenly than the first, though certain things must have caught in my subconscious even then. Like the padding of the carpet. So thick, thicker than usual, so that not only is the sound of heavy feet dampened, they don’t make any sound at all. A small but important detail. One of many that either the funeral director or special funeral home designers must attend to, all in the name of bringing small comfort to the bereaved. I am slightly comforted. Every sound, every small breeze, or light touch on my skin is an irritant. I feel as though I am walking around completely unprotected, raw and skinless.
The funeral director himself isn’t here today and I’m somewhat relieved. I would have felt obliged to be pleasant, having already met and spoken with him, and I’m not pulling off pleasant entirely well right now. His assistant introduces himself and leads us to the viewing room. What an unusual name for such a room. It seems more fitting that we’d be going inside to watch a movie than what we’re about to do. I inhale sharply, having suddenly realized that I’ve been holding my breath again. “Take as much time as you like,” the assistant, whose name I’ve already forgotten, instructs us in a low, assuring voice. Another nod to the overly sensitive I’m sure, “speak quietly but clearly,” I imagine the funeral director instructing employees.
I held onto that hope even while I screamed with grief, even when my knees failed to hold me up, even when the police officer assured me that it was my child.
I start into the room, my husband close by my side. He reaches for me, to support me, not realizing that every time he touches me is more painful than comforting. Not realizing because this is one of many things I have kept to myself. A habit I will extend in the years to come. “Don’t touch me,” I hiss at him now, unkindly but without regret. I see her across the room. Panic rises inside of me like a balloon, like my gut as a balloon being slowly inflated until it fills my belly, then my chest, then my throat, forcing out all of the air from my lungs and threatening to explode my fragile shell of a body. Exploding would be a relief.
I don’t know if I ask him to leave or if my husband volunteers but suddenly I am alone with her. It’s clear those frantic prayers said hurriedly and obsessively on the flight here have gone unanswered. “Please let it be someone else’s child, anyone else’s child, please let it be someone else’s child, please, please don’t let it be my child, please let there have been a mistake, please let it be someone else’s child, please. God? Are you there? I will do anything—just don’t let it be my baby.”
I held onto that hope even while I screamed with grief, even when my knees failed to hold me up, even when the police officer assured me that it was my child. And I must have known on some level, because in that moment when the officer informed me, “she is dead,” some tether I’d never noticed before snapped loose from one of my legs and set me floating between this world and some other distant one. Still, I held onto hope. I would have traded a thousand children for my one. Presented with the opportunity, it would be no moral quandary at all.
“Baby,” I lightly touch her long, dark hair. It’s cold. “Erica,” I whisper, “Mummy’s here.” She doesn’t respond. I tilt my head and lean forward a little. Her nose seems thinner, less fleshy. I refused to have her made up, insisted she not be made more presentable, sickened at the thought of how many people had already had their hands on my child. Horrified that she was left in a freezer all weekend while police tried to locate me. They couldn’t have known how afraid she was of the dark, and of being alone, but still it infuriated me. “No, absolutely not,” I had said. I did not want her embalmed, or made up in the least. “Don’t fucking touch her,” is what I’d wanted to say but some strange woman had taken my place and managed to speak gracefully for me. She had done all of my talking the last few days, except the “don’t touch me,” which was me through and through.
Nonetheless, I’m aware that they have violated my daughter in my best interests. I lean in closer. They have glued her lips to keep them from falling loose from her teeth, and probably her eyelids too. They warned me not to move the sheet covering her body, to leave it pinned up around her, so I am assuming that the bruising around her neck was left untouched. I choke on the breath I haven’t yet taken and my hand goes to my own throat. I won’t look. I can’t be stuck with that image. “Baby,” I repeat and touch her cheek. Her cheek is hard, not soft and supple, and I jump a little in surprise. Her forehead too, not that she had a thick forehead, but there was some give, a tenderness that isn’t there now. She could be sleeping. A small bubble of hope, or insanity, rises inside of me. She was always such a sound sleeper. “Erica,” I whisper again, “I’m here baby girl.” I move around the table, touching her shoulder, her arm, her hand, all tucked under a crisp white sheet.
I move down along her leg and stop at her feet, lightly tickling them. That was one sure way to wake her up. She was always so ticklish. “Wake up baby girl” I continue to whisper, not wanting to draw attention from outside of the room. If I’m going to will this to happen I must be alone. “I love you Erica,” I tickle her some more. Just kick me. Just kick me and say, “get off of me, Mum.” Please. Tell me to fuck off and roll over onto your side, pull the pillow over your head. Good lord, just do it Erica. I choke on the phlegm in my throat. I let go of her foot to hunt for a tissue in my pocket, spit into it and put it into my purse, with the rest of the used tissues.
I circle her, trailing my hands along her body, committing every detail of her to memory. I make promises that I’m not sure I can keep, and then qualify those promises.
Okay, I think to myself, this is not going to just happen—I need to focus. I stand back, a magician contemplating her next move, and am struck by her beauty again. So pale, her dark hair slicked away from her face, hanging over the table. Like Snow White. Suddenly I am seized with the urge to wheel her out of here. Take her home with me and set her in a glass case in the backyard, so that she can have all the time she needs until that magical day when she wakes up. I search the room for exits that would take me straight outdoors instead of past my husband, past the funeral director’s assistant, who would surely try to stop me.
I weigh my odds of getting away with breaking her out of the funeral home and taking us on a crazy, cross country run for freedom. Why can’t I have her body? She’s my daughter. I should be allowed to take her. She’s dead. The words come into my head, against my will. She’s dead—not a question but a statement of fact. I shake my head “no”. I need another tissue but instead I lay my head on her chest. “I love you so much,” I tell her.
I spend the last of my time with my daughter touching her, and talking. I ask her why she had to leave me. I apologize for asking, and reassure her that I don’t blame her. I wait for her to say something. I circle her, trailing my hands along her body, committing every detail of her to memory. I make promises that I’m not sure I can keep, and then qualify those promises. I worry that if I stay too long the chemical smell that haunts her will be permanently imprinted on my brain and replace the memory of her real scent. Still, I want to crawl up onto the table and under the sheet with her. Get yourself together, the cold voice of reason demands. It’s a feat I never manage, though my acting ability increases exponentially. Somehow I make the decision required of me, to leave my daughter’s body behind and retake my place in the world, where time does nothing but measure the distance between us.