In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Finite Creatures.”
By the time I was four and change I’d “lost” my mother, my country, and baby sister. I can’t really say any of these events was a tragedy because until about then, I’d lived in a nursing home where such losses might be considered trifles. After all, the country was still there; I’d been reunited with my mother and, one might argue, and I do, there are worse things than spinal meningitis – the rumored cause of my sister’s death. Worse things. There were people in the corridors of my childhood home without limbs, without visitors, without passports – a privilege* afforded me at the age of two and a half. I have my own memories earlier than two but one thing worse than death was being Valerie.
I was reminded of this well into my teens, during summer vacations when I would return to Jamaica and visit my Aunt, the Matron of the nursing home she built and in which I grew up too soon. Valerie was not technically an inmate but that’s how I thought of the residents. They were all but forgotten by families who, passing for middle class, had just enough money to discard them there. Patients were set out for “airing” on the veranda each day while rooms were cleaned, linens changed, and amputees were dressed and turned. It was a painful affair if not physically for some, psychologically for all.
Looking back, Valerie must’ve had cerebral palsy. But she was treated as an imbecile, taunted and much worse I am certain though I never witnessed, and so she was assumed to be a safe target by her abusers. I knew, just catching her eye for an instant, passing by her open door as I returned from an outing, day after day, summer after summer, year after year, that she was no one’s fool. She made sure she would be counted among the living as each night, just past the stroke of midnight, she would let out a keening like nothing anyone on earth or below could duplicate. It was magnificient. The duration, pitch, and abject grief it embodied was her triumph as it filtered through the night air like a fog, crossing the tiled hallway between us, making its way under my bedroom door to envelop me in an inescapable knowing that we alone shared.
She must have been in her forties the last time I heard it. Someone in my family had died. And so, I’d returned for the funeral. Valerie became my champion that April for I was by then old enough to know it was her rage against the machine, against the system that turned otherwise serviceable people into automatons and wage-slaves who “cared” for her without giving a rat’s ass about anything. I was old enough to know that her nightly declaration of independence was not unprovoked though technically she was alone in her room.
This is how I learned I was not immortal, and how I came to understand the way any of us come to accept things we cannot change without the wisdom to know the difference. Certainly, if they could torture such a one as Valerie, each of us would be next. It wasn’t so much a discovery as a self-evident truth. Against such odds, immortality is highly over-rated.