Cancer (& Other Unforgivable Curses)

By Michelle Collins Anderson

I got the note in Esmé’s backpack this afternoon: her long black cape has become “a distraction to the class” and she is no longer welcome to wear it to school. There was no mention of the wand. It is difficult to be a wizard among “Muggles” — your average, run-of-the-mill human beings. Just as I am finding it difficult to be human when I would gladly summon magic or pray for miracles. Justin is with the hospice nurse now. She is checking his vital signs, making notes, checking the log of medications — the amounts, the times given — that I keep so meticulously, my letters curling around the white spaces of the chart. Soon she will bathe him, a sponge bath that will clean away the perspiration but will not erase the yellow of his skin. She will let me do the shampooing and the shaving: I insist. Justin was not — is not — a vain man, but he did love his hair. It is thick and black and edged with gray; he liked to keep it just the slightest bit long, which gave him the rumpled professor look I love. He is an artist, a painter, but made his living as the creative director at a local ad agency — overseeing all the words and images that go into ads and commercials and websites. He is what they call a “creative guru,” a “big idea” man: he sees forest, not trees; constellations rather than stars.

Diptych 2: Death, photograph by Steven Erra

“Diptych 2: Death,” photograph by Steven Erra

He was diagnosed just seven months ago. Pancreatic cancer. It was what my O.R. nurse friend Julie called a classic “peek-and-shriek:” the surgeons opened him up to see what was going on inside and promptly sewed him back together and sent him home to die. Julie doesn’t mean to be macabre or insensitive. I think she simply forgets that most of us don’t see this every day.

The sound Justin makes when he breathes now is a like a percolating coffee pot, the kind my parents had on the farm. Similarly, he is boiling hot and bringing things up to the top, like the foamy yellow-brown spittle that needs to be swabbed regularly from the insides of his mouth. Julie says that means we are getting toward the end.

Sometimes I hate Julie. That know-it-all bitch.

“Esmé,” I call up the stairs.

“Yes, Mummy.”

Esmé has the most adorable British accent — which I only mention because we are not British. We are Americans. Midwesterners. Missourians. We do not take tea and crumpets, although we do love our sweetened iced tea and just saying the word “crumpet” is somehow altogether satisfying. Perhaps it is the English in my blood, from my grandmother on my mother’s side. Or maybe it is because I am a librarian who cannot help but delight in the way a word can feel in my mouth.

“May I speak with you for a moment?”

“Certainly,” she says.

I hear the clomp of her black boots before I see her at the top of the staircase. She is a vision in her black skirt, white oxford shirt and tie — the latter two nearly obscured by the cape, which is tied in large, childish loops at her throat. Her magenta cat eye eyeglass frames — while not standard-issue black circles like Harry Potter’s — nonetheless sport a scroll of masking tape at the bridge, like the young wizard’s in Book One. Her glasses are not broken. She waves her wand at me. It is a replica of Harry’s, which — I should not admit to knowing — is precisely eleven inches, made from holly and contains a single phoenix feather. Esme’s is molded plastic — no feather — but quite realistic.

But the dark wizards — the Death Eaters — have no such scruples. They would not hesitate to employ one of the “Unforgivable Curses.”

“Hi, Mum.”

“Hi, darling. How was your Monday?”

“Oh,” she pauses before making her way down. “Decidedly unmagical.”

She is only eight, but her vocabulary is what the teachers label as “well above grade level,” as are her reading and writing skills. I will credit J.K. Rowling where credit is due, despite my professional distaste for her excessive and unimaginative reliance on “-ly” adverbs. Esmé has read the entire Harry Potter series of seven books seven times through and is about to finish round eight. She started in kindergarten, when the heft of a Harry Potter book in her backpack could nearly tip her over.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I say. I raise an eyebrow. “Is there anything you’d like to tell me?”

Her small face is pensive, surrounded by a curly brown mane of hair — my hair — more Hermione Granger than Harry Potter, but she refuses to be swayed. It is Harry whom she loves; Harry she pretends to be.

“Not in particular.”

“I’ve gotten a note that says your cape is a distraction.”

Esmé sighs.  “It’s a cloak.”

“Cloak, then. So?”

“Muggles,” she says finally. “They’ve no imagination.”

