Chapter 30: Sunday, Dec. 10

In which Diantha decides she wants a baby, and Elspeth becomes the life of a heavenly party.

By Alfred Alcorn

Published September 19, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

My darling Elsbeth died this morning just as the fog lifted and dawn broke over Mercy Island, which can be seen from the bedroom window when the trees are stripped of leaves. When she woke about five-thirty, I asked her if she wanted an injection for pain. She could scarcely talk. She smiled at me and shook her head. "Lie down with me," she said with an effort. I got under the covers and put my arm around her as she turned to me. Somehow I knew what was happening. I didn't need the cuff to sense that her blood pressure was dropping, that her kidneys and her valiant heart were failing. We lay like that for some time as I stroked her dear head and gave her as much love as I could. Again, it was as though Elsbeth were comforting me, was telling me she was okay, that she had entered some blissful peace before the final darkness descends.

Elsbeth whispered her final words, "Take care of Diantha. I love you, Norman." Her breathing grew uncertain. It stopped. Then started again. Finally it stopped and didn't start again as, holding my own breath, I waited and waited. I hugged her to me, but she was gone. I called her name, "Elsbeth. Elsbeth. Elsbeth." But she was gone. And in my sorrow I experienced the faith of disbelief: I could not believe that this woman, this being, my love, had ceased to exist. You are not nonexistent, I said to myself, holding her lifeless form, you are only gone, gone somewhere else. But where? "Come back," I murmured. I wept quietly. I sighed. I got up and went down the hall to tell Diantha.

I pushed open her door and sat on the side of her bed. "Diantha," I whispered, "Di..."

She sat up and turned on the bedside light. "Mom?"

I nodded.

She came into my arms, her tears running together with mine as I held her. And I had the strangest sensation, a sensation like a revelation: Diantha was Elsbeth. This is where Elsbeth had gone. It lasted only a moment, of course. No one is anyone else. But it lingered as we walked back to where Elsbeth lay, as Diantha knelt by the bed and ever so gently stroked her mother's wan, still face and moved the wisps of hair to one side.

Then Diantha said a strange and provocative thing. She looked directly at me. "I want a baby. I want a baby girl. I'm going to call her Elsbeth."

I nodded as though I understood, but didn't really, except in some abstract sense of knowing that we all have an impulse to answer death with life.

We got dressed and attended to the doleful necessities. I called the Medical School, to whom Elsbeth had left her body. A couple of hours later, a vehicle arrived from Flynn's Funeral Home and bore Elsbeth away, after Diantha and I, alone and then together, spent a few more moments with the still and still beautiful form lying on the bed.

Diantha called Win, Jr., and remained some time on the phone with him. "Like talking to an imitation human being," she told me. She hugged me again, to assure and be assured. "It's amazing. He wanted no details, no times, or what she said, or anything else. 'Let me know,' he said, 'when you've made final arrangements for a memorial service.' But Win's never quite connected with his own species, never mind his own family."

For some reason we found ourselves both quite ravenous. So together, already like a long-established couple, we made ourselves an old-fashioned breakfast -- bacon, eggs, toast, orange juice, and coffee. But I'm afraid it only gave us the energy for grief, at first together, talking about Elsbeth, her vitality of old, her foibles, and her knack for turning life into an occasion.

Then alone. When I went upstairs afterwards, the mystery of death persisted. Where had Elsbeth, where had life, gone?

I spent the rest of the morning making phone calls to our little network of friends. I phoned Lotte and Izzy, who were very kind. "Come to dinner tonight, you and Diantha," Lotte insisted. I accepted for both of us.

I called Alfie Lopes, who said he would say a special prayer for Elsbeth, "though, frankly, Norman, I doubt that she really needs one. I have feeling she's already the life of some heavenly party."

I called Korky and left a message. I fear for the dear boy's reaction. He already has had so much to contend with.

I spoke with Father O'Gould, and he said he, too, would say "a special prayer for a special person."

Upstairs, in the drawer of the little desk she used for her correspondence, I found a sealed envelope addressed to me. Inside was a letter written several weeks after we had learned the terrible news of her condition.

Norman dearest,

I know you are sad right now (or, at least, I hope you are!), but time, I know, will heal your heart. Along with my dear children, the best part of my

life has been with you. I thanked God every day for the chance to spend these last few, blissful years as your wife. Perhaps it is only the courage of fatalism, but I find myself less fearful hour by hour by what lies ahead. My only worry is for you and

Diantha. My greatest dying wish, my only prayer, is that you will, in some loving way, take care of each other. I am gone, Norman dearest, but I have every faith that somehow, somewhere, I will be waiting for you.

With love forever,

Your adoring Elsbeth

I wept again, and then again later at dinner, with tears and with that inner weeping of the heart, with a kind of sorrowful joy, exacerbated, no doubt, by the generous hand of Izzy, who kept filling my glass at dinner time with a new red wine from South Africa. Indeed, as I write this now, my head and my heart both thump painfully, and I feel the first faint yearnings for that void where I might go in search of Elsbeth.

Alfred Alcorn

Alfred Alcorn, formerly a journalist at the Boston Herald and CBS, is also the former director of the travel program at Harvard's Museum of Natural History. In addition to "The Love Potion Murders (in the Museum of Man)," he is the author of two previous novels, "The Pull of the Earth" (Houghton Mifflin, 1985) and "Murder in the Museum of Man" (Zoland Books, 1997). He lives in Belmont, Mass.

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