Notice of the Death of a Son

A thin, linear lady, stringy, bounces in to my consulting room, sits down, beams at me from her lean oblong face. And waits. She has the grin of a six-year old.

We haven’t met before. Welcome. My name’s Howard.

A bony hand on a long arm grips mine vigorously and softly. The grin widens, shifting dentures. Hello Howard. I’m Lucy.

In general Lucy looks her age, which is seventy two years; but her skin looks a lot older. She might be a chicken, so scaly and irregular are her surfaces. The thicket of hair atop her bony head is fair. The skin is fair too, excepting for the plaques of pink, great blotches of healing. She is an old gum tree, her bark new, old, peeling, revealing, irresistibly alive.


She looks me over genially, taking my measure. She decides I will do and embarks on a story.

I had a son. He died last year. Lucy looks up, waits a bit, resumes: Your children are supposed to bury you, not the other way around.

Lucy bears her loss lightly. She hasn’t come here to shed grief. She looks at me, unbowed, light in her being.

I look back hard. There must be a wound.

How did your son die?

A heart attack, massive. He was forty-four.

Lucy has taken my measure. I am old enough. I will know the verities, the facts of death.

You know the smell of death.

A statement, not a question.

How does death smell, Lucy?

Indescribable. And unmistakeable. As you’d know.

I smelt death first the night Dad died. I was staying with him and I smelt that smell. When I found Dad he’d been dead a couple of hours. He was cooling. The smell started around the time he died…

I started smelling death again a year ago. I smelled it four nights in a row. My bed smelled of it, my pyjamas too. It was really strong. I wouldn’t let myself fall asleep: I thought I was the one dying. I was at my daughter’s place and I didn’t want her to have to find me.

After the fourth night they rang to tell me my son had passed. He died four nights before.

That smell starts ten minutes after they die. And it stops once you know.

Lucy looks at me, grins a smile of reality, of truth. Ultimate truth, the factuality of death.

I’ve lost both my boys; the first one died at birth.

But I’ve got my girls. They’re both good. And seven grandchildren and – a huge bright smile, a lightning strike in the summer of Lucy’s face – a little great granddaughter!

A pause. Lucy is a good pauser, unfrightened of the silences that flow, clear as her sentences. And in the pauses, Lucy smiles her knowings that I must share: the freshness of new life. How the fact of a baby redeems all.

You know I bounce back. Just about exactly a year come round since my boy passed, I lost a dear friend. Like sisters we were. That was tough… for a while.

This is a pause unlit by smiling. Lucy looks at me steadily.

But I bounce back.



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