One Death and Then Another

grandmother and her first born
grandmother and her first born

I could’ve driven the two hours to her death faster, but my dad had asked me to stop at Auto Zone on the way for a piece of plastic. “Your car will need that part for the drive back to school,” he’d said. “Otherwise you’ll break down on the highway.” I don’t think I made it clear to him that my aunt said my grandmother was dying.

It was the end of spring break. The last time I’d seen my grandmother was Christmas. We’d taken her oldest child to dinner. He was deaf and mentally retarded and taking him out always caused her embarrassment, but she took him anyway. It would take him several minutes each time to remember who she was. No matter how old I got, once he remembered me he thought I was eight. “Nice Marta,” he’d say and pat me on the head. He was also her only living child. Her youngest had died in a car crash at 21. My mother had died just a month before that last Christmas.

My aunt was not her natural child. She was the oldest daughter of a widower who married my grandmother and then left for the wilds of Alaska. Having embezzled life insurance money, he never came back.

My aunt met me at the assisted living facility and walked me to my grandmother’s room. That Christmas my grandmother had waved goodbye from her apartment door. She could still drive a little then, and cook her own meals. The cancer was supposed to have killed her months before but until my mother died, grandmother proved the doctors wrong.

“She’s been waiting for you,” my aunt said. I sat on a stool by my grandmother’s bed. I failed to see how she could be waiting for anyone. She didn’t blink. Her eyes were pale blue milk. She seemed like vapor to me. She couldn’t speak. Or move.

“Marta’s here,” my aunt said to her. I picked up her hand. Icy just like they always say. I thought of a dead baby bird I’d buried once. Brittle and air. “I’m here,” I said. Perhaps her head moved to the sound of my voice. My mother and I shared the same name. I hoped my grandmother thought I was her daughter.

On the other side of the room my aunt and her husband held onto to each other. I was supposed to be comforting my mother. I’d planned on that. My grandmother’s breath rasped. I made sure nothing I said to her was unique to me. I didn’t lie, but everything I said could’ve been said by my mother. The room was cold, and I felt stupid in what I was wearing. And then more stupid still for thinking about it.

I kept talking until the nurse came in and told me my grandmother was gone. I could leave. Everything would be taken care of.

Aunt C and her husband walked arm in arm back to their car and I followed several steps behind. “Meet is back at our house,” they said, hugging me in the parking lot. “We’ll take you out for dinner.”

Death is common in fiction–although it has to be part of the plot. You have your murder victim found at the beginning of a mystery–preferably young, female, and pretty. You have your heroic, sword waving death–for love of a beautiful woman or for the lack of love from a father. Then there is the wise, old man death that sets the hero free to finish the quest and become a man.

I never read The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, but I did happen to read the scene where the main character, Susie Salmon, is murdered. Now that was a fictional death I had a hard time shaking.

What is it that makes a death in fiction work? What such scenes have moved you and stayed with you long after you put the book back on the shelf?

8 thoughts on “One Death and Then Another

  1. Beautifully written. Oddly enough the one death in fictiion that stayed with me was one of the very accessible, kind female characters in AS Byatt’s Still Life. She was killed, suddenly in the middle of a very humdrum scene – she dropped something while she was making dinner, it fell under the electric cooker, reaching underneath she was electrocuted. It was profoundly shocking – out of the blue, like real life.

  2. A few years back I slammed down a collection of short stories and said, “Every single one of these stories is about death! I can’t stand it anymore!”

    But I got over it.

    One death scene that got to me was in a short story. I don’t recall the name, but the character was old with no family left. An elderly neighbor, also alone with family left, came to sit with the dying man. They were not close in life, only knew each other casually, but she wanted to be with him as he died…and the dignity of both of them in his final moments will stay with me.

    Your story is very touching. I look at your grandmother’s picture and wonder if you think you look like her. I see a resemblence.

  3. Wonderful story, wonderfully simply told. (And like SBW, I too like the photo.)

    Death has to be part of the plot.

    Yeah. And isn’t that a pain? I mean, surely death is a hinge upon which countless real-life stories swing. But unlike in fiction, real-life deaths — far and away more often — take place in a scene just as you describe, or something like it: someone holding someone else’s hand, in a nearly quiet room.

    Few fictional deaths seem so (superficially) inconsequential. (Especially when crafted by contemporary authors, who sometimes seem to be trying to outdo one another in the weird-death category.) I don’t know what it is about the effective fictional deaths which makes them so, but think it has something to do with the psychological impact rather than the manner of death… and even more, when the reader’s been allowed to grieve with characters in the story.

    One great example of this for me was Gus’s death in Lonesome Dove. Gad. Want to rend my garments just thinking of it again.

  4. Mistress Quickly, relating the death of Falstaff in Henry IV part 2. Makes you wonder, did he really go out calling for more wine and more women, or was he now fearful for his immortal soul, crying out not in joy but in concern for his past sins? Was he celebrating or repenting? Could be read either way, which is what makes it a masterpiece.

    The death of old Marchmain in Brideshead Revisited. Will he or won’t he “accept” the extreme unction? Still on Evelyn Waugh, the death scene in The Loved One. A nice bit of irony. Your little Amy is in heaven, thinking of you and wagging her tail.

    Always some strong element of the resident human ingredient, ambiguity.

  5. Oh, everyone here has these lovely high literature references and I have a reference to a fantasy trilogy. However, my example is of a death that did NOT work. The series is by Trudi Caravan and I’m not naming it just in case it’s a spoiler for someone. The death was of the most important character in the series. A character who first seemed evil and manipulative, but ended up having excellent motives for his actions and in the end the heroine and he fall in love in their fight against the bad guys.

    Then the other killed him off 20 pages b4 the end of the last book. I cried and I hated her for it. I can’t read her books anymore b/c I don’t trust her. Weird, but there you go.

    A death that worked (and may redeem my scif-fi tastes) is that of Edna Pontellier in Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening.” I understood her and her decision, but I mourn her choice. And who can forget “The Hours”?

  6. Kate, I haven’t read any Byatt since Babel Tower. I read that book 11 years ago adn still haven’t recovered.

    SBW, I’ve never seen a resemblance. I’ve tried, but it eludes me.

  7. JES, perhaps how the writer felt writing a death ends up in how the writer feels in reading it.

    Sophie, you can refer to fantasy novels as much as you please. I love fantasy. And hey, I can barely get my name straight without my coffee.

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