The Brevity Of Life

By Karli Massie

Whitney paused at the stained-glass window inside the dimly lit church, admiring the subtle beauty of it. Worn with time, it depicted the Virgin Mary. Her head hung low and her back formed a graceful arch that led Whitney’s eyes to the bottom of the glass in a smooth sweeping motion. She had never been inside this well-worn church that was situated at the corner of Front Street and Bardwell Road, and had only come here upon a sort of request, a suggestion really. Whitney was in no sense a religious person, she prayed when necessary, but the extent of her relationship with God stopped there.

Three figures waited for her at the archway, which formed a passage to the heart of the church. The sting of the cold wind that had been steadily seeping through the door had now abruptly stopped. Whitney laid a hand on her cheek, lamenting the loss of this element, and her eyes darted towards the closed door. She instantly longed for what was on the other side and felt her body slowly shift towards the door. But paused as a cold hand slid into hers.

“We need you.” Despite Amanda’s icy touch, Whitney felt the warmth and the truth of her words. She felt her body comply and crossed the threshold, her eyes focused on Kristen’s wavy hair. She had no desire to observe her surroundings today.

Whitney’s focus point took a sharp left into the fifth row from the front, and she let her gaze fall to the floor as she settled into the padded bench. It creaked a little as the four girls sat simultaneously. She prepared herself for the start, and coaxed her eyes from the grooves in the wooden pew. Regretting this instantly she focused again on the grooves, but it was too late for that. She had seen them. The little boy was the spitting image of his father, the same jawline and purposeful stare, the same dark brown eyes. And the little girl, she was exquisite. Her Italian roots radiated through an abundance of chocolate brown curls extending from her scalp, which framed a face laden with olive skin. Her wide eyes did not betray her emotions like Whitney’s did now. Their mother sat beside them, her brow riddled with signs of the intense worry she must have been feeling for her children. Like the children she was dressed in black, the only trace of color resonating through her straight brown hair was that of the dainty white pearls on either ear. She was a seemingly put together woman trying desperately not to let anyone know that she had fallen apart. As she watched her professor’s wife struggle to maintain her composure, Whitney thought about how quickly it had all materialized. How at once, life can turn into nothing.

****

One week earlier, Whitney had been sitting in class listening to Professor Wilson explain what he perceived to be the failed ending of Jane Eyre. He had a way with words, so anything he said sounded as though it had come directly from a book on literary theory. Whitney and Kristen were both enrolled in his Gender and Literature class, which took place every Monday and Wednesday. They had discussed and gotten to know this particular professor so well that, at times, they could predict what he might say. He rarely changed the format of the classes, so they knew what to expect, but this is not to say that they felt the lessons to be banal.

At times in life, it becomes apparent that one is in a situation of great benefit, and at these times it is pertinent to pay attention. Whitney and Kristen had acknowledged this in regards to this particular professor. They had discussed his intellect at length, promising each other that they would attend every class and absorb every bit of knowledge he would impart to them.

One Wednesday morning, as Whitney and her fellow students gathered in the classroom where they would undoubtedly talk about Frankenstein, the late Mary Shelley’s Gothic masterpiece, Professor Wilson waltzed into the room and declared that they would be holding class outside today. The air in the room instantly felt lighter, and they all trooped out onto the unconfined sunlit lawn. He spoke of his children often, and today he began the lesson with an anecdote about the fit his ten-year-old son threw in front of a grocery store, all because his mother told him that she absolutely would not buy him another pair of Nikes. During these stories, which tended to sound like he was ruthlessly poking fun at the various and frequent antics of his children, Whitney recognized the adoration and loyalty her professor felt for his family. This was of course the very essence of him, and his students understood what kind of man he was without him ever having to tell them what he valued most.

****

The following Monday, Whitney and Kristen walked to class, happily discussing the weekend’s events. In the midst of late nights and early hangovers they had become hooked on Mad Men, racing through the first three seasons’ worth of DVDs at a rate that would astonish even the most dedicated couch potato.

“I think that may have been the best and most nauseating episode we’ve seen. Seriously though, imagine having your foot run over by a fucking lawn mower,” Whitney said with a disgusted grimace.

“True, but can we talk about how good looking men must have been in the ’60s? Where’s my borderline alcoholic businessman in a suit?” Kristen had a thing for assertive, strong male figures that knew how to dress themselves. Basically, she liked assholes.

“Okay they may be attractive but,” Whitney stopped short. They had become so ensconced in their authoritative male debate that neither one had noticed they had arrived at the door of their classroom. It had been propped open so both girls had only to peer inside to see tears streaming down a fellow student’s distraught face. Whitney’s legs rooted to the ground as an eerie premonition washed over her. She sensed the danger of the situation, and somehow in the midst of feeling like her head had been pulled underwater, she listened to someone tell her that her professor was dead.

Whitney found the wall with her left hand and braced herself against it. Suddenly, she detested the cheap fluorescent lights that were beaming down on her, illuminating the reality of the situation. Everything about this room felt impersonal; the plastic tables engraved with silly anecdotes by tragically bored students and the hideous blue carpet that Whitney had never noticed until now. She wanted out.

****

Someone passed in front of Whitney and lifted her attention from the memory. She had been clasping her hands together so tightly that they were now flecks of red and white. She rapidly curled and then uncurled her fingers trying to get the circulation back, and watched as a lanky male figure sauntered up to the podium. He spoke of her professor and his propensity for inspiring people through simply being. She understood this, and was then annoyed at this quick understanding. She had hoped that maybe her professor would be nothing like the man that she had come to admire. That maybe she had been completely wrong, and really he was just ordinary outside the classroom. But the man at the podium explained otherwise. Professor Wilson was a blazing intellect. He was someone who couldn’t help but be brilliant all the time.

Whitney thought about her own funeral. What would people say about her? She had no idea. But she understood that this eulogy was one that didn’t come around often. She was certain that blazing intellects were few and far between. The eulogy came to a close with the tall man addressing Professor Wilson’s family. Again, Whitney focused on the boy with the strong jaw and the girl with the olive skin. As the man told her professor’s wife to preserve his memory for their children, Whitney saw the strength and courage it took for this woman to struggle with her tears as she nodded in acknowledgement. She clutched her children, and then it was over.

Whitney felt the collective presence of everyone who had attended, and walked with them as they all exited the church. She sighed under the weight of it all, knowing that her life, and the lives of everyone who knew Professor Wilson would be forever changed.

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