In a world awash with matrimania and the easy story lines it suggests, it is startling to find something, even in the most prestigious of publications, that dispenses with the romantic clichés and tells a whole different story. So it was with the short story in the July 7 &14, 2014 issue of the New Yorker.
The author is Allegra Goodman, perhaps my favorite short story writer. A previous story, “La Vita Nuova,” is a masterpiece. It is about a wedding dress, but it is not the story anyone else would write about that.
In the most recent story, “Apple Cake,” the protagonist, Jeanne, lays dying at home as her sisters and other family members collect at her bedside. They expect her to die quickly, but she doesn’t.
“Her sisters sat chattering about the heat, the traffic, and the rain. They were afraid to leave her alone – although she had lived by herself for fifteen years, a widow. She lived alone because she liked it.”
That’s the first significant myth-busting dimension of the story: It is about a woman who is living alone, but not sadly or regretfully. She likes it that way.
As Jeanne’s family members linger and bicker, getting impatient with the long process of dying but also feeling guilty about their impatience, Jeanne is thinking this:
“Good night, she told them. Farewell. She wished she could send a blanket dispensation. After which she could stay and they would leave.”
How often have single people been scolded with the threat that if they don’t hurry up and get married, they are going to die alone? Now here’s a story of someone surrounded by her loved ones on her deathbed, but wishing for some peace. As Goodman said in an interview about the story, “From a hospice point of view, she [Jeanne] is fortunate. She gets to die at home, and she gets to say goodbye – multiple times.” But it is not a good death for Jeanne.
In other ways, too, Jeanne is a character who is not going to be altercast into the role that someone else wants her to play. She is dying of lung cancer, and her sisters urge her to use her own experience as a cautionary tale to be dispensed to one of the relatives who smokes. One of the sisters begs her to “tell Richard to stop smoking!”
“I enjoyed smoking,” Jeanne said. “Your mother did, too.”
[Do you have any nominations for inspiring, cliché-busting stories about single life or living alone? If so, please share them in the comments section.]