“Élan Vital” by K. Tempest Bradford
by K. Tempest Bradford
to the sound of “Rock Me To Sleep” by Jill Sobule…
This story appears in Sybil’s Garage No. 6.
For Marjorie; I still have that dream.
THE FEW MINUTES I had to spend in the Institute’s waiting room were my least favorite part of coming up to visit my mother. It felt more like a dialysis room, the visitors sunk into the overly-soft couches and not speaking, just drinking orange juice and recovering. There were no magazines and no television, just cold air blowing from the vents and generic music flowing with it. I’d finished my juice and was beginning to brood on my dislike for overly air-conditioned buildings when my mother arrived attended by a nurse.
I kissed and hugged her, automatically asking how she was, mouthing the answer she always gave as she gave it again.
“I’m fine, same as always.”
It wasn’t strictly true, but true enough.
“Let’s go on out,” she said, shrugging off the nurse’s continued assistance. “It’s too cold in here.”
Despite the hint, the nurse tried to help Mom over the threshold. As always, she rebuffed any attempt to treat her like an old person.
“Where to today?” she asked, slipping her arm into mine as we escaped the frigid building.
“Just down to the lake,” I said. “Don’t want to overexert you.”
She squeezed my arm as her feet slid carefully over the cobbled path. I wanted her to use a wheelchair, or a walker, at least. She wouldn’t.
“What you mean is that we haven’t got so much time today,” she said.
I shrugged instead of answering. I didn’t want to go into why I couldn’t afford much this trip.
“Next time I’ll come for a couple of days, at least. I promise.”
“No, that’s all right,” she said. “I don’t like it when you spend so much for days and more. A few hours is fine.”
I helped her past the immaculately landscaped gardens and small orchards. The scent of flowers, herbs, and fresh-cut grass wafting at us in turn. I glanced at the garden entrances as we passed by, catching quick glimpses of other people in the middle of visits. A young couple who’d been in the waiting room with me knelt by a small, bald girl as she splashed in the koi pond. Two elderly women stood under a weeping willow, their heads close, lips barely moving. A large group of people speaking Mandarin milled around the waterfall in the rock garden. I could still hear faint traces of their melodic din all the way down by the lake.
I preferred this spot—the flora was less regimented and more natural. And no walls. Just an open space, water gently flicking the shoreline, a beautiful view down the hill, and the occasional cat wandering by.
“This hasn’t changed much,” my mom said as I helped her down on one of the small benches by the water. “I thought they were going to get ducks or geese or something.”
I chose a nearby rock for my own perch. “I think they’re having trouble with permits or whatever you need nowadays.”
The wind kicked up, sending freckles of reflected light across her face. Her skin was still perfect, beautiful and dark brown, though stretched across her cheekbones a little too tight. I hated that I never had enough to restore her round cheeks and full figure. I have to look at pictures just to remember her that way.
“You haven’t changed much, either,” she said while fussing with my hair. I’d bought some dye the week before, knowing she’d notice it. “How long has it been?”
She let out a familiar sigh—part exhaustion, part exasperation, part sadness, I suppose. “That’s too soon.”
“It’s your birthday, though.”
“Is it? It’s fall already?” She looked out over the small forest that edged the Institute’s boundary a few miles away. The trees were still green with no hint of turning. It always felt and looked like summer there; one of the reasons the administrators chose the location. “I miss the seasons. Fall colors, Christmas snow…”
“You never did when you had to shovel it.”
That got her to smile.
I reached out and held her hand; still a little cold even in the full sunlight. “Besides, I missed you.”
“I know. But…”
“And I won’t be able to come back until after the new year, anyway, so I wanted to squeeze in one more visit. Since today is special…”
Years ago I used to bring her cake and presents on her birthday. She couldn’t really eat the cake—one of the side effects of whatever they did when they brought her back. The presents had to go back home with me since she didn’t have any place to put them and couldn’t wear clothing or jewelry once she went back to sleep. I hated having to give that up, too.
“Okay, I’ll give you a pass this time.” She kissed my cheek, seeming more like her old self. “Where are you off to?”
“Rwanda. For a dig. Dr. Berman promised I’d be more than a glorified volunteer wrangler this trip. And they want me for a year. Still, I’ll try to come back and see you sooner than that.”
