My friend Vicky has started taking a writing class each week and she has kindly allowed me to read and share her first homework assignment for the class. It is a short story but she feels she eventually wants to use it as a basis of a full book. Please be so kind as to give her some of your best constructive feedback.
A Good Death
By Victoria Edouard
It was a good death, I thought, not like my father’s. I almost said it out loud but then thought better of it. Driving home from his mother’s funeral was probably not the time to share another one of my unusual observations with Michael.
I suppose it’s easier for me. I came to know Nell at the brink of adulthood. She wasn’t my Mama. Over the years as our friendship deepened, there were times I wondered if I didn’t love her more than my own husband, her son.
Nell was a plain woman who lived a plain life. But hers was an outward life. This was evidenced by the overflowing crowd of mourners at the country church we had just left. Through the passenger window, I watched the open, golden fields pass by periodically interspersed with the cool shaded protection of a stand of woods. I reflected on Nell’s life.
She was a straight A high school student with a full university scholarship. But her father told her women didn’t need a college education. So she married the love of her life. She met him on a train during her big adventure to New York City.
A world war broke his spirit and broke her heart. Alcoholic and forever despondent, he eventually abandoned her, leaving behind four fatherless children and a mountain of debt from a string of failed businesses. She was forced to move in with her now retired father living in Florida.
The unfairness of the many stigmas and judgments she endured as a divorcee in the reluctant South of the civil rights era crushed down on her with unexpected force. Other women avoided her as if her condition was contagious. There was the young black man she saw everyday at the bus stop who finally implored her to stop trying to engage in conversation because he might be beat up or worse. There were the tears she had to dry when other children refused to play with her’s because they were poor, white Yankee trash. Finally there were the liberties men thought they could take with their words, eyes and hands as she waited on them at the local diner.
The choices she had seemed continually dictated by men. None of them ideal, but she did the best she could. Her brother found her a job back up North. But she couldn’t afford to bring her children right away. That decision would have ripple effects on all of them for many years to come.
Up North she thrived with the opportunity to use her brain as a secretary in the Federal government. She enjoyed travelling to conferences and meetings around the country despite the frequent advances from male colleagues, married or not, who expected divorcee equated to party girl.
Despite her plain features, men were attracted to Nell’s independent spirit and intelligence. She was forthright, open and had a quick wit. She carried herself well and fashionably. On her days off she loved to scour upscale boutiques trying on designer fashions that flattered her tall, thin figure. She’d linger in the dressing room, examining every detail, then spend equal hours searching for similar patterns and fabrics allowing her to re-create the same design late at night in her room.
She started dating again. Some were powerful and wealthy men. But at the end of the day she carried too much baggage for anyone to make a long term commitment.
After a year or so up North, saving every penny she could while relying on her brother’s good will and spare bedroom, she could finally afford to rent a one bedroom apartment and bring her children back to her. The girls and baby could share the bedroom with her and her oldest son, Michael, would have to sleep on the couch but at least they could all be together again. But even this couldn’t happen without a man’s help. With a good job and savings, Nell still had no credit. No landlord would rent to her without her brother agreeing to sign for her and take responsibility for the lease. Grateful for his continued generosity, a part of her was still resentful. However, she knew her children needed her. She would have an uphill battle to repair the damage done by the children’s unspoken perception of having been abandoned twice.
Thankfully with time, close quarters and necessity knit her family together again with a rare bond that would remain throughout her life. Even more remarkable the love within that bond was able to grow, expand and absorb anyone fortunate enough to come close to it. Nell worked hard and was thrifty. She became solidly, comfortably middle class. After her children had lives of their own, she married again.
Nell was an easy person to be around. Her advice never seemed to be advice so much as a conversation, a parable. She could be trusted not to judge. Through the worst adversity she could point out the path through it. She treated every child, grand child and friend with equal importance.
By the time of her illness she was a great grandmother. And her family and friends closed in around her in a pool of love and support. As her health deteriorated, after giving up on further chemotherapy, her focus was always on her family first. She’d tell us: this is her diagnosis, these are the odds, this is how we will attack it, this is how it will affect her… how are you all doing? She called a family meeting with the hospice worker…for us, not her.
Nell planned her funeral, suggesting favorite hymns and Bible passages. She never showed fear. Never a regular church goer, subtle hypocrisy annoyed her, she made sure we knew how deep her faith still ran and exactly what she believed. She had a living will and made sure we all acknowledged it. She did not want to die in the hospital and she did not want to linger too long. She spent time individually with everyone important to her. The family willingly took turns caring for her. Someone stayed with her every day and every night. As Nell faded and the pain increased, the hospice worker showed us how to administer morphine orally. We learned when the mind finally goes comatose maybe a little extra morphine could mercifully hasten things.
