“Yes, that’s good.” I glance at his placement of the tracing paper. “Let’s do it.”
He motions me to lie down on the bed, more like a designer hospital gurney. Fitting really. But after this is done I will rise and walk away from it. My best friend wasn’t so lucky. She had lain in a real hospital bed, in a small village in Bhutan when the infection took her over. Her blood poisoned and energy zapped, organs shutting down, body failing.
He flicks on his needle and the soft buzzing begins. He reminds me it will take six hours. Do I want to do it all at once? “Yes”, I answer firmly. “I can handle it”. It can’t be anything at all compared to what my friend went through. A little pressure from his hand and then a pinch, the needle begins it’s outline. An uncomfortable sensation, hard to ignore but bearable. I flinch slightly as the coarse tip rips through a sensitive spot. “Yeah, this will hurt a bit,” he says. “Think good thoughts”.
How could I? My friend’s death is a horrible mistake. A cruel rumour that needs clarification. Something surreal. If I try hard enough I can make myself believe she is still alive and well over in Bhutan. But there were pictures already posted on blogs by other Bhutan Canada Foundation volunteer teachers with titles like, Remembering Martha, and, In Memory of Martha, pictures of her wearing a lavender coloured t-shirt, smiling like she was going to burst, of her sitting at a table with three others about to enjoy a meal, and of her on a rickety wooden bridge in Rangjung, wherever that is. Bhutan was a long way from here. Another world away. Yet there she was in these pictures bombarding my computer, riding in on invisible internet waves. There she was standing in her room, setting up her new lodgings for the year long stay, a simple room with wooden floors and a twin-size bed behind a flimsy partition. A small mat lay on the ground beside her, her trademark giant knapsack – we all used to joke it was like another appendage – stood in the corner, unzipped and in the process of being unpacked. Scroll down and she’s in a tiny make-shift bookstore where she was purchasing her teaching supplies, books under her arm, a brown billfold in her hand, and an expression on her face that I can’t quite describe. Like she was yapping away like she usually did and was caught off guard by the photographer. I could imagine her howling afterwards, boisterously reprimanding whoever the culprit was and throwing him and everyone else in the room into stitches.
And there she was again. Suddenly. With no time between. Engulfed in flames on a public alter as her cremation took place alongside another who apparently died the same day.
The needle digs in, cutting it’s way through. I let it burn. There are others in the shop beyond the glass partition, their figures blur as the tears well up again. It is more than just a shock. It is beyond belief. I had been waiting for her to come home.
He passes me a box of tissue. “Think good thoughts”, he says again, and presses on.
I remember when Martha came home from India. She was full of stories about the monkeys who invaded her room looking for food, and yeah! they really were vicious! She had climbed out of her window onto the little overhang of a roof to get away from them. She said after that incident she bought her food everyday instead of keeping any around for the next raid. I hung off her every word, she was drama and charisma, humour and intimacy. She brought back with her a suitcase full of hand woven tapestries, one of which I bought from her as she chewed on a piece of dried kelp. Want one? she had asked, holding the bag out and laughing heartily at my grimace.
She had postponed any desired traveling while her mother was ill and bed-ridden, accepting her task of caregiver with the grace and efficiency of someone who had had a lifetime of experience with it. I had visited her at her childhood home, her mother’s home, and as I waited in the living room, perched in a tiny space on the old couch, the escalated disaster of the place closing in on me, books and newspapers strewn about, piles of various items here there and everywhere pushed aside to clear a path from one room to the other, the odour of sour aging and illness permeating the air, I heard the cheerful uproarious cackling of mother and daughter living it up in the downstairs bedroom. Some coughing afterward. More laughing. Martha emerged with an enormous sigh and smile on her face, stood in the doorway and asked, want a coffee?
She travelled everywhere with her little metal espresso maker. An original french device that made the best cup you ever had, she declared. She brought it to my house on her last visit, sparked up my gas stove, the flame whooshed a little too high, her arms waved in the air in animated panic. Whooaa! and turning down the flame exclaimed, there we go! and with great flourish of procedure set about the detailed task of preparing one single cup of coffee. She had stayed for the day, had a heart to heart about life and love, about her mother’s passing and how she believed the Buddhists in that the body is only a worldly wrapper for our soul which leaves it to travel the ultimate journey, whatever that may be. Lu is the Tibetan word for body which literally means “something that is left behind”. We abandon our body which disintegrates, but the soul lives on.
She asked me to forgive her for anything she had done to hurt me. She was asking everyone to forgive her. She had wanted a clean start, a fresh heart and conscience. I couldn’t think of anything she had done to hurt me, and I told her so, but I did what she wanted and forgave her. Maybe it was a Buddhist thing.
“Are you happy?” I ask.
“Generally. What is happiness anyway?”
“Good question. ‘Are you happy’ is another.”
