Of Death and Dying

My mother-in-law passed a few nights ago, and when the news came my wife, daughter, and I huddled together by the bed and said little. We had been expecting her death day after day, night after night, and now that it was over we waited silently in the finality of that knowledge.

It was raining that night, and when I went alone later to the main part of our house, the sound of the rain drumming on our metal roof seemed especially melancholic, and I instinctively went to a window for its rare comfort: the sadness,  the melancholy, my mother-in-law’s last years with dementia, my Mennonite backstory, the cold fact of death and dying…

And this, too, a memory:

How once in Pennsylvania when I was very young and playing by the creek that curved through our farm, I spotted a fish. It was on the surface of the water and close to the bank, and I could see its eye. Knelling down on my hands and knees, I reached into the water for the fish and hooked it to the line of my homemade  fishing pole. And then, the fish dangling in front of me, I raced up to the house to show someone. Walking directly into the kitchen, I called out the news:

Look! I caught a fish!

My mother, turning to learn my meaning, stopped what she was doing and immediately started laughing. She had both hands at her waist, elbows out.

I caught it, I said. A fish.

But Wilmer, she said.


You caught it by the tail. Are you sure you didn’t catch it dead?

I caught it in the creek, I said.

Yes, but…

But she was laughing and smiling and I, suddenly understanding everything, rushed out from the kitchen for the creek, where I unhooked the fish, threw it into the water, and watched it float away upside and dead. When I reached the willow tree where I often played, I squeezed through to its dark open cavity and beat my fists in the darkness. And wept. And said those words the hired men sometimes said.

12 responses to “Of Death and Dying

  1. This left me a bit speechless.

  2. I’ve been reading Steinbeck again. Short stories “The Long Valley”. We live close to Salinas so it’s personal. This could have been Steinbeck but it wasn’t. It was you. I loved this. “and beat my fists in the darkness. And wept. And said those words the hired men sometimes said.” Wonderful.

  3. And condolences for the loss of the mother. So sad.

  4. Hello Bee. You have disappeared. I hope all is well. Thanks for your comment.

  5. Lovely, as always. And isn’t there comfort in having those words of the hired men for just such moments? Condolences and wishing a deserved peace to your family.

  6. Tricia. Those hired men’s words are sometimes handy even today…

  7. Susan Curtis

    Why is it that our most vivid childhood memories are most often about shame or humiliation? A tree is a good place to retreat on such occasions. I hope it is still standing. I am so sorry for this loss in your family, Will. Thank you for sharing this post.

  8. I was very touched by your piece, Will. You have a real gift. To all three of you, please accept our deepest sympathy for your loss. Our thoughts are with you.

  9. Hello Ang. I hope your time away is better even than you imaged. I appreciate your comment here.

  10. Will, sending our sympathy for your family’s loss. Hope you find peace soon.
    And thanks for the story of your childhood. I laughed with your mom…

  11. Will, I think you were born to love this earth and collect and tell stories. And you’re doing both; how wonderful is that? And sharing a love that runs backward and forward through generations, surviving time.

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