Write About Life and Death

by Joe Bunting | 83 comments

The day Marston was born, we found out my wife's grandmother had cancer. They said she had six months to a year to live. Three weeks later, she was in critical condition, and my wife was flying up to see her. It's now four weeks after my son was born and I'm here in Pennsylvania, Amish country, for the funeral.

Never before have I seen life and death in such close proximity. Cormac McCarthy once said these are the only two subjects worth writing about, life and death. After experiencing it first hand this month, I get it.

Life and Death

Photo by Rama V

Contrast in Art

Great art employs contrast: good and evil, dark and light, life and death. When you place orange next to dark blue, both colors look more vibrant (which is why sunrises are so beautiful).

When you place life next to death (or vice versa), both become more meaningful.

Life Beside Death

There’s this one picture someone took of my son with his great-grandmother. She was unconscious, had that gaping mouth of the dazed dying.

Marston was lying, propped up against her, looking up just past the camera with an expression that says, “This is very strange.” And certainly, for one so freshly brought into the world, the idea of someone leaving it would be foreign.

When I first saw that picture, I thought, “Oh, good. Someone got a picture of him with her.” The second time I looked at it, I recognized the contrast and felt a slow burn of grief and awe in my chest.

I wanted to show the picture to everyone I talked to that day, as if to say, “See? This is the mystery, that these two things could exist in the same world. How do you explain that?”

Great Authors Write About Death

I recently read The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, the novel that won the Booker Prize in 2012. The title is very appropriate. The story follows a man trying to understand the suicide of his best friend fifty years prior, a man at the end of his life trying to understand the end of someone he cared about.

Great writers write about death. Of the twenty books nominated for the Booker Prize in 2011, all of them involved the theme of death. By exploring death, you naturally draw out the meanings behind life.

Contrast.

Sometimes when I look at my son, I wonder what it will be like for him as an old man, looking back on his life. Will he be content with what his life as he faces death? What can I do, I wonder, at the start of his life, to make sure the end is successful?

Contrast.

Develop the Contrast in Your Story

Great art employs contrast. If you want to create art, ask how can you develop the contrast in your story?

How can you increase the proximity between death and life?

How can you draw out the meaning of life by writing about death?

Do you follow Cormac McCarthy’s advice and write about life and death?

PRACTICE

Write a scene that shows life and death in proximity to each other, experimenting with the contrast and how it draws out the meaning of both.

Write for fifteen minutes. When you’re finished, post your practice in the comments section. And if you post, be sure to comment on a few practices by other writers.

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Joe Bunting is an author and the leader of The Write Practice community. He is also the author of the new book Crowdsourcing Paris, a real life adventure story set in France. It was a #1 New Release on Amazon. Follow him on Instagram (@jhbunting).

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83 Comments

  1. Emma Marie

    Here’s my practice:

    The baby was just sitting in his swing, smiling. The sun caressed his fluffy locks.
    I crept up to his rocking swing, suspended from the high branch.
    “How is this fair, Boy? All you know is goodness.”
    He giggled and cooed, as if to agree with me. The gentle breeze tousled our hair.
    His mother was watching us from the picnic blanket.
    “His name is Brandon. He’s only four moths old.” She smiled, but i could see she was tense. I must look strange, crouched next to her baby without a friendly greeting her way.
    “Ella, let’s go,” Aunt Violet pat my head, none too gently. “They’re trying to have a nice picnic.”
    I looked over their way. The four ladies were all stretched out on the red checkered blanket, sipping their pink drinks and smiling gaily under their flowered hats in their spotted dresses.
    Aunt Violet and I were wearing black. The most forlorn color in the whole world.
    “Don’t be deceived, Brandon,” I whispered, hoping he would take my advice and be spared the pain.
    Once, I had been happy. I had loved swinging, sunny picnics and pink lemonade. I had been deceived.

    Reply
    • Jay Warner

      you give us just a hint of life and death. I would like to know more where you are going with it, and more about the narrator.

    • Emma Marie

      I hardly know anything about the narrator or where the story is going. This is from my current WIP that i just started a couple days ago. It’s been pleasant to work on so far 🙂

    • catmorrell

      More please. I want to know how old the narrator is more about her. Very intriguing mystery here.

    • Emma Marie

      Glad you’re intrigued!

    • Margaret Terry

      powerful piece in a few sentences…squeezed my heart. Well done.

    • Emma Marie

      Thank you!

    • Susan Anderson

      It’s a good hook. I agree with the others’ comments. It seems to lead to a deeper story.

  2. themagicviolinist

    I’m so sorry about your wife’s grandmother. 🙁 Our family will be thinking about you guys.

    Reply
    • Joe Bunting

      Thanks Kate. You guys are the best.

  3. Pamela Hodges

    I pray for comfort for your family. I am sorry to hear about her death.