“I suppose. On and off. That’s normal.”
“I have love to give, yes.”
“But you are alone,” I press.
“I love everyone and everything.”
I half believe her.
The buzzing of the needle ceases and I feel a comforting wipe over my tender skin. A cooling spray mists over me. Another wipe and bloody cotton pads hit the inside of a garbage can against the wall. Take five, he says, and left the tiny room. I prop myself up on my elbows, feel the stretch in my abdomen. I am not so young anymore – 49 – not old, but not young. Martha was only 51. I’d known her as far back as high school. It’s not fair to have to end it this way. There was so much more for our friendship to explore. To have come this far, I should be feeling grateful and not ripped off. Ripped apart. She was one of those people you could talk with deeply, she was a well I felt like climbing into, someone who left you feeling whole and satisfied. She was that kind of person to everyone she came in contact with. People loved her. I only wonder, and hope, if any of us had the same effect on her. I wondered who she was when she was alone. I used to know.
“Do you remember when?”
“How could I forget.”
“I just wanted to make sure.”
We were teenagers. We escaped to the woods to be free, collecting samples for Biology was just an excuse for an afternoon of bliss. We shared warmth and kisses, unrelenting conversation and laughter, uninhibited passion. With mud on our boots and under our nails, our samples safely sealed in mason jars, we would emerge pink-faced and glowing with happiness. Our love for each other was stronger than the comments that apparently went around the school, around the small town we lived in. We were “unusual”, we were a spectacle. We were also willfully oblivious. Nevertheless, it ended one day. I left her. High school graduations and the pursuit of separate futures. Curiosity, confusion. Men. The desire for experience. The desire for freedom. She disappeared for a while after that. But the love and admiration I felt for her never faded. She set me free to experience life the way it would come to each of us, and yet, she generously remained my friend. Funny, I always thought that we would be old ladies together again, someday. A full circle sort of thing.
“Would you have loved me again?”
“I never stopped,” she says.
“Well, that doesn’t answer my question.”
He snaps on a fresh pair of latex gloves. “Shall we continue?” The familiar buzzing starts up again and reassures me, grounds me. I resign myself to laying here, to the pain of the needle, to the pain of losing her. I would never see her again. I would never be able to tell her that I was sorry, that I regretted leaving her, that the life I’d lived and all that I’d experienced had never measured up to what I had had with her. Does anything ever compare to first loves? I’m still not sure, but I believe mine was uniquely special. All my time and all my searching was for something I’d already had but let go anyway. Isn’t that what many of us do?
I doze off a couple of hours into my appointment. Complete and utter sadness is tiring. My brain needs to rest, this feeling of limbo, a cyclone of raw emotion and hard unbelievable facts swirl around my life’s picture, puzzle pieces lifting from places they’d been forever, shifting in panic trying to find a new way to fit.
I dream of the day we had played hooky from school. We escaped through the back door after lunch, raced through the parking lot towards the woods. The trail up to the look-out was steep and lined with young leafy trees and once we were safely among them we slowed our pace and held hands, climbing up the gravel path making our way to the top. The path widened and the trees grew sparse as great slabs of rock took over. We reached the spot where the land leveled off and the sky appeared and a view of the lake spread out far below us, and we were filled with love and peace. Life hadn’t lost control yet. Life was right there, in that moment.
She laughed like a hyena when I got five detentions and she got no punishment at all.
I open my eyes. I’m thirsty. He says, “You were smiling in your sleep”, and passes me a cup of water.
“How’s it looking?” I ask.
“Real nice. You’ll see it soon.” He hunches over again. My back is not my back anymore but a live canvas, bleeding colour and screaming for attention. I had needed to do this. For Martha? For me.
She had been high in the mountains in the remote village of Trashigang. She contracted a rare strain of E-Coli and fell subject to infection. Her condition worsened quickly and they transported her to hospital in Mongar. They tried to get a helicopter to take her out of Bhutan to India, but the rain and fog were too much. She slipped away soon after.
She had a Bhutanese style ceremony. Her body was washed, wrapped, then discretely and carefully placed in a nest made of chopped wood and draped with colourful fabrics. There were prayers and chanting and the fire was lit, her spirit rose on smoke into the sky. Her ashes were collected from the altar and poured into the Brahmaputra river to flow down towards the Indian Ocean. Butter lamps will burn for two months in her name.
“So?” he asks. I turn my back to the mirror and there it is. Colour glowing and swirling, lines weaving in and around each other, twisting tightly then relaxing and flowing apart, coming together again, like love itself. “You can add to it later if you want. That’s the good thing about this design,” he says.
“I’ll see. Maybe.”
“Do you forgive me?” I ask.
“Yes. Are you happy?”
“I’m happy right now.”
“That’s all that matters.”
~ 3rd Place Winner, Meaford Library Short Story Contest. 2012.