The National Catholic Review
Kelly Cherry

Now that the baby boom generation is reaching retirement age, its members must come to terms with death's new proximity. Parents are dying cherished friends are dying. The public figures who loomed so large for so many years are dying.

Not that this is a surprise. The World Population Clock tells us that 107 deaths occur every minute. