This column was published in “Your Weekend” on 22.6.19
More than almost anything else, my mother loved words. Reading them, saying them, using them correctly. Donna kept The Oxford Guide to English Usage beside her armchair like a theologian might keep a Bible Concordance in easy reach.
She would have made a fierce subeditor for any publication. Countless times over the years, I have printed a piece of writing and walked it round to her place – her flat is downstairs from us – and made green tea while she looked it over. “That’s lovely, darling, but if you’re going to use the Oxford comma here, you will need to use it there, too. Otherwise, very good.”
Donna made the occasional appearance in these columns. “Don’t write about me too often,” she’d say, “or they’ll think you are short of ideas.” It was an elegant modesty typical of her. As is the neat file she kept of those particular pieces.
Donna died last week, and she is the only idea in my head. She died exactly as she wanted to – peacefully, with me sitting beside her. I moved into her room in the nursing home for her last five days. She had often said she wasn’t afraid of dying, but she was afraid of pain, and it was my job to keep things smooth for her. The sentence I am most proud of creating, ever, was in the wee small hours of her last day when I called for the nurse and told him, “This is the shape her body makes when she is in pain – Midazolam, please.”
The great gift that death brings those left behind is other people’s kindness. Donna was admired and respected and adored – her book club, the libraries committee, her yoga pals, school friends who have known her since she was six – so they tell my brother and me wonderful things about her. That she was elegant, and gracious, and wickedly funny. Our friends who knew her less, or not at all, also find kind words to say. Everyone gets the chance to be their best selves.
She has planned a cocktail party to celebrate her life – Donna’s Launch, she calls it – and I am writing her eulogy for someone else to read. Together, my mother and I made a list of the things she is proud of, the things that have brought her joy, and the people she has loved. The lists are long. I am already heartbroken that I won’t be able to print it and take it round to her door so she can check if infinitives have been unnecessarily split.
We had a long time to prepare for this, and all the words were said and heard but, even so, “bereft” is the word that floats untethered in my head.