Monday 5th September 2011
Emily of the shaven head
“WHAT is death?” asks Timer Halmot, the clock-keeper in the fable of The Hamper Eel and the Water Clock.
“Oh, nothing,” replies the slippery eel, sliding, slithering and wriggling ever closer to the mouth of the clepsydra.
“What do you think happens after we die?” asks Emily, the convalescent child in the Walker household in Churchfield Road.
“Nothing,” I tell her. “We end. We will have not breath, have not thought. To die is to be alive finished.”
“Olivia says I will go to Heaven if I die.”
“Where is Heaven, please?”
“Up in the sky. Where God lives, Olivia says. Did you go past Heaven in your spaceship?”
“I don’t really think there’s a place called Heaven,” she whispers. “I think Olivia was pretending. Let’s play something.”
She slithers down the pillow, wriggling under the bedclothes, sliding closer to sleep, to the end of another day in the journey of her recovery.
Olivia is Emily’s best friend. Often she visits the house with her mother, Linda, and younger brother, Sam, who is shy and clings always to Linda’s thigh.
Bravery can be slavery, as we are often told, but Emily’s little life had not yet taught her how to disguise distress. She feared the sting of injection; the rack of fever; the lurch of vomit. And dying more than death itself. Yet she wished, as long as she was alive, simply to carry on playing, giving, loving and just being herself.
Sometimes I would look at those freckled cheeks, the lagoon eyes or the curl of her fingers and see all the wisdom there ever was wrapped up inside that small, striving body.
Children are why we exist.
She taught me many different games, the names and dietary requirements of her seventeen cuddlies and the numbers up to infinity. I rearranged pillows, washed towels, told stories, drew pictures and even persuaded Clawed that Emily would be better served if her sleep was not disturbed by his frequent need to paw her shaven head. I endured several bites and scratches before winning the argument.