“No, you should concentrate on your work. I’ll still be here.” My mother never changed.
It was the same when she was sick. I wanted to take a break from college and stay home with her. It was pretty clear that her death was inevitable by that time, the only question being: how long? I wanted to be with her, she wanted me back in class. If you take a leave of absence you might never go back, she’d said. So I went back.
“For me it’ll seem like you’ve gone and come back right away.” Trying to reassure me again.
“I know,” I said. “Must be strange, not being able to perceive the passage of time.”
We didn’t say anything for a while. This was the part of the visit where one of us either addressed the elephant in the room or steered the conversation around it.
“At least I’m not as bad as Ella,” she said. And we both laughed.
My aunt, her older sister, was so notorious for being late that we started her funeral a few hours behind schedule because it just felt right. My cousin Brandon joked that we should have carved an epitaph on her headstone: “I’ll be back in five minutes.”
“Remember the time she was supposed to pick me up from rehearsal or something?”
“And you waited for her, caught the bus, and was home before she’d even left the house!”
Mom kept me laughing for a long time, recounting trips she’d taken with Ella and their cousins and everything that went wrong because they were never on time anywhere. Stories I’d heard dozens of times before and wouldn’t have minded hearing a hundred times again. More and more, her laughs ended with a small coughing fit. I checked the time; we had about forty-five minutes left.
“Do you want to head back?” I asked. “Sit inside a bit before you…”
“You don’t die.”
“Technically, I do. According to the doctors, anyway.”
I didn’t argue. I didn’t even want to be talking about it. I was never there when my mother went ‘back under’, as the nurses put it. It was against Institute rules. I suppose for some people it might have been upsetting to see their loved ones in the capsules residents stayed in. Too much like a coffin. For me, it felt wrong not to be by her side when it happened. I was with her when she first died, after all.
Seeing that I wasn’t going to go there, mom leaned back and turned her face to the sunlight. “No, let’s stay out here a little bit longer. It’s a nice day.”
“I could come back tomorrow, get a few more hours,” I said. It wouldn’t matter if I stayed a little longer. There wasn’t anyone waiting for me back at home.
“You know how I feel about that.” Her look was semi-stern. “You don’t want to end up in here yourself. Not for a long time, if ever.”
“At least we’d be together,” I said, smiling.
“But who would bring us back?”
“I’m sure I could bribe Brandon’s kids to do it.” I wasn’t particularly close to my cousin anymore, though his oldest called me on the holidays. My guess was he’d been coveting my share of our grandmother’s house.
“You’ve given this a lot of thought. I’m surprised.”
I knew I had to tread very carefully. “It may come up. Someday. You haven’t said you want to stop. And if anything happens to me, it’s in my will that I want to come here if I can.”
Mom gazed at me steadily for what felt like a long time. “Are you sure that’s what you want?”
That alarmed me more than a little. “Why? Is there… I mean, something that isn’t right? Is it…” When you avoid talking about something for so long, it’s hard to know how to start. “Is it bad?”
“The dying? I don’t know, really. They always induce sleep before that moment.”
Though I had always been more reluctant to talk about this, I could tell my mother was holding back, not saying some things. That scared me even more. She was always very upfront with me except when it came to what was going on with her. Usually when it was really bad.
“What’s it like? Afterwards. While you’re… gone.”
She shook her head slowly, her look far away. “To be honest, I don’t know.”
Better than the answer I’d been dreading. Answers, plural, actually. Nothing I could imagine made me feel particularly good. Either I was ripping my mother away from the glories of heaven or giving her only small respites from the tortures of hell. The preachers and protestors all had their own variations on those themes and loved to scream them at me (or anyone else driving past the gates) whenever I came up. ‘I don’t know’ was, at least, not guilt-inducing.
“It’s a little like waking up from a dream,” she said after a couple of minutes. “I know that I’ve been dreaming, and I even intend to remember the dream, but I can’t recall a single element once I wake up.”
“That must be frustrating.” I sometimes dreamed of what she did and where she went while I was gone. Many times I was there with her. Those were my favorite.
