Moments Upon the Stage
by A. Elizabeth Herting
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
Five-year-old Claudie swings high into the air gasping with joy, her handsome Daddy lifting her higher and higher until she can feel the hot stage lights on her upturned face. He is young, the most handsome Daddy in the whole wide world with his head full of jet-black hair and bright green eyes. Eyes that are the same shade as Claudie’s; everyone always says so. No one in her afternoon kindie class has a Daddy like hers, especially one who dresses up for a living, just like a superhero!
Daddy places her gently on the stage, just behind the curtain and gives her a special wink. His eyes are rimmed with black stage makeup, deep and expressive. He strides out onto the stage; the audience applauding in appreciation at the mere sight of him. Claudie watches, completely mesmerized as he says the words she has seen him practice over a million times in the mirror at home: “But soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east and Juliet is the sun...”
“Arise fair sun, and kill the envious moon!” the Bard’s commanding voice reached out across the room, carrying an echo of its former glory. It jolted Claudia out of her childhood memory, sending her sprawling from the chair and forcing her back into the present with its intensity. I fell asleep in the chair again. Damn it! What if he needed me? She scrambled to her feet, wiping the sleep from her eyes and looked at him in complete astonishment.
He was halfway sitting up, as much as he possibly could in his weakened state, his gaze bright and intelligent. She sucked in her breath as he took a deep breath and continued addressing her in a firm voice, a tone she never thought to hear from him again.
“O! Let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven; keep me in temper; I would not be mad!”
“Hang on, Dad,” she said cautiously, searching in vain for the overturned book. She wasn’t sure if she looked for the book out of fear or necessity, but she understood the tone of his words well enough without it. She was still trying to wake up, having slept soundly for over three hours since returning from the cafeteria. This was the most cognizant and aware she had seen him in weeks, an incredible, miraculous development. She thought of trying to page Karen but didn’t want to lose the moment, whatever the hell this was.
“Like as the waves make towards the pebbl’d shore, so do our minutes hasten to their end,” he said, trying to reach out to her, make his meaning clear.
“Dad, let me know how to help you, how to make you comfortable, I know this is hard.”
“End!” he said in a raised voice. “We are time’s subjects, and time bids be gone!”
Claudia gaped at him, surprised and groped for the chair next to his bed. She thought back to the conversation she’d had with Karen days ago, that sometimes terminal patients rallied just before the end. Was that what this was? Or was there any chance, no matter how small, that he was somehow improving? Goddamnit, Karen, why aren’t you here? I need you now!
His voice lowered, he reached out for her hand weakly, sad and urgent at the same time.“The dear father would with his daughter speak, commands her service...” He reached behind him and pulled out his top pillow, holding it out to her like a sacred offering. Claudia took it from him with trepidation, not exactly sure what he wanted her to do.
“It is silliness to live when to live is torment, and then have we a prescription to die when death is our physician,” he said gravely, pushing the pillow further into her arms.
Claudia jumped up from the chair, recoiling from the pillow like a snake. “No, no! I am not sure what you are asking, Dad, but I am not okay with this. Just hang on, I’ll see about getting a nurse...”
She could see his frustration rising as he scrunched up his face for a final poetic salvo, searching through his mental Shakespeare index for the words to convince her, get his true meaning across to her.
“Mine honour is my life; both grow in one; take honour from me and my life is done!” he almost shouted at her, using up his last burst of energy and falling back against the bed, deflating in an instant. “I love you more than words can wield the matter, Dearer than eyesight, space and liberty,” he said so quietly that Claudia had to lean in right next to his face, picking up the pillow from the floor and attempting to set it back on the bed. He struggled against her for a moment, pulling the pillow down onto his face and placing her hand on top of it, his next words muffled and pleading.
“Claudie, my love! Mercy!” At the sound of her name, she lost all composure, her emotions a tangled jumble of edges and confusion. He hadn’t called her by name since before his diagnosis, she often wondered if he even knew who she was anymore.
“I won’t do it!” she yelled into the darkened room. “Do you hear me, old man? You can’t ask this of me, it’s not fair!”
He looked up at her, tears falling down his gaunt face. He really was a dried-out husk of his former self, she thought bitterly, recalling the robust, invincible man of her childhood. The cancer and the chemo had done their work all too well. He seemed hollow, fragile, like he was decaying from the inside out, having lost nearly fifty pounds since the illness began. She felt anger and guilt in equal measure, resenting her role in this Shakespearean tragedy, hating the choices he was forcing her to make.
“Where were you when I needed you, huh?” In her rational mind she knew she should stop, that she was unleashing years of pent-up issues on a dying old man, but she didn’t care. Not at that moment.
“All those years gone, wasted! And now when we are finally together, you pull me back in just to watch you die? Die and leave me. All over again. No, not just leave. You want me to help you do it! What will that make me, Dad? How dare you!”
The clock on the wall above his head read just past two o’clock in the morning as she finished her last sentence, the words hanging angrily in the air like a toxic mist. She had never, in her entire life been more exhausted, more defeated. What on earth, she thought wildly, must he be going through?