    Reply
    • Joe Bunting

      Thanks Pamela. :}

  4. Jay Warner

    They were dancing, dancing, and the room was alive with their whirling limbs. The music was loud and the costumes full of sparkle, a blur, a cacophony of joy and celebration. In the next room a son had been born, the first son in three generations, and the family was overcome with relief and gratitude. The daughters were fine, they appreciated the daughters, but a son, oh! To have a son was heaven itself. Propped in her bed, triumphant even in her exhaustion, the new baby’s mother watched as her plump pink boy blinked his eyes and moved his mouth as he was passed from happy arm to happy arm. Already she was calculating his years, his education, his future occupation. Her husband beamed at her with accomplishment and pride.

    A quieter room, farther down the hall. The lights dimmed and the grief palpable. Hushed voices huddled over hunched figures wrapped in blankets and sadness. In her arms a lifeless child, also a boy, gray and shrunken. His mother cradled him and rocked back and forth, oblivious to the umbilical cord that bound them and the cramping of the afterbirth trying to expel. She kissed his blue lips and his mottled eyelids. Her mother fluttered helplessly, looking for something to do. Her father was silent in his own world of hurt and pain. This was to be the first grandchild. This was the hope of a new beginning, now crushed. And the father of the baby had left the room. He couldn’t bear it. The nurses waited nervously to take the body, mindful that the mother needed her bonding time even it was only to the grave. One nurse offered to take a picture but the family shook their heads in unison. That would be too painful, they said. She’ll recover, her mother said. She’ll have another baby and forget this one. The woman lifted her head and shook it slowly. “I’ll never forget my first born son.” Then she reluctantly handed him to the nurse, wrapping his blankets around his little shoulders and kissing his little cold forehead. “I will never forget you, ” she whispered to him, and squeezed a tear from her tired eyes.

    The faint sounds of music and celebration came down the hall like a western breeze. She leaned back in her hospital bed and closed her eyelids, listening to the music, the laughter, the sheer happiness. In a strange way it comforted her to know that on the day she lost hope, others had found it, and there would be a new tomorrow after all.

    Reply
    • Emma Marie

      This is incredible, Jay.

    • Jay Warner

      thank you!

    • catmorrell

      Okay, I have to get up and wipe my eyes. Truly excellent.

    • Jay Warner

      thank you so much, I am glad it moved you.

    • Karl Tobar

      Awesome job with the contrast. I like how the mother found a strange comfort in that painful time for her.

    • John Fisher

      …..in the hope that others had found. Yes!

    • Jay Warner

      i couldn’t leave it without hope.

    • Jay Warner

      thank you.

    • eva rose

      Beautifully written. ” A new beginning, crushed..” The hardest blow of all to a parent. Thanks for sharing this story.

    • Jay Warner

      being a parent leaves us so very vulnerable.

    • John Fisher

      Yes, beautifully, descriptively, unforgettably written.

    • Jay Warner

      thank you.

    • SJ

      ‘The daughters were fine, they appreciated the daughters, but a son, oh! To have a son was heaven itself.’

      It’s nice to be appreciated.

    • Jay Warner

      ironic, and I debated putting that line in, but it seemed to write itself. Perhaps it says something about the culture of the family, which may not have been American. And just to put my two cents in, I absolutely celebrate my daughters, they are the most amazing people in my life.

    • SJ

      ‘I debated putting that line in, but it seemed to write itself…’

      Not sure this makes sense, Jay. I suspect that if you were a little more up with the main tenets of feminist politics you would have an explanation for why the line seemed to ‘write itself’ in spite of the age-old sexist sentiment not sitting well with your more updated, personal attachment to your own daughters. Some people think you should keep politics out of art (and out of the family, indeed), I am not one of them. Surely art is not about reinforcing common prejudices, tacitly or otherwise, while the best art is all about challenging them.

    • Audrey Chin

      Hi SJ… I beg to differ. I think it all depends on where the rest of Jay’s story is going. If the line writes itself, then it must be allowed to. Perhaps there is more to this story… Perhaps we will tell a tale about the unfair oppression of women. One can only be true to the muse, what the story want’s to say and who it wants to talk about.

    • SJ

      Hi Audrey. You’re right to pull me up for assuming Jay’s story ends there. With the creative process, one never knows. Though the theme of Jay’s piece was life and death represented by two boy babies with girls mentioned only to emphasise the greater joy that the family felt in having a son, compared with their daughters, who were merely appreciated. I felt for those ‘appreciated’ girls. It’s such an over-used and harmful sentiment, I didn’t feel the creative muse at work at all, more the prejudice of the ages. But you’re right, that is the beauty of the creative process (unlike politics); you’re not stuck with prejudice. You can speak to it and think outside of its confused confines. If only more people would!

    • Audrey Chin

      😉 Great SJ

    • Joe Bunting

      Gosh. So good, but so hard. Thanks Jay.

    • Margaret Terry

      beautiful and oh, so real, Jay. The last line is so big and believable, this feels like a psalm. Thx.

