A DROP OF LIGHT
October 26, 1990
Suzanne Chenault smiled up at the doctor, her blue eyes like wide, dark pools, intelligent and cunning. Dennis LaFleur shifted his weight in the chair and crossed his legs to mask the discomfort he experienced when he faced the woman's frank expression.
"Gypsies call it being born old," she said.
"What?" he asked, fielding the unexpected statement by maintaining a professional tone of voice.
"The way my eyes look." Suzanne smiled and bit her lower lip to keep from laughing out loud. "It's what makes you so uncomfortable when you're with me. The look in my eyes."
Dennis swallowed air and met her smile with one of his own. Intuitive? Of course. Lots of people are, he told himself. Still, he'd never before been in a position where the patient seemed to be able to read his thoughts so accurately. He felt naked.
"Do I seem uncomfortable around you, Suzanne?"
She laughed, the sound filling the room like the mellow tone of a bell. "You cover it well."
"What can I say?"
"Babies have the look sometimes," she continued, releasing him from the hook she had deliberately baited. "As if they know everything there is to know and are trapped in a tiny, helpless body. Then they lose the look as they grow. Gypsies call it being born old."
"Your children had this look?" he asked.
"No." She seemed adrift in her thoughts, abandoning the playful attitude with which the conversation had begun. "They were just normal, little baby boys. Bright and inquisitive, but not born old. Definitely not."
Dr. Dennis LaFleur allowed time to stretch into long streaky minutes while he observed Suzanne Chenault. She was a beautiful woman, naturally beautiful with clear smooth skin that always looked freshly washed, deep blue eyes, and long lustrous blond hair. How old is she? Mid-thirties. She has to be, but it's difficult to believe. She looked like a teenager.
"Thirty-five," she said.
Dennis nodded before asking, "Have you always been intuitive?"
"No, only since . . ." She looked away and fell silent. An awesome silence blocked the room like a cold wall. When he looked back, anguish distorted her face.
He folded his hands on the desk and leaned forward, waiting.
"Look, I'm only here because Johnny thinks it's the right thing to do. I don't want to play games with you." Suzanne granted him another of her disarming smiles as she leaned back in her chair.
"Go ahead, turn it on."
"I wouldn't have recorded you without your knowledge and permission," he assured her.
"I know that."
Dennis grinned back at her and placed the recorder on his desk in plain sight before depressing the switch. It was the beginning of what would become hours of recorded conversations with Suzanne Chenault.
"I'm glad you don't want to play games," he told her. "Because I don't either. Your husband is very concerned. I'd like to help you if I can."
"I think you would." Her face transformed into a stage mask of tragedy, with deep sorrowfully liquid blue eyes impaling Dennis as he shifted his weight in his chair. "Where would you like me to begin, Doctor?"
"It's always best to begin at the beginning," he said with a shrug.
"And this ain't Kansas, either," she laughed.
"Sorry." He held up both hands in a simulated truce. "No more old movie lines, I promise. Just tell me in your own way."
"It all began with house cleaning," she told him, laughing at the words. "That's really a hell of a way for anything to begin."
She had spent most of the day putting the effects of weekend living back into everyday order. Weekends were a time apart for Suzanne, and she saw them as being separate from her life. They were out of order, a dispensation of daily structure. In her home, the two days tended to be crust and clutter, piles of dirty dishes and disheveled beds, accumulating laundry and grimy floors. For awhile it seemed the most potent household disinfectants would not eradicate the smell of fried meat and the pungent odor of stale tobacco clinging to every fiber and surface.
"It bothers you if your house gets dirty?" LaFleur questioned, watching for reaction.
Cocking her head to one side, she grinned, all hint of sorrow wiped away. She chose not to tell him it had been with a sense of accomplishment she had stood, arms akimbo, and admired the glow on the last of the floors to be mopped and waxed. She could remember a time she had scrubbed baseboards with a toothbrush. She wondered what the doctor would have read into that type of compulsive behavior.
"I'm not duty-bound to housework, if that's what you're asking." She spoke bluntly and faced him squarely. "There was a time I really went all out. When I was first married, I worried about what my mother-in-law might think and all that. Two grubby little boys soon cured me."
Dennis nodded knowingly.
"One can be an activist and still like a clean house."
It was a good wholesome response, LaFleur would note. Suzanne Chenault considered herself a feminist.
Suzanne was house-proud. That's what her mother always called it. Over thirty years old and she would still panic if her mother was coming for a visit and everything wasn't in perfect order. Some things you just don't outgrow, she told herself.
Cleaning had been a reasonable distraction from the worry that had nagged her mind for days. Not that the activity had really distracted her; she had thought of little else as she polished and mopped with a vengeance. She checked herself in the over-seasoning process. Hand halted mid-air above the ground beef mixture for the meatloaf; the tiny, tumbling crystals reminded her to use less salt. Her blood pressure was up and headache had assaulted her for weeks without relief. Dr. Pascal had said she shouldn't be concerned until they knew something definite, but he wanted to conduct some tests, just to be sure. He had patted her hand as he handed her the bill. It's supposed to comfort and reassure, that professional pat. She had left his office with sour fear churning in the pit of her stomach.
"Did you think you might be seriously ill?" LaFleur scribbled in a notebook. When he raised his head, he encountered the penetrating line of her blue eyes. Never would he forget the awesome sensation of that precise moment: Suzanne Chenault was inside his head!
