The Conundrum of Endings – vale my mother
August 12, 2014 — 22:48

Author: Dorothy Johnston  Category: Uncategorized  Comments: 11


A few weeks ago I began drafting a post about the difficulties of ending novels. I was going to talk about the problems I perceived both as a writer and a reader, and how I often lay in bed after finishing a book, wondering why it had to end in just that way.

But then my mother died. Two weeks ago today, early in the morning, I got the call to say she’d passed away in the middle of the night. Ivy Johnston was 94 years old. She caught pneumonia and the doctors said that she could not recover. But then she seemed to rally, and for five days hung between life and death. Not a long time. Not long compared to many.

I’m looking now at the thoughts I’d set down on fictional endings, the points I wanted to make about aesthetics, the comparisons between musical and written language. They seem trivial and silly – yet maybe not entirely so.

I was going to compare the ending of a piece of music with a work of prose fiction or a poem, and try to capture the feeling I have when learning a piece on the piano, of looking forward to the end. When my fingers are just beginning to grasp what is required of them, when finger memory is just beginning to take hold, I begin to anticipate returning to the home key. I long for this, and the comfort of knowing that it’s there.

The home key marks the ending of a journey. But it must be the right ending and the right return. I hate aesthetic endings that come cheap, but with the ending of a real life, can this ever be said to happen?

I began playing the piano again after my father contracted Alzheimer’s. (He died in 2001.) It’s often observed that musical memory is retained after other kinds are lost. I set down my own thoughts about this once in an essay.

The truth is, I don’t yet believe that my mother has gone. I feel as though these last few weeks have been some kind of weird rehearsal and that we’ll all do better next time. When I wrote this in an email to a friend, she replied, ‘But you’ve only got one mother’. By ‘rehearsal’ I didn’t mean that another mother would step in and take over, but that mine was only practising for being dead.

On the second of those five days spent waiting in the hospital, my daughter burst into the ward, the way the sun bursts, or a sudden shower, carrying a big bunch of daphne, and my mother, her grandmother, opened her eyes and smiled.

‘These fragments have I shored against my ruins’

What a weight that verb ‘shored’ has to bear. How courageously it does so!




  • Lovely post Dorothy. Sorry to hear about your loss. My father was 94 in May (but mum is still young at 85) and I am watching the aging process – as I did with my MIL who died on her 97th birthday. Rehearsal is an interesting concept. I’d like to think it so. Some endings can be aesthetic – like dying on same date (not year of course) that you were born. How neat that seemed. But, of course it didn’t come cheap. She was very well for her age up to the end. Lunch out with her son two days before and preparing for lunch that day but hearing and sight had been failing. So, a neat aesthetic ending but not a cheap one if as you say any can be said to be so.

    As for literature, well, that’s another thing. Anyhow, please accept my wishes for you. No matter how old our parents are when they die it is a loss. Go well.

    August 12, 2014 — 23:51
  • Thank you, WG, for those kind and thoughtful words. And literature – the best – can be very comforting when it pierces to the heart of things. And music too.

    August 13, 2014 — 22:45
  • Dorothy, I wonder if you’ll think about expanding this into a longer essay. It is a gem.
    And “we’ll all do better next time” really rang a bell for me. I tried to write a poem about my own mother’s death that included the line “Let’s go back and do it all again”. I’ve never been able to make it work, though. maybe something to do with the very difficult circumstances of my own mother’s death.
    On the subject of endings, have you read Penelope Fitzgerald’s “At Freddie’s”? It isn’t easy to get hold of but can be got as an ebook and it has a superb ending that stays with you forever. Mozartian, if you want to continue the music analogy.

    August 13, 2014 — 23:36
  • Thanks, Joan. I remember your post about Penelope Fitzgerald and ‘At Freddie’s’ is on my list for when I’ve finished judging the literary award. I find myself thinking more and more about musical resolutions these days and trying to learn from them. And as regards this strange limbo time I’m living through – I’m not religious, and so don’t believe in purgatory as an in-between state for the dead, but maybe it makes some sense as a description for how I feel.

    August 14, 2014 — 0:38
  • Yes, Dorothy, as a long term pianist, I’ve always thought it would be suitable to die at the age of eighty-eight (number of keys on piano) As I grow older it seems a little early.

    Our mother, who had been a devout Catholic, took several months to die, and found the constant praying over her quite annoying. She said, in one of her lucid moments, ‘I can’t see the sense in all this.’

    I suppose the sense is there is no sense, but being meaning making animals we want to think there is.

    One of my prayers about dying is, ‘May I not be a nuisance.’

    August 14, 2014 — 1:53
  • Beautiful post. Dorothy, and yes, it does have the makings of a longer essay . We’ve exchanged our thoughts as best we can about the loss of our mothers, and I’m not sure that I can say more, except that the closer I come to my own death the closer my mother seems to me. Home note indeed.

    August 14, 2014 — 19:46
  • Thank you Gabrielle and Sara, for taking the time to comment on my post. I’ll mull over that ‘longer essay’ idea, so thanks for encouraging me to consider it. And Gabrielle – my mother hated the idea of being a nuisance too. I have been thinking quite a bit about atonement. These last six years – moving back to Victoria to help care for Mum – were at attempt at that, for me. I was a horrible daughter when I was young – do we all think that sometimes – much of the time? Of course I could never have said it to her; she would have been embarrassed and made excuses for me. I suppose I knew that I’d be left with the possibility of ‘atoning’ as an open question.

    August 15, 2014 — 0:58
  • Hello again Dorothy. I’ve just come across this article about a prose poem by Louise Gluck on the sadness of endings

    August 26, 2014 — 2:52
  • Thanks for directing me to Louise Gluck, Joan. And what a good idea – poems interspersed with one paragraph ‘prose-poems’. Have you ever thought of trying something like that yourself?

    August 26, 2014 — 21:45
  • Hello Dorothy, I’m sorry I have come late to this page and so am late with my condolences. The loss of a parent is not something I have had to confront yet, and so I think I understand your suggestion of a rehearsal…when we have lived our whole lives with parents by our side, it must seem incomprehensible that they are no longer there.

    September 13, 2014 — 21:53
  • Thank you, Lisa, for your condolences. Yes, the idea of death being a rehearsal persists, in spite of its inherent absurdity. I always enjoy reading your reviews, though often don’t feel I have sufficient knowledge of the book to comment. Keep up the good work!

    September 14, 2014 — 5:21
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