    • Paul Owen

      Your comment about bonding time, even to the grave, is poignant, Jay. I loved how you captured the emotion of each scene and tied them together. Thanks for sharing – this was great reading.

    • Susan Anderson

      -mother needed her bonding time even it was only to the grave. This is my favorite line of your piece. I think it draws a picture of eternity. One day is as a thousand years, type of thinking. A mother’s love is eternal and her short memory of her son is intense and not without purpose. God wastes nothing, especially grief, for it wouldn’t be grief if it were not first love.

    • themagicviolinist

      I’m glad you ended this piece with hope instead of sadness. You did a wonderful job putting both life and death in this practice.

    • Audrey Chin

      This thing about the 2 boys being grandchildren, it touches me so Jay, it’s so Asian…
      I almost cried when you had the second mother saying “I will never forget you..”

  5. eva rose

    At my mother- in- law’s funeral, a gathering of family surrounded the gravesite. The humidity was intense as the harpist played “Wind Beneath my Wings”, and doves were released. A solemn silence paid tribute to her life until a month-old great-grandson added his voice. She had never met this new addition to the family but she would have adored him. Something about that innocent new life expressing himself as forcefully as she might have made everyone smile. The tension eased as focus transferred from the past to the future. In the continuity of life we find hope.

    Reply
    • John Fisher

      Succinct and so expressive. So much in a short paragraph!

  6. catmorrell

    Joe, Thank you for sharing your grief and insight. Prayers for your family and your grandmother through her transition.

    Reply
    • Joe Bunting

      Thank you so much.

  7. Beca Lewis

    Thank you Joe. so sorry to hear about your wife’s grandmother, what beautiful way you have told us this. (And “in Amish country, PA” is where for you?)

    Reply
    • Joe Bunting

      Thank you Beca. Graveside service was today. It was very moving.

      Lancaster. 🙂

  8. Karl Tobar

    I’m glad you’re able to deal with that loss so maturely and with your head held high. All my regards to your family Joe.

    My practice:

    I had another nightmare about Claire this morning and when my eyes shot open the relief I felt that it was all in my imagination was temporary; hardly comforting; and when I opened my eyes to find myself alone in our king sized bed in the dark hours of dawn my heart wrenched. When I fell asleep we were twirling on top of Lake Havasu, hands and eyes locked and she was smiling and laughing; her burgundy hair flowed like ribbons in the wind.
    We didn’t sink because that’s how I saw her; she could walk on water and
    she could probably fly, if she wanted to.

    Then she morphed into Brady, and Brady and I swam and splashed in the lake. Brady couldn’t swim because babies can’t swim but I was holding her and I wouldn’t let her sink. I would never let her sink and Claire would never let us sink. Claire was still there but I couldn’t see her in my dream because she was Brady now and Brady hadn’t been born yet but I knew what Brady looked like because it was a dream it was a wonderful dream. Then Claire was there and She had Brady in her arms and they both sunk. One second later they both sank in the water—they were both drowning and I swam down, down, down further but our outstretched hands never touched. We were all crying even though we were underwater and then I woke up and my heart wrenched.

    As if the world cared about a loss. I woke up and it wasn’t a dream anymore. The events played out in my imagination even though my eyes were open and I looked at the ceiling. It was like my eyes were closed–I wish I could close my eyes without seeing Claire fall. We were walking to the store, all three of us
    (Brady kicking around inside Claire’s belly) and the sun bright and hot I should have told Claire to stay home. I should have known it was too hot when we were sweating and we joked. We joked that we wouldn’t get lost because we would follow the drops of sweat that fell onto the pavement.

    As if the world cared about one loss. Two losses, even. A million, even; the world doesn’t care. It’s plus or minus another set of feet pounding the earth and the world doesn’t care. That’s why the world gave Claire an aneurysm
    on our way to the gas station because Brady wanted a candy bar. That’s why the world killed them; because our unborn baby wanted a candy bar.

    When Claire’s grip on my hand loosened and I thought that’s okay because it’s too hot to hold hands anyway, I wasn’t worried for a split second. Then I was worried because Claire made a funny noise; she grunted like a wild animal and then she fell. I yelled out, “Claire!” and she wouldn’t answer and she wouldn’t breathe. I knew she wouldn’t answer me but I kept screaming her name anyway, and I screamed for help and there was No God Damned One on the block outside; they stayed inside because it was too hot.

    And Claire splayed out face down on the cement—her burgundy hair like an explosion on the pavement, that image still burns my eyelids when I close my eyes and now my eyes are open. My eyes are open and I can see that and I’m alone in the bed, this giant empty bed at four in the morning. Claire is gone and Brady was never really here, not really anyway and my heart wrenched. My chest tightened up and my testicles shriveled up and I leaned over the side of the bed and vomited.

    Reply
    • John Fisher

      Absolutely. The heart wrenches and you make us feel it. I like your repetition of that and other phrases at strategic points — it drives home that the man is in a sense marooned with his loss, at least for the time being — the loss of the life that had been so present and animated. Good work, man!

