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For several days after the onset of his decline, my grandfather’s mind seemed to leave him to go wandering, lost, in some foreign place. It was a dream he was in, we thought, that he could not escape. He was looking for the way home, and he could not find anyone who knew how to get there.
In a world where death by violence seems the norm, I found it interesting (I don’t feel like I could use the word “refreshing”) this week to read a story about death as a deserved rest from the weariness of a long life. I selected the Ace of Hearts for Week 24 of my Deal Me In 2016 short story project and it brought me to Kentucky author Wendell Berry’s short story “That Distant Land” from his collection of the same name. My Deal Me In 2016 list can be found here. Deal Me In is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.
Andy Catlett tells the story of the months and weeks leading up to his grandfather’s death. Berry doesn’t sugarcoat or sentimentalize this but at the same time he is able to mix a sweetness and a sadness together to tell a small, quiet tale very well.
As his family and friends work the farm thinking of Andy’s grandfather lying in bed and not with them, Berry includes just enough detail of the work to allow the reader to understand how tiring and rewarding the work is – and that his grandfather did this for most of his long life:
But “illness,” now that I have said it, seems the wrong word. It was not like other illnesses that I had seen – it was quieter and more peacable. It was, it would be truer to say, a great weariness that had come upon him, like the lesser weariness that comes with the day’s end – a weariness that had been earned, and was therefore accepted.
Even though a side character occasionally sings the lines of an old church hymn that contains the story’s title, I can’t call this story religious. I might consider it spiritual but it isn’t preachy or teachy. It simply shows death as a part of a family’s life.