“Have you considered that perhaps you have a bit too much of one?”

Esmé treats me to her newly perfected pre-teen eye roll. “Mummy,” she says, exasperated. “Listen to yourself. There’s no such thing as too much imagination. You’ve said so yourself. Besides,” she adds, almost as an afterthought, “I neutralized my spell on Rebecca as soon as Mrs. Warson asked me to.”

“Spell?”

“I had to put a Silencio on her,” Esme says. “She talks too much. Chatters away, really. I think even Mrs. Warson felt relieved someone had taken her in hand.”

“But…?”

Esmé shrugs.

“Mrs. Reece?” The nurse is calling me. Back to my duties.

“We will talk more about this, Esmé,” I say. “But no more cloak. No more wand. And for heaven’s sake, you must stop cursing people.”

“Spells, Mummy. They are spells,” she says indignantly. “I would never put a curse on anyone. That would be unforgivable.”

Esmé is right, of course. I should know my wizarding lore from all the hours of Harry Potter I have read to her at bedtime. The young wizards at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry learn all sorts of spells — and how to use them responsibly. But the dark wizards — the Death Eaters — have no such scruples. They would not hesitate to employ one of the “Unforgivable Curses,” of which there are three:

  • The Cruciatus curse inflicts unbearable pain on its recipient. Much like, say, a very aggressive, untreatable form of cancer.
  • The Imperius curse causes the victim to follow any and all commands of the curse caster. A victim of this curse experiences total release from responsibility for one’s actions at the cost of free will. Such victimhood, in my current circumstances, has much more appeal than I care to admit.
  • And the third, the Avada Kedavra curse, is also known as the “killing curse” because it causes instant, painless death in its intended victim.

Now that I ponder it, is that last curse truly so unforgivable? My last few weeks with Justin may have convinced me otherwise. Imagine: an incantation. A wave of a wand. And poof! No more pain.

But no more person, either.

That is the caveat to Avada Kedavra: there is no counterspell, no means of blocking it. It is irreversible. Irrevocable.

Forever.

It is time to begin our goodbyes, the nurse says. Robin. Her eyes are gray and wise. She eases the blanket back from Justin’s feet and ankles to show me the violet mottling under the golden sheen of his jaundice. She mentions the percolating, too.

“But he is so warm,” I say. “Not cold at all. His hands and feet.”

“His heart is strong,” she says. “But his lungs are filling up.” For the first time I notice the worry lines in her face. She takes my hand and runs my fingertips along Justin’s closed lids, fringed with long, dark eyelashes. Nothing happens.

“Just two days ago, he would blink or twitch when we did that. Remember?”

I nod.

“He is in a coma now,” she says softly. “It’s time to make some calls.”

I hear part of me telling her I will do it. But part of me is somewhere else, hovering just beyond my body, her body and his. Watching. As if this were someone else’s drama, someone else’s life.

“Mrs. Reece?” She summons me back.

“Evelyn,” I say, for the umpteenth time. The intimacy she has shared with my husband, with our family, makes formality seem ridiculous.

“Evelyn. One more thing: you need to tell Justin that it’s okay for him to go.”

“I know,” I say simply. Yet I cannot imagine how I will do this.

“He can still hear you,” she says. “Talk to him. And touch him.”

“I will,” I say. “I do.”

“I do.”

When I said those words at our wedding nearly thirteen years ago, I was crossing my fingers beneath my bouquet.

Justin and I met in St. Louis and decided to get married there in the lovely little Lutheran church where I had been baptized as a baby. My parents had lived in the city early in their marriage, before my dad gave in to his yearning for small town life. So although I wasn’t a member at Hope — or anywhere else, to be honest — I liked having that small connection to the church. I was in my first year as a librarian in the downtown branch of the public library after receiving my master’s; Justin lived and worked in St. Louis, too. We both had friends there. A city wedding made more sense than having everyone traipse down to the tiny Ozarks town where I grew up and had only my mother and one ancient set of grandparents remaining, a place where we couldn’t serve beer and wine at the reception or dance without the whiff of scandal.

“It seems she has cast several spells on her classmates,” says Mrs. Warson. “She silenced Rebecca yesterday and then put a freezing spell on Jorge.”