    • Karl Tobar

      Thanks John!

    • Margaret Terry

      amazing, Karl. Amazing piece of writing. You had me at “I had another nightmare about Claire this morning” – drew me in right away (it’s such a strong pull, may I suggest you make it a lone sentence?)The descriptions of her hair are down right fabulous:”hair flowed like ribbons in the wind, her burgundy hair like an explosion on the pavement” Loved this work.

    • Karl Tobar

      Thank you for that awesome suggestion. It feels good that you enjoyed it so much, thank you for reading it!

    • Grace Blaze

      I love the detail you put into this. I can feel the narrator’s sadness. The visions and memories were outstanding, and it made my heart wrench. Beautifully written.

    • Paul Owen

      My heart wrenched reading this, Karl – beautiful work. I loved the stream-of-consciousness dream. I could feel all the heat and pain as you three were outside. And the “burgundy hair like an explosion on the pavement” – that’s a vivid picture! Thanks for sharing this

    • Susan Anderson

      We didn’t sink because that’s how I saw her; she could walk on water and
      she could probably fly, if she wanted to. I like this. Our dreams tell of soulful truth. I like “burgundy hair” and “As if the world cared about loss.”

  9. John Fisher

    I could no more tell you what the play was about than the man in the moon, beyond the fact that one of the female actors wore cowboy boots, which was part of the joke. Hopefully composed on the outside, my inner works were vibrating/chanting in unison *oh god oh god oh god*. God’s female voice sounded soft and low and rich with loving authority in my inner ear, telling me it’s all right, be assured, be still and know, enjoy, after awhile we’ll go home. It was settled, *we* had determined where *we* were going after the play was over. Mutuality of excited consent: the first glorious morning in an exotic but lovely land to which I was repatriate. We planned this, albeit hurriedly, down to my asking if she could bring some fresh towels because none of mine were clean. She could, and did — I flashed on my young mother smoothing the comforter on my bed while covering me with lover’s eyes, domesticity old become young again, unbesmirched by any cynicism of bitterness. All of that was gone now.

    I left her to get the takeout Chinese at the restaurant we’d settled on. As I walk out and toward the car balancing the boxes, a tall, lean, muscular black man of indeterminate age, but not old, speaks up loudly: “Say, I gotta twelve-dollar mistake I gotta take care of, can ya help me out?” I’ve seen this person and heard these exact same words from him before, in this same exact place. Practicing prudent policy I look neither to the left nor the right, I say not a word, I continue my awkward mincing toward my car. This arouses his anger. “Whatsa mattah donchu TALK? F***in’ Vietnam *Vetterun*!” I’m opening the car door, I squench behind the wheel, I close (and lock) the door, I’m in. I feel the tight little grin/grimace on my face. I, who have never (fortunately for us all!) graced our military, allow myself one little titter of amusement, then cut it off, draw myself up, watchfully back out and begin slowly and carefully driving back to her. I have kept myself contained today. I have not shaken to pieces. I have not broken down in tears. I have not rolled over for the picking. I have not given what a stranger asked. I can still think of myself as something of a man — but I have once again carved my insides out on the street, almost it would seem for the amusement of all and sundry. There is a walking dead person in here. A personal integrity has been satisfied. But it is so *bitter*.

    We came together in the light from the streetlamp through the window. There was no one but us in the world, and at the same time humanity entire bore quiet joyful witness. Even the creaking from upstairs of a neighbor shifting on his bed seemed completely right. We were altogether, whole, complete, merging. We told each other our pain. We told each other our joy. We faltered in the telling of our love each for the other. We belonged to each other and to the universe.

    The night carried us through.

    Reply
    • Jay Warner

      Fantastic. I love your writing style, so easy to read and so full of images and reflections. I can feel the way the narrator feels, and yet see him from the outside in. I would love to read more of your work, do you have any stories posted you could link me to?

    • John Fisher

      Jay, Thank you so much, it’s great to have an interested reader. OK I’m not smart enough to do links per se in this context, but I went back over my old posts and selected a few you might enjoy — I think you can get to them by googling the title of the article and/or the first few words of the story; I tested it and that seemed to work in most instances for me:

      What is the Emotional Investment
      in you Stories?/ “Looking back, Jim . . .”

      What Driving Can Teach You
      about Practicing Writing/ “My father taught me …”

      Grandfather [Writing Prompt]/ Grandma did the talking . . . ”

      How to Write a Short Story
      No One Else Can Write/ “Two terraced sets of ten strings…”

      I hope that works, or if you know a better way to link let me know. Thanks again!

      John

    • Karl Tobar

      There was no one but us in the world, and at the same time humanity entire bore quiet joyful witness.
      You phrase things very beautifully and to be honest I’m a bit jealous 🙂 Very nice work today

    • John Fisher

      Thank you so much Karl! It means a lot.

