DONA LITA'S LAST WEEK AT HOME
Dona Lita will not be allowed to die at home. She sits at the head of the dining room table, surrounded by a doctor and her two daughters: The doctor is careful not to mention death, leukemia or needles. He guarantees that the hospital will offer her more comfort. Yes, comfort and structure, the daughters chant after the doctor.
Dona Lita is attuned to the gradation in her children’s voice—to the moment their speech turns upbeat, as if a higher pitch could hide a lie.
The net of care and devotion woven around Dona Lita is no longer comforting. It is in fact, like wearing a straightjacket. As she sits at the head of the dining room table she smiles at the doctor’s lies—and realizes her daughters will interpret that smile as consent.
Nora’s bed looks like something out of a hotel room: sheets taut, not a wrinkle to be seen. Had she not known Nora so well, Dona Lita would have thought Nora never slept here. Her oldest daughter truly believes that something miraculous will happen, that this disease can still be beaten. She walks over to the bedside table and picks up the round glass dome covering a white, seven-day candle burning on top of a saucer: a tiny flame, blue, like Dona Lita’s veins, dances in the daylight. She leans over the flame, blows out the candle and gently places the dome over it. A pale gray smoke fogs the glass.
Her youngest is arriving from the United States tonight. Cátia, who is tiny and flat-chested and could pass for fifteen years old, has married a tall pale man, who smiles wide in photographs, probably due to his big strong teeth. Dona Lita has never met him and as she cracks open the last egg into the batter for her daughter’s favorite cake, she realizes that she will never meet this big man who has whisked Cátia away from her family. She picks up the plastic spatula sitting on top of the counter and stirs the eggs into the brown powder. As she stirs, she is faced with this thought: how dare she, how dare she be happy away from us, away from me. Cátia, the adventurous daughter, the daughter Dona Lita could count on to always make her laugh. Dona Lita can’t help it; the thought keeps churning in her mind: how dare she…
He is young and balding, with thick lips that are much too sensuous for a priest and when he reaches the terrace, he pulls up a plastic fold-up chair and sits next to Dona Lita’s loveseat. It is just the two of them, but Dona Lita knows Nora is somewhere in the apartment, waiting. The loveseat and its faded green leather do not match the chairs in the balcony, but it has been moved from the living room because the terrace has become her favorite place in the apartment. She gazes out the window at the empty lot across the street. The wind blows and the coconut leaves bow down in unison. Shirtless boys kick a soccer ball, a pair of flip-flops marks the goal line.
The priest clears his throat and says her name. Senhora, he tries again, his voice trailing off. How long until he gives up on her, an old sheep who has strayed from the flock for far too long? Her arms are crossed. The rosary Nora has given her is carelessly strewn on her lap. She is enjoying this game and wants to see how long he will sit there, watching her as she in turn, watches the children below. Later, at the dining room table, Nora scowls. Dona Lita cannot help it: she grins. And slurps her soup.
The nurse Dona Lita likes is not working today. She presses her head into the pillow and hopes that the woman with the narrow shoulders ripping open a packet of disposable needles and tying a thick rubber band around her already bruised arm, knows what she’s doing. Cátia sits on the only empty chair in the room, leafing through a three-week old magazine. The nurse has a kind smile and deep bags under her eyes. She asks how Dona Lita is doing and presses the crook of Dona Lita’s right arm with her fingertips, tracing the veins. Dona Lita watches her expression and knows what the nurse is going to say before she says it: These are tiny, tiny veins. But then she tells Dona Lita not to worry, that she has done this a million times: you won’t feel a thing. Cátia immediately tosses the magazine on the chair and walks over to the left side of the bed. The needle pricks Dona Lita’s skin over and over. She shuts her eyes and squeezes her daughter’s hand, breathing in that familiar smell— of air conditioners and disinfectant.
She sits on the terrace and surveys the apartment: a large living room, an abundance of sunlight, plenty of plants. Her eyes rest on the framed reproduction of the Grand Odalisque, a souvenir her ex-husband had bought when they had gone to the Louvre. Recently, each time she looks at the painting, this is what she remembers: Standing alone and naked in front of a hotel mirror, his leather belt around her bare waist. Loosely tying dozens of silk scarfs to the belt. The desire in his eyes, as he opened the door and watched her twirl in the new skirt. His voice in her ear: Salome, Salome, Salome!
Yes, they had loved each other then. And now that she is sick, he has been calling every week, asking the girls if he can visit her. Why now, after all these years? She has not yet decided if she wants to see him. Why put him through the agony of asking for absolution from a dying woman who isn’t sure she can forgive?
Dona Lita’s bedroom is open. Cátia has her back to the door and faces the window. But before Dona Lita can walk over to her youngest daughter, Nora grabs her hand and pulls her gently toward the bed and away from the window. She says: Mom. Look mom, come look at what we packed for the hospital. And she directs Dona Lita towards the small suitcase lying on the bed. The repetition of the word mom does not go unnoticed and Dona Lita understands that it’s a warning for Cátia: pull yourself together and do not cry in front of our mother.
Nora lingers on each item: this brush or this comb? A mystery novel or Gone With the Wind? Will she need the sleeping mask? Cátia finally turns around and walks over to the bed. Her eyes are clear. She does not look at Dona Lita.
Camila Santos was born in Recife, Brazil. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing and Literary Translation from Queens College, where she currently teaches in the English Department. She is working on a collection of linked stories about Brazilian immigrants living in the United States. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Podium, Three Percent, and Words Without Borders. She lives in Long Island City, Queens.