Sheilah, our nanny, died five weeks after my father died. If my father hadn’t died, maybe Sheilah would still be alive. I’m pretty sure she wanted to talk to me but I think she didn’t want to burden me. I wasn’t paying careful attention. I can remember her asking me how I was feeling, I can remember her watching me as if to measure my mood, while we played with my daughter Sarah, while she folded the laundry. I can remember feeling the psychic nudge, and thinking “if she has something to say, she should just say it, I don’t have the energy for this.”
I can see her standing in the hallway outside of Sarah’s room. She’s standing there still if the physicists are right and all time is constant and static. When her grandmother died Sheilah felt cold in that hallway and swore she smelled roses, a sure sign of a visitation. She said, “Come here, come here, can’t you smell them?” I thought maybe I smelled the roses too.
She’s standing in the hallway, saying she feels sick. I’m saying “Go to bed, don’t worry about the laundry, I’ll take Sarah to the pool.” She goes down to her bedroom. Sarah and I go to the pool. And that’s that.
The night Sheilah died, Sarah and I came home from the pool. I fed Sarah, put her to bed, and went to bed myself. At one in the morning our dog George woke me up. My husband mumbled “ignore him”, but the dog was intent, insistent, frantic. I put on a robe and stumbled down the stairs to the front door, but George didn’t want the front door, he ran to the door to the basement, frantic, whining, I thought, “maybe a deer”, I thought I didn’t want to wake up Sheilah, but George was making such a fuss that I figured we’d be less apt to wake her if I just went with him. We walked down the carpeted stairs to the basement, I noticed the light was on under Sheilah’s door, I heard loud breathing and thought she was snoring. I was relieved we hadn’t woken her (why was her light on, why was she breathing so loud?) I walked to the sliding glass doors that faced the woods, opened them for George, who no longer seemed to want to go out, and Sheilah called my name, “Cy?”, long and sad and hopeful. I went into Sheilah’s room, and she was lying in her bed, panting, with her Rosary in her hands. She said ‘I can’t breathe.'”
The paramedics and the extreme shock trauma unit were wonderful. As they wheeled her out, still doing CPR, the head technician turned to me and said gently, gently, “Don’t expect her to make it.” My husband went with the ambulance. I stayed behind with Sarah, trying to find Sheilah’s address book, trying to find anyone who could make decisions about her life and death.
We say that Sheilah died of an acute blood disorder, an inability to clot, internal bleeding. Privately, I say Sheilah was killed by her vow of chastity which resulted, as such a vow often does, in her pregnancy. She died of a ruptured ectopic pregnancy she was… too kind? too ashamed?… to mention.
The Filipino Community went crazy. Sending her body back to the Philippines would cost $10,000, a price my husband felt was too much to pay, money that could support a family in the Philippines for many years. I was never sure if the money was too much or not, but Sheilah’s body looked horrible, swollen and distorted out of all recognizable shape. People who didn’t know us and hadn’t known Sheilah began a fund raiser, so that rather than being cremated, Sheilah’s body could be flown home. Their slogan was “Not in a can but a coffin”.
The local Filipino newspaper printed stories that we had let Sheilah suffer in the basement alone, sick and starving, over the weekend or for a week, before we did anything. They said Sheilah was pregnant with my husband’s love child, that she had in her final despair fled through the woods behind our house, run into a tree, and knocked herself unconscious, and it was this head trauma that had killed her. They did in fact raise the money to send her body back. I don’t know if it brought her family any comfort. I don’t know if anything can bring any comfort when your child dies.
A local woman from the Philippines, who I think was running for a congressional seat, organized a memorial service for Sheilah, a month after her death. They told us the time, but when we arrived the service had been going on for a half hour. They were in the middle of talking about how abandoned and alone Sheilah was in her last hours. They stopped and acknowledged us when we came in, and changed the topic to Sheilah’s reunion with God in heaven. They had food, afterwards, but I couldn’t eat. I thought I should have, it would set them at ease. I’m ashamed that I couldn’t. But I felt they hated us, I thought they had intentionally even told us the wrong time for the memorial service. Several months later I found the piece of paper on which I had written the time for the memorial service. They had told me the correct time, and I had written it down right. I had just remembered it wrong.
Sitting in the phone booth, calling Sheilah’s mother in the Philippines to tell her her daughter is dying, is happening now, always, still, before I was born, after I’m dead. Inviolate, immovable, like Kali and eternity, like Mary’s Sacred Heart. I wish I could warn her mother what’s coming. I wish I could say where the fathers have gone.