What we had not counted on — with the caterer already booked, the flowers and tuxedos ordered, the dresses made — was the premarital counseling this conservative church would require. I discovered over the course of these sessions that I was required to “submit” to my new husband, to “obey” him, and would have to promise as much in my vows. I also learned that Justin was to be the “spiritual head of the family.”

“Think of it like a mobile,” Pastor Lucero said seriously, his dark mustache and beard giving him a look uncannily like Lucifer himself. “God is at the top, of course, with the father pie plate hanging beneath. Then the mother pie plate below him, and the children pie plates hanging under her. If the daddy pie plate pulls away from God, the entire family goes with him.”

“But Justin doesn’t even go to church,” I said, practically smirking. “In fact, I am not sure he believes in God. How can he be the top pie plate?”

Justin kicked me gently in the shin.

“Just cross your fingers for the submission part,” Justin said after we had escaped the oppressive heat of that tiny office into the cool spring evening. “We know what we believe. It’s okay. Besides,” he winked. “I love it when you’re the boss.”

So I did. Cross my fingers, I mean. But not for the rest of it: for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health. ‘Til death do us part.

And the whole time I thought I was getting away with something. Avoiding the hard part.

It is the next day, Tuesday, already. I awoke early to the irritated meowing of Justin’s old cat, Van Gogh (giant orange tabby, one ear) coming from the kitchen. There I found the poor, cross old thing lying on the counter, writhing and flopping helplessly from side to side, wearing two pairs of handcuffs fashioned from the thick blue rubberbands that typically hold together bunches of broccoli or asparagus. Esmé appeared to be poking his face with a pair of tweezers.

“Esmé!”

She whirled around, dropping the tweezers in alarm. But then a cool look remade itself on her face and she retrieved the silver instrument with one hand, while trying to hold down Van Gogh with the other.

“What on earth are you doing?”

“I just need one long whisker for an elixir,” she said, flipping the growling, hissing mound of fur onto its other side. I pitied him his de-clawed paws. “Hold still, Van Gogh!”

“Elixir? Esmé! Stop that right this minute!”

With a horrible thunk, Van Gogh rolled off the counter and onto the kitchen floor. Handcuffed cats do not, for the record, land on their feet.

“But it’s for Daddy.” Esmé jutted her chin out.

“Daddy has all the medicines he needs.”

“Then why aren’t they working?”

I found myself unable to explain how Justin’s medications aren’t for healing, but rather for amelioration, for relief. “Symptom management,” the doctor called it. The cancer gets to do whatever it likes. Manage this, I thought, mentally flipping off that physician who had sat so casually in his neat white coat amid the beeping, blinking ICU monitors. I hustled Esmé upstairs to brush her teeth while I set a highly agitated Van Gogh free. The look he gave me over his shoulder as he walked away was one of utter and complete disgust. I envied him his freedom, his ability to disappear beneath a bed or in the back of a closet until it was safe or desirable to come out.

After the cat incident, I sent a cape-free Esmé off to school, but somewhat reluctantly. Is it better to hold on to some shred of normalcy — although how normal can it be to go to school with your dad dying in your front room? — or to shuck routine and just embrace this time for what it is: a vigil? I have decided this will be her last day, that having her out of the house today will enable me to make those phone calls. To get ready for the onslaught. Justin’s parents, his brother, my mom. His boss, my boss. His friends, our friends. Neighbors. My best friend, Julie, whom I have already mentioned.

I do not hate her. She is not really a bitch.

But a know-it-all? Absolutely.

It occurs to me that this will be almost like having a wedding in reverse. All our loved ones gathering to witness a dissolution, a breaking of the earthly bonds. There will be tears, prayers and flowers. Organ music. Suits and dresses. Tons of food.

No dancing. Although I think Justin would encourage dancing.

They have all been with me throughout Justin’s illness, of course. My mom and his parents and his brother have taken turns these last few weeks, ever since Justin was hospitalized after collapsing in the kitchen and we decided a few days later to bring him home on hospice. I just sent them away, actually, three days ago. I needed a break from all the bodies in the house, the morose faces, the helpless hands. The constant need to think about what people might want or need to eat, even as Justin stopped eating altogether. I needed some time alone with just him and Esmé.

