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When eleven year old Maurine France returned from school one afternoon, she found that her mother had come home early. She doesn’t do that often, thought Maurine. She wasn’t surprised to see Jenny in bed. “What’s up?” she asked, dropping her bag at the foot of the bed. “I don’t think I’m too well, dear. This terrible headache…” Jenny drifted off dreamily.
Maurine had lost her father at the age of three, and you couldn’t say she was really missing him. Frederick France, being an explorer, had been away from home almost all the time. So he hadn’t much time to get close to Maurine. But Jenny still missed him very much. Maurine didn’t mind, actually. She was only 11, but she had all the experience to know that this was life. Sometimes we lost, sometimes we gained, and it was all part of the game.
“What do you mean?” Maurine raised an eyebrow. During the past few days, Jenny had been acting rather oddly. She had been restless, sometimes clutching her head, or sobbing silently. There was something terribly wrong with her. One evening she had come home very late, and as Maurine always stayed alone after school, she wasn’t scared. She wanted to know where her mother had been. But Jenny just mumbled something about doctors and headaches and painkillers and fell fast asleep on the couch.
Now she was shivering. “Tell me mom, what’s wrong with you?” asked Maurine. But her mother just turned her head and bit the pillow. “Go on,” Maurine urged gently, fondling her mother’s hair. It was hard to tell who the mother was now.
“Maurine, I just have a fever,” Jenny said without meeting her daughter’s eyes. She smiled weakly. “We have to go to the doc, mom. It isn’t just a fever. I know, I just know,” said Maurine.
Maurine went to the kitchen and set the kettle boiling for tea. She often made strong tea for Jenny and milky ones for herself. Maurine was sure that something was certainly wrong with her mom. She decided to force her mother to visit the doctor. When she brought the tea tray to her mom, she found that Jenny couldn’t even sit up properly. She was very weak. But she cheered up a bit after the tea. Maurine couldn’t help smiling then, even after her worries about her mother’s illness. Jenny always loved her daughter’s strong teas. Maurine went to bed disturbed that night.
The next day was a holiday. Maurine woke up early. When Jenny woke up long afterwards Maurine forced her to get ready for the doctor. Jenny looked at Maurine. Then all of a sudden she wrapped her eleven year old daughter in a tight hug. “I love you ever so much,” she whispered, as a tear fell from her tired eyes.
Maurine held her mother’s hand tightly in hers and entered the doctor’s room. Dr. Belinda Peterson was an old friend of Jenny’s.
“Good morning, Jenny. How do you feel now?” she asked, motioning for them to sit down. “No better, Linda. Only worse,” Jenny described unhappily. The two friends talked as though they had met only yesterday.
“Dr. Peterson, it’s alright. You can stop ignoring me and tell me what’s wrong with mom,” Maurine interrupted. “Maurine, you don’t…? Jenny, let me do the talking now, dear,” said the doctor. “Maurine, I expected this from you soon or later. Maybe you won’t understand exactly what Jenny’s got, not when even we, doctors, don’t get it.”
Jenny sobbed quietly while Dr. Peterson explained all about it. Maurine didn’t quite understand everything, but she nodded when the doctor reached the part where her suspicions had been correct. It was not just fever, not cold. But something much more complicated. “I do wish I didn’t have to say this,” continued the doctor. “But Jenny is in the last stage, and I really don’t think she should run around with you any more, Maurine.”
“Jenny,” she said, removing her glasses. “You need rest, dear. My prayers will be with you.”
Maurine was left on her own for sometime while the two friends hugged each other. She didn’t know what to think. What could she do for her mother before she left this world?
They walked back home, Jenny occasionally wiping a tear. When they reached their apartment, they looked at each other for the first time since they left the hospital.
“Mom, what do you want to do? We’ll do something special before…before you go,” said Maurine. For an eleven year old girl who had just realized that her mother was going to die, Maurine was showing amazing courage. She could have simply burst into tears, and hugged her mother. But she knew that her mother had just a few days left, and she wanted them to be special.
The tears that welled inside Jenny’s eyes had more love than anything. Her tear glands were working furiously, and she was doing nothing to control them. Maurine wanted to cry, too, but she fought with her emotions and locked them inside some faraway chamber of her mind. Jenny hugged her daughter. “Oh Maurine, I’m ever so sorry I didn’t tell you. I love you so much.” The following days passed in silence. Jenny had always wanted to go to Frederick’s old house, though she hadn’t been allowed in, because of the row that had taken place after Frederick had married ‘that orphan girl’.
Yes, Jenny was an orphan and had grown up in the Angels’ Mother Orphanage near the St. Solomon’s church where she had first met the handsome youth- Frederick France, who had later become of the famous overseas explorers. While Jenny visited the church, she told Maurine tales about her dad. For the first time in her life, Maurine missed her dad. She knew she would soon be missing her mom too.
Each day, before going to bed, the mother and daughter knelt down and prayed with torn hearts. And after each day, Maurine hoped against hope that a ray of light would pierce the darkness that covered their little world. But none came. Dr. Belinda Peterson visited them many times and she joined in their prayers. She tried to convince Jenny to stay at the hospital, but Jenny would not listen. “I don’t want to die on that white bed, Linda, with disease all around me and far from Maurine,” she said. “I want to spend my last days with her, in my house.” Jenny closed her eyes and held her friend’s hand, perhaps for the last time.
Jenny’s death had been silent, too. There had been no one to mourn for her, except Maurine, holding her hand. Jenny had been extremely ill that night. She had asked for the family photo on the mantelpiece, which she had kissed and held tightly in one hand. The she whispered to Maurine, “I’m not leaving you, Maurine. I will always be with you, and so will your father. God bless you my child. God bless you.” And she died. Just like that. Suddenly, for the first time in her life, Maurine France felt lonely. She carefully set her mother’s cold lifeless hand down. Then she broke into tears, after all these days. Her tears were not an answer to all the problems she was facing, but it was a relief for her to have her tear glands well and alive, after so many days of suppressed sorrow.
After some time, she tried to call Dr. Belinda Peterson, but apparently she was busy in the middle of an operation- a serious case of life and death. She wasn’t available. Maurine hung up. She felt like a dry rose near a dead rose. And this was life.
Life is a story whose end is only death. It goes on and on, endless, and when you’re least expecting it, it takes a wild turn, and dash into death. It is challenging, yes, very much. Maurine’s life had been her mother. But that wild night, July 19, two years ago, when the storm had been raging outside, that life had ended. Just like that. This was a new life, another wild night, and here was Maurine, tired after having put the children to bed. Dr. Peterson had offered to look after Maurine, but the young orphan had insisted on going to the Angel’s Mother Orphanage, near the St. Solomon’s church, behind which Jenny France’s grave lay, next to Frederick France’s grave. Jenny had taken Maurine’s dreams and hopes along with her in death, but Maurine wasn’t lonely in the orphanage. Orphans like her surrounded her. She was just another new bee in the happy, buzzing beehive.
She replaced the book she had been reading to the children on the bookshelf and went in to check whether all the children were properly in bed. Yes, they were. She went to the kitchen and made herself a cup of tea, strong this time, not milky, and settled down on the rocking chair by the window.
Maurine France looked out at the dark stormy night. She sighed and sipped her tea as another death anniversary of Jenny France passed silently. A tear fell onto her lap. This was life, she thought. Sometimes we lost, sometimes we gained, and it was all part of the game.
This was life.