The Deceased

A final goodbye

By Brian Doyle | March 29, 2013


She was tremendously generous and parsimonious at the same time. She would do anything for you, but she would disappoint you on such a regular basis that you wanted to scream. She wanted to be a teacher, and her father forbade her and she wanted to be a nurse and her father forbade her and you wonder who she might have been if it was a different world and she’d had a different father and she became a teacher or a nurse. She was cheerful and sad at once. She loved to have company, but people made her nervous. She loved children, but children made her nervous. She was a terrible snob with an eerie oceanic empathy for people from every walk of life. She was the healthiest hypochondriac in the history of the universe. She was both gentle and demanding. She was a gossip with a heart as big as a province. Children loved her, which is a good sign.

You wonder who she might have been if her father had loved her more than himself. You wonder who she might have been if she wasn’t the only girl among her brothers. You wonder who she might have been if the dark snow did not fall over her like a shroud on a regular and saddening basis. It is instructive to hear that her home was so warm and friendly that those who walked in the door found it difficult to walk out. She was a reader of epic proportions whose shelves were lined with self-help muck shoulder to shoulder with Edward Gibbon and Anthony Trollope. You never met a woman who could recite poetry so easily from memory, though it is instructive to note that she never remembered a poem exactly as written.

She loved dogs but spent the last 40 years of her life without one because they made her nervous. She loved her daughters but never missed a chance to comment tartly on their hair, clothing, choice of paramour, and unrefined cooking. She wanted to be informed and invited to every event of every conceivable shape and flavor, though she hardly ever attended them but woe unto the being who did not inform her of said event because he knew and she knew she would not attend. No one in the history of the universe was ever more artful at making a remark that was hilariously blunt and witty and admirably suited to the occasion but which could just as easily be construed as a slip of the tongue—you were never quite sure if she was witty or flitty; my favorite such bon mot being her toast at the engagement dinner of her final daughter, a siren who had been engaged once before but who had broken off the first engagement, and at the second engagement’s dinner her mother rose, hoisted her goblet, and said let’s just hope this one comes off, which still makes me laugh, not to mention my dad, who never really recovered from that moment; he still has champagne stuck in his nose all these years later, he says.

She lived to be 90, moaning to the end about a procession of ills, but it was no ill that felled her, finally, unless time be a disease from which we cannot recover; and she died flanked by her children, who held her hands and watched her go. In her last weeks, her nurses said, she spoke more and more of and to her mother and her husband, both of whom had gone ahead long years before, and she spoke of and to them with anticipatory joy. She left instructions for her children that her ashes be poured into the old blue cookie jar that had been the jewel of her kitchen for 50 years, and the jar be placed on her husband’s grave, so that she would again be with him, in forms beyond our ken. So she rests as of this morning, and though many mourn her, there are more who smile when they imagine her reaching for the face of the man she loved, and her own mother reaching out for her baby girl, and the tide of time in full retreat, and all pains fled and gone, and joy the only language on every holy tongue.

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