“Hang in there, baby,” she says. I flash on a poster I had at Esmé’s age: the darling tabby kitten dangling from a branch, eyes desperate, claws dug in.

Early last week he could still talk a little, although I could tell it exhausted him. He could still hold me when I climbed into the hospital bed we had ordered for him and set up in the living room along with the oxygen machine. It was — it is — his favorite room: shelves full of his art books and my substantial fiction collection (alphabetized, of course), walls hung with his paintings, the brick fireplace, our family photos, a comfy camelback couch, the floor-to-ceiling windows. He loved the light. In the evenings, he would light the dozen or more pillar candles of varying heights that decorate our mantel. There is something about candlelight, Justin said, that is kind to paintings and human faces. It was a ritual: he used a bottle of butane to fill the heavy silver lighter inscribed with his grandfather’s initials, then carefully attended to each wick. This is where we read, together, after dinner and homework were through. Sometimes even Van Gogh deigned to join us.

Justin even managed, just a few short days ago, to lie waiting, patiently and expectantly, as Esmé cast a host of spells in her efforts to make him better or different or someone else entirely.

“Just call me Dumbledore,” Justin said, reaching for her small, be-caped body.

“No, Daddy. You can’t be Dumbledore. He is old and gray with a tremendously long beard,” she said seriously. “And he dies in Book Six.”

Justin and I tried not to look at each other.

“Lord Voldemort, then?”

“Too evil.”

“Snape?”

“Well, you do have the same black hair. But he’s creepy, Dad. Plus, he dies in Book Seven.”

“Esmé!” My voice came out sharp, a warning.

“Well, he does.”

Justin seemed nonplussed. “Hagrid, then.”

Esmé smiled, pleased. “A giant, Dad? Really?”

“A giant who loves animals, magical creatures and above all, Harry Potter.” Justin squeezed her tight. “And who doesn’t always know the right thing to say.”

Here he looked at me. I shrugged. Me, either.

Now I check the oxygen tank and give Justin his litany of medications. Esmé calls them his “potions.” Ativan for anxiety. The Atropine to dry up the goo in his lungs. The Roxanol for pain. Haldol for agitation. There are drops and pills I grind up and mix in a liquid that can be drawn into a tiny syringe, something I can slip between his teeth and cheek while I hold his chin to make sure it all goes down. I tell Justin everything I am doing, everything I will do.

I love you, Justin. But I would be lying if I said I’m not a little pissed off.

I reach for one of the special caps Robin has left me and take it out of its wrapper. It is a shower cap of sorts, which I microwave for a minute or two and then secure to Justin’s head, tucking in all that unruly hair. I massage the cap and soon lather builds up, seeping from beneath the edge of the elastic band. Afterwards, I remove the cap, towel his hair and comb it. Not as good as a real shampoo, but it will do. Marvelous inventions they have for the infirm and dying these days. The shaving is a bit trickier — there is no microwavable substitute for shaving cream and straight edge. But I manage.

The phone rings. Justin’s mom? Or mine? I am not quite ready for what I am supposed to say today.

But the number is local. The school.

“Mrs. Reece?”

“Yes?”

“This is Mrs. Warson from the elementary school. Esmé’s teacher?”

“Of course. Is something wrong?”

“Well….” There is one of those silences. “I’m afraid Esmé is still wearing her cape today. And as I had mentioned in my note yesterday….”

“Yes, I got the note and spoke with Esmé about it. She understood that she was not to wear it to school anymore.”

“I am afraid she hid it beneath her fleece jacket this morning. All balled up. She looked like a little hunchback. I am surprised you didn’t notice.”

Ouch: the inattentive mom zinger. So that’s how she wants to play it. But I see your politically incorrect hunchback reference and raise you one “C” word.

“Well, we are both dealing with the small matter of her father’s cancer,” I say, allowing only the tiniest bit of snark to creep into my voice. “I’m sure you understand.”

“Yes. Oh, yes, I’m so sorry. I hate to even bring this up at all.”

“But?”

“It seems she has cast several spells on her classmates,” says Mrs. Warson. “She silenced Rebecca yesterday and then this morning she put a freezing spell on Jorge.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

“Well, I know it sounds ridiculous, but the fact is, Rebecca still will not say a word and Jorge has not moved from his chair. Not even for recess.”

“What? Is this some kind of joke?”

