Philippe Ariès, in The Hour of Our Death, points out that the essentialThe Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion
characteristic of death as it appears in the Chanson de Roland is that the
death, even if sudden or accidental, “gives advance warning of its arrival.”
Gawain is asked: “Ah, good my lord, think you then so soon to die?” Gawain answers: “I tell you that I shall not live two days.” Ariès notes: “Neither his doctor nor his friends nor the priests (the latter are absent and forgotten) know as much about it as he. Only the dying man can tell how much time he has left.”
Saturday marked the ninth anniversary of my little sister’s death. This year hit me so much harder than I thought it would. I cried, and stared at photos of Joscelyne taken with disposable cameras that were de rigueur in the 90s.
I thought of the purpley-pink lipstick she was wearing the last time we hung out. I then thought about the naughty joke I told her as she was reapplying it. She blushed. I laughed at her out-of-character prudery. I smiled at the memory.
I devoured Joan Didion‘s The Year of Magical Thinking over the weekend. The book recounts the sudden death of her husband, John Dunne, in December 2003. One moment they were having dinner, and in the next, EMTs were trying to revive his stilled heart after a massive attack. Didion jumps around in time, sharing anecdotes from various decades, while still moving the narrative forward linearly throughout her first year as a widow.
The excerpt cited above made me think of Jos’ final weeks. Despite the fact that Superstorm Sandy had come through and made a mighty mess of our area, she had managed to spend time with each member of our family individually. While the power was still out, she had sat with Daddy and listened to him play a Gospel song on the piano. She had requested it. He would play and sing it again at her memorial service.
She visited Mommy at the rehabilitation/long term care home. Mom had been there a few months at that point, with plans to continue regaining strength and mobility after years of battling Type 2 Diabetes. They watched daytime TV and talked about Jos’ kids. After her death, Mommy no longer wanted to be discharged. She has never lived independently since.
Jos smoked a cigarette with our brother, Joe. She never really much cared for smoking. It caused her throat to hurt and she hated the smell. But Joe was a pack-a-day smoker then, and when in Rome, I guess. A few years later, he quit. By that point, Daddy was gone, too.
She went to church with me. A noonday mass at my Episcopal church. It was the rescheduled All Saints/ Souls service. The building was empty. Only my pastor, Jos, Zoe, and I were in attendance. She volunteered to do one of the readings. Her first time there and she was put to work. Father was happy and invited her back. She agreed. Less than two weeks later, an urn with her ashes were placed on a table decorated with flowers close to the spot where she had shaken his hand.
K, upon hearing that she had visited with us all in those final weeks, supposed her spirit was leading her to say goodbye, to give some closure. I held in my heart that suggestion, even as I knew I’d only get closure at my own death. My very act of living is a testimony of her death.
In The Book of Common Prayer, there is a line: “In the midst of life, we are in death.” And all about me is my sister, my first best friend, my first baby- her life, smile, laugh, voice, anger, and hopes. And inevitably, her death.