Afterlife

By Anna Elin Kristiansen

Is she okay?

This is the first thought that forms in my mind as I come to after my afternoon dozing, surprised, as usual, that I have fallen asleep at all. My naps never last long, but lately, I have succumbed to taking them in my bed rather than having a lie-down on the sofa. There is simply no use pretending I’m not going to give in to sleep. I wake up with a feeling of having seen her face, that mysterious half-grin that I never can make head nor tail of. She wasn’t the only one, though. She was with others, others I didn’t care for. 

Rousing myself from short sleep in my state is no small feat. There is delight at managing to wake up at all, but there is also discomfort and a little of that familiar fear. Where, oh where, is she? I know now that she can manage by herself on the floor while I nod off, but still, I’m not entirely at ease with letting my consciousness float away from her needs. You need to have a lie-down, mum, can’t always be looking after her like you do. You’ll get too tired.

My mind is incapable of quelling echoes these days. Comments of the more hurtful variety are always ringing in my ears. Now, I keep her away from prying eyes. I want her close, though. I need her with an urgency that summons even the oldest of atom bonds, calling on them to unite yet again. As I rise from bed, my body faithfully reminds me of its limitations. It groans and creaks in protest as I grip the bed rails to pull myself up. Then, there is that dizziness spell. A nap can bring it out full force, sometimes flooring me for a day or two. It seems, though, that my brain still has the tenacity to beat it, given enough time. 

I’m trapped in a wasteland between reliving days gone by, unguarded memories threatening to overtake reality at the slightest opportunity, and disbelief at the state of me. Where I am now doesn’t quite qualify as life, but at the same time cannot be non-existence, based on the pure logic that once oblivion descends, there can be no perception of morning or evening. There is the seemingly irreversible routine of waking up at five-thirty or six. There is the post-lunch lull that descends on me like clockwork, slowing my entire organism in anticipation of the mid-day nap. And there is dusk that brings loneliness closer to my door and makes the darkness, ever so present in the vaults of my memories, thicken. There is also sadness. Quite a lot of sadness.

The afterlife is not a place appealing to visitors and those that come I can place in two categories. A pity visit I can smell from that first ring of the doorbell. The momentary pause before their greeting and their chirpy tones confirm my original instinct. We would have been better off alone, I whisper in her ear before tucking her away. Mother! How lovely to see you. Don’t you look dashing today. May I come in?

How I crave honesty. I would give my left, now useless arm, for a few minutes of real conversation that doesn’t shy away from the destination that breathe down my neck every minute of every day. But every time I try to voice what really weighs me down, my visitor will steer the topic to safer ground. We must not dwell on the negative, mother. Let’s enjoy our tea and out chat. Here, have another biscuit. I wish they wouldn’t fob me off with a cookie. Let me have it, for god’s sake. I deserve it. Throw your anger at me. Long ago, my taste buds performed an act of self-preservation and stopped tasting the bland sweets of today.

The second category of visitors is the paid ones. I can’t keep track of when, exactly, they are due. Any inquiries into the matter only produce mumbled responses that tell me nothing of importance. Their offerings are hardly more exciting than the boring biscuits, but they are warm and slightly more nutritious, so I eat from their plates. And they come with pills that keep my pain in check and my dizziness more manageable. It’s what I need if I am to take care of you, sweet-pea. If I’m to cope with all your demands. This second kind of visitor tends to bring a certain air of lost hope. It’s a shame, really, but why should they wash their hair and mind their looks? They pay no attention to what kind of opinion their appearance might evoke in the likes of me. When it comes down to it, I suppose the afterlife boils down to these two words: Not mattering. 

A part of me is fine with that, is perfectly at ease with being a no-body, just like I was once a busy-body in charge of a bustling household of six. Even though I’m now an old croon, a tucked-away particle still remembers the way my body swelled as a result of life multiplying inside. First, I dreaded what was to come, cursed the months of being fat and puking into the toilet. I still wince at the memory of how I panted and cried and groaned – I had welcomed my final hour after twenty-one hours of hellish labour – before finally being broken, so I could become a gateway into this world. Four times a mother taught me this: Life – irrevocable, unapologising – comes with its own agenda, and there is no taking back control again. Life takes what it needs without question; it nurses and latches on, greedily sucks in strength and reaches its chubby little arms out for independence sooner than any mother could possibly imagine. It sets you up to fail, you know. That’s why I need you, I need your dependability, your presence.  

