Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: Outgoing (05/05/11)
By Beth Muehlhausen
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The bottom drawer of Mother’s antique highboy dresser squawks in protest as I pull its mismatched wooden knobs, then suddenly drops open like a lower jaw ready to devour unsuspecting prey. Musty aromas waft from its mummified contents. A bolt of intuitive warning sends shivers down my spine.
Must I handle these rumpled clothes left behind by one so recently buried? They smell of rancid perfume and body odor, an unseemly legacy of geriatric pride. “No thanks,” Mother muttered to me in recent months whenever I offered help. “Just leave me alone.”
A stroke took her; she has only been gone a couple of weeks. Oddly, some element of her defiant autonomy still lingers here.
I stir the drawer’s contents with a tentative finger. No one but Mother has worn this prized silk scarf from Italy, or this linen blouse with the hand-tatted collar. She knit this scratchy mohair sweater the year I was married: it was her therapy.
Eventually I begin folding things – one by one, these wrappings that covered the body of a woman whose boxed-up heart I never knew. A pink flowered flannel gown with raveled hem. Smelly stockings and mis-matched socks. Two white dress gloves. A food-stained apron edged with blue ric-rack. Several lacy camisoles.
Little by little the drawer empties until only a small, flat rectangle remains: a yellowed envelope. I tentatively pick it up, wondering if the crisp paper might crush beneath my fingers. My dad’s first name, Roger, appears in mother’s handwriting on the outside. It is still sealed.
A letter! Panic threatens to crush me while the envelope grows into a huge Goliath right there in my fingers, almost as if in defiance of my handling. It looms larger and larger, like some magnified icon of battle that by all rights cannot exist, and yet does. My heart quickens. I check the seal again. Yes, it has never been opened.
This is no accident. Something important lies inside this envelope.
My hands grow clammy. I have longed for decades to understand the disparities in my parents’ relationship, and now am faced with a potential discovery. The paper feels cool and silky as I turn the letter over and over, and then close my eyes and press it to my face like a paper veil that might suddenly be rent in two by divine intervention. It smells of rot.
Why was it never delivered? What assurance, disclosure, or challenge does it hold? Dare I open this envelope and read its contents for myself? Should I deliver it to my father as he lies in his darkened nursing home room with a dementia-induced, infantile mind?
Although Mother obviously never gave Dad her letter, she didn’t destroy it, either. What is my responsibility to myself and to my siblings? Does outdated, undelivered mail remain private after a person dies, or does it become public property?
I rip one corner; my pointer finger works its way along the top edge, tearing ever so slowly. A knot grows in my throat; I choke and almost gag. I cannot breathe.
With my finger halfway across, a wave of nausea broadsides my selfish motives. I refrain from opening the envelope further but merely peek inside, peering through my own predisposed emotional lens thick with relational pain. Words are written on a single folded sheet of paper. I can’t read them.
My hands tremor involuntarily as a sign that I cannot - must not - continue. Since the intended recipient never read the written message penned so long ago, my intervention after-the-fact is pointless. It is too late. Mother is gone, and Dad might as well be.
I remind myself that God knows every verbalized and written word, as well as every unexpressed heart-sentiment. In this sense the letter is not just thwarted outgoing mail, but rather it has already been received by the One destined to read it.
Next to the dresser a large box holds items designated as trash. I drop the envelope into the box and wipe my sweaty-but-guilt-free palms on my jeans, relieved by my decision: I will not trespass. The envelope stares back at me as if with gratitude for my mercy, and yet asks for one more favor.
I nod, pick up the letter, strike a match and hold it to one corner, then drop it in an empty metal wastebasket where the flame blazes and quickly dies, leaving a small pile of ash. There. It is finished.
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