Intimacy with Death is its Own Kind of Freedom

by | Apr 11, 2023 | Fiction, Issue Thirty-Two

The scope of Kay’s knowledge gave her vicious pleasure. She had seen plenty. Jasper the tabby cat was first. A gift from her stepmother, a peace offering. The stupid thing leapt into traffic during a day of spring cleaning. She went outside and stared at the matted shredded mess, orange fur, flat as a rug. She didn’t cry. It was, even then, a lesson. How was she supposed to know how much she’d learn? Death felt the need to prove itself to her.

A few years later, the call came while she was sleeping. Her roommate answered the phone on the table between them in the narrow dorm. She knew right away by the look on the girl’s face. Her father and stepmother had been on an Alaskan cruise. They’d joked about it on the eve of their departure. “Gail is hot to trot, I figured this would cool her down,” her father said on the phone. “Cut it out,” her stepmother said in the background, like a schoolgirl. There was a freak ice storm. Visibility reduced to zilch. The radar failed. Then a tear in the hull. The cascade of events was one in a million. She hung up the phone. No tears came, though she could tell her roommate was waiting. What was the point? The truth was it was something of a relief. She no longer needed to wonder when the day would come.

Fearlessness was a gift, her intimacy with loss. Small deaths fortified her as much as big ones. The death of her first relationship, which she precipitated by telling the boy, a lanky senior with sandy hair, she didn’t want her whole life planned for her. He protested, said he loved her. They sat on the food hall steps, looked out at the small quad. “You’re a good catch,” she said, though she pitied him for making her feel the need to offer comfort. “Was,” he said.

The death of her dream. To write. She felt it slip away with the years. A few things published here and there. A novel that never found a home. Another one half-finished in a drawer. By then she’d had children, two boys. It wasn’t that there was no time. Her husband was supportive, let her have the early hours. It was that letting things die, even if they were once the things that enriched her soul, was a form of cleansing. She did not write for a week, then two, then a year, until she hardly thought about it at all. She shed a layer of skin, quietly let an old self expire. She did not mourn.

Her sons grew up and found wives, gave her grandchildren. Her husband retired and they moved south. Through it all she was prepared for death. Her own and the ones she loved. But she was not maudlin. Her readiness was its own armor.

Her husband died on a bike ride. A heart attack scaling a hill. Her sons flew down that night, expressed concern when she did not cry. “Every loss takes with it a little weight,” she told them. “You’ll find out soon enough.” She had him cremated, felt it was crass to take up space.

She’d been a widow hardly a year when the doctors reported the destruction of her cells with leaden sterility. She didn’t tell anyone that she began feeling lighter and lighter, almost giddy, as the months ticked by. Her sons wept, held her hand on the cold armrest of the hospital bed. She told them not to worry. All her life had been preparation for the moment she could let go, embrace the weightlessness that was life’s only sure gift, if you were brave enough to reach out and take it.

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