“First Death of Her Life” by Elizabeth Taylor

4ofhearts

In this week’s “Deal Me In” challenge I drew the four of hearts—although the deck was well-shuffled, it happened to be an adjacent card–and story–to the five of hearts I drew last week.  “First Death of her Life” is a brief (three pages) story about a young woman whose mother has just died in hospital and it reflects the rush of ambivalent feelings that engulf her.  In the midst of her tears she pauses to mentally compose a letter—“for her mind was always composing letters”–to her boss telling him that she will be away for four days for her mother’s funeral.  The nurse comes in:

The nurse came in. She took her patient’s wrist for a moment, replaced it, removed a jar of forced lilac from beside the bed as if this were no longer necessary, and went out again.

Lucy, our subject character, resumes her mental letter, starting anew.  She wonders how her father is doing–he is late.  He will have missed his wife’s death.   It is snowing and 4 PM on a winter’s day.  Lucy works hard to push away her negative memories of her mother because it was important that they “be sent away for ever” and “only loving-kindness” to remain.

She takes a tentative sip of the champagne from her mother’s glass by the bedside.  The family is clearly poor, but they have spent money on the champagne, the lilac, the private room.  After a “life of drabness and denial” on the “mean street where they lived” they wish her to have a little piece of luxury.  Lucy gathers up her mother’s handbag, the library book she had chosen, which would go unread, and takes a final sip of the champagne then leaves.

This story, like the previous one I read by Elizabeth Taylor, reminds me very  much of the kind of impressionistic moodiness of a story from Joyce’s “Dubliners”.   The dead mother gets her flowers, champagne, and library book before she is able to appreciate them.  As the story ends, Lucy leaves the hospital as her father arrives:  There is a sense of missed opportunities; of missed messages; of the collision-course between one’s duties to work and earn money and one’s duties to family, especially when they are ill, dying, dead.

“Opening the glass doors onto the snowy gardens, she thought it was like the end of a film. But no music rose up and engulfed her. Instead there was her father’s turning in at the gates. He propped his bicycle against the wall and began to run clumsily across the wet gravel.”

This is the end of life—no grand swelling of music; no majestic pomp.  And I am reminded again of one of my personal moments of bitterness:  having to work at the very moment my mother died because I had taken too much time away when she was ill.  And I remember my husband being fired from a job because he went to my sister’s funeral.  Most American employers don’t deal with death very well.