“It’s the way things are,” she said and shrugged. “Ironic, though, isn’t it? I don’t know anymore about the afterlife than anyone else and I’ve been dead how many years?”
“Hmm.” She smiled my favorite smile—the one where the corners of her mouth turned down and yet it was still somehow a smile. “I guess I am having trouble with time. I thought it had been longer.”
I still couldn’t get over the fact that it had happened at all. It wasn’t fair. I was too young to lose my mother and she was too young to be dying. Only fifty-three. Not fair at all. So when the UR Institute approached me in the hospital I was primed to listen and agree. They would handle all of the funeral arrangements and costs and even buy a crypt for her in the cemetery where her mother and father and brother were buried. No one else would know that she wasn’t in there. Only I knew that she was actually resting in the Institute waiting to be re-animated. You could have your mother back for a couple of days a few times a year, they’d said. Holidays, birthdays, maybe even your wedding day. They had me from hello.
It didn’t matter that the only reason they were prepared to foot the bills was that they wanted to study how people who died from cancer reacted to the resurrection process. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t tell the rest of the family. Only a few people knew then that the Institute wasn’t just reanimating rich old ladies’ cats anymore. It didn’t matter that I would have to provide the élan vital necessary to reanimate her again for those few hours or days. Or that these transfusions shortened my own life span, sometimes caused considerable health problems in other ‘donors’, and took the ability to have children of my own. It didn’t matter. I just wanted my mother back.
“It can’t have only been seven years.” Mom was frowning now.
“Oh, right. It’s been more like ten.” My hand went to the nape of my neck, rubbing the tender spot they always used for access. I thought I’d gotten rid of that tic.
“Has it?” She was paging back through her memory. I could tell from her look.
I exuded casualness—my only defense against a mother’s ability to catch you in a lie. “Like you said, the process messes with your sense of time.”
I had developed this tendency to treat her like a doddering old woman. She was only 53 and would always be 53. She never aged, just backed up from death a few steps before going ahead again. The resurrection process didn’t work very well on cancer patients, particularly cancers of the blood. She was perpetually sick-seeming, though the pain wasn’t as bad. That made it easy to fool myself by thinking she was getting old and forgetful when her memory was as sharp as ever.
“I’ve been resurrected twenty-six times. I know because someone told me when I hit twenty.”
They weren’t supposed to tell her stuff like that.
“Six visits should have been three years ago,” she continued. “How long has it actually been?”
And of course she was giving me that look. The one mothers have when you’ve been caught forging a report card signature or sneaking into a movie when you’re supposed to be in Algebra. There was no point lying then.
“A little over a year,” I admitted. I could see her ramping up. “Mom, it’s-”
“When I agreed to do this it was on the condition that you only do two transfusions a year. Three at most. Now you’re telling me six!”
“Shannon, that’s too many. It’s dangerous! You’re throwing away years—”
“Years of your life on the past!”
There was more to the speech but a chime interrupted. Each patient had an electronic monitor bracelet to keep track of vital signs, warn of danger, and countdown the time left. It chimed again, informing us that we had 20 minutes.
“We should start back.” I said, knowing she didn’t need the whole twenty for the walk.
“No. Sit down.”
“Mom, please, we need to go.”
She pointed at my rock. “Not until we talk about this.”
There was nothing to do but give in.
“You can’t keep doing this,” she said, using The Voice. Like I was a small child and she was explaining why I couldn’t have something I’d begged and begged for at the store. “This five or six or however many times a year. You promised me.”
“I know. And I’m sorry I lied. But I didn’t want you to worry. And I couldn’t afford it any other way.”
“Afford what? I thought they said this was free.”
There had been several times I’d wanted to tell her this. To tell anyone, really. But she wouldn’t have just listened. She would have made me stop.
“The ‘storage’ is free,” I said. I hated that word and the way they used it. “But the resurrection isn’t. The fees went up once they went public. I couldn’t always afford it. And I couldn’t wait years between seeing you again. Then they developed a way to transfer vital force between non-family members.”
I wanted to turn away, but I forced myself to look her in the eye. “People pay a lot of money for that.”
I have only seen my mother cry a few times in my life. Seeing tears in her eyes broke me down to the child I was when I first saw them. When you’re three (or thirty) and your mother cries because of something you’ve done, you want to turn back time or vow to be the perfect daughter for the rest of your life. Anything to make it better.
