Westwind

The Reason for Living

John Menaghan

 

The reason for living is to get ready to stay dead a long time.

–William Faulkner

 

If everything that happens happens for a reason,

there must be some reason my mother’s still alive.

This reason thing was her stab at wisdom, words she

applied like a salve whenever misfortune struck.

 

Now, eight months past a stroke that left her speechless,

she lies in the bed and laughs at my silly jokes,

while my niece laughs along at the other side of

the bed. I’ve brought this niece 3,000 miles to see

 

my mother one last time, to say goodbye. But not

explicitly, of course, since no one’s talking yet

about the end, which may be far off still, or not.

Talk as we may, of death we say nothing at all.

 

But at some point, alone with my mother again,

as I had been so many times before, after

my siblings had fled, and before I did, privy

to so much my mother needed to tell someone,

 

I seize the moment—or perhaps stumble toward it—

and find myself saying: Well, we all have to die.

Even now I can’t figure out how or why I

thought, even for an instant, I ought to say that.

 

But I’ll always remember the look she gave me

then, a strange mixture of outrage and deep distress.

It told me, wordlessly, what a mistake it had been

to presume to speak about our common fate to her

 

when death was for me, or seemed anyway to be,

far off, while hers seemed nearer each minute, each day.

I’m sorry, I told her. I shouldn’t have said that.

Her face softened then, and she seemed to forgive me.

 

But I’ll take that first look with me to my own grave.

And what I’ve thought since is: She never was ready

to die at all. Never mind stay dead a long time.

Nor will I be, I suspect, when my time has come.

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