Within two hour of Nell’s passing, the entire family once again closed in around her. We were sad but at peace. It was a good death.
With the countryside behind us, I stared out the car window at the series of steel sided warehouses and impersonal strip malls lining the highway back to the city. I thought about how different my father’s death was.
His was an inward life. He collected wives and mistresses. Not so much because he was a stud-ly man, but because he was never present enough to protest, either the marriage or the divorce. With the exception of his first wife, none of his women were particularly younger or less successful than he. He respected them intellectually, which too many mistook to imply an emotional attachment as well.
There were reasons for this of course, as a lifetime of therapy could justify. His college educated mother, who died too young, was too absorbed in her books and philanthropy to ever take much interest in her four children. His father believed children should not be seen or heard. The children never knew how to address their father – he wouldn’t answer to Father, Dad or daddy. My Dad and his sisters used to joke as adults that whenever they received a phone call and there was silence at the other end, they knew it was their father; they would have to start the conversation. Even then my Grandfather still had no idea how to acknowledge his relationship with his own children.
Unbeknownst to my Dad, the joke continued into the next generation. My siblings and I would laugh and roll our eyes on the few occasions Dad would call one of us. He would announce, “Hello this is your Faaatherrr” with a clear, drawn out emphasis on the word “father”. While we never really knew the man, we all knew who was calling us.
The only emotion I ever witnessed from my father was at the age of four as my mother was packing me and my older sister and brother into the car to leave him. I had forgotten my favorite stuffed animal in the basement playroom where my dad had been sleeping for some time in the spare bedroom. As I was running back up the stairs, he grabbed me and held me close and crying, he begged us not to leave him. I don’t recall being able to answer him, but I had to go.
After that, I can probably count within my ten fingers the number of times I visited with him during the rest of my childhood. Those few visits would form the basis of our conversations into my adulthood during our equally infrequent encounters. Dad was famous for telling the same stories over and over again about the past. He just couldn’t connect with his children in the present or personally. My brother, Dad’s only child to attend his funeral, was surprised to find that none of our father’s work colleagues over the past twenty years even knew he had children. I wasn’t surprised.
Dad’s death was not a good death. After his cancer diagnosis, Dad and his last wife decided death by starvation was preferable to the potential pain and indignities suffered as cancer eats its way through a body.
I visited one last time. Mostly to say goodbye and stave off any future guilt, but maybe also with a tiny piece of that four year old girl hoping to finally make a connection. I arrived in the middle of a sunny, beautiful Colorado spring day to a dark house with heavy curtains drawn against the bright and teeming life outside. My father said he was having a good day. He thought he could sit up in the living room to talk with me. He was taking pain medication by pill and it helped to get it down by taking it with a spoonful of yogurt. As we were talking I watched while he eagerly continued to spoon yogurt into his mouth. Until his wife gasped in horror, yanked the yogurt from his hand and said, “What are you doing?” He apologized. He went on with our discussion. He didn’t believe in God. He really didn’t think anything happens after death but, just in case, he laughed, don’t step on any bugs after he’s gone.
Dad then asked his youngest child to tell her brother, who had previously visited, that he could have the new grandfather clock they recently bought, after his wife passes away or didn’t want it anymore. He also asked me to please tell my older sister that she could have Grandmother’s marble top dresser. I could have his desk. Of course, he continued, once his wife passed away we would all inherit whatever was left of his estate. His wife quickly assured me that we can trust her. She never had children of her own and she sincerely promised, even though she wasn’t legally required to, that she would remember us in her will.
Dad said he was getting tired. He thanked me for visiting. As we were helping him back to bed, he got dizzy. He said he couldn’t make it to the bed, he had to lie down right away in the hallway. As he collapsed on the floor, his last wife hysterically called out his name and asked over and over, “Is this it? Are you going? Is this it? Is this it?” He weakly answered that he didn’t know, he didn’t think so. Their fear was palpable. After a few minutes we helped him back up and into his bed. I told him I loved him and I said good bye. When he died a few weeks later, I was in the middle of an important short term contract. I didn’t attend his funeral. My sister was out of the country. She didn’t make it either.
I think a good death reflects a good life. A life spent with enough introspection to comfort and encourage others but not so much that you never connect with those around you.
As Michael and I pulled into our driveway, not having said a word to one another on the long drive home, I noticed for the first time the distance between us that had been bridged too long by our mutual love for Nell. With a deep sigh, I closed my eyes and silently prayed, God, please help me to have a good death.