“Every time I do it for someone else they let me do it for you, too. For the short visits. Then I earn enough money to buy longer ones.”
“You have to stop.” She squeezed my hand tight and drew me over to the bench.
“Mom, it’s okay. I’m fine. The process is much more refined now, much less dangerous.”
“No. This isn’t right.”
“But I’m helping people. Helping them hang on to life a little longer.”
Mom made me look her in the eyes. “Why aren’t their family members doing it for them? Why are they paying someone else to do it?”
There are probably dozens of legitimate reasons I could have given her. But, in the end, it all came down to the fact that people with that kind of money to throw around didn’t need to give of themselves to fulfill their desires, so they didn’t. Nor did they have to when there were plenty of people like me around.
The monitor chimed again. She pressed a button to silence it, then took it off altogether.
“Shannon, I love you. I would do anything for you. I did this for you.”
I was the one crying now. “You didn’t really want to though, did you?”
“No, baby, I did.” She wiped the tears from my cheek. A futile act as they were near torrential. “When I— when I died I had no regrets but one: that I was leaving you. I wouldn’t get to see you graduate college or get married or be a mother yourself. I would miss your life and I hated that thought.”
It was nearly dark. The lights around the lake blinked on and illuminated her hollow face. My mother’s body wasted away by cancer. Cancer that would kill her again right in front of my eyes if we stayed any longer. They warned every resident to get back to the Institute before… Before. They said if the proper procedure wasn’t followed it could result in damage, or worse.
“How many years has this taken from you? Not just the seven we’ve been doing this, but the years they leeched?”
I closed my eyes, seeing my face as it looked in the mirror each morning. No wrinkles to speak of—that was down to her genes. But the grey hairs, the stiff joints, and the fatigue made me feel older than thirty. Hell, older than forty, most days. “They don’t know. It’s hard to tell. They just don’t know. And it doesn’t matter.”
“Of course it matters!”
“No, it doesn’t. Because you’re my mother. Because I’m supposed to take care of you. Because I wasn’t there when you had your operations or when you had chemo or all the other times you needed me. I was off sorting through dead people’s things and wondering which pottery sherd came from which dynasty and other bullshit that didn’t matter!”
The bracelet beeped again. I took a few minutes to calm down, knowing that minutes was all I had left. But my throat was so tight I could barely breathe and I didn’t want to lose it.
“I thought of you every day,” she said with effort. “But every day I was glad you weren’t there to see me like that. I didn’t want that to be how you remembered me. Sending you back to college was an easy excuse.”
I wiped my face dry as best I could, then swept away the tears on her cheeks. “So. Atonement for us both, then.”
“I let it go on for too long, though,” she said. It was obvious that she was in a great deal of pain and did not intend to do anything about it. “I just didn’t want to leave you again.”
“At some point, I have to. I’m dead, baby. You can bring me back a hundred times and nothing will change that.”
“It’s not fair.”
She wrapped her arms around me. “No one ever promised you fair.”
No, no one ever did. Not even her.
FIVE MINUTES BEFORE we were supposed to be back at the main building, a nurse found us, my mom’s head resting on my shoulder, my arm holding her close.
“Ma’am, do you need help getting back?” he asked.
“She’s not going back,” I said, my eyes never leaving the water.
“But Miss Tidmore, she needs to get back if we’re—”
“I’m exercising my right to allow my mother a full and natural death.”
The minutes ticked away. Mom’s body started to tremble, the pain kicking in as her time ran out. She’d lost consciousness just after the nurse went to get help. Or reinforcements. It was hard, sitting there, knowing that she was in pain.
In the end, she left the decision up to me. Just like she had seven years before in the hospital. My aunts had been taking care of her, but I had the power of attorney. I could let her go or I could let the Institute bring her back. Now, by the lake, footsteps approaching, it was the same. I could let her go or I could bring her back.
When they came back, I knew, they would try to change my mind. They would argue and reason and sound very convincing. They couldn’t force me, though. It was in the contract.
I held her hand. I waited forever.
It was over too soon. But I was there.
© Copyright 2009 K. Tempest Bradford & Senses Five Press