Her tears fall as she looks at me, incredulous and bursting with enthusiasm.
“Of course I want to read your bloody book!” she says with a happy wail. So I post it to her, complete as it stands right now – a full two books’ worth, if truth be told – and hope for the best. Hope she will at least begin reading but tell myself not to expect much, either in terms of feedback or length of time it takes for her to get through it. I can only wonder if she will get time to read it over the months before her imminent death.
“Kirrily, is it too late to call you? I have some things to say about your delectable book,” she says down the phone. It’s 10:30pm. I sit and listen as she accurately pinpoints every little nuance, every detail I have subtlely woven in. She can see them. She has lifted all the tiny rocks in my story and waited patiently for the creature within to reveal itself. She gets it. She gets the pain and the anguish and the ever-present over-arch that comes with persistent infertility for the first time in her life, she says. She gets me. This time, we only talk until midnight. I thank the Universe silently, once again, that this is all happening during the summer holidays so that our family can roll with the late-night punches and routine interruptions a little more easily.
“It’s getting harder now. I came the closest to death yet yesterday.” She sounds weaker on the phone this time. Her emails are becoming confusing and confused. Yet still, she perseveres with my manuscript. I regret out loud that I sent it to her. She finds the strength to push back to me, “No, don’t you do that. Don’t say that. This is vital.”
I worry. I phone a mutual friend in despair. What if this is sucking the life force out of her? I ask. The wise old friend says to me, “Hey listen, the dying do this. They seek and find the loose ends. They tie up the big things that have claimed so much of them in life. You are helping her rest in peace.”
God. This is getting too much. Little did I know when I wrote the book that it would become something that held so much significance for someone so close to me. What is it? What is it she is searching for in those pages?
“I’ve finished your baby.” She tells me with great relief. She is sitting in her chair. I have come to visit for what turns out to be the final time. The read-through has taken her two painstaking weeks. We talk some more about the relevance of the book. We move on to other stuff. I help clean out her room a little more, I finger the books on her shelves. A lifetime of reading and research, some of them her own published works. This woman is a book. I grimace internally again at the loss to the world that will come in her death. I daren’t say any such thing out loud because I know she will counter me with a wave of her hand and a reminder that we are all teeny tiny grains of sand. But can’t we shape shift entire mountains together, as grains of sand? I want to ask. It’s impossible.
“Now you listen to me.” She grabs my hand with surprising force once she is propped back up in bed. Today has been very hard on all of us. Traumatic to witness. Ultimately, I am thankful I have been here in their home, her sole audience. I have just finished packing up the books and cards I have helped her to pick out. She has written to as many grandchildren as she can. She could hardly hold the pen to the surface by the third one. She is very tired now. So tired.
“You must get that book published. And listen…” I lean in closer. Because she’s making me! “You are an incredible writer. I love, love, love the way you write.” She fixes me with her steely blue sharp stare when I begin to shrug off her high praise. Coming from her, this is too much. I have viewed my stepmother as a great wordsmith for as long as I have known her, which is nigh on twenty-four years. Every letter she’s ever written me, every book, every work manual… meticulous in their pitch and prose. She made them so. She waggles my arm and stresses her point. “No. Now, stop that and get that look off your face. You are a writer. Know it. You simply are. I only wish I could have done more, I don’t think I have done my job…. Now get it published and don’t stop until you do. It will happen.”
She breaks her grip and waves casually to the paper bag containing my manuscript next to her on the bed. “Here it is back again, and you might find some other things in there as well that could be useful.”
We lock gazes. She’s not the same as she was a few days ago. Her thoughts are drifting, I can almost see it. Like vapours shifting to another realm, already she is heading there. In three short days, she will be gone.
When I get home late that evening after the three hour drive, I pull out the contents of the bag onto my kitchen bench. It has burned a hole in the passenger seat all the way and I have been itching to take a look inside. The manuscript. I flick through pages. Half-way through, I turn to my husband (still working hard at his computer) and muse, incredulous, “She’s edited the entire fecking thing. She’s amazing!” Sentences I have struggled with for several years have been flipped and corrected with her familiar hand. Little trips and quirks in my writing, cleaned up with pinpoint accuracy. I can hardly believe my eyes as I consider the super-human effort this must have taken her. She didn’t just read this for herself. She read this for the world. I get it now. I try to stop the feelings of guilt rushing up and gulp them back down. No, she wanted to do this. The book hasn’t taken the life out of her. It’s allowed her to die not wondering, I tell myself.
Alongside the manuscript is a notebook. I open it to discover it is one of her diaries. I see quickly that they contain entries right back to 2002, many of which hold conversations from her perspective that I had with her back then about “this little presence” I had begun to notice around me. I am floored. I am humbled into silence and feel the pounding in my chest. She has captured Ellanor too. She was holding her all along, right behind me. The deep significance of our first child to my stepmother, and the magnitude of this read-through, becomes painfully, beautifully, hopelessly clear.
A week after her funeral, I look out at my backyard. Under the cover of fast-falling darkness, the greens appear more rich, the leaves hold more secrets. I turn my gaze up to the clear dusk sky and see the bright, lone evening star. Like her piercing blue eyes on me, the star is holding me in its presence. I stare at it. It appears to be focusing on me just as intently.
Can lone stars achieve anything? Or are they destined to stand out for a little while before getting lost amongst the eventual light of billions of other stars around them?
I just don’t know. But I do know one thing now: I’d better bloody well try. Just as soon as I make those edits she’s marked….