"I'm not sure," she told him honestly. Withdrawing her probing thoughts from his mind, she noted the doctor was pale and shaken. "I had decided not to think about maybe being sick. Pull a Scarlet O'Hara, you know." Jokingly, she faked a Southern drawl. "I just won't think about it. After all, tomorrow is another day." A coy wink before adding, "Y'all."
Dennis managed a smile. "Now, look who's doing movie lines."
LaFleur was trapped in her thoughts as Suzanne remembered poking the meatloaf mixture into the pan and giving it a final pat. Setting the temperature, she shoved it into the oven and shut the door with a good solid slam.
The buzzing came at the same instant the grandfather clock in the hallway chimed. At first, it sounded like a bee somewhere in the room. Her mind was filled with images of bees in the snapdragons, invisible among the white and yellow blossoms, the buzz drifting from one flower to another. The clock chimed twice more; the sound buzzed intensely, deafening and painful.
Three o'clock in the afternoon, she remembered, the first week in October. The days were still warm, but she knew the white-hot days of summer were gone with the turning of the calendar. Any time now, the familiar yellow school bus would be depositing her children on the sidewalk in front of the house. Danny and Christopher would burst through the side door into the kitchen clamoring for after-school snacks.
"It was no longer something I heard," she explained. "I had joined with the sound, and as it increased, I felt myself grow distant from everything around me. Dissolving into nothingness." She shivered in the memory. "I thought I was dying. I remember forming the words with my mouth, or at least trying to. I imagined seeing my own body lifeless, prone on the floor, heinous and untheatrical in death."
She laughed, and the doctor tilted his head in a question.
"At the time, all I was thinking was that I had on no makeup, and I hadn't done my hair." She stopped and captured his brown eyes. "Heinous? No, Doctor, I don't think that's a strong word to use for the concept of one's own death."
Humor tracked across LaFleur's face as he considered her remarks.
"You better write it down word for word," she teased. "I'm certain it's significant."
Dennis chuckled obediently and replied, "Continue please."
Her voice was dull and colorless as she watched the memory and described it for the doctor.
"Then, I thought how terrible it would be for the children to find me dead on the floor."
The passing had been made quickly, she recalled. She had closed her eyes against the light and was gone.
"Carried off into that oblivion, the nothingness abhorred by the human spirit, that some fear is the true dividend of death from this life. I know it scares me like nothing else." Her voice dropped low and she turned her head away. "At least it used to scare me. Not any more."
"Why?" he asked her, but she ignored his question and continued with her monologue.
"Perhaps it's this very notion that intensifies living: the mystery of death. Perhaps a hell in the hereafter would be preferable to total loss of thought and mind. Death of soul, spirit, not of blood and tissue. Not to lose the corruptible flesh, but to extinguish thought and simply not be."
Dennis watched her verbalize her fears of death, hesitant to interrupt with questions. Then she was silent, fixing him in that penetrating gaze, knowing his thoughts.
"Of course I'm afraid to die. So are you." She smiled slowly and her eyes released him. He acknowledged her statement of his thoughts with a slight incline of his head, saying nothing.
"I've always dreaded the moment when my turn would come. Even as a little girl, I wouldn't dare wish I was dead."
LaFleur's voice failed him; he cleared his throat and began once more. "Have you always been preoccupied with death?"
"Of course not," she flared. "And I'm not now. You wanted to know what I was doing and thinking when all this began. I can't really tell you what I was thinking without explaining why I would think that way. I don't dwell on death, not now or ever. But if I did think about it, this is what I thought!" Her voice had risen considerably and she modified the tone.
"Then explain it to me," he said softly.
The room, with its mute watercolors and heavy bookshelves pressed in on the silence. LaFleur's brown eyes scrutinized the young woman's form as she visually wandered her surroundings searching for something she knew would not be there. It seemed she must record everything and store the data, lock the images permanently in thought against a time when they would not exist save in her memory. Dennis straightened his back as he waited, attempting to unknot the kink in his neck. He decided not to check his watch, apprehensive that without looking she would know he had done so.
When she spoke again, her voice took on the dream-like quality of a narrator giving prologue.
"All the imaginings and dreams," she said almost in a whisper. "The philosophical verbalizations that buffered the terror only dictated I experience each day, each vital second as precious units of time to which to cling. I never idled away that time; it was not my nature."
She leaned forward slightly in her chair and softened her words with the faintest hint of a smile. Dennis was again captured by the strength of her thoughts; thoughts only weakly expressed by the limitations of human language. His own squandered years were heaped like trash in the corners.
"I used each moment," she said, "to its completion and passing. Subsequently, there was no soothing balm, no poultice for my fear of the unknown." As she said this, Dennis LaFleur knew in the unspoken words there was no God for Suzanne Chenault.
"There was always an urgency: hurry up, your allotted time is dwindling to a standstill. I lived as if the fullness of living could somehow push the time of dying farther and farther away from me."
Dropping her eyes, she examined manicured nails, each delicate, pink, and perfect. When she resumed, her voice reflected sardonic resignation. "It really doesn't, you know. Conversely, it works in the opposite fashion, speeding up and wearing out. The harder you live, the quicker you die."
She was pressing him for words and Dennis stumbled through the translation of thought to sound.
"Perhaps a full life is better than a long one." He was embarrassed by his lack of eloquent phrases. Suzanne chewed her lower lip, considering what he said.
"I know that now," she confessed. "But when I thought I was dying, I didn't know it at all. I was afraid."
The tape recorder was a soft purr as it captured Suzanne's incredible story, Dr. Dennis LaFleur the quiet witness.