Passing

April 13, 2011
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The girl was extraordinarily average looking, and extremely quiet. Her hair was pale brown, the same color as her eyes. She did not turn heads because she was not beautiful. Mary was her name; it suited her. Both were average, dated, and common. She was young, but had a peculiar quality that made her seem older. She was also unconscious.


“I don’t really know what to tell you. We were at home; she was making us both dinner. Then she began seizing. It’s her leukemia. I don’t really know much about it; she stays with her mother most of the time. Anna knows more,” said Mary’s father to the nurse.


“Anna is your ex-wife, her mother?” asked the nurse.


“Yes, she has custody of Anna most of the year. I only see her once a month,” he replied, a bit shamefully.


“Thank you, we’ll contact her. Dr. Miller will arrive soon,” she said. The father focused intently on Mary, very vulnerable. A doctor crept into the room, carrying a chart. The chart made the father’s stomach drop.


“Mary Shepard, hmm… I thought she was in remission.”


“ We did too,” the father said angrily, “because that was what you told us.”


“Yes, I’m very sorry.” The doctor looked down at the chart. “I’m very sorry.”


“Is it serious?” asked the father.


“Yes, it looks bad. She isn’t showing signs of regaining consciousness.”


“My daughter, my seventeen year old daughter, is going to die?” asked the father. His voice contained a quiet fury that made the doctor’s bones shake.


“ Yes,” he said meekly. A fierce-looking woman coughed in the doorway; it was a deliberate, interrupting cough.


“You’re supposed to be the best doctor for leukemia patients in the state, yes?”


“Miss Shepard, I tried as hard as I could to save her--”


“ You said she was in remission. She began to live again, normally! Plan her future. But she’s dying,” Mrs. Shepard yelled.


As Anna Shepard hissed at Dr. Miller, Mary’s body stopped fighting for life. A continuous beep sounded. The effect it had on the room was similar to that of chimes on a kindergarten class. Silence rang for a few seconds, then:


“Seventeen,” Mr. Shepard said, in his trembling, furious voice. “Only seventeen. She was applying to colleges. We knew she had the disease. She had lost everything when she was diagnosed.
“But then, you saved her. An angel. She was in remission, off the chemo. You claimed you had cured her! Then she dies. She died. My daughter is dead.” He quickly walked out of the room, slamming the door behind him.


“ You just wanted to save someone. But you killed her! You murdered my daughter,” Mrs. Shepard shrieked.


Murdered me… am I really dead? Mary Shepard wondered. Am I a ghost? She could see her body lying on the hospital bed. It was surreal. A part of her wanted to talk to her mother, calm her down. Mary had always been good at that. She had been the mediator when her parents fought when she was in 5th grade.


“Mom? Shh… It’s okay. Just take a deep breath. I’m here. I know you’re angry because you love me, but yelling won’t make me live. It never really solved anything. But you yell because you’re passionate. You live so… vivaciously.”
Mary stood right beside her mother, smiling. Her mom stopped yelling and blinked out tears. She brushed the air next to her, like she had heard the buzz of a fly. A little instinct told Mary that she couldn’t see her. Her eyes felt dry and itchy, and then tears began to stream down her cheeks.


“I love you mom,” she whispered. Mrs. Shepard left the hospital room crying. Mary’s father was visible through the frosted glass window. He was pacing in the hallway, hands running through his hair.


“I love you too dad. I… I wish I had seen you more often. But it’s okay. I know you were a great dad anyway. If you weren’t you wouldn’t care right now.”


Mr. Shepard took a large, deep breath and cried a bit. It smelled like the cookies Mary had been baking for them. Something inside him that was bleeding started to close back up. He felt some amount of comfort, just from the chocolaty scent that lingered around him.


“I think I’m ready,” Mary said. What she was ready for, she didn’t know. It was her instinct again, telling her what to say.


Nothing happened. Mary frowned and little wrinkles rippled from the corners of her mouth to the rest of her face. She had absolutely no idea what to do. She was never really bright.


