Emily-Jane Hills Orford


The Book End

F-Stop: A Life in Pictures

The following excerpt is the Introduction to Emily-Jane Hills Orford’s latest book: F-Stop: A Life in Pictures (Baico: 2011). This Introduction was entered as a short story to the Kenneth Galbraith Literary Award and was named one of the finalists in 2009.

London, Ontario, Canada – December 2007

I should be doing something, anything. My body will not function. It does not seem to read my mind nor does it respond to my commands. In short, my body is no longer working. I just lie here, mostly in a daze, thinking about all of the things that I should be doing, could be doing, yet cannot do. I do not understand why this is happening to me. I have never been one to lie around idle. My hands have always been busy and my mind has always been active. I should be teaching, taking care of Norman, looking after the great grandchildren, painting, knitting, sewing, working on my embroidery, baking, taking pictures, reading, doing my pottery, working on my genealogy, writing to someone, talking on the phone, helping sort out a problem…. the list is endless. I never could run out of things to do. So why this? Why now?

A voice is singing to me. Norman, bless his heart, is singing me a love song. For sixty-one years we have stood together, loved one another and took care of each other. Usually it was Norman who was very sick. This is the first time that it is me and I do not like it one bit! I should be singing along with him. Music is my great gift. It is a gift I have shared and passed on to so many others: my children, my grandchildren, my students and the many choirs that I have led. I had so much fun leading choirs at church and helping young voices sing their praises to God. I wish I could still sing. I want to sing. There is so much that I want to do. There is too much yet for me to do. I have so many unfinished projects. Now, I am unable to even sit up without rolling over sideways. I think, I try to talk; but nothing comes out. What is that song? Norman is singing me a song. I should know what it is.

“Let me call you sweetheart, I’m in love with you.” He is singing me a love song from our courting days. The song actually came out about eight years before we met. Leo Friedman wrote the music. It was a bestseller for many years. I know all of these details. Music is my life. At least, it was.

Norman finishes singing the song as he bustles around me. I can see that it is morning. The sun is shining brightly outside my picture window. My bed is lying next to the window so that I can look outside. There is not much to see, just the weather, which, at this time of the year, is not always pleasant.

I hear another voice. It is Emily. She is visiting. “Oh, Dad,” she sniffles. Has she been crying? Why would she be crying? I should be able to take her into my arms and make her feel better like I did when she was a child. It really was not all that long ago. But now, I cannot move my arms. They lie useless by my side. Oh! This is so frustrating.

“You are such a romantic,” Emily says. “A real knight in shining armour.”

Norman laughs. “I just do what I have to do,” he defends himself. I smile to myself. I am not sure if my smile is evident; but I am smiling. I know better. Norman has always been my knight in shining armour. “We do what we have to do in life,” he says again and hustles off to make me some breakfast.

“Good morning, Mom.” Emily comes over, greeting me with a forced cheeriness in her voice. She kisses me on the forehead. I hear her shuffle away. Then I hear the piano. Emily is playing for me. She is playing one of my favourite Christmas carols. It must be almost Christmas. The days are a blur. It was September when they diagnosed my cancer. Can it be so close to Christmas already? I love the sounds of Christmas.

“Oh come all ye faithful,” I force myself to sing. My voice sounds croaky, but I believe that I really am singing.  Peggy was here a few days ago. At least, I think it was a few days ago. Time seems so abstract, indefinable. She played Christmas carols on her violin and I sang along. I always loved to sing. “Joyful and triumphant.” I can be triumphant. My music will see me through. It always has. Music, my life is music. “Oh come ye, oh come ye to Bethlehem.” I will come to Bethlehem. I will come to my Saviour, but do I have to come now? The doctors told me that I only had three weeks to live. Then they did surgery on my spine. They said it would prolong my life. They said nothing about the quality of life that I would experience after surgery. They did not specify how much longer the surgery would extend my life. They do not know. They like to play God; but there is only one God. Only He knows.

The doctors have insisted on administering some new chemo drug. It does not help. Nothing seems to help. I am stuck in this useless body that continues to fail me more and more each day. I am a prisoner of a life that is quickly draining away. My body, my physical temple, cannot hold out much longer. I must not despair and yet I do. I must look to my Saviour for strength.

“Come and behold Him, born the King of Angels,” I sing huskily. My voice is not what it used to be. “Oh come let us adore Him. Oh come let us adore Him. Oh come let us adore Him, Christ the Lord.”

Emily is crying. I can hear her sniffles, but she plays on. “Silent Night”, “Joy to the World”, “Deck the Halls”, and more. They are all my favourites. The music stops and I hear Emily blow her nose. She comes to sit beside me. She takes hold of my hand and says, “I love you, Mom. I love to hear you sing.” So she can hear my voice. I was not just imagining that I could still sing. I really was singing!

I try to smile. “Where’s Mother?” I ask. “I haven’t seen her in such a long time.” I wrench my eyes open only to notice the look of confusion on my daughter’s face. I close my eyes for a moment to think. When I reopen them, I realize that I must have been dreaming about my mother. “She’s dead, isn’t she?” I ask Emily. She sniffs and nods her head sadly. I let out a deep sigh. “I don’t know if I’ll ever get better,” I whisper softly. I try to lick my lips. They are so dry. “I just don’t know,” I whisper. “I don’t know how I got this thing. I just don’t know.”

“We keep hoping and praying that you will get better,” Emily replies, patting my hand. “You have to write your story, Mom. You have so many stories to write, so many stories to share.”

“You write it,” I tell her. “You write my story.” I let my hand rest in hers and drift off again into the void that continually engulfs me, drowning my senses, obliterating any sense of equilibrium. “You write my story,” I whisper again ever so softly. My eyes are already tightly closed.

F-Stop: A Life in Picturesis available directly from the author: ejomusic@sympatico.ca

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