How I had loved them, though. How I still love them, though I have learned long ago to let them go, to set them free so they can make their own mistakes. Despite my shortcomings, or perhaps because of them, there is a thing or two I could teach them about the way they live their lives, always on the go and rarely at home, lost in a screen but not in conversation, consulting psychologists instead of sitting down alone with a cup of tea, letting their own mind unfold. But I have also learned to keep silent, having caught on to the glances that pass between them whenever I broach the sensitive topic of how to live. She’s lost in the past. She doesn’t know the ways of today. Be patient with her, poor thing.

I used to host dinners for my family, twelve people at the table and me scurrying back and forth to the kitchen to put the final touch on each dish. We were happy then. Look at us, squint, concentrate and take a good look at us through the rear mirror. There we are, gobbling up turkeys and potatoes and green beans and puddings. Now, I’m incapable of such tiresome feats. 

Ah, there she is. My little darling. Relief floods my system as I bend over to pick her up, preparing to hoist her up on my hip with that second-nature movement, but instead – and this has never happened before, not with her – I lose my balance and take a tumble. A pitiful sound, somewhere in between a whine and a frightened-animal-groan, pierces the silence of my small living room. In no time, I’m just a heap on the floor, clutching her, panicked at the thought that I might have landed on top of her small body. My good arm is throbbing with pain. She must not be hurt. Please, don’t be hurt. I can’t live with myself if I don’t do right by you.

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(Story continued below)

Of the physical demands motherhood makes, I had heard a lot. I knew, for example, about the lack of sleep, the endless rocking and walking, the sucking, the ache, the relentless needs babies and children had. I knew about the bond, too, that mildly amusing description that could only be used in mother-to-mother conversation unless you wanted the other person to stifle a yawn. I hadn’t known, however, that mothering would require me to dive to the bottom of my own psyche and emerge with boxed-up emotions that erupted in frustrations, failures and disasters. It had been one series after another, one child after another, and I had yielded to its force. Alone, I had bobbed up and down in a raging ocean, thrown this way and that by nasty waves that made me choke and splutter, and him – him, who had been the source of all this in the first place – offering me no lifeline whatsoever. 

But it won’t be like that with you.

I stroke her, the pain in my arm slowly giving way to a numbness usually induced by the pills I can easily get my hands on these days. Back then, when I needed them more, it had been a struggle. 

With you, I’ll do it all over again. And I’ll do it without regrets.

Her clothing is beginning to fall apart, I need to mend the buttons doing up her dress in the back, but I can’t do anything about it now. Fear grips my heart. What if I die here and we’re found this way? I couldn’t bear it, not with her looking so shoddy.  She hasn’t been with me for a while, not in plain sight. The last time I exposed her to prying eyes, her appearance was much more to my liking.

Perhaps it’s jealousy on their part. Jealousy that I might get it right this time. That they got the short end of the stick, and she is blessed with perfection. They don’t rub my nose in it, not anymore, me being an unspeakably old lady and all, but I know what they think. What they should think. Because I had also hated them. Most days, I couldn’t stand them. With my own hands, I had beaten them, smacked their naked bottoms, pinched their chubby thighs, thrown them into cupboards and slammed the door. I had yanked their soft hair, punished them by letting them go hungry, I had shouted, screamed and raged at their folly. They had driven me mad, and they had known all about it. 

The floor, my immobility, my inability to rise and put an end to my pitiful situation offers me a glimpse into how time can curl up into itself, take a somersault and then settle down peacefully, slowing down to a barely noticeable crawl. She is a bulky pillow, not being made for anything of the sort, and I fight the urge to throw her across the darkening room. My stomach growls. Perhaps one of the second-kind visitors will save me. The thought offers a ray of hope before I realize that they’re done for the week. My dinner has been placed in the fridge under a plastic lid, ready to be heated in an idiot-proofed microwave that switches off automatically after fifteen minutes. They do this sometimes when they’re hit by a wave of staff sickness.

Pity comes first, then shame. I’m ashamed over my obvious ability to live so long but do so badly with all this superfluous time. And then there is fear, fear so strong it makes me whimper. This is the moment I have been neglecting, the moment an arrogant corner of my mind thought didn’t have to be reckoned with, the moment I’m to be strung up and stripped of my affiliations, weighed and measured by my actions and deeds alone. When all is said and done, this is a fitting ending for someone like me. I know it, my old and worn body knows it, my eyes know it as they produce hot tears that wet my face, melting into my deep lines and finding ways to trickle down my sagging face.