Do I just haunt the hospital then? Is that my fate? Not good enough for heaven, not bad enough for hell. I never did anything important, she thought.


“Okay, is this it then? Because I’m sorry God, or whoever’s running all of this. I suppose I wasn’t great. I was grumpy during chemo. I suppose I could have been happier. Aside from my disease, life wasn’t too bad. I had enough money. I had people who talked to me, I’m not sure if they were my friends, but they were okay. Life was good. I appreciate it now.”


There was no pop or bang or whoosh when Mary switched places. It simply happened. Instead of a hospital room, she stood in a long, stone, hall. It was the setting for some sort of party.


Guests and leather armchairs lined the walls, all looking grand. Lit torches provided glowing, flickering light. It reminded Mary of a castle’s great hall, where feasts would take place. The groups of people looked just as great. She recognized a few faces. There was a movie star telling a story, and an author eating a bagel.


Although they all seemed elegant, Mary soon saw that some were a bit disheveled. An athlete from the most recent Olympic games was wearing his swimming uniform. Mary remembered a story on the news about him dying of a heart attack during a practice session. A musician stood in the corner with a bullet hole in his head and bloodstains on his shirt.


Mary was in awe. It was like heaven for the most special people. She blushed when she looked down at her hospital gown. It was humiliating to wear something like that in front of your idols, even if they wore one too. A fancy looking woman in a ripped pantsuit approached her.


“So, what were you? You look smart. A… national spelling bee champion, perhaps? What’s your name?” she asked. Mary frowned. Mousy looking girls had to be smart. Otherwise, they’d be ugly and stupid.


“No, uh, just a student. A’s and B’s, and Mary Shepard. Mary Shepard is my name,” Mary said nervously, wondering if she was ugly.


“How’d you die then? Some people have interesting deaths,” said the woman.


“Leukemia,” said Mary bluntly. Interesting deaths. She didn’t like this woman.


“Oh, well, that’s awful. Not what I was thinking of though. More nuclear bomb or falling toilet seat kind of deaths.”
Mary exhaled through her nose like a bull. The corners of her lips were pressed tight into her face. She took a deep breath and readied herself to be polite. She had to be nice to everyone, even if the woman here could gossip about death.


“Okay, well then I guess it’s a mystery why I’m in ‘famous’ heaven,” Mary said through clenched teeth.



“It’s not heaven, sweetheart. Just a waiting room,” the woman said. Mary blushed. That woman had probably lived in a mansion. She was probably much richer than Mary. She didn’t find the velvet curtains luxurious or the glass chandeliers special. Mary had naively seen it all as wonderful.



I guess everyone expects heaven to be different. They all have different standards. Heaven would have to match the highest of standards. So, I guess the people with the lowest standards gain more. But I think the woman was right. Most of these people seem rich. It would grander if it actually was heaven, she thought as she sank into one of the armchairs.



A group of people watched Mary out of the corners of their eyes. They gossiped. The woman stood near the center, whispering to them. Everyone in the room knew about Mary by the end of the hour. It was just like her high school.



These other men and women were awe-inspiring. They were beautiful actors, writers, inventors, millionaires, and musicians, and they were all wondering why Mary was among them. She wasn’t important enough to glare at for too long; they stopped after about a week. Then she just blended into the leather armchair that had become her safety zone. The other guests, the beautiful people, ignored her.



After a week, Mary was given proof that this was some sort of limbo. A warm, powerful voice called out a name. The man who matched the name stood up. The voice announced that the man was "ready." Then, the man walked a few steps and disappeared.



