The Taking of Our Lives
They, those who are left behind, always ask why we did it.
Could you not see that we could have helped you?
Would have helped you.
Didn’t you know that you could have talked to us?
They think it wasn’t a considered decision.
It must have happened in the heat of the moment, in the darkest valley, in the cold outside.
It happened in the bedroom.
We are now, the five of us, in a waiting room of sorts. Everything one would expect to see in such a room is in this room. Which should convince us that it is not real. We seem not to have any need for anything here, or at least, any need we have seems to be provided for.
There is a camera for Marie and a lawn for Donald to mow.
Annette has Joe to talk to and Grace has people to write about.
Annette, who is sitting opposite joking about the futility of small dogs with Joe, was seventy-nine. She was an editor of great renown. Her reputation for bluntness, for not suffering fools and for celibacy intimidated even the most assured of men in the chauvinistic time of her, for lack of a less monarchic word, reign.
An atheist from her fifth year she never suffered the illusion that her life was owed to any. To her parents she brought pride and comfort until their deaths. To her admirers she gave challenge. To her son she gave every chance he could want. She neither spoilt nor abandoned any of her friends and at the end she made her own choice. She feels that it is choice that is the. Choice, that is the meaning of life, she tells us. The ultimate expression of life then, is to choose.
There is no choice, once that choice has been made, They, those who are left behind, rage.
There is error in Annette’s logic. She now has no choice at all.
What if she were wrong? How arrogant to assume you are right! Annette is arrogant.
This is incorrect. Choosing to not have a choice is a choice made by many. Soldiers. Annette merely made the same choice.
She looks over, ‘Dogs should be kept outside. Loved, but why on earth would you want one in your handbag?”
Donald, who is out in the fields, mowing, was forty-five. He arrived in a suit. Beautifully tailored out of the finest dark blue satin to his powerful body, there is no amount of money that could buy a better cut. The first thing he did, before greeting any of us, was to loosen his tie and breathe a sign of relief. He didn’t speak for a long time and, when he did, it was only to admit how awful a human being he had been.
Donald took advantage of the sick, of the weak, of the greedy. Donald accepted every inch he was offered and took many miles more. He took until the world fought, then took until they cried.
Donald took with renewed vigour as the world died.
His parents expired early. His children died earlier still, the fight of life bought from them with his credit card. He sold lives with the stroke of his pen, the turn of his phrase, the cut of that suit. He sold his own.
Indignant they are, They, those who were left behind. He was a terrible person, but could have become better. After all he did in the courts, he was in a debt no obscene amount of money could have been able to balance. Only his submission would have been sufficient. Donald is evil.
This too, is incorrect. His way in the world was a race. To take his foot off the pedal would not have given the needy a victory, it would only have caused a crash in which all would have perished.
He comes in from his mowing, ‘The smell! Most evocative of hard work. In order to grow, the grass must be cut. In order for the seed to sprout, the tree must be burnt.”
Marie, who photographs Annette and Joe as they laugh, was twenty-eight. She tells us after much prompting, with no hint of defence in her voice, that she was unhappy from the first moment she can remember. Not sad, unhappy.
Sad is a passing emotion, which is how we differentiate it from our prevailing mood. It is borne from event or action. From the word of a loved one or the prevalence of an enemy.
Unhappy is something different entirely. Unhappy is a complete lack of joy, fleeting or otherwise. Marie was unhappy in rain and unhappy in shine. Do not think that this state of mind defeated her. She was well aware of the lacking joy, as aware as she was of the joy she could bring to others.
On her eighteenth birthday she left her home in Paris and travelled to the slums of Delhi on the banks of the Yamuna. She had seen a television program about the abuse of women and, though women were abused on the streets of Paris, she wanted to escape the Welfare World.
Help she did. Her name is still spoken with love and respect by those she counselled through their hurt, through their sadness and back to their joy. She looks to the ceiling as she recalls how she hoped their joy would rub off on her. She closes her eyes as she remembers how her hope was unfulfilled.
Is that sufficient justification for what she did? They, those who were left behind, demand. Does that ease the souls of her family and friends, those that she left first for the women on the banks of the Yamuna, and then left forever? Marie is a moral equivocator.
This is not correct. Do not think that Marie travelled to India because she was selfless. She made the pilgrimage, as did all those in whose wake she rode, to find life for herself. She did not give her life to the women in order to be absolved of her responsibility for it. She did not help in order to find meaning; she helped in order to find time.
She scolds Annette and Joe. “Stop moving! There is not enough light for you to move so fast.”
Joe, who laughs politely at Annette, was nineteen. Things had become simple so awfully quickly for Joe. From his ascension to an earthbound heaven down to his own mindbound hell. He may have been delayed with council. Delayed for how long and to what purpose?
