Christmas 1992


by Isabel Allende

Near dawn on Sunday, December 6, after a miraculous night in which the veils that conceal reality were parted, Paula died. It was at four in the morning. Her life ended without struggle, anxiety, or pain; in her passing there was only the absolute peace and love of those of us who were with her. She died in my arms, surrounded by her family, the thoughts of those absent, and the spirits of her ancestors who had come to her aid. She died with the same perfect grace that characterized all the acts of her life.
For some time, I had sensed the end. I knew with the same irrefutable certainty with which I awakened one morning in 1963 knowing that, only a few hours before, a daughter had been conceived in my womb. Death came with a light step. Paula's senses had been closing down, one by one, during the previous weeks; I think she could not hear any longer, her eyes were almost always closed, and she did not react when we touched or moved her. Inexorably, she was drifting away. I wrote a letter to my brother describing the symptoms imperceptible to others but evident to me, looking ahead with a strange mixture of anguish and relief. Juan answered with a single sentence: I am praying for her and for you. To lose Paula was unbearable torment, but it would be worse to watch her slowly agonize through the seven years foreseen by the I Ching sticks. That Saturday, Iné came early and we prepared the basins of water to bathe Paula and wash her hair; we set out her clothes for the day, and changed her sheets, as we did each morning. As we began to remove her nightgown, we noticed she was deep in an abnormal sopor, like a swoon, lifeless, and wearing the expression of a child, as if she has returned to the innocent age when she used to cut flowers in Granny's garden. I knew then that she was ready for her last adventure and, in one blessed instant, the confusion and terror of this year of affliction vanished, giving way to a diaphanous tranquillity. "Do you mind, Iné, I want to be alone with her," I asked. Iné threw herself on Paula and kissed her. "Take my sins with you, and try to find forgiveness for me up there," she pleaded, and she did not leave until I assured her that Paula had heard her and would serve as her messenger. I went to advise my mother, who hurriedly dressed and came down to Paula's room. The three of us were alone, accompanied by the cat, crouched in a corner with her inscrutable amber pupils fixed on the bed, waiting. Willie was doing the marketing and Celia and Nicolá never come on Saturdays, that's the day they clean their apartment, so I calculated we had several hours to say our farewells without interruptions. My daughter-in-law, however, woke that morning with a presentiment and, without a word of explanation, left her husband to the household chores, picked up her two children, and came to see us. She found my mother on one side of the bed and me on the other, silently caressing Paula. She says that the minute she entered the room, she noticed how still the air was, and what a delicate light enveloped us, and she realized that the moment we most feared and, at the same time, desired had come. She sat down with us while Alejandro played with his toy cars on the wheelchair and Andrea dozed on the rug, clutching her security blanket. A couple of hours later, Willie and Nicolá arrived; they, too, needed no explanation. They lighted a fire in the fireplace and put on Paula's favorite music: Mozart and Vivaldi concertos and Chopin nocturnes. We must call Ernesto, they decided, but his telephone in New York didn't answer and they concluded he was still on his return flight from China and could not be located. The petals from Willie's last roses were beginning to fall on the night table among the medicine bottles and syringes. Nicolá went out to buy flowers, and shortly after returned with armfuls of the flowers Paula had chosen for her wedding: the smell of tuberose and iris spread softly through the house while the hours, each slower than the last, became tangled in the clocks.
At midafternoon, Dr. Forrester came by and confirmed that something had changed in her patient's condition. She did not detect any fever or signs of pain, Paula's lungs were clear, and neither was this a new onslaught of porphyria, but the complex mechanism of her body was barely functioning. "It seems to be a cerebral hemorrhage," she said, and suggested calling a nurse to bring oxygen to the house, in view of the fact that we had agreed from the beginning we would never take her back to a hospital, but I vetoed that. There was no need to discuss it; everyone in the family had concurred that we would not prolong her agony, only make her comfortable, Unobtrusively, the doctor sat down near the fireplace to wait, she, too, caught up in the magic of that unique time. She would spend all night with us, not as a physician, but as the friend she had become. How simple life is, when all is said and done. . . . In this year of torment, I had gradually been letting go: first I said goodbye to Paula's intelligence, then to her vitality and her company, now, finally, I had to part with her body. I had lost everything, and my daughter was leaving me, but the one essential thing remained: love. In the end, all I have left is the love I give her.
I watched the sky grow dark beyond the large windows. At that hour, the view from the hill where we live is extraordinary; the water of the Bay is like phosphorescent steel as the landscape turns to a fresco of shadows and lights. As night approached, the exhausted children fell asleep on the floor, covered with a blanket, and Willie busied himself in the kitchen preparing something to eat; we had only recently realized that none of us had eaten all day. He came back after a while with a tray and a bottle of champagne we had saved all year for the moment when Paula waked again in this world. I couldn't eat, but I toasted my daughter so she would awake happy in another life. We lighted candles, and Celia picked up her guitar and sang Paula's songs; she has a deep warm voice that seems to issue from the earth itself, and her sister-in-law loved to hear her. "Sing just for me," she would coax Celia, "sing low." A wondrous lucidity allowed me to live those hours fully, with penetrating intuition and all five senses alert, as well as others whose existence I hadn't been aware of. The warm glow of