“I wish it were, Mrs. Reece. But I honestly don’t know what to do. The other children seem a bit afraid of Esmé.”

“She is an eight-year-old girl. She barely weighs fifty pounds—”

“She is in the principal’s office right now,” Mrs. Warson interjects. “You should probably come and get her.”

I start to say something extremely unkind. But what would that accomplish?

“Expelliarmus,” I say instead. This is the most expedient way to disarm a witch.

“Excuse me?”

“I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

A knock on the door of our Dutch colonial, with its barn-shaped dusty blue second story atop the cool, gray-white limestone of the first.  It is Margie. One half of Margie-and-Tom, our across-the-street neighbors. They have one son, Griffin, who is eleven. He and Esmé used to play together until fairly recently, when it became uncool for either of them to associate with the other gender.

“Hey, there,” Margie’s eyes are already welling up. “How is Justin?”

“Not too good,” I say. Her tears seem to harden, rather than soften me. “Coma.”

“Oh, Evelyn!” She throws her arms around me and I let her hold me, although I can’t seem to hold her back. I am stiff, like a papoose strapped to a board. But unable to allow myself to be carried on someone’s back. She wipes her eyes with the sleeve of her windbreaker. It is spring. The fact of it surprises me every time I step outside: all the bursting colors and unfurling green life everywhere. It hurts my eyes.

I lead her into the living room, show her how to shift Justin with pillows if he seems uncomfortable. Write down my cell phone number. Point out the hospice number, just in case. Just in case. Justin’s case. A hopeless case.

“I’ll be right back,” I say. “Fifteen minutes.”

“Take your time,” she says. “Take all the time you need.”

It would not matter if I had hours or days. Esmé does not want to talk.

In my rearview mirror, I see her staring out of the window, avoiding my gaze. Her face is swollen and blotchy, although she was not crying when I picked her up. I told the principal I would be keeping Esmé home until things settled down.

“Of course,” he said. “I’m sorry. But I understand completely. We all do.”

I nodded, all the while herding Esmé out of his office and through the heavy steel double doors of the school. The playground smelled of sun-warmed earth and cedar mulch and was full of running, boisterous children. I am finding it difficult to remember what is normal, what kinds of things go on out here in the world.

“Esmé,” I say. “Look at me.”

She refuses. Her hands in her lap are balling and unballing her black cape. We drive in silence, with just the hum of the motor and the occasional bump from the street beneath. In the driveway, I turn off the engine and it makes a metallic pinging as it cools.

“Esmé,” I finally say. “Daddy may not be with us much longer.”

I turn to meet her eyes. They are hazel like Justin’s. The color of surprise.

“Where is he going?”

It is a terrible thing to break down in front of your child. I remember my father crying exactly once: when his mother died. That scared me far more than my grandma’s shrunken, lifeless body at the funeral. She didn’t look like someone I knew. But my father crying? He looked the same, but I did not know that man at all.

Esmé has climbed into the front seat and hands me a paper napkin embossed with McDonald’s arches. I swipe at the tears and snot coalescing at the bottom of my face.

“Daddy is dying, sweetheart.”

“I know. But where will he go?”

“I don’t know,” I say. The yard is practically pulsing with purple crocuses, brilliant yellow jonquils, the bottlebrush blooms of lavender hyacinths.

“When Dumbledore died, Harry could still talk to him inside his head,” Esmé says. She shoves open the car door.

“Maybe it will be like that,” I say. But the door is slamming, and the only one I am left trying to convince is myself.

Inside the house, Margie tells me that everything is “perfectly fine.” I never knew what an ironic world I lived in until Justin became so sick. Or perhaps it is just that one’s definition of words such as “perfect” and “fine” change relevant to the circumstances in which one finds oneself. All of which is to say: if everything here is perfectly fine, I would hate to see the alternative.

I want to stop thinking so much. But my librarian self cannot help noticing how words can be so impotent and meaningless and yet, at the same time, positively loaded. I am horrified by how pedestrian, how unexalted my thoughts are at a time like this. I don’t know how to think anymore, how to be in my own skin. But then, I suppose, this is my first dying husband. I should cut myself some slack. Everything is perfectly fine.

Margie promises to send over chicken soup. I say thank you.

