I never thought I’d write about death.
But one day you grow up so much that you do, in fact, think about it. At my age, it’s closer than I want to admit and then, every once in a while one reads a story like “Apple Cake” by Allegra Goodman and you can’t help but wonder what it would be like to be Fed Up with life and yet want to live. Because it’s life! And we all, at every age, no matter how much we’re ailing, want to bloody well live and live bloody well!
I get Jeanne. ‘Apple Cake’ is the kind of story you want a slice of. Even if apples aren’t your thing, the prospect of them being inside a cake, is pleasing, sweet and inviting.
“Sylvia covers her apples with brown sugar,” Helen said. “She sugars everything.”
“Of course she does,” Jeanne said. After all, people liked sweet things. Anything sweet and easy. The bitter, dark, and complicated could not compete. This had always pained her before, but she enjoyed the injustice of it now. Joy mixed with fear as she looked out the window and saw scarlet trees. How dazzling the world was. How strange.
To know you’re sick and dying soon is weird when you don’t know exactly when you’ll be gone. Nobody else does either. Even so, they’re mourning your absence before you’re even gone. With the messages in flowers and talk of burials and eulogies and goodbyes, you’re a witness to life after your death.
“Look how beautiful they are,” Sylvia said. She meant, Do you see how much everybody loves you?
Jeanne made a face. The flowers depressed her, especially those that were already wilting. When she looked at the mums, she felt she wasn’t dying fast enough.
The apple cake crumbles sooner for some. It’s a little unfair. But then again, it is life – sweet, sour, disordered and a little sooner than you were ready for. One day, you’re done. For there’s only so many slices in your pie of life.
Their baby sister lay propped up on pillows. Jeanne, who had celebrated her first birthday in eyelet lace, a slice of cake on the tray of her high chair, and her sisters on either side. Their living doll, with her blond curls and round blue eyes. They’d pulled her in their wagon over grass bumpy with apples from the apple tree. It was dreadful to approach her now – her hair just wisps, her voice nearly gone, her cough breaking every sentence. Horror, pity, shame. They felt all that at once, to see her now and to remember her as she had been. They were sorry and they were glad to feel so alive, their steps firm in their low-heeled shoes. Their own bodies sound, rejoicing with each breath. What a terrible thing to say! They would never have admitted it. Their own strength, their own good fortune and their guilt – they could never put it into words. No one should!
The family surfaces and unites from their fractured, imperfect, solitary and distressed lives, to attend to a passing sister, mother, aunt, grandmother. It’s beautiful and broken, all at once.
They fight, they reconcile, they bake to compete, they eat to unite, and they try, as best as they can to honour her by taking her advice to make their own lives better when she leaves.
At this point, Dan spoke up. “I think we need to focus on the time we have together.”
Everybody mourned in his or her own way. Phoebe wrote a poem, and Melanie did in fact start taking antidepressants. Richard began dating a woman he’d met at a bar. Pam adopted a shelter dog…
Jeanne wishes to be left alone. The visitors remind her of an imminent end.
Look at you, Jeanne thought. All vying for attention! Even so, she forgave everybody. Good night, she told them silently. Farewell. She wished that she could send a blanket dispensation. After which she could stay and they would leave.
Even when she went, she didn’t want to go!
She didn’t want help. She wanted to open her eyes, to rise up from her bed. She wanted music and she wanted apples. She wanted to touch the sandy beach, to feel summer’s heat. She wanted all this, but she couldn’t have it. She died because she couldn’t breathe.
The Apple Cake is how they mourn, how they grieve and perhaps, how they preserve the memory of their beloved Jeanne. But their love for the one they’re losing also makes them petty and pitiless like sisters so knotted often could be.
Helen was the baker of the family. What she felt could not be purchased. She grieved from scratch.
“You used my recipe,” Helen told Sylvia.
“Yes, I did,” Sylvia replied, with such an air that even Zach and Nate knew what she meant, What’s it to you?”
Everybody tried. Nobody could reconcile Jeanne’s sisters…Dan said life was short, They didn’t care. In fact, they knew it wasn’t true. Their lives were long.
Well, let’s hope they’re right. We could all use just one more slice.
“Jeanne’s actual words had been “Don’t pace”.”
We all know a cake only bakes in good time. And we always want more of them both.
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