Aleksandr


Introduction

Mrs Ava McLaughlin is dying.

Dame Cicely Saunders Hospice is an unpretentious building northwest of downtown. As three stories of well-maintained yellow and white, it stands as the centrepiece of a medium sized slice of prime real estate next to a picturesque public park. Beds of roses flank the charming cobblestone path that gently leads visitors to the white main entrance where years of usage have not left even one scratch on the high gloss paint. An elm tree has put down root in the front yard, its leaves casting shade upon a sign that nobody reads. People pass by all the time, only few giving the building more than a cursory glance between here and there and everyday life. Birds are chirping.

Mrs Ava McLaughlin is still dying.

Inside, the hospice is of the same muted cheer as on the outside. Instead of sensible white, the walls have been painted in a variety of pastels: cotton candy, sunshine, peachy and fluff, much to the indignation of those without a sweet tooth and still in possession of actual taste. But the walls match the sunny disposition of volunteer workers that mill about and fluff pillows all day long, so there is a theme. Perky posters of different flowers have been sprinkled across the walls for emphasis and the furniture is primarily white wood and curlicues mixed with crocheted blankets, diaphanous drapes and fine china. Potted plants are everywhere.

Mrs Ava McLaughlin continues to be in a state of dying.

Her room is all sunshine, tulip posters and a view of the park. Snapshots of family and happy occasions are arranged around the room on all available surfaces, in all likelihood placed by some kind soul wanting to liven up the comatose, elderly woman on the last leg of her journey. Too bad that Mrs Ava McLaughlin was suffering from blinding dementia when they brought her in all those weeks ago and has thus never been able to enjoy neither pictures nor her extensive collection of porcelain horses.

Mrs Ava McLaughlin still continues to be in a state of dying.

From the park comes the sounds of life. There, the sun shines merrily upon an unsuspecting crowd of people that didn't give much thought to the hospice as they walked by. A flock of college kids have gathered to kick-off summer break with a friendly football match, no doubt wanting to run away all thought of caffeine-fuelled all-nighters by chasing a ball across the freshly mowed lawn. It's skins versus shirts and the shirts are winning 2-0. At the opposite end of the park, two dogs have met, fallen in lust, and are now busying themselves with making puppies while their respective owners are interacting with their mobiles, completely oblivious about the PDA but very well-informed of the eating habits of their nearest and dearest 200+ friends. Near the coffee stand, a man and a woman are having a meet-cute of spilled-latté, paper napkins and enough blushing to go around. His Henley will forever be ruined but he can already visualise the 2.5 kids waiting down the road.

It is almost needless to say that the world goes about its business as usual despite Mrs Ava McLaughlin's impending death. Death does not stop the movements of life, though time may seem endless to those left behind.

Sarah Austen, née McLaughlin, is about to lose her mother, her only surviving parent, and she is crying. She is a mousy little thing with un-combed hair, dullish brown eyes and chipped nails, yet her voice is much more than the sum of her parts. Standing next to the supine form of her mother, she wails like a primate in heat, making harsh, hiccupping sounds of snot and tears. Mr Austen seems acutely terrified. Even the two volunteer workers present appear hesitant of approaching the grieving cacophony of a woman, choosing instead to fluff a few pillows while they wait. Only Dr Martinez looks mostly unaffected, albeit perhaps a little stressed. He keeps checking his wristwatch every few minutes as he monitors Mrs Ava McLaughlin's failing heart, forehead wrinkling more and more.

"Any minute now," he says for the third time.

Sarah Austen cries even louder. Mr Austen cringes, but places a hand on her shoulder nonetheless. He cringes once more when the touch prompts Sarah to turn and hide against his shoulder, his eyes wide and begging. The female volunteer worker smiles sadly in response and Dr Martinez checks his watch.

In the park the shirts are now winning 4-0; the dogs are in a state of post-coital bliss, their owners none-the-wiser save for some gained knowledge of what character of TV's newest hit show they most resemble; and a woman has just given her mobile number to a man she intends to surround with white picket fence.

Mrs Ava McLaughlin is still not dead, not even after the sixth round of 'any minute now'.