    • Margaret Terry

      I love your style in this piece, John. The opening sentence so conversational put me in the story right away as though I was sitting beside you and we had been chatting. Same feeling with “I left her to get the takeout Chinese at the restaurant we’d settled on.” There’s a comfortable ease with this piece, yet so intimate. Tender and powerful writing. Great work.

    • John Fisher

      Thank you, Margaret!

  10. La realidad alterna

    I understand the sense of wondering that you had. How could both things -life and death- can coexist in this world. Excelent post!

    Reply
  11. Margaret Terry

    Am so sorry for your loss, Joe. I can’t imagine the flurry of emotions storming your heart with your son’s birth and a death in the family so close together. I am deeply touched you would use that experience to inspire a writing practice with all of us. Thank you for your generous spirit and continued love of story…blessings to you and your family.

    Reply
    • Joe Bunting

      Thank you, Margaret, for this touching comment. Appreciate your kindness.

    • Susan Anderson

      With you on this, Margaret. I think it is admirable, the closeness of your family, Joe. Hopeful beginnings, mournful endings.

  12. Grace Blaze

    As a child, I had always been rather curious. Too curious, perhaps, for my own safety. Now, there are many things that that curiosity led to that I have tried to forget. In fact, there are quite a bit that I have forgotton, over time.
    But there’s still one memory that stands out, imprinted into my brain, bearing down on my heart and my innocence like ten-tons of boulders surrounding me that only intend to kill me. It wrecked me permanently. It ruined me forever. You can sense my sadness and my grief just by the look in my eyes.
    Oh, my eyes. They tell many stories.
    The biggest story my eyes tell happened in the summer I was three. I was walking down the street with my mother and father. I hung onto my mother’s arms, swinging back and forth. She laughed heartily, pulling me up into her arms so I could sail like an airplane, or putting me on her shoulders. I remember she pointed at my father once. “Who’s that, Tara?” she would say.
    “Daddy!” I shouted, as any child would. I was passed to my father, where he would give me butterfly kisses. He tapped my nose. “And what’s your name, my pretty girl?” he smiled.
    “I’m Tara!” I said proudly, putting my finger on my chest in a gesture to myself.
    Father set me down, careful to keep a hold of my hand. Mother stayed a couple steps behind, watching with her fond, motherly smile. Father nodded toward the onrush of cars flying by on the freeway next to our sidewalk. “What are those called, Tara?”
    My little eyes widened at the sight of so many cars. They all sped around, flying past me in a neverending spectrum of colors. It was then that I saw it– the pink car.
    Pink, naturally, was my favorite color. I was a princess, afterall, just like the Disney ones, I liked to think. I had never seen a pink car, and had only dreamed about them for so long. I didn’t think they existed. It was the car of my dreams, fit to carry the princess to the ball.
    My curiosity overruled my body in a second, and before I had time to think about what I was about to do, I was off toward the pink car driving by, right in the middle of the freeway.
    The next couple minutes have always been a blur to me. I’m not exactly sure what happened. All I remember is my father screaming my name, and my feet hitting the sidewalk as I was lifted out of the street.
    And then there was the crash.
    They told me my father went out to save me. He somehow rescued me… But not himself. Days later I was sitting next to his bed in the hospital room. He was limp. I poked at his cheek, opened his eyelids, shook him, but he would never wake up. Why was he sleeping so long?
    My mother cried as she picked me up away from Dad. I tilted my head. “Mommy, what’s wrong with Daddy?” I asked.
    She shook her head, carrying me out the door. “Nothing, Tara,” she said. “Let’s go. Just let Daddy sleep.”

    Reply
    • Margaret Terry

      …wondering how many people told this child “It wasn’t your fault.” Great practice, poignant story to be a part of a child’s painful memory. I absolutely loved “Oh, my eyes. They tell many stories”…an amazing line to grab our hearts. …don’t all of our eyes tell stories? Thx for this!

    • Emma Marie

      This gripped my heart… Wow. You did an Excellent job. I loved the pink princess car.

    • Susan Anderson

      The last lines end it well. It wraps up the piece in a profound way, like the Dad’s sacrificial love brings them all to eventual rest. Kind of like God, the Father. The way Mommy gives explanation to Tara is appropriate on a childlike level.

    • Grace Blaze

      Thank you! I’m so glad you recognized the relation between the piece and God’s love for us, that’s exactly what I was going for. 🙂

  13. Margaret Terry

    She had never ridden in an ambulance before. Not that she would call this
    a ride. The attendants strapped her onto a gurney that locked on the floor of
    the ambulance after they slid it into place. Cachunk. Cachunk. She heard the
    locks catch, felt the vibration buzz against her back a moment before the
    siren began to wail. The female attendant knelt beside her to check her pulse again
    as she reported to the hospital. “Patient is a 58 year old female, no history of
    migraines, collapsed with sudden onset head pain” The ride was rough, she felt
    every crack in the road. “Why is he hitting every single pothole?” she thought. She felt like she was on a carnival ride. “I think I’m falling” she said to the attendant. When the attendant didn’t
    respond, she wasn’t sure if she’d said it or thought it. She was used to people
    paying attention to her. Didn’t they know she as Vice President of the College? Didn’t they see her name on the door when they came?

