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Authors: Merrill Joan Gerber

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Anna in the Afterlife

BOOK: Anna in the Afterlife
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Merrill Joan Gerber


A Novel

Anna in the Afterlife


Merrill Joan Gerber

Dzanc Books
1334 Woodbourne Street
Westland, MI 48186

Copyright © 2012, Text by Merrill Joan Gerber
Originally published in print in 2002

All rights reserved, except for brief quotations in critical articles or reviews. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner without prior written permission from the publisher.

Published 2012 by Dzanc Books
A Dzanc Books r
print Series Selection

“Anna Passes On” appeared in
The Southwest Review
86, nos. 2 and 3, 2001; winner of the McGinnis Ritchie Prize from
The Southwest Review
“Anna Gets Wings” appeared in
The Chattahoochee Review
, Winter 2002.

eBooks ISBN-13: 978-1-938103-19-3
eBook Cover Designed by Steven Seighman

Printed in the United States of America

The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author

For my grandsons:
Adam Avraham
Jacob Cameron
Jeremy Wolf

For my granddaughters:
Ilana Jessica
Natalie May


Anna Passes On


Anna's Archive

The Blood Bath

A Good Neighborhood

Anna's Lost Brother

The Desert of the Mysteries

Anna Gets Wings

Anna Passes On

ONCE HER DYING got underway, Anna could not really complain about the way the process moved along. She had waited seven years for this moment to arrive, sobbing, begging, and beseeching anyone who passed by her room in the nursing home—anyone who wasn't a wheelchair prisoner or a babbling vegetable—to help her get out of this mess. Neither threats nor the ultimate pleading of her desperate soul had had any effect on those who held the power.
felt well. They were alive and walking around the world and were simply convinced it was the best way to be:

Anna knew better, her two daughters knew better. Year after year (seven years! Twenty-five hundred days!) they came like the good girls they were to visit her, chained as she was to her bed, one arm paralyzed, her legs useless, her stomach fed by a plastic tube, but they had no solution. For all those mornings and afternoons Janet and Carol had sat at her bedside, hopelessly, earnestly, attending to her, bored to be there and scared to see where they were ultimately headed; they agreed with Anna that not being anywhere would be a blissful improvement for their mother over her present existence.

Anna warned them constantly: they mustn't do anything illegal and end up in jail. Neither one was familiar with firearms, neither one had access to heavy barbiturates and no one could figure out how to get her to a bridge railing. Ropes, razors, and drinking drain cleaner did not appeal to Anna nor did a plastic bag over her head. Even so, Anna held a continuing, daily conversation with them. With the privacy curtain pulled around the bed, she whispered, “I want to die, children,” and they answered, as in a catechism, “You will, Ma, you will. We just don't know when.”

Her roommate, The Crab #25 (they were all the same), on the other side of the curtain, would yell to them, “Jesus knows when. He'll call you when he's good and ready.”

“Oh drop dead,” Anna would reply.

Sometimes, for her own entertainment, she'd perform a little operatic scene, singing out her long catalog of miseries, pains, losses, deprivations, and torments…or she'd invoke her need to be “quiet in the grave next to Daddy.” Sometimes she'd just stare, catatonic, at the ceiling, until her daughters thought she'd actually had the final, fatal stroke. But no, surprise, she was always there, back in business, infinitely present, never dead, never stupid, and never done with it all.

One month after Anna turned ninety, after she'd passed the threshold beyond which no one could logically say she had a future to live for, the substitute nurse, changing the bedclothes, coughed her Christmas bronchitis into Anna's face, thereby transferring to Anna the precious, deeply desired germ. Anna's lungs embraced the bug like an egg engulfing a random sperm, nourished it into a colony, then filled slowly with poisonous fluid. Her end—at last—burgeoned in her chest like a growing fetus.

When Anna's fever rose to 104 degrees and her pulse became erratic, it finally dawned on her daughters that an opportunity was upon them. Janet leaned close to Anna's ear: “Ma, you're really very sick this time. If you want us to, we'll try to get you out of this.”

“Do it,” Anna gasped in a brief, painful exhalation. Her voice gurgled upward through fathoms of seaweed as if she were talking underwater.

“Do you mean it? Are you absolutely sure?”

She wanted to interrogate her daughters further. How would they get her out of this? By what method?
? She knew how important the right questions were—she had been a secretary for two New York state senators from the time she was eighteen, just after her father died and she had to go to work to support her mother and sister Gert. The senators found her so clever that they urged her to go to night school and become a lawyer. However, they wanted her to continue to work for them by day, which plan would have left her no time for studying, eating, or sleeping.

Now, everything she'd never done in her life flashed before her eyes. She could have been someone great and important. She could have been a famous pianist. On her bedside table, lined up to break her heart now that she could not play a note, were the busts of Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Schubert, and her beloved Chopin. No more music in her paralyzed fingers. And now even her extraordinary gift of speech was done for.

Her daughters held a brief conference, their heads turned away from her. “Ma—” Janet said, “the truth is you probably don't have more than six months to live. If the doctor verifies that, it means we can legally request hospice care. A special nurse would be sent here to take care of you. She'd give you morphine, and then you'd just go to sleep. The main thing is that you wouldn't suffer anymore.”

Not suffer? What would be left if she didn't have suffering? But her eyes were wide open; she hoped they twinkled. She blinked agreement—
Yes, yes, yes!
—with all her might.

