Orson Welles is quoted as saying “If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.” I choose to believe this story goes on. I choose to believe there is life after a final heartbeat. I choose to believe that sometimes endings are, in fact, beginnings.
The first time I saw her, she was lying in a hospital bed. I was her daughter’s newest aupair, though we’d never met. I had been looking for a job and the family were new to Germany and looking for an English speaker to take care of their baby daughter. Through a friend of a friend we ended up connected. As I lifted her daughter up to her bed, her eyes lit up, excitement and affection filtering through the ever present pain. She took her little girl in her arms forming a stark contrast of illness and health; Elkie’s blonde hair and bright blue eyes mimicking her mother’s sadly lessened glory. Elkie began to crawl happily around on the bed. While the adults talked her mother’s eyes followed her, worried about the slightest infant mishap. The truth was, that the last time she had been able to take care of her daughter she had been a fragile baby but had now grown into a typical, healthy, rip roaring toddler.
At first, she was a mystery woman to me. I hardly knew her. She was just Elkie’s sick mother, struggling with Leukemia in a nearby hospital. However, as the months rolled on, she was allowed to come home more often. I would lift up her little girl onto her lap for some mommy time which could be no more than a few minutes if her strength held out. It was heartbreaking really. You could see just how much she loved her little girl and how much she longed to be a present mother. She delighted in Elkie's smallest accomplishment and dreamed about their future. The days Natalie was home were the days I liked best. She was so relaxed about everything yet entirely unsure sometimes of how to be a mom or if she was doing everything right. Sometimes she would even ask my advice. How could I answer? I was humbled by her trust. As her health improved, and she needed my help with Elkie less and less, I would spend more time with her going to playgrounds or just hanging out. One day, after Elkie fell asleep and it was my time to leave, she looked up at me expectantly. “Do you wanna see my wedding dress” she asked in an excited voice. “Oh my, yes!” I replied pulling out my best American slang for the occasion. We sat for hours and chatted about the wedding, the reception, the music, whom she would invite and which beach location was the best. She showed me the song she had picked out for walking down the aisle and the one for the first dance. We talked and laughed like old friends.
Oftentimes when Elkie slept we would pull up a couch, have ourselves a cup of tea or coffee and just chat. Natalie had lived for quite some time in the States and would regale me with stories of waitressing at a country bar and getting lots of tips due to her cute British accent or of waking up to the sunrise over the forest in the crisp, clean air of the Colorado Rockies. She loved America and Americans, a response we don’t usually get! And in these special, casual times, she let me into a little piece of her life, giving me a little bit of herself. It was an honor I didn’t take lightly. I can’t quite describe what it’s like to become friends with someone you know is dying from the start but it has struck me lately that we are all dying. We really have no idea how many heartbeats we are allotted or when our final breath will take place. We don’t know when we walk out the door that we will see our loved ones again or if it’s the last time. Our days are as a breath. As Solomon says, we are like flowers in the grass which wither and fall away. Life is a fragile gift, but oh, what a gift.
She was supposed to go home in November. She and her fiancée Andy, started once again, with a tinge of hope, to make plans. She had been doing so well for so long. Surely, she might, just might make it through. Then they discovered more tumors they hadn’t known existed. One surgery led to another, her body becoming weaker and less able to fight than it had before. She made it through one last painful Christmas managing to come home just for a few hours to watch Elkie open her presents. Even in the hospital she spent most of her days making presents for those she loved. By the end of January, she was virtually unable to see her daughter and by the second week of February she slipped away.
I knew before they told me but nonetheless found myself running towards my friends, her neighbors in church praying that she had lived just one more day, that there was still just one more ray of hope, just one more chance. Jill’s tear filled eyes met mine as she whispered across the chaos of church “she didn’t make it.” And then the world stopped. Or it should have. There is an old Irish tradition that when someone beloved dies that you stop all the clocks. The world unfeelingly goes on seemingly unaltered with the sun rising and setting as usual, the workday just as busy, and the neighbors just as loud. Little Elkie will never know what a wonderful, adventurous, loving mother her mom was and Andy will never get to see his bride walking down the aisle in white. And yet, I fully believe, I must believe that Natalie’s wishes finally came true. She’s finally gotten to go home with no more poking and prodding and treatments and pain and has gotten her dream wedding, one that couldn’t compare to any amount of glorious human extravagance and planning. I only knew her a little over a year, but knowing her changed my life. May she rest in peace. I beg your prayers for her family. Their lives will never be the same. Here is a video of the song she wrote for her daughter “The Barrel of a Gun.”