    “Patient has an aversion to light, describes head pain as ten out of ten, elevated BP, neck and jaw pain, facial numbness.” The driver turned on the
    radio. “CKFM?” he yelled over the siren. “Man, gotta love the eighties
    stuff…you like Huey Lewis?” The attendant answered.” I don’t listen to the radio much.”

    She heard a loud pop. Like a kids pop gun that shoots a cork. But the
    pop came from inside her head. And, she began to fall. She turned to the attendant. “Help me…I’m falling… please….” Her head felt like it was packed with cotton and she had to wade
    through the stuffing to find the right words. The attendant held her hand.
    “You’re strapped in. You cannot fall.” She tapped the IV bag and looked at her
    watch. The radio blared Whitney Huston and the driver sang along. “The greatest
    lo-o-ove of a-a-all…”

    She waded through the cotton in her head like she was
    hacking through a dark jungle, a jungle of cotton. She searched for words to try
    to tell the attendant that she was wrong, that she really WAS falling when it hit her. It wasn’t her body that was falling at all. “So this is how
    it feels.” she thought. “Let go, let go…” And at that moment, she felt more more alive
    than she ever had in her whole life.

    Reply
    • John Fisher

      The close proximity and contrast of life and death here are excellent. The physical symptoms this person endures — I’m not medically educated but the headache, numbness, and that persistent sensation of falling just sound so real. Death as insult to personal identity, oh yes. As the music and the mundane go on around her, even in an ambulance. And can we, in the end, just let go? To feel so alive. Great work!

    • Margaret Terry

      thank you so much, John. This story’s been brewing a long time – needs a lot of work, but I’m grateful to have this practice to try it out…

    • Susan Anderson

      I like the description in your first two paragraphs, Margaret. I could see myself in this experience. The line about the ambulance trans not being a ride, I like that. I also like how you illustrate the paramedics in their typical work as usual setting, with the music playing in the background.

  14. Margherita Crystal Lotus

    On Death…

    It was in early July that my father was born to my favorite grandmother. I do not know much of how it went other than that she had waited many years for his arrival. She was allergic to strawberries was the one caution I knew about her. But I was always showered with her spontaneous joy each time I visited. I was the favourite, because I was the girl she never had. In spite of my
    mothers challenge with being married to her son, but this was another issue altogether.

    Death waited eagerly and impatiently for both my father and my grandmother… I knew it might happen sooner or later, but on that frightful day in my 16th year, it was announced… she is on the phone… I demanded to speak with her. The voice of a dying human being came through the phone line. I could hardly hear her voice…, but I felt her immense love pulsate through me that penetrated my teenage brain. I felt so small, but yet huge in the spirit of her, and what she meant for me. It happened as in a dream. But then she was forever gone. A big black emptiness without meaning! What could fill it?

    My beautiful little niece had just reached her first birthday when my father left after many painful months of suffering. My sister told me she was there at his deathbed, shocked and silent, but included in this family gathering. I myself arrived two days later having traveled for the third time across the Atlantic in 7 months. I was met by sheer exhaustion and silence. Death left another gaping hole in my psyche. I was the oldest, so I went to work helping my siblings, my mother and there was no time for me to take in what had happened. But my busy activities of cleaning and organizing upon my arrival alleviated the imminent grief that would take years to accept. Death seemed to be so final, no turning back ever.

    It took over a week before I saw him. When things settled, the day before the funeral, my brother and my youngest sister came with me into the room where they had laid the coffin in a dim lavender saturated haze. I saw death up close. The mangled naked face had sunken in and the jaw dropped way down in an unnatural pose of the Black Death. He, my father was not there, only an empty skin covered in his best suit was left behind from a remarkable man. To end a life in pain from cancer was the torture and fate of my grandmother as well.

    Over 400 people attended the service the next day while a dark torrential storm of snow battered the windows of the flower filled hall, which competed with my uncle’s masterful organ playing in force and volume. It was 5 weeks before Christmas.

    Reply
  15. Susan Anderson

    One is ushered in. The other is ushered out– both alone, through tunnels. One greeted to bright light, as well as the other. One takes her place in a crib, the other on a cloud.

    Both nestle in by the same grace.

    Birthbed–deathbed– they are so similar, so close in need and dignity.

    One is showered in fresh pink gifts, the other in pink flowers.

    One is greeted with optimism. She’ll require that to carry her on dark suffering roads of life’s journey. It is new, it is hopeful. it is a beginning.

    The other’s white hair is smoothed. Her feet warmed. She’s propped by an eternal window. She looks through with peace. She’s done the darkness. Her hands gnarled with work of pain and duty. She’s tired and earned. Ready for her eternal beginning.