From the gossip she overheard, Mary discovered that the man had "moved on." No one was really sure what that meant, just that it happened. The cleverer people, professors and such, enjoyed debating about it. Religious men and women, including a pope, argued fiercely about their beliefs.
Almost all of them agreed that they were waiting for that moment when your name was called. "Why," as always, was the question. It took different amounts of time for different people. Some waited days, some waited months, and the unlucky ones waited years. Mary wished she could ask someone what was really going on there.
It was month two, day six, when it happened. Mary was nibbling on a piece of cheese she had grabbed off of a tray. A big buffet lined one of the ends of the hall, but she was never able to make it through the surrounding crowd. They cut her in line and shoved her out of the way. She soon realized that the only way she could eat was by stealing off of other's plates. It didn't come naturally to her, and she always was paranoid when she committed the crime.
"Mary Shepard," a voice called. At first, Mary worried she was in trouble for taking the food, and then she realized it was her time to pass over. A few heads turned her way, all very confused. She was surprised herself, but in a pleasant way.
"Miss Shepard, you are ready," the voice said. Professors and princes snorted in contempt as their eyes burnt holes through Mary's head.
"She doesn't even belong here,' that same woman hissed. But Mary Shepard was there anyway. So, she stepped up and out of the chair to walk down that dimly lit hall. When every face stared at her, she began to bite her lip. She stumbled. For the very first time in life, and her death, everyone's eyes were on Mary Shepard.
What do I do? she questioned herself. Every part of death was even more unpleasant than she imagined it would be. And all of it was set in castle-like wonderland. Mary stood still, paralyzed by fear.



"Um," she mumbled, blushing, "can anyone tell me what to do?" Her cheeks were a vivid pink.



"They can't hear us," said the same voice that had called her name.



"Why not?" she asked.



"You're halfway here, and halfway there, and a quarter in-between," the omniscient voice replied.



"How can I be-" she was cut off.



"Mary Shepard, you are doing just fine. Just keep walking." Although the voice had no obvious gender, it had a motherly quality about it. Mary was like the child; she was absolutely clueless. Her nervousness was not aided by the fact that all of the guests could still see her.



All of the men and women surrounding her had an impatient stare with cold eyes, raised eyebrows, and noses pointed towards the sky. Their mouths moved, but whatever they were saying was inaudible. Some force, perhaps the voice, kept them from hearing her, and her from hearing them. She wasn't sure whether this was good or bad.



Mary took a deep breath. She moved forward, completely aware of every awkward move and twitch her body made. Each step echoed violently in her mind.



She passed each group of people lined across the hall. Some were scruffy, like the athlete. They had dark stained and deep scars. Only seven wore hospital gowns, which struck her as odd.


The room began to shine brightly, directly into Mary's eyes. It should have hurt, but it was comforting, like warm sunshine glowing on your skin. It was how the voice looked, its physical form.


"You're almost here Mary. You're done dying," it said.


"Where am I going?" Mary asked. "Where was I then? This is all so-"


"Stop asking questions. Just trust that it will be okay," it said, and she did, easily. Just as before, Mary suddenly found herself in a different location. It was a set for a talk show that she didn't recognize, probably something in the morning. Her father and mother were there, sitting across from some anchor. For the first time in years, they were wearing their wedding rings.


"What a remarkable story," said the reporter. " You united together during your divorce to form this foundation for teens with leukemia. The Mary C. Shepard Foundation. What inspired you?"


"Our daughter, Mary, passed away from leukemia. She had always been such a sweet girl, caring and clever. She was too young to save the world, but she would have if she had more time," Anna Shepard said.


"And this society allowed you to bond and remarry?" asked the anchor.


"Yes, we were able to remember why we had married in the first place, and we decided to give it another try, for Mary," she said.


" She sounds like a wonderful child," said the anchor. "And the society is named after her?"


"Yes, we thought it would be appropriate," Anna said, her hand squeezing the hand of her husband.


"It's a name many families know now. It helped hundreds of them," said the reporter. "Let's go to the kitchen now to see what Chef Jones has cooked up for us."


The Mary Caitlin Shepard Foundation, thought Mary in awe, and they're together, for me. They love each other. She smiled. It was a beautiful smile.


"You're famous, Mary," said the voice. "And you deserve it more than anyone in the waiting hall. That's why you're leaving now."


"Leaving? Where am I going?" she asked. The light began to glow again. This time there was a source. She could see it when she squinted her eyes. She approached it, walking closer, and closer.


"Oh, it's beautiful. It's just beautiful," she said.


"You are beautiful Mary Shepard, " the voice replied.





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