It is too much trouble to tell her about our freezer, already filled to bursting with donated casseroles assembled from chicken, Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup and crushed stale potato chips. If I felt like eating — which I don’t — I might die of a heart attack or an artery-clog-induced stroke. Who knew food could be so beige? Esmé and I eat one-dish meals around Justin’s bed: popcorn or a bowl of ice cream or cold cereal. Still beige, but so much yummier somehow. It feels like we are camping out, like this is just temporary. That we will return to regular programming soon.

“We’re thinking about you,” Margie says at the door. She hesitates a second and grasps one of my hands in hers. “We’re praying for you all, Evelyn.”

I know she is putting herself out there to say this. We are the non-churchgoers on the block. The Sunday layabouts. The agnostics. The daddy pie plate has swung wide and taken us far from the fold.

“Thank you, Margie,” I say. “It means a lot.”

Robin is here already. The day has disappeared, shadows falling. She was coming every few days, but told me yesterday that she will come every day now until the end.

“I didn’t expect to find you and Esmé alone,” she says pointedly but gently.

Esmé likes Robin. She shows her lots of little tricks to help make her father more comfortable. Like dipping the small, stiff swabs in water before use so that they are softer inside his mouth. Or putting Vaseline around the rims of both nostrils where the oxygen tubes chafe. A bit of lip balm on his cracked, flaking mouth.

“I had some things come up,” I say. I laugh at how preposterous that sounds. As if anything could trump the drama in my living room. Things have come up. A comeuppance? “But I’ll call while you’re here.”

“Atta girl.”

“Nancy,” I say, when Justin’s mom picks up. They are in Indianapolis, only five hours away, but our connection sounds as distant as another universe.

“Oh, God. Evelyn.” She puts a hand over the phone. “Paul? Paul! It’s Evelyn.”

“Is everything okay?” A twinge of hope yet in her voice, but mostly fear.

“Yes,” I say. “I mean, no. He’s alive, but the nurse says it won’t be long now.”

“We’ll get right in the car,” says Paul, his gruff voice extra loud on the extension.

“No, no need of that,” I say. I am not ready. Give me just one more night, I think. Please. “Just pack and get things in order. Tomorrow will be perfectly fine.”

Perfectly fine. Did I really just say that?

“We never should have left.” Nancy is sobbing. “Are you sure, Evelyn?”

“Yes, I’m sure.” No, I am not. But I push on, asking them to call Justin’s brother, Jake. Before we hang up, they assure me that they love us all so very much.

“Me, too,” I say.

After I hang up, my hand rests heavily on the handset. It is so exhausting to talk. Punching in numbers, connecting with someone I love — who loves Justin, too — to talk about disconnecting from this life, this person we all care about. I lie down, paralyzed.

Is there any place lonelier than a double bed you used to share with someone? I realize I have not slept here in weeks. That, in fact, I have not slept here since Justin fell. I have slept, of course. But not much — and mostly on the living room couch.

Even though I knew in the back of my mind that there would be a last time we slept together, I thought I would recognize it happening in the moment. A flashing neon sign or a message in marquee lights, perhaps. Or at a minimum — and this sounds absurd — I imagined soft lights, gentle touches, Brahms in the background. Instead, I helped Justin up the stairs and he was so exhausted he just lay there while I undressed him and drew up his blankets. The whole thing made him so angry, so disgusted with himself — with his cancer — that he lashed out: “Don’t touch me, goddamnit!” Then he turned his back to me — no good night kiss, nothing — and slept fitfully all night, facing the wall.

The next morning he fell in the kitchen and suddenly, we had already spent our last night in our bed. It was in the past. And we hadn’t even known it was happening.

“Mrs. Reece?” Robin pokes her head in to let me know she is leaving.

“Evelyn,” I reply, staring up at her from my prone position on the bed.

“How are the calls coming?”

“One down.”

She frowns. “Can someone else help? Justin’s time may be short.”

“Short.” I repeat the word without really assimilating its meaning. I have never associated this word with Justin before, either in height or temperament.

Justin is short on time. A short-timer.

“A few days at most,” she says. “I’m sorry. You may have noticed, his breathing has gotten more shallow. There’s no urine output, either.”

