Nurses in the intensive care unit step aside, for I move with purpose. It is my father’s gait, one I followed year after year as he brought me along to visit sick parishioners.
Rachel’s room is guarded by a cart armed with gowns and gloves. I cover myself as directed and enter a gallery of drawn flowers, suns, crosses, cakes—get-well cards sent from her students in the south. I lose track of all the tubes and where they connect and look for the girl I met in boarding school.
Rachel’s head tilts away from me, covered partly in bandages and partly with a blue Velcro noose. The note above her head explains how the noose is really a brace meant to keep her head upright. Towels are rolled up and positioned against her neck. The breathing and feeding tubes now have a guard that presses into her hollow cheeks; Rachel’s fingers look stuck inside the guard, like she had fallen asleep trying to pull it off. Which is quite likely, by the sounds of my last conversation with her mother.
“She keeps pulling out her tubes. I just don’t think she can take it anymore,” Mrs. Brim said to me as we stood over Rachel just a few nights ago. “She’s so sick of being here. She wants to go to her heavenly home.”
“Or she just wants to prove she doesn’t need them.” Why was this super-devout preacher’s wife talking about her daughter’s unconfirmed suicidal tendencies in front of her daughter, like she is something incapable of hearing or comprehension?
She waved me away then, like I didn’t really know her child. I shook my head like she didn’t know, either.
Rachel grew up a preacher’s child like me, and like me was sent to a Christian boarding school to learn how to serve God once adulthood hit. Unlike me, Rachel embraced this future. It was the only world she had known.
Reverend and Mrs. Brim put God above all things and taught their children to do the same. Music is for God. Read God-endorsed stories and Scripture. What you earn is for God. God, God, God.
I remember losing my voice more than once at their dinner table as I learned of the evils in society. The Brim parents ate like Jack Sprat and his wife, and looked the parts, too. “Imagine, these people call themselves Christian parents, but they let their children read about sorcery! Watch vampires and aliens on television! It’s all in defiance of God’s creation, Jean, you know that, don’t you?” Mrs. Brim always did the talking as Reverend Brim nodded along.
One weekend Mrs. Brim burst into Rachel’s room. “You won’t believe what I found today!” She held up a garment bag with a smile full of bravado. The smile faded when she noticed my copy of The Crying of Lot 49, but as she had no clue whether or not the book was evil, she did not comment. “I just couldn’t pass it up.” Mrs. Brim unzipped the bag. There hung a gold-white wedding dress, an unadorned gown of basic A-line shape, no train, and thin gauze for sleeves and collar. “It was such a bargain!” (All the Brims love bargains, but I don’t hold that against them. You have to when you’re a preacher’s family.) “Now you just need a husband.” Mrs. Brim laughed as though a wedding could happen once Rachel made up her mind with all those gentlemen callers, when in reality Rachel had yet to go on a date.
Rachel kept her face a complete blank, even when her mother insisted she try it on. I wanted to leave. That dress dictated the future: frugal marriage. Sensible lifestyle. Dedicated in duty. No-nonsense in family. A preacher’s wife.
“A perfect fit!”
I looked at Rachel. How could she not want to escape this? Didn’t she want to dictate her own life? The separation between her extremely conservative world and mine was bubble-thin. Just pop it and come out!
The next weekend I went home. There sat Dad in his favorite Doctor Who shirt (before it was cool) watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. “Wanna hit Hot Topic? I need a new Harry Potter shirt for the midnight premiere next week!”
Did a love of the worldly creations somehow make my father less godly? That’s what the Brims thought, hinting as much without saying it to my face. Yet I knew my father’s dedication to God was life-long and absolute. Grandma told me he played communion with his stuffed animals, for crying out loud, making little wafers with bread and putting grape juice in teeny cups. And then he’d go tie a red towel on his neck to be Superman. In the eyes of the Brims, one could not dabble in fantasy, for that meant you treated religion as fantasy. Now granted, Dad had Biblical commentaries shelved with Dragonriders of Pern, but that didn’t mean he took his divine vocation as a joke, nor did he consider dragon-riding a possible career change.
As my favorite writer Diana Wynne Jones wrote time and again, people need fantasy, to explore the “what if,” in order to work through the problems in real life. I, or I should say my children, are living proof of this: my post-partum depression reached levels so dangerous my rational self feared for my children’s safety. By writing about another world, I learned to cope with the one I’ve got.
The night before the surgery, Rachel explained that she hadn’t bothered seeing a doctor because she felt okay despite the weight loss. She just focused on her students. Being a dedicated servant to God’s flock, she knew God would see her through whatever ailment made her body act like an 80-year-old-woman’s. If not for her pastor specifically stating she needed to seek medical help, she would not have bothered with tests in the first place. Either God wanted her in heaven or He didn’t.
After years of hospital visits with strangers, church members, and grandparents, I knew how monotonous and confining those rooms could be. I raided my Diana Wynne Jones library and selected three favorites to help Rachel escape those sterile halls: Archer’s Goon, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, and Charmed Life. I couldn’t wait for her to meet Chrestomanci and talk to her about how Jones blends worlds and pokes fun at all the clichés of the fantasy genre.
I stupidly pulled the books out with Mrs. Brim in the room.
“Oh what a nice card, Jean! And,” she paused at the sight of the books on the bedside table, “how nice. Thank you. Let’s move these for your supper, Rachel.” Mrs. Brim plunked the books on the windowsill behind the drapes. Rachel’s supper consisted of yogurt and Ensure. “Let’s not forget your owl!” Mrs. Brim balanced a large plush snowy owl where I had placed my books. I did not tell her the owl looked just like Hedwig from the Harry Potter series.
Now Rachel lay before me, barely sixty pounds, and unable to speak. The tumor had been wrapped around her brain stem for quite some time, according to the doctors. She needs a hole in her head to function as a drain, a permanent system where fluids could be siphoned into her stomach. And speaking of stomach, she needs a hole there too, so they can move the feeding tube. May as well put a hole in her throat so she can get her mouth back. All normal procedure—that is, until her fever goes away, which must stem from an infection we can’t find. We’ll just keep taking samples from all over and studying their cultures which could take days maybe weeks and keep her in intensive care which normally is just a short-term thing but what do you know, she’s been here five weeks. Well, what’s another week.
A week. I can’t imagine laying in that bed for an hour with all those tubes and noose on my head. I don’t blame Rachel for being so unresponsive. I just wish I could give her a new fantasy to live in, if only for a few hours, without backlash from her family. There are so many beautiful worlds out there, Rachel, beyond the Christian-approved Narnia and Middle Earth, where the quests are terrible and hilarious until the very end where all is well again. Without permission to share my fantasies, I resort to becoming Listener of Woes.
“It’s a shame her sister couldn’t come before the surgery,” Mrs. Brim says with a sigh, “but she had to play organ, and you know Ruth—she just has so many duties at the church, she didn’t want to let them down.”
I nod slowly because all I want to say is what a BITCH. Rachel may never be the same way again, and you put ORGAN before your sister? I do not say this because I know the answer: God first.
We say good-bye. “God has his plan for Rachel. We’ll see it someday.” She hugs me, which requires a very awkward bend forward on my part. I wonder if that wedding dress still hangs in Rachel’s old closet.
“The future is full of ‘what ifs’ to be explored, Mrs. Brim. Good night.”