2013 NZ Writers' College Short Story Competition Third Place


'Not My Daughter' - Monique Reymer


The Whitecoat stood around at the end of the bed, one hand in his coat pocket, the other fiddling with the stethoscope around his neck. Legs crossed, my sandaled foot subconsciously kept time with the rhythmic beeping and jagged line on the machine.  Pipes and wires, bags of clear liquid, lures and tubes spaghettied around the motionless body in ordered chaos behind the bed, funneling down to a single electrical socket on the wall. Mousy brown hair lay fanned out in limp beauty against the hospital-white pillowcase, a halo around the pale, sleeping face. Just the chest stirred, faintly rising and falling in time to the wheeze of the ventilator.

“I need to talk to the family, please. If you’ll follow me to the family conference room, second left down the hall.”

Reaching to pick up my handbag, I rose to follow the doctor.

“Not you, Mum.” Roger pushed my shoulder gently back towards the bedside as he got up to pass me.
I stood still, riveted to the spot. My jaw hung slack, unspoken words stuck in my mouth. My out-reached hand stopped dead-still in midair, as if to catch the frozen words should they fall. I blinked. My blood ran cold, a chill crept up my spine, reaching my face in a flush of fury, disbelief, anger. Blinking back hot tears, I sat down on the waiting chair before I fell, as all the energy drained from my legs.

Had I heard right? Had I really just been told I was not my daughter’s family?
The others shuffled out the room, sidling past me, murmuring secret platitudes amongst themselves. My son-in-law, my grand-daughters, grown and gorgeous, shuffled past me, as if I were no more than an unused piece of furniture.
The room empty but for my daughter’s body lying on the bed, I mirrored her motionlessness and stared at her face. Her dark eyebrows which always defied shaping, her small mouth, lips pale and dry. I stroked her cheek and sought her hand. Her fingers lay curled and limp, unresponsive.

I closed my eyes, just for a moment, and saw the ruddy round-faced baby; the dancing 4 year old, lining her teddies up on the couch so she could put on a performance for them in her tutu and ridiculous feather boa. I saw the adventurous 8 year old climbing the peach tree, yelling at me to look how high she was just as she fell, landing with a thump and a broken arm to show for it. I remembered her dressed, prim and smart, in her first High School uniform; her uni graduation; her wedding day, triumphant with this man she had fallen so madly in love with; her swollen pregnant belly; the glow on her face when she proudly showed off her firstborn.  Just at what point had she ceased to be my daughter?
I opened my eyes. There she lay, the creeping wrinkles at her eyes illustrating the years of laughter she had had. Fifty-two years old, fifty-two years young. I sighed, weary myself in a body thirty years older than hers, that would also not do what it once could. It was my life that should be ending, not hers. I would happily swap places with her, but this body, having few years ahead, was as of little use to her as the one she was in. Guilt swept over me in a surge of heat, draining the blood from my head, sinking deep in my belly where it churned and congealed.

It is not natural for your children to die before you. But this - her body, changed in an instant, a moment’s distraction when driving, gravel on the side of the road, a powerpole in just the wrong place - was not a life. My daughter was no longer inside this shell being kept alive with the rhythm of a simple machine, connected by a single wire to an electric socket. I had given her life, but not this one.
The faces re-emerged in the room, huddling guiltily in clusters.

“We can’t do it, Nana,” the youngest one sobbed. “They want us to kill her! They want to turn the machine off!”

Her father looked at me shadily, as if reluctant to divulge the secret his daughter had already revealed.

“We’ve decided to keep trying. You never know. She might recover. Medical breakthroughs and stuff.”

I looked at him through shaded eyes. My opinion was not being sought. I was being told what would happen to my daughter. Weeks of waiting and hoping had not brought any change. The MRI scans showed no cerebral activity other than that the machines incited to keep her breathing. I shook my head silently. They left, unable to keep living in a room so full of dying.
Night crept into the silent room like a reluctant stranger. The curtains hung open to the darkened sky. It made no difference to the central occupant, anyway. A chill descended, just the beating line on a machine bringing any relief to the darkness. Her chest obediently rose and fell, rose and fell. The corridors echoed emptiness, as staff hurried off to attend lives to still in the sphere of the living.  I sat, as I had for hours, days, weeks - watching, waiting, knowing there was nothing to wait for. Emptiness resounded in our comparative lives – hers, prostrate, on the bed; mine, slumped, at her side.  
There was nothing here for me, inside or outside these walls.  
With barely a further thought, I stretched out my left foot and flicked off the switch on the wall with the toe of my sandal.

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