He was a special one. His parents, cajoled by teachers, rejoiced in his academic prowess, his aptitude for the practice of modern life and his thoughtful eyes. The girls in his classes all noticed the deep pools and chased their romance. He looked into their cold spheres and saw the reflection of a mirror world. Fame would not sate his thirst.
He tested us all when he arrived. He asked us a question, considered our answers and then asked the same question again, over and over. He knew how our answers would at first be covertly considered. Delivered with justification, with tacit tactic.
He knew the confiding elaboration of the second answer.
The muted confession of the third.
He never blamed us for only telling the full truth on the fourth or fifth answer.
He knew how most human inhabitants of the earth would never be able to reach the truth for want or need, for a hundred answers. He could no longer reside in a world so false that it knew not its own self.
Is he messiah or maniac? Confused, They, those who are left behind, seek to know his truth, though they know not their own. How could he know so much, when his life with us was so short? We deserved more!
It takes time to find one’s place in the world, and the world’s place with one. He didn’t have the requisite time. If only he had spoken, we would have answered.
Joe is too young.
How wrong they were, the left. Joe knew his truth. Unlike those who thought they knew but who faltered, who indoctrinated, who re-birthed and re-aligned.
Joe knew only one truth and never had fear of it; “Perhaps the dog is happiest in the handbag, it is the home he knows.”
Grace, who tells the story of this waiting room, was fifty. She is glad the reader allows her tell it. A waste, she thinks, if the story were to be lost.
There is, in every family and every group of friends, a confidant. Insightful, introspective and, until time of crisis, irrelevant.
This is Grace. Grace would dispense sound advice when consulted by friends or family, based on years of observation, based on her views and beliefs and knowledge of theirs and on what Grace herself would do had she the fortune of finding herself in the exciting circumstances others seemed to be given.
She followed the rules. She performed as expected. She received, in moderation; joy and heartbreak, triumph and tragedy. She got her fifteen seconds of fame: a pavement interview for a local television station about the presidential candidates. She played a villain once. And once a hero.
And then, when she was fifty, having borne three happy and successful children, having participated, until divorce, in a happy marriage and having taught many generations of twelve year olds the basics of accountancy, she took something back. Her life.
And we are to feel sorry for you? Now self righteous, They, those that were left. Should we feel bad for how normal, how boring your life is? How pathetic that you had not the fight for life! Do you think our lives are fantasy, us who loved you, who you left? You feel sorry for yourself and by doing so you degrade us. Those who give others the best council often have none left for themselves.
It is not our fault; it is not our lot to give your life meaning, we are, all of us, fighting for our own. We needed you to fight with us. That is the life we are all given. Grace is a coward.
Grace is anything but. How wrong They, left behind, are about Grace. Yet she can’t find the words to defend herself from attack. The argument always ends with the childish retort that; it’s my life and I’ll do with it what I want. Which is exactly what she would council, if any in her circumstance approached her for consolation. Why they should feel any responsibility for her decision, or feel as though they have to exclaim their innocence, as if she had accused them, she knew not.
Metaphors of War excluded Grace;
“One should not fight for a life others believe in.”
We have been waiting in this room for some time it seems. Though none of us can quite remember how long. We arrived at different times for sure. Annette arrived first, Grace found her when she arrived, then Marie and soon after Donald. Then came Joe with his questions. But since Joe, nothing. Not that time is important to us, but we’d quite like for something happen, having taken the irreversible action.
In response to the question that they who were left behind ask, Annette and Joe, Donald and Marie and Grace ask one in return.
Why are They so adamant that They could have helped? How would They have helped? We would have had to tell Them that our minds needed changing. Knowing this, we could have changed them ourselves, had we been able. Not realising that our minds had been made up, They proved they could take no steps of their own. They hadn’t done anything. So then, what is it that They think could have done?
We begin to talk. Not of pain or pride. Nor of triumph or tragedy. Not to excuse or preclude. Just stories, because They, those we left, remain. The memories connect us to them, or at least to the time of them.
Annette, ‘Truly I cannot abide my grandchild. A little girl. My son’s child. Too beautiful. Blonde and blue eyed, perfectly formed nose, pert little mouth, the most gorgeously dimpled cheeks and not even ungainly ears to unbalance the picture of perfection.
How They shower her with gifts. Anything she wants she has the very next day. Even if their spoiling of her, in some way my fault as that may be rebellion of my son, made to work delivering newspapers for every trinket he desired, could be excused, then truly her lack of ambition with such a boon cannot.
A doll. A fluffy toy. Something pink. From these three ideals she never does waver. Though I would make a present of a dead bird, of a tobacco tin or a fur coat, she would not budge in her taste.
Nor would she betray her polite perfection by rejecting my gifts. I suspect there is a trunk in the basement of my son’s house full of the temptations I laid before her. I don’t doubt that in future her ambitions will not be greater than a ball player, a double-story and a bridge club. And They say that the world progresses.’