I try finding comfort in her, try caressing her back the way I have done so many times before, try stroking her cold and lifeless cheek. At least we’re together. But it’s as if the enchantment surrounding her has bid a hasty goodbye and disappeared through my depressing ceiling. It’s not her cotton-filled body that I need, not her staring blue eyes, nor her once-glistering blonde curls. This bland fake, this impostor, can’t save me from anything. I need real flesh. I want the version of life that I failed, the humans that grew inside of me. It doesn’t matter which one; I love them all the same.

Time on the floor creeps backward, takes me back to moments I thought I had covered in veils or packed up in boxes marked with ‘oblivion.’ With them, I can always claim amnesia, but here on the floor, I relive every rage, every punishment I inflicted on them, every mean remark and insult meant to scar and serve my own purpose. As the surrounding darkness closes in on me, I have to let my dignity go and allow a trickle of warm liquid to seep out and soak my underwear. I weep anew. The night wears on, and I drift in and out of restless sleep, trying unsuccessfully to make my body crawl, so I can snatch one of the woollen blankets covering the sofa. It is cold down here, and the wetness doesn’t help.

After an eternity, early morning rays illuminate the sad scene. I lie still, watching the sun climb higher. Breakfast, I tend to manage on my own, but lunch gets delivered. Someone will come in time.

Not long after, I hear the heavenly sound of the doorbell. 

All dust particles floating around in the air hang suspended for one tiny moment, waiting for me to draw a sharp intake of breath. At once, my senses are on full alert, trying to work out whether the visitor whose index finger produced the vibrations in my dull apartment is of the first or second kind. Of course, it’s one of mine, oh thank the lord – it’s one of mine, I know it!

From my place on the floor, I make a move. I reach with my good hand for the table, pulling myself a few inches closer to the hallway. Sharp pain stabs at my hip. My entire body opposes the movement, shrieks in deep protest. I whimper, I groan, I fart from exhausting my last strength, but I send my arm back out again, grasping at the armchair legs. My other arm wakes up from its temporary slumber, sending jabs of pain towards my epicentre, but I recognize them only by crying out, persisting instead in crawling towards the hallway and towards the end goal: The door.

I need to tell them that I’m sorry. Sorry for hurting them instead of protecting them always, for thinking they were splendid but never telling them anything of the sort, for slapping them when I should have taken them in my arms, for yelling at them when they did nothing but behave like kids. Most of all, though, I’m sorry that I never took a moment to pause and weep and look at myself, to look at them; that I never seized life by the wrists so I could take them along for the ride when I was in the throes of it.

The doorbell rings again. Whoever is downstairs is growing impatient, is perhaps gripped with a that’s-not-right sensation, wondering whether to call one of the neighbours for assistance with the buzzing-in. I manage to creep another inch forward, crying out as I do, whimpering at my pain. How will I ever reach that door? Suddenly nothing else matters. I can die; I can go in peace if I just make it to that door. If I can share just a few moments with the child of mine downstairs who still comes, the child that still spends minutes and hours listening to me whining about life when I should be intently focused on their perspective. My children, who still have their fragile lives in their hands, choose to spend some of it with me. And not just one of them; all of them. They all come. I’m gripped with a gratefulness so huge it sucks me in, makes me gasp.

“Mother?”

Oh, I hear him, my first, the one who broke me when he burst into this world, the one who almost died of pneumonia, the one who kept me up for forty-two hours straight watching his blue lips part and shiver as air left and entered. How I alternated between fretting at his bedside and cursing my unfamiliar vulnerability. If I lose him, there is nothing left in me. He took everything that was good when he was yanked out of me. 

He speaks through the letter-hole, trying the door handle hesitantly.

“Mother, are you there?”

I take in a gulp of air, lift myself up on my elbows, hold my head still, trying to stop it from shaking.

“I’m here!” I repeatedly croak until some of my unintelligible sounds break through the keyhole, the letter-hole, the door separating me from him. 

“I’m here. I’m here, angel. Mummy’s here.” The last two sentences I can only whisper. It’s kind of amazing, the fact that I’m still here. And whether I have a glorious hour, a dazzling day, a whopping whole month, or a full, amazing year, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that I’m here.


Anna Elin Kristiansen is a reader, writer, mother and the universe masquerading as a human being. She makes sense of the world – and creates her own – through her own writing. In the evenings, she writes literary fiction, and when inspiration strikes, she writes poems about the experience of being alive. You can find her words at On Mama’s Mind and her Twitter.

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