“By the Deathbed (Fever) I” (1915) by Edvard Munch at Wikiart

At the End

In the final weeks she lay propped on a stack of pillows, her hospital bed in the dining room now. They’d stopped the chemo, and her hair was growing back, a smooth silvery cap, grayer than it had been before. Her face was gaunt, her skin like parchment, her frame skeletal. She drowsed in and out of a morphine slumber, as visitors came and went. When silence yawned she would suddenly blurt out, “Talk.” And more insistently, again, “Talk,” her voice high-pitched and urgent.

It was hard for us to know what to talk about, the handful of close friends who stopped by when we could to sit quietly at her bedside. Nothing seemed important in the face of death. The room was still with waiting. Outside you could hear the thwack of tennis balls, the exuberant cries of children on the courts as summer waned, and fall and the beginning of school loomed. Leaves rustled in the warm wind, filtering the sunlight in lacy patterns on the lawn that wavered and shifted with each breeze. The world outside was sunny and green, but the light that seeped through the slats of the closed, white wooden blinds was shadowy and pale.

One afternoon, the two of us alone, she asked me to read from a book I’d brought. “Any book, I just want to hear your voice.” So I read some feminist theory on women’s autobiography, a dense, jargon-laden text that seemed ludicrously beside the point, at the end of a woman’s life. When I stopped reading, her eyes fluttered open and she laughed, the first time I’d heard her laugh in a while. “That was a mouthful,” she said.

She couldn’t eat, but when we brought in meals for ourselves she wanted to smell them. “You’d be surprised at the pleasure you can derive from smelling food,” she told us, and I still think about that every time I smell dinner cooking. Ordinary food and digestion, desultory talk and comfortable silences, the pleasures of even an aging body and days not darkened by pain — it’s hard now to take any of them for granted.

She talked less and less in the last days. Her attention seemed to shrink inward, and to be concentrated not on the larger mysteries of life and death, but the mundane workings of the body as it shut down, organ by organ. “Pee pee,” she cried in horror, sitting straight up in bed, clapping her hands to her face, her skeletal arms like hinges, her mouth an O. Perhaps her soul had already departed, leaving her entirely preoccupied with her failing body. Maybe our talk had been her last tendril of connection to the world she was departing, as she wavered on the threshold of darkness and silence, at the end.


First published in flashquake


Jacqueline Doyle lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her award-winning flash chapbook The Missing Girl was published last fall by Black Lawrence Press, and she has recent flash in Wigleaf, Post Road, Hotel Amerika, and New Flash Fiction Review. Find her online at www.jacquelinedoyle.com and on twitter at @doylejacq.