Tag Archives: death

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.

What?

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.

Edna Cobal

Once in mid-July when I was fourteen, I caught our neighbor Edna Cobal unannounced in the garden behind her home. I had ridden my bike to her house to deliver a check from my father, and as she didn’t appear when I knocked on the kitchen door, I went around to the back where I knew she kept a garden.

I didn’t see or hear anything initially, but then from somewhere off to one side I heard a rustling, dry-leaf sound, and following the sound off the porch and between a planting of lilacs, I discovered her—Mrs. Miller Cobal, an elderly woman, a grandmotherly woman, a woman who always wore a dress and who always remembered my name, a woman best known, at least in my circle, as the Mrs. Cobal who one day announced that she would never again attend church—I discovered Edna sprawled on her back in a great heap of dried pea vines. Having at some earlier time pulled them and heaped them high, she was now, for reasons impossible for me to fathom, lying in them. At the moment I startled her she was tucking a handful of vines under her chin like a scarf.

with end of things

There was nothing either one of us could do except find each other, which we did with all of the accompanying embarrassment and ill-at-ease you might imagine. She got herself extricated and upright, her dress smoothed, I got the check into my hand and visible.

When finally she stood before me, small and with a slight smile, she reached out and, placing a hand on my shoulder, said, “I am sorry, Wilmer, that you had to find me this way. But sometimes there’s need to be with things. Even the end of things. Like the beautiful end of peas.”