“Pray you now, forget and forgive,” he said to her gently, his green eyes locked onto hers in a moment of complete clarity. She saw that the bond between them was frayed, fractured, but unmistakably present. Even after all that had passed between them, Claudia felt it like a physical pain.
“The quality of mercy is not strain’d, It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven. Upon the place beneath: it is twice bless’d; It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”
Claudia sat down heavily in the chair next to his bed, cradling her head in her hands. Her anger had drained away instantly, leaving only traces of adrenaline behind. She took several deep breaths, slowly calming her nerves before reaching out to take his hand. It felt like old parchment in her own hand, a baby bird’s wing.
“Daddy, I... God, Dad. I am so sorry...” she stammered, searching for the right words. He was silent, unmoving, as she suddenly realized that she was talking to herself. The Bard was fast asleep.
* * *
Karen found her there the next morning, draped over her father’s sleeping form. Claudia attempted to tell her what had happened, only leaving out the incident with the pillow. She decided to keep that private, exclusive of her and the Bard alone. Karen was curious, asking Claudia exactly what the Bard had said, as best she could remember. His words had jumped around so much between quotes and plays that the book became useless as a guide. Karen was saddened to hear of the poor man’s suffering. They both knew that the Bard wanted his awful ordeal to be at an end.
After three days, Claudia imagined that what happened was all a dream, that he’d never awoken, never whispered he loved her or asked for her forgiveness. The Bard stubbornly held on, unresponsive, grasping at life as everyone around him marveled at his tenacity, but Claudia knew. Against all hopes she would be spared, she sensed he was waiting on a daughter’s duty. A final act of mercy or complete insanity. Claudia couldn’t decide which she would choose, preferred not to think of it at all.
* * *
“When this is all over, kid, I hope we can go out and have a few drinks together,” Karen said as she checked Claudia’s sleeping father’s ever-present vital signs, “maybe even more than a few, I’m thinking. The Bard deserves the tribute!”
Claudia stood and stretched to her full height, feeling older than she ever thought possible. She watched Karen lean down and gently kiss her father on the cheek. “God, I wish I would have known him before all of this, that I had seen him in his heyday,” the nurse said sadly. “Oh, what might have been. Sleep well, sweet Bard.”
“Thanks, K, you’ve been a godsend. I don’t know if I would get through this without you,” Claudia said simply. The women hugged fiercely, both of them grieving the Bard in their own way as Karen gave her a final squeeze and headed towards the door.
“I’ll be back, Claudie. I’ll finish my rounds then come sit with you,” Karen said. “I don’t believe it will be very long now.”
* * *
Claudia sat back down, her mind in torment with her father’s every labored breath. They were finally alone, father and daughter, once again. The Bard moaned, thrashing around weakly in his troubled sleep. Claudia crossed the room and went to her place next to the bed, took his hand and tried to calm him.
“I’m here, Dad. It’s okay, I will be all right. You can go now; you needn’t be strong anymore.”
One of the hospice nurses had been in earlier, upping his morphine, but Claudia knew. She could tell from the pained expressions on her sleeping father’s face that it must be agonizing for him. How long would this last, this horrific limbo? She loved him, she realized in complete shock and wonderment. Against all odds, she actually loved him. She couldn’t let him suffer anymore, would complete her final duty to him. Claudia reached over and gently removed the top pillow from underneath his head.
“You know, I never told you, but when I was a teenager, I came to your performance that time I called you. I sat in the last row,” Claudia said to him, silent tears falling. Hugging the pillow tightly to her chest, she tried to muster up her courage. Claudia was to play Othello to her father’s Desdemona, remembering a fatherless girl watching him perform onstage in a dark, half-filled theater. She was both fascinated and repelled by the murder in his eyes as he pretended to strangle his Desdemona, lost in his role, consumed by it.
“You were so powerful, so mesmerizing. A god of the stage, stealing every scene you were in; I didn’t have the courage to meet with you like we’d planned. I just couldn’t do it.” she whispered into his ear, a final confession as she stood and made herself ready.
“I was so proud of you. Proud I was your daughter, angry with you for the same reason. Angry that I needed you, that I loved you even though you abandoned me. How I love you still.”
She lowered the pillow down to his face at the very moment her father’s eyes snapped open, fixing her with his intense gaze. Startling green eyes, exactly like her own. He reached out to her, tried to speak, the words refusing to come. It didn’t matter; Claudia understood all she needed to.
The Bard took one last, deep breath, letting it out slowly as she laid the pillow down at his feet. Relief coursed through her as his soul took flight. He had given her the gift of life and now it seemed, he had also given her the gift of death. He had taken his final bow on his own terms, thank God. The consummate professional till the very end.
* * *
She placed his hand gently onto his chest and closed his sightless eyes, the last time she would ever look into them. His face was composed, finally at peace now that his final role had been acted out. Claudia felt years of anger and bitterness melting away, a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis at long last. She walked out of her father’s room in search of Karen, testing out her new wings, eager and ready to take flight.
Copyright © 2018 by A. Elizabeth Herting