    Chiaroscuro-A technique of the master. Artsy contrast. The dark is a backdrop. It is necessary for the light to shine brighter.

    Light sheds light,

    On the happy and sad.

    Life, Death, both are birthdays.

    One to this world. The other to heaven.

    Reply
    • Margaret Terry

      love this line “Life, Death, both are birthdays.” Have never considered death another birthday, but you are right. This is a lovely work in contrast, thx for the new word!

    • Susan Anderson

      Thanks Margaret, and you’re welcome!

  16. Paul Owen

    My practice for today:

    Our new puppy jumped over Belle’s back, then crowded up close to the old dog’s snout. Griffin’s butt was up in the air, tail wagging. He yipped at Belle, then hopped back, anticipating a response. With a soft, low growl, Belle lifted her head a couple of inches off the floor, then turned toward me as she settled back down. It looked like pleading.

    Griffin yipped and crawled towards Belle again. “C’mere, Griff”, I said, and he hopped up on the couch and into my lap. “Give the girl a break.” He whipped around and licked my face.

    Belle was the most patient dog we’d ever had. And still was, but at 15 and with the pain she seemed to have all the time, her threshold was lower than when she was young. Now she sighed and curled up a little, facing away from Griffin and me.

    The pup took that as a challenge and coiled up to pounce. I held him back and rubbed behind his ears. “Enough, Griff!” I glanced at the clock, and blinked away the tear that was forming. Griffin was squirming to get out of my grasp, a fawn-colored bundle of energy.

    I carried him into the next room and locked him in his crate. “You can chill out in here for a while, pal”, I said. Amid yips of protest I walked back to Belle and sat on the floor next to her. I stroked her back, avoiding the lump that seemed even bigger today. Her black fur was just the right length and had always felt so good to me. She sighed again and nuzzled up close.

    I checked my watch, then reached for the tissue box as more tears flowed. Sniffling, I said to her, “We had some great times, didn’t we?” Griffin’s yelps were getting louder and were accompanied by scratching now.

    Feeling a tiny surge of strength inside me, I said, “Okay, girl, let’s go for a drive.” At the word “drive”, Belle struggled to her feet and headed for the door, tail wagging. She’d always loved going anywhere in the truck. Still holding the tissue box, I picked up my keys and followed her into the garage.

    I lifted Belle onto the front seat and got her settled. We backed out of the driveway then drove up to 21st Street, turning right towards the vet’s office.

    Reply
  17. Parsinegar

    He went to the graveyard for the second time that day. The first time it was at dawn, with crows cawing around, the sky gloomy, and the underground sleeping homies at ease. He stood on the brink of an empty grave, and looked deep down inside it and himself. The crows couldn’t stop distracting him from what he was struggling to remember. His grandpa’s words. They had just woke him up and led him to the graveyard but now he couldn’t concentrate on them. He wanted to recall every and each word of the discourse he had used to tell him in his nightmare. ‘Maybe it’s not the right time’, he thought. He got back to there at dusk. Trees were dancing, and doves were playfully chasing each other. The grave was strangely filled and closed; It wasn’t empty anymore. There was an immobile fellow inside it, with a fresh load of flesh for worms and pests. He just remembered:
    Son, you do not have a soul, but a body. You ARE the soul. Your body may fail, die, decay, and become food to other minute creatures who are living a life on your dead body, but life just goes on for you. We never die. No one has ever died.
    The grave was still vacant, the tombstone an illusion.

    Reply
  18. Yvette Carol

    The contrast of life & death is at the core of everything I write. Joe, it’s so nice to see a post written by you. Gosh, what you guys have been through, it’s been quite the rollercoaster. You know, they say in some cultures that when one person comes into a family, another has to go out? When my sister-in-law died, my son was born soon after. And when my grandmother died, there was another birth in the family. I see it again and again.