When the girls went to call the doctor, she contemplated the clock on the wall.
Get me out of this
, she begged the endless round of time. Could she really hope for a change? She'd go anywhere to reach the end of this existence, even to a hole in the ground. She'd ride in a hearse! Have a new view! Life was always life—this trip to death was just more of it.

When her children were little, Anna used to reassure them: “Darlings, you will never be dead so don't ever be afraid. Till the very end of your life you will be alive. You will live till the very last minute, and after that you won't be there to care.” What she had told her precious babies was truer than even she had imagined. Alive was always alive, even when dead was better.

When her girls came back from the nurses' station they were smiling as if they'd hit a jackpot: “Your doctor agreed, Ma! He'll order the hospice nurse to come tomorrow. He never thought you would last this long. He really thinks you're a wonder.”

Anna took considerable satisfaction in this—though of course it was not news to her that she was a superior person.

“You'll just float away on the morphine, Ma, you'll feel nothing at all—and that will be it,” Carol said.

Already Anna could feel relief: like the Red Sea, the ocean of pain was parting in her body. She managed one last wheezing command through the bubbles of phlegm flooding her chest: “Today!”

Not that it was so simple. Her daughters, bless them, were like boxers in the ring, fending off the regular nurses who still insisted upon pressing antibiotics into Anna's feeding tube or forcing inhalators down her throat.

“No more!” her defenders said. “She's had enough. Stop! They fought the nursing home administrator, a man with a long black beard who came in to argue life at any cost. Her daughters stood firm: “No hospital! No respirator! Don't even think of it!” He was an orthodox Jew who didn't want an empty bed in the nursing home. He laid out God's law. Jews did not take death into their own hands. Anna's girls argued human mercy. He looked at Anna with disdain, with loathing, and left the room. So much for Jewish compassion. The Crab on the other side of the curtain kept muttering, “Only Jesus knows the time. You will go to hell for this.”

Her daughters had to—bodily—pull a pulmonary therapist from Anna's bedside and throw her out along with her suction machine. “We're done with all that, don't you understand?” Janet cried. “We have the okay! My mother is
leaving here!

This last stop, where she and everyone else on earth was headed, was what her poor Polish mother had feared every time Anna caught a cold, every time she left the house to take the trolley to school. The same terror sent her thin and nervous father to shul to pray that death would not befall his children. Worry and prayer both came to nothing as it did in all cases. Here Anna was: the great and famous moment was nearly upon her. She was about to lose the spark every tiny ant and worm wants to keep hold of, the force that makes flies evade the swatter and convulses fish off their baited hooks. It seemed a trifle now, life, all those swarming needs, disappointments, broken promises, dashed hopes—even the glorious days (if she ever had any, but she must have, mustn't she?)—all of it was just so much exhausting ado about nothing.

Her girls were not so far from the end of the road themselves. If Anna was ninety, they must almost be old women. Her babies were moving along the treadmill not so far behind her.

Thank God
, Anna murmured,
Thank You for not letting either of them die before me
. Surely it was a blessing that they would outlive her. (Unless a massive earthquake struck in the next few hours, they would.) It was meant to be that children should outlive their parents.

But what was happening to her? She never allowed herself to think in terms of “blessings,” and “meant to be's”…Not for a minute had she believed Someone was Up There blessing them, that a Grand Plan existed for which mortals cannot know the reasons. Had she actually allowed “Thank God” to pass through her brain cells? Who had slipped this phrase into Anna's mind? The reason was a lack of oxygen, of this she was certain.

That night, the hospice nurse, a young Chinese girl, materialized in Anna's room like a slender angel. “You'll have no pain anymore,” she said to Anna. “This will ease your breathing. Just relax now.” She slid a needle deftly into the vein of Anna's left wrist and strapped it there with tape. She upturned a small glass bottle, filled a syringe with its contents, and very slowly injected the fluid into Anna's vein.

“That's all there is to it,” the sweet girl said. “You'll feel much better very soon.”

Instantly, Anna felt a wave of warmth and peace spread through her. She closed her eyes and that was that. Dead…or as good as. No more thinking, no more suffering. No more food. No more air. No more Santa Clauses giving out perfume to the old crones. The nurse gently removed the oxygen cannula from Anna's nose, turned off the feeding tube pump, disconnected the tube that fed Anna's belly. They were closing up shop. Anna was done, excused, pardoned, dismissed.

She heard the clink of glass hitting tin as the nurse disposed of the morphine container in the waste basket. She took Anna's pulse, she brushed the hair off Anna's forehead, she turned off the light above Anna's head and left the room.

In the morning, though Anna was, for all practical purposes, dead, a death watch ensued. She was glad to see the nurses move The Crab to another room, for the sake of delicacy. Janet, her husband, and their eldest daughter, Bonnie, arrived (her granddaughter definitely had too much gray hair for a woman so young). Carol came in with her son, a gorgeous young man six and a half feet tall. He had in his eyes the beautiful wild look of his crazy dead father, but he was totally sane, a miracle. Next, Anna's sister Gert arrived, leaning on her cane, earrings dangling from her ears, necklaces from her neck, at eighty-eight still the little cockroach sister, the galling brat, and now she walked in with the cocky air of being the winner. (For this alone Anna might consider staying alive, just not to lose the game.)

“Open your eyes, Anna,” Gert said. “Say good-bye.”

Anna was already congealed as cold lead; what did her sister expect, miracles? Gert turned away, grumbling. “A negative person,” she said to Anna's girls. “Your mother was always so negative. Your father would have been happier with me.”

BOOK: Anna in the Afterlife
4.99Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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