Lilly lay back gratefully on the fresh linen sheets. Fresh linen was one of her very favourite fragrances. From the time the sheets were on her crib, hand-washed by her mother, to the present the sheets washed by machine by her daughter Audrey. Audrey propped her now fragile mother onto the softest of pillows. Gently she braided the elder woman’s white hair into a single braid and fastened it with a soft pink elastic.
It was the details of her care that gave Lilly her glowing dignity. She looked like a grand empress of days gone by. Dignity was not easy to hang onto. Certainly the care she received by her daughter and the gentle and kind doctor who would visit weekly could be largely held responsible for continued dignity, and the sparkling sense of humour the old woman demonstrated time and time again. She told stories, her own stories, other people’s stories, with such wit, that even neighbours would make the effort to visit just to hear them.
It had become Lilly’s vocation “storyteller extraordinaire” in residence. Audrey’s two little girls and their friends were her most loyal audience. They came twice a week now that Lilly’s illness took most of her energies completely away. On days the girls did not come over there were visits from neighbours and the few old friends still left. At eighty, one has fewer friends.
Audrey was her only surviving child, both her sons had died some long time ago. Audrey herself was born when Lilly was in her forties. Dan, Lilly’s husband, had left not long after Audrey was born, The accident which had killed both their boys was something he never came to terms with. Though Lilly accepted his every mea culpa, he could not forgive himself nor move his life forward. Lilly returned to her teaching career.
In her private moments, she always hoped he would come back. In her dreams he would gently hold her hand that she should not die alone. In truth, it was probable that Dan had long ago died himself, but in kindness to this grand lady no-one would speak to that possibility. Audrey’s husband Len was very much as she expected her own sons would have grown up to be, strong, silent, tall and lanky with a decidedly wry and dark sense of humour. Without ever really knowing her own father, Audrey married a man almost identical in character to her Dan. Not that she would say this out loud, ever. Her daughter was happy, the marriage was good, why cast even the smallest doubt into it. Lilly held the pain, bore it with dignity, and from there it would have no further victims.
Now many years into her retirement, after breaking her hip traversing the mountains in Nepal, she had moved in with her daughter. Then came the diagnosis of a neurological illness which would slowly wreak havoc of her breathing, her heartbeat, it made her dizzy, and falling at her age was dangerous. Now was a good time to spend with her grandkids and her surviving child. Life had been good. Lilly felt as prepared as one could be for the adventures in the next world. Not that she dwelt on it. It had always been her philosophy that life was for the present. The rest was either history or conjecture, and neither of those was very useful.
The times when Lilly did wonder, it was to do with her boys and the afterlife. Would they know her? Would they be little boys still or would they be grown? Perhaps having died so young their souls had been given another life and she would never see them again. That thought always made her twinge and her eyes were instantly moist.
When her mind started to wander into that mire she would pick up her knitting. Slowly and with full concentration she worked each stitch, and in a needle, or two, those painful thoughts were gone. Almost every little girl who ever came to visit had a sweater, or hat made by Lilly. Audrey kept the yarn basket topped up so there would always be something to keep Lilly productive.
Today was like most days. Len would pop his head around and bid goodbye on his way to work, and if time allowed Lilly would tell him how handsome he looked, today was such a day. In fact he took the time to come to her bedside and took her pulse.
“You look tired, Lilly, maybe the girls shouldn’t come today?”
“I spend my days in bed, Len, I am just old, I like the girls to come round.”
He knew her well enough not to argue, but told Audrey to keep and eye on her because her pulse was weak and her skin a little clammy. Once the door closed Audrey felt a strong sinking sensation and his words played over and over again as she stood unable to move for quite some time staring out the window over her formidable rose garden. She brought a light breakfast on a pretty tray to Lilly and opened her window.
“Can you smell the roses, mum”.
“Oh, are they out already? Goodness time flies. I remember when you bought the house and we planted them. Little Emma was so angry when the rosebush fist produced blooms and she’d tried plucking a flower for her mum and hot badly stung by a thorn.”
“She still doesn’t like roses much.”
After taking the tray back to the kitchen Audrey ran a few errands and came home with one of the new roses in hand to take to mum. A beautiful white rose. Lilly was asleep and didn’t want to wake.
Sometime later the girls came home with a couple of friends and handfuls of wild flowers picked on the way home from school. A slightly subdued Lilly happily accepted the offerings and told a story about a small house mouse and her adventures with a gentle tabby cat who kept the mouse as her own pet.
On finishing the story Lilly felt a sudden exhaustion that was so profound she couldn’t utter another word. Audrey noticed the change in her mother most immediately. The girls were gently ushered out the room. Lilly felt warm, the scent of the roses was suddenly more pronounced and the sounds in the house became distant. Lilly was aware of the shallow breathing which was becoming ever more laboured and she was slightly fearful. There was no doubt she was dying. She knew she was dying, but had hung on for so long now as a bedridden invalid, that the exact moment was a surprise even to her.
The grand old lady tried to take a deeper breath but could not. Her body was warm and there was no painful sensation, just and unfamiliar but pleasant glow. She was aware someone was holding her hand, but could not open her eyes to see who. Lilly smiled one last smile, and on the scent of roses sailed her spirit to whatever world was next.