She is right. It has been two days since I emptied the plastic pouch of dark gold liquid hanging from his bed. “His kidneys are shutting down,” she says.

“My nurse friend Julie,” I say. “She’ll know what to tell everyone.”

Robin smiles. “We nurses don’t always know what to say,” she says. “But we usually know what to do. Do you want me to call her for you?”

I hand her the phone. Robin’s end of the conversation sounds more like a soothing flow of music than distinct words. She gives me the phone back. Nods.

“Hi, Jules,” I say. “I am sorry. I couldn’t seem to dial the damn phone.”

“Oh, Evelyn. Oh, baby,” she says. “I’m the one who’s sorry. I should’ve called earlier. I’ll tell them all to come tomorrow. And I’ll be over first thing to check on you.”

“You don’t need to do that.”

“Evelyn,” she says firmly. “Let me help you. I can do this.”

“Okay,” I say, my throat closing over a painful sob. I am relieved. I do not hate her anymore for her competence. For understanding what all of this means.

“Hang in there, baby,” she says. I flash on a poster I had at Esmé’s age: the darling tabby kitten dangling from a branch, eyes desperate, claws dug in. Hang on, baby. Friday’s coming.

Robin helps me up. “I’ll let myself out. Wash your face, okay?”

“Yes,” I say. “I will.”

“Justin’s stable right now,” she says. “But there’s a little girl down there who needs you.”

From the top of the stairs I can see that the living room is dark, but for a small bedside lamp beside Justin. His face looks more relaxed than it has in days. The oxygen machine in the corner gives the house a womblike hum. Everything is so still.

But then a small movement catches my eye: there, in front of the fireplace with her small, cloaked back to me is Esmé. She is mumbling something, words that I cannot quite make out. I take another step closer, stealthily, not wanting to interrupt. I understand that she is summoning someone or something, perhaps; making some kind of magic for her father. It tears at my heart to see hope so naked, so earnestly and hopelessly employed. And yet I am transfixed by the scene, this simple, genuine act of faith in the very face of death. Envious, even.

Slowly, she brings her arms up from her sides. Her wand is in her right hand. She reaches for something on top of the mantel — a bottle? — and kneels down, pouring its contents onto the trio of decorative white birch logs in the fireplace grate.

“Incendio!” Esme says now, loudly.

Too late, I see the silver lighter in her left hand as she bends closer toward the grate, her wand raised high in her right. A tiny click.

“Esmé, no!”

Then there is a bright flash that knocks Esmé back onto her heels, her cape blown open, her arms flung up to her face. Flames flare briefly; a wispy black cloud rolls back into the room and dissipates. My mind panics — there is Esmé, Justin, the oxygen tank — and then I am taking the remaining stairs by threes until I am at Esmé’s side.

She stares up at me, her mouth making silent O’s, a fish gasping on a river bank. Her bangs are singed and her eyes open wide behind the smudged lenses of her glasses, wider than seems possible: I realize then that her eyebrows are gone, giving her a look of horrible, perpetual surprise. The flames in the fireplace have died away, leaving the birch logs smirched but whole. There is the smell of burnt hair. The oxygen machine hums on, oblivious. Justin, too, remains unmoved.

“Mama,” she whispers, and for a moment, she is no longer British, no longer a wizard. I lift her into my arms, brush aside the sizzled hair at her forehead to reveal a black, lightning-shaped scar near the upper right hairline. I recognize this as the work of a Sharpie, not the result of the fire or a fall or other mishap. How magnificent, I think, to be so clearly marked by suffering. I am frightened that when Justin dies, people will look at me and be unable to see him, too; the ways he marked my life, the ways he changed me. Terrified that he will simply disappear.

I am already having difficulty picturing Justin anywhere but in a hospital bed, any way but jaundiced, wasted. Wordless. Already I can no longer recall exactly the way his eyes looked at me or the smile that always began a bit reluctantly on one side of his mouth — was it the left? — before taking over his entire face.

But there is Esmé, of course. She is right here. I clutch her to my chest and rock her.

After a bath in which I affirm that both eyebrows and a measure of pride are the only casualties of Esmé’s wizardry-gone-wild (“But Mummy, Harry conferences with other wizards in the fireplace flames all the time — for advice, you know?”), we join Justin in the living room once more while we eat a dinner of toasted frozen pancakes slathered with peanut butter. Esmé is in her footie pajamas and cape at the end of Justin’s bed; I pull an armchair closer to the side and lower the metal rail so that I can touch them. I can make out the two flat shining buttons of Van Gogh’s wary eyes in the dark beneath the couch.