    Reply
  19. Spycacher

    Ghareeb could see from the corner of the eye, Ismail approaching the door and couldn’t help, although for an instant, but to look in his direction.
    Tayyib saw it and knew something wasn’t square. Peering behind the door, he discovered Ismail lurking. From there, everything went very fast; Tayyib was about to open his mouth to scream when Ghareeb took advantage of Tayyib turning his back to him and tightly grabbed his waist and covered his mouth. Not a peep. Ismail ripped the knife from Tayyib’s hands, and Tayyib started desperately to kick and thrash around his arms. Ghareeb had to hold tight. To avoid commotion, he lifted Tayyib from the ground and moved away from the door and behind the house. He spread his legs to avoid the kicks on his shins. The action took a few second and Ismail vanished into the darkness of the house. What is he doing? We should be going! Tayyib kept struggling, so Ghareeb had to hold strong and press the hand on his mouth even sturdier to extinguish the deaf cries he was making all the more. Both understood, something very bad was about to happen. “I will kill this bastard!… Don’t worry, I know what to do!”
    A silent, guttural cry emanated from the house, followed by an eerie silence that took over the night. Even frogs and crickets in the distant banks of the river silenced the cacophony of songs.
    Ismail came out, panting heavily. Protruding eyes, the look that made prickle the hair at the nape; his robe, with sombre stains on his entire right side; a thick substance dripping from the tip of the knife. Ghareeb was so perplexed that he didn’t realise that Tayyib wasn’t moving. Had Ismail’s creepy appearance made him faint? Scared, he let go, and the lifeless corpse
    plopped down. At first, Ghareeb stood there looking down at the corpse. Then he tried to shake him, to lift him. No reaction. Oh God, I killed him!
    ‘Psst! Said Ismail from behind the house – ‘come on! Come on!’ Ghareeb did not move staring at Tayyib’s corpse. ‘Hey! We have to go… Now! Pulling him from his galabeyah.
    Ghareeb startled and both run towards the river, so fast as followed by the vindictive phantasms of the two dead. Arriving, and in spite of the dangers lurking in the dark Nile, Ismail jumped, without even undressing, into the river; writhing his body, scrubbing desperately with hands and arms as to wipe the thousands of creeping and biting ants. Whereas he had no blood on him, Ghareeb undressed and followed suit; he felt all the same.

    Ghareeb awake to reality and was confronted for the first time with life and death. He didn’t want to kill Tayyib. This was not in their plans; he only wanted to escape; “I will kill this bastard!… Don’t worry, I know what to do!” Now they were fugitive assassins. An adventure turned into a nightmare. Whilst the events tormented Ghareeb; there was something more in the scenery that was nagging in the back of his mind, he couldn’t boil down what; as seeing a familiar face but couldn’t put a name on it. Only later in his life, he would recognise the importance of it. For now, his worries were in the gruesome events.

    Ismail materialized from the dark water like the men’s version of a nymph, his body exhausted, arms hanging, cleansed. At the riverbank, he shed off his tunic and laid down naked on the cold, wet sand. He let his body go, sinking and spreading. Ghareeb came off the water and picked up the knife on the beach. Squatting at the water’s edge, he washed the dry, of metal smelling blood from the blade with dislike. Joining Ismail, he spread on the sand watching the stars. They lay for a long while, quietly, respecting each other’s thoughts; conceding their strained bodies a well deserved recovery.

    Reply
  20. The Author

    Mr. Conroy called us outside when the sky was as bleak and dark as the coffee Papa and he shared each morning. At first Mamma hadn’t wanted us to go out so late, in fear of Anna wondering off or Johnny getting bit by the donkey again.

    “It will give them a good brake, you could use one too Addy come on.” Papa had assured her. She decided to stay with Helen but reluctantly let us go, I knew better then to leave Helen like that, all sickly on the bed, her glassy eyes red, and her weak hands pawing on the pillows as she fought to escape the feverish hell that had held her captive for weeks now. Mamma loved Helen like a daughter and I as a sister, but when Papa held sleepy Anna and Johnny in his arms telling them of the miracle in the barn and I had stayed behind clinging to the wall and starring at Helen Mamma bowed her head.

    “Go Eliza, Helens gonna be all right.”

    “But you said-”

    “Go.” I obeyed, kissing Helens sweaty forehead I whispered.

    “Your gonna get better Helen, when your all better I promise we’ll go to the ocean and…and you’ll finally have that silver flute and we’re all gonna listen to your beautiful music.”

    Inside the barn Mr. Conroy, Johnny and Anna were huddled in the corner cooing over tiny little creatures in the straw. Papa smiled when I kneeled by them, the straw poking through my cotton nightgown scratching my legs, but it was worth it. Three tiny lambs lay in the straw nest Mr. Conroy had made for them.
    “Aren’t they adorable?” Mr. Conroy asked stroking a pure white ones velvet neck. I had seen so many lambs on the farm, when we first moved to Riverdale I had been awed by the arrival of the sweet little lambs. But after five years this same “miracle” wasn’t as amazing, not with Helen like she was. Was something a miracle if it happened every year and could be expected on a set date?
    “There soooo cute.” Anna squealed.
    “I’ve seen them before.” I muttered bitterly.
    “We should bring it to Helen.” Anna said.
    “What?”
    “This is her first year here, she wanted to see the lambs soooo much. That’s why she’d visit Tom every day right? She never seen a newborn animal.” I smiled Anna could some times be right, and before Papa or Mr. Conroy could stop me picked up the white lamb and ran across the dark path to the big steps of the house. I swung open the big wooden door, dramatic maybe but It was for Helen. Mama was standing up and startled when she saw me.
    “What in the lord!” The words she snapped at me hurt like the loss of limb, the loss life and friend. The lamb made small noise that only one so young as an hour can make and I make the cry of a girl who knew the meaning of very little things, but this wasn’t one of them. Helen was dead.

    Reply

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