I grew up in a house of mourning. Other families had deaths of course, but our losses seemed to be bundled together and with one exception, the dead were my parent's age. I can recall peppering my mother with questions about what the dead ate and how they how they eliminated, but in spite of her grief, her answers were careful and they were honest.
Seven years old and already I knew more about something terribly grown-up than any kid my class. I considered myself an expert on the subject and oddly enough, I think I still do. As I've grown older, death has lost most of its sting as I consider my own mortality and hope for an exit that includes a satisfying life review and a dog to lead me out.
The following is from my novel, Summerland. Betsey Randall, a character I grew to love, deserved a gentle death so I gave her the one I think I would like to have.
Her eyes opened and she tried to sit up in bed, but she felt tired and bed was comfortable, the cotton sheets cool on a warm night. The bed felt so fine and comfortable, Betsey Randall wasn't sure that she could have moved even if she had to. Moonlight flooded in the window and it took a moment for her to to see the dark shape sitting in the corner.
The dog had a pleasant look about it and it put her in mind of a dog she’d had when she was small. She could see herself, her tiny self, chasing around the broad lawns with the dog cavorting at her heels. Tilly had been given to her when she was three or four and stayed with her until she went off to Easton to board. Sweet Tilly had died just days after she left. Almost as though she knew she didn’t have a reason to stay around if her young mistress wasn’t going to be there. Easton was supposed to turn girls into young women and maybe Tilly didn’t want to belong to a young woman after always having belonged to a girl. Betsey’s eyes grew moist at the thought of the dog she had loved so well and the childhood she could only recall with joy.
She put her hand out and the dog approached and put its head under her hand. As cool as the sheets, the fur curled slightly in and out of her fingers.
Curly hair, just like that of her little Elizabeth. A vanity her mother had said, to name a girl after herself, but she and John decided that Elizabeth would never be a Betsey. She would remain an Elizabeth or if she wished, she could be an Eliza, so it wasn’t really a vanity on her part at all. She could barely put little Elizabeth down when she was a baby; she had been in awe with the miracle that she had given birth to something so precious and lovely.
Not long ago, she thought, not long ago at all. Suddenly it seemed like it had just happened, that summer that changed everything. First John, then Elizabeth became ill within hours of each other. The nightmare summer when she watched her baby die in her arms while trying to comfort her husband who was half-mad with delirium from the same disease.
She could still hear the country doctor who told her that she would have no choice but to leave them in the little cemetery. He’d said even embalming might not protect others from infection, so all that love and life had to stay in the dark earth of Vermont. She saw herself standing there, numb and mute with grief while those around her went through the motions and ceremonies that took her darlings away from her and consigned them to the cold ground.
How she had fought leaving camp that fall. Of course she couldn’t stay, but how hard it had been to leave them knowing that the dark earth would grow so cold. Snowflakes, something she had always loved, became reminders of death and loss and she couldn’t look at them without wondering if they were falling on the tiny graveyard by the camp. Falling and freezing those hands and faces she would never touch again. The tears fell and dampened her pillow and she felt crushed again by the weight of that summer and its harvest of grief.
She calmed as the image of Randall came to her. Like a knight in shining armor, he’d come into her life and made her feel that she was alive again. Always so full of himself, he was the leader of the parade and knew everyone would follow him. He’d found her and insisted that she march right along with him and four years after that horrible summer she was ready to fall in step. They had been a great match, the two of them and she had known that every day with him had been a gift, a second chance at happiness.
Such a good life she thought. An even mixture of pain and pleasure with lessons in every moment; exactly the life she was meant to live. Innocence not lost, but exchanged for some measure of wisdom. A daughter gone, but a son gained and two handsome grandsons to take up the place she would leave in the world.
She’d known the blessings of a beloved daughter-in-law and wonderful friends to share the sweet times and the tragic ones. Dearest was old Cece who had been there all those years and was still just next-door. Cece, who had been there with her for all the summers.
She tugged slightly at the dog’s ear and closed her eyes. She tried to speak, to tell the dog she was ready now, but her mouth remained still and cool as the white of snowflakes whirled around her.