Soon, Esmé will request Harry Potter and lose herself in Book Seven, the one where Harry dies but doesn’t, talks to Dumbledore (his dead mentor who is still available for counsel), vanquishes Voldemort and lives happily ever after. Harry even marries and becomes a parent.

He has no idea what he is in for.

Esmé will eventually fall asleep, curling up around Justin’s feet. I will mark her page, gently close her book, smooth her cape and cover her with a soft fleece blanket. I will give Justin his meds, hold his hand, and watch him breathe.

Rennervate, I will whisper.

Reparo, I will plead.

Please, God. Please.

But Justin will not wake up. Justin will not heal.

It’s okay, I will say. It is okay for you to go.

They will be here soon, the others. The ones who love Justin, too. They will ring the doorbell and wait politely for me to open the door. Someone will knock. My father-in-law, Paul, perhaps. And then he will knock again, more loudly. They will look at each other and shrug before letting themselves in.

“Knock, knock. Hello? Evelyn? Esmé?”

They will look for us in the living room, moving quickly to Justin’s bedside and the rumple of bedclothes and blankets, sheets, pillows and the clear plastic coils of oxygen tubing. Sunlight will stream through the tall windows. The air will be faintly tinged with the scorch of human hair.

But we will not be there. They will not find us.

We will already be gone. We will have joined hands and said the right words, envisioned ourselves elsewhere. Disapparated. Disappeared. We will be flying like Harry Potter, through time and space. Into another universe.

When we land at last, we will tumble, laughing, across some strange terrain. Justin will rise slowly, dusting off his pressed white shirt cuffs, and run his fingers through his thick, tousled hair and grin at me. Esmé will adjust her taped magenta glasses and look around, wonderstruck.

Obliviate, I will say. And everything terrible, everything perfectly fucking fine will fall away, forgotten.

Later. Much later. My head jerks up from the side of Justin’s bed, where I’ve fallen asleep, resting against his arm. The sky is streaked with light.

Someone is knocking.

Quickly now. Do not be afraid. Let me take your hand. Ready?

I love you.

Forgive me.

Avada Kedavra!

Silence.

Just the low drone of the oxygen machine and my words echoing off these high-ceilinged walls. Our living room. The dying room.

Esmé’s eyes are open.

“Mummy.” Her voice is a whisper, but it holds a reprimand. “You are just a Muggle.”

She pulls herself up until she is seated once more at the foot of Justin’s bed. I am still holding his hand. She reaches for his hand, too.

“I know,” I say. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay.”

We watch Justin’s chest go up and then — after what seems a long while — down. His breath is barely audible, his pulse faint. We will keep watching and listening and holding on, spellbound. As long as it takes. Forever.

The knocking again; louder, more insistent.

“Someone is at the door,” I say. “We better see who it is.”

This entry was posted in Fiction. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

About Michelle Collins Anderson

Michelle Collins Anderson’s short stories have appeared in Midwestern Gothic, Literary Mama, The Green Hills Literary Lantern, The Sulphur River Literary Review and are forthcoming in Nimrod and The Lascaux Review Prize Anthology. She received her MFA from Warren Wilson College and lives with her husband and three children in Liberty, Missouri, where she teaches creative writing at Franklin Elementary. She also serves on the board of The Missouri Review.

3 Comments

  1. Tiffany Nelson
    Posted December 2015 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    The inflexible backdrop of muggle reality juxtaposed with the surrealism of magic beautifully captures the time of palliative care. An exquisite exploration of just how much marriage and parenthood can demand of us, and the skills we must acquire on the fly to ensure our own survival. Beautifully crafted, Michelle.

  2. Carol Brown
    Posted December 2015 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

    Well done, Michelle. Your story captures both the surreal nature of watching a loved one go, and the mundane nature of the days of waiting, the house full of people, which brings you right back to the surreal…
    It’s a beautifully written, beautiful story.
    Carol Brown

  3. Posted February 2016 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    a beautiful, wrenching piece.

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