Death Studies

by Phebe Jewell

I always wanted to be a widow. To be one of those mysterious women like Grandma, wrapped in a shawl of loss. Dark circles under hollowed-out eyes, animated by an invisible gravitas so unlike the wives and mothers I knew, chattering about their husbands’ careers, their children’s schedules. Grandma had walked along the rim of death, grasping Grandpa’s thin hand as he died. Sitting this close to death gave her an intimate knowledge of life that even my smart and capable mother did not possess.
At seventeen, I longed to skip the whole wife stage and go straight to wisdom, gazing out a window into the middle distance, holding life and death together in every breath.

When our neighbor Mr. Giddings died of a heart attack, I went with my parents to offer Mrs. Giddings condolences and a casserole. I was on a reconnaissance mission. As she opened the door, I caught a whiff of menthol cough drops. We sipped tea, trying not to look at one another each time Mrs. Giddings stopped in mid-sentence to stare at the floor.
Mr. Giddings’ death was too fresh, I told myself. Wisdom took time, I decided as Mrs. Giddings waved goodbye and shut the door.

In my twenties, I met Harvey, a man who had almost died twice. On our first date he regaled me with stories – a boating accident when he was five, a freak lightning strike in his teens. I studied his eyes for signs of insight these brushes with death had given him. But his eyes only held mischief. Within minutes I was giggling at his corny jokes about having an electric personality. Watching him walk up to the bar on our second date, I only paid attention to the way his jeans outlined a firm butt. Harvey courted me like a man thirsty for water. I was unlike the other girls he’d dated, he told me. I sought the unknown edges, explored places others ignored. We wrote haiku on each other’s bodies, planned a life together – climbing Mt. Fuji at sunrise, crossing the Sahara on a camel, building a cabin in Alaska. Six months after our first date we exchanged vows in front of Elvis at the Queen of Hearts wedding chapel in Vegas, and drove north to honeymoon on the Oregon Coast. We promised to always take the long way home, to erase the mundane.

Within a few blurred years, we produced a boy and a girl, two wild and lovely creatures unbroken by schools or convention. Seekers, risk-takers from day one, they have grown up, left home. Both live days from where I sit now, Harvey’s hospital room crowded with humorless machines beeping their certain, unerring rhythm. I wait, my coffee cooling on a tray by his bed. When our children arrive, he will stare at them blankly from behind milky clouds. Each day he breaks down a little more. Diminished, like a schoolgirl’s foolish dreams, snagged in the rise and fall of his chest. Soon I will be alone, possessing a knowledge I no longer crave. I look out from the fourteenth floor to the city below. Night is falling. Here and there lights are coming on, shimmering in the slick rain. I murmur in his ear, describing the path ahead. Mountains, fjords. A curve in the road, then deep into forest, darkness.

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Phebe Jewell’s flash appears in Monkeybicycle, X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, Spelk, Bending Genres, Fictive Dream, and other fine literary journals. A teacher at Seattle Central College, she also volunteers for the Freedom Education Project Puget Sound, a nonprofit providing college courses for women in prison. Read her at

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