Donald, ‘Late one night I was standing on an empty platform. I had won a case. It was early in my career; I was still defending criminals. Terry Hampton had murdered his wife in cold blood. Ran over her in his car. I convinced the court of manslaughter. I convinced the court he should not be housed in a cell with a cellmate, nor should he partake in communal bathing, eating or exercise. Terry only served five years and he never feared being hurt while inside. He paid me a million dollars.
That night, while standing on the station platform, having just made the first of my three hundred million, I heard the strains of a piano being played somewhere down the steps to another line.
The music brushed lightly against my back. I knew that somewhere in that windy labyrinth a fellow human being was attempting transcendance.
The music pushed a bit harder, causing me to sway a little. I wondered how the player was managing the dexterity required for the piece, complex and delicate as it was, what with the cold wind hardening their fingers to clawed sculpture.
The music shoved me and I stumbled. Would the player ever have the money to buy a piano that matched the beauty of the music?
The music tackled me. I tripped and fell to the tracks.
Did the player stay so late because he felt inspired or because he hadn’t yet made enough money to go home?
The music beat faster, racing the oncoming train. It held me down. I had the money that would allow the player to go home.
The music filled my veins with the weight of the player’s desperation. I could not get up. Transcendance would kill me.
I struggled with all the desperation I had to continue living, continue making money, continue being better at it. My struggle was pure. My motives impure. But beauty resides even in impure thoughts.
The player relented, the music ended and I leapt from the tracks in time. How much better for it to have never let me go.’
Marie, ‘There was a little boy who would hide in the reeds, watching as I bathed with the women in the river. A tradition I had started.
We would walk from our Shelter to the river, through the marketplace as a battalion. Our heads held high, though we were taunted, shunned, feared for what had been done to us. It was most terrifying for the women who had just joined us, from hospital or prison and who wanted only to hide in a dark room, away from Their eyes.
We, the strengthened, would shield them from the jeers, from the laughs and from the stones by standing on the outside of the phalanx, staring, glaring back at the townspeople. We walked upstream, past the place where the other women were washing the clothes, past the children swimming and the animals drinking. We walked until we came to our place, a bend in the river shielded by trees.
Here it was that I taught the women that Nature does not attack the body of a woman, though men may have. We would take off our clothes and wash. Healing ourselves by connecting to the simple good of flowing water.
Why did I not chase away the boy hiding in the reeds?
The innocent, inquisitive, illicit gaze of a boy, inebriated in curiosity and wonder at the female form is not the danger of the man drunk on power, fearful of ineptitude and desperate to comply.
The women had to learn how to again be looked upon. The boy had to learn how to look and how to wait to be asked to touch.’
Joe, ‘When I entered that talent contest I did so because I hoped I wouldn’t get in. Not because I was scared of success, but because I had hoped I would be told I wasn’t good enough. You see, my show had tricks, but that was all it had. I have a voice. So did my father, who led the chants in the terraces. And his father too, who led the chants in the pews.
So I dressed my body up in the fashions of the day. I beat my heart to the tempo of Their music. My words spun of darkest yarn.
I appeared as Artist. Painted with tears, struggle and strife. I succeeded.
Then I tried to show Them my fallacy. They fought to lift me upon their shoulders and I had to jump off.
The shock! They felt scorned when I would not play their game. They had assumed. The whole world had assumed that everyone wanted to play. And when they cried and screamed and raged; I knew that I could not help them.’
Grace, “I have no story, but I have yours.”
An apparition in white, with a list.
The light behind it bursts into our waiting room, enrapturing us. It is our turn to give account for our actions. We had known, when we left, that there would be questions to answer.
Donald and Marie had prepared answers, Annette and Joe already knew them, Grace still sought them.
We knew, even as we left, that there would be no right answers or wrong answers.
We knew that the apparition in white was alone responsible for evaluating our answers, comparing them with our actions and deducing what was to become of us.
“It is my choice. And if this is my choice, then this is where I should be.”
“I cause too much damage, for I have no sympathy. This is where I need to be for their sake.”
“I need to know more. Here you can give me all that there they can’t, happiness.”
“I need to know the final truth. I can find that within myself, if I am here.”
“There I can only be myself through Them. Here it is only I.”
“We will be the shadow memory.
We will be the ashes from the flames. Dust from the grain.
We will forever be the wind, which taps on their shoulder, turning them into the blinding sun.
We will be the lost.”
A place needs to be found for each of us. A new accommodation in a new world.
We will not have a choice of room.
We will not have a choice of whether we look out onto the clouds or onto a lake.
We know we gave up choosing. There will be a lot of choices to be made.
We need to eat.
We need clothes to wear.
We need to sleep and bathe and we need to rid ourselves of waste.
Our hair needs to be cut.
We can entertain ourselves, together or alone, but we will need someone to give us our medicine.
Our commitment is voluntary, but we may need to be reminded to stay alive.