the candles illuminated my daughter‹silken skin, crystal bones, the shadows of her eyelashes ‹now sleeping forever. Transported by the intensity of our feeling for Paula, and the loving comradeship women share during the fundamental rituals of life, my mother, Celia, and I improvised the last ceremonies: we sponged Paula's body, anointed her skin with cologne, dressed her in warm clothing so she wouldn't feel cold, put the rabbit fur slippers on her feet, and combed her hair. Celia placed photographs of Alejandro and Andrea in her hands: "Look out for them," she asked. I wrote our names on a piece of paper, brought my grandmother's bridal orange blossoms and one of Granny's silver teaspoons, and placed all of them on Paula's breast for her to take as a remembrance, along with my grandmother's silver mirror, because I reasoned that if it had protected me for fifty years, surely it would safeguard Paula during that last crossing. Now Paula was alabaster, translucent . . . and so cold! The cold of death comes from within, like a blazing, internal bonfire; when I kissed her, ice lingered on my lips like a burn. Gathered around her bed, we looked through old photographs and remembered the happiest times of the past, from the first dream in which Paula revealed herself to me, long before she was born, to her comic fit of jealousy when Celia and Nicolá were married. We celebrated the gifts she had given us in life, and all of us said goodbye and prayed in our own way. As the hours went by, something solemn and sacred filled the room, just as on the occasion of Andrea's birth. The two moments are much alike: birth and death are made of the same fabric. The air became more and more still; we moved slowly, in order not to disturb our hearts' repose. We were filled with Paula's spirit, as if we were all one being and there was no separation among us: life and death were joined. For a few hours, we experienced that reality the soul knows, absent time or space.
I slipped into bed beside my daughter, cradling her against my bosom, as I had when she was young. Celia removed the cat, and arranged the two sleeping children so their bodies would warm their aunt's feet. Nicolá took his sister's hand; Willie and my mother sat on either side, surrounded by ethereal beings, by murmurs and tenuous fragrances from the past, by ghosts and apparitions, by friends and relatives, living and dead. All during the slow night, we waited, remembering the difficult moments, but especially the happy ones, telling stories, crying a little and smiling a lot, honoring the light of Paula as she sank deeper and deeper into the final sleep, her breast barely rising at slower and slower intervals. Her mission in this world was to unite all those who passed through her life, and that night we all felt sheltered beneath her starry wings, immersed in that pure silence where perhaps angels reign. Voices became murmurs, the shape of objects and the faces of our family began to fade, silhouettes fused and blended; suddenly I realized that others were among us. Granny was there in her percale dress and marmalade-stained apron, with her fresh scent of plums and large blue eyes. Tata, with his Basque beret and rustic cane was sitting in a chair near the bed. Beside him, I saw a small, slender woman with Gypsy features, who smiled at me when our glances met: Memé, I suppose, but I didn't dare speak to her for fear she would shimmer and vanish like a mirage. In other corners of the room, I thought I saw Mama Hilda with her knitting in her hands, my brother Juan, praying beside the nuns and children from Paula's school in Madrid, my father-in-law, still young, and a court of kindly old people from the geriatric home Paula used to visit in her childhood. Only a while later, the unmistakable hand of Tí Ramó fell on my shoulder, and I clearly heard Michael's voice; to my right, I saw Ildemaro, looking at Paula with the tenderness he reserved just for her. I felt Ernesto's presence materializing through the windowpane; he was barefoot, dressed in akido attire, a solid figure that crossed the room without touching the floor and leaned over the bed to kiss his wife on the lips. "Soon, my beautiful girl; wait for me on the other side," he said, and removed the cross he always wore and placed it around her neck. Then I handed him the wedding ring I had worn for exactly one year, and he slipped it on Paula's finger, as he had the day they were married. Then I was again in the portentous dream I had in Spain, in the silo-shaped tower filled with doves, but now my daughter wasn't twelve, she was twenty-eight years young; she was not wearing her checked overcoat but a white tunic, and her hair was not pulled back into a ponytail but hanging loose to her shoulders. She began to rise, and I with her, clinging to the cloth of her dress. Again I heard Memé's voice: No one can go with her, she has drunk the potion of death. . . . But I pushed upward with my last strength and grasped her hand, determined not to let go, and when we reached the top of the tower I saw the roof open and we ascended together. Outside, it was already dawn; the sky was streaked with gold and the countryside beneath our feet gleamed, washed by a recent rain. We flew over valleys and hills, and finally descended into a forest of ancient redwoods, where a breeze rustled among the branches and a bold bird defied winter with its solitary song. Paula pointed to the stream; I saw fresh roses lying along its banks and a white powder of calcined bones on the bottom, and I heard the music of thousands of voices whispering among the trees. I felt myself sinking into that cool water, and knew that the voyage through pain was ending in an absolute void. As I dissolved, I had the revelation that the void was filled with everything the universe holds. Nothing and everything, at once. Sacramental light and unfathomable darkness. I am the void, I am everything that exists, I am in every leaf of the forest, in every drop of the dew, in every particle of ash carried by the stream, I am Paula and I am also Isabel, I am nothing and all other things in this life and other lives, immortal.
Godspeed, Paula, woman.
Welcome, Paula, spirit.

From Life: A User's Manual, edited by John Miller. Copyright ©1998 by John Miller. Excerpted by arrangement with New World Library. $15. Available in local bookstores, or by calling 800-972-6657, ext. 52, or click here.