At the foot of her bed stands a reaper unseen. For whatever reason, it appears shaped like a curvy woman in jeans and brown curls. Out of some strange coincidence, her name is also Sara, though spelled without an H. She's been standing there for hours, waiting patiently to help Mrs Ava McLaughlin with a little nudge when the time comes, not even lifting an eyebrow a thousandth of an inch in the face of Sarah Austen's ear-splitting one-woman show.

One of the volunteer workers brings tea that no one drinks while stuff continues to happen right outside the hospice. Dr Martinez gets relieved by Dr Martin, but otherwise time stands deceptively still within the confinements of Mrs Ava McLaughlin's room. A few pillows get fluffed. Nothing of importance happens for another hour and then the heart monitor finally flat lines.

Mrs Ava McLaughlin goes from dying to dead.

Dr Martin silences the heart monitor, checks for a pulse, calls the time when he finds none and Sarah Austen collapses under the sheer weight of her voice. Both volunteer workers rush in to help Mr Austen keep his wife off the floor and together the three of them manage to manoeuvre her on to a chair, which she then sprawls across while heaving air like a braying donkey. This is the sight that greets Mrs Ava McLaughlin as her immortal soul materialises next to Sara-without-an-H.

"Oh," is the first thing out of her mouth, her vivid green eyes taking in the scene.

"Death is hardest on those left behind," Sara-without-an-H replies, placing a hand on the old woman's shoulder. "She'll feel better in time."

Mrs Ava McLaughlin looks pretty much the same as she did not seconds ago: ashen and wrinkled, hair a multitude of grey and braided. She watches the spectacle before her.

"This is rather unpleasant."

Sara-without-an-H breathes in agreement. "Grief comes in many sizes and shapes. All we can do is to remember that mourning is the highest song of praise."

Faced with her daughter's complete breakdown, Mrs Ava McLaughlin keeps her cool and stands up straight, smoothing the wrinkles out of her hospital gown with a regality not often seen in the presence of said garment. Determination sets her mouth in a tight line.

"What happens next? I don't suppose I am to be drifting around like this for all eternity? If so, I am very disappointed to be met with you and not my friend Anna. I've missed her quite a lot these last few years."

Sara-without-an-H chuckles. "No, this is just a phase of transition. When you are ready, I'll be helping you move on."

"And where would I be moving on to? I've not been the best of god's children."

The reaper's chuckle turns into a soft smile. "The afterlife doesn't deal with good or bad; it deals with death and nothing more," she explains without a few details. "Don't worry about what you may or may not have done in life. Heaven awaits you."

Mrs Ava McLaughlin nods in thought. "And what might await me there? I do so like to be prepared."

"Heaven is the next great journey," Sara rattles off with the monotone voice of someone reading off of a script.

"Well, that sounds a bit vague. I don't appreciate vague," the old woman frowns.

"I can't go into the specifics of heaven, as I have never been where you are going, but –"

"Are you telling me that heaven might be worse than hell?"

"No –"

"How would you know if you've never been? I might be old, and dead, but I'm fully capable of reading between the lines."

There is a pause filled with loud sobbing and indistinct muttering from where people are still trying to console Sarah Austen, and then Sara-without-an-H answers, "I believe heaven to be like life in the sense that it is what you make of it. I don't know everything, but I do know that heaven is to be preferred over the alternatives. I know how frustrating it must be not having all the answers, but what would be the point if there were no more questions left? If you already knew every step of the way, the road would quickly become boring to tread."

"I would much rather know the road before venturing down to find hell at the end."

"Hell doesn't exist."

"Oh?" Mrs Ava McLaughlin asks.

"As I said: the afterlife doesn't deal with good or bad, only death, and in death we all lie equal," Sara-without-an-H explains with a vast reduction of the truth. "There really is no need to worry."

"So be it," the old woman concedes. "What happens now? How do I move on?"

"There is not much to it. When you are ready, just say the word and I'll help you along."

Mrs Ava McLaughlin nods, eyes cutting to her daughter with reluctance on her lips. She says," Would you mind terribly if we waited for just a bit more?" and gestures toward Sarah Austen in lieu of further explanation.

Which… no. Just no. Sarah-without-an-H has made her sales pitch; the deal has been accepted with no room for sentiment, and I absolutely refuse to spend even one more unnecessary second in a cramped space with the human loudspeaker of caterwauling.

"Yes," I say in dissonance with Sara-without-an-H's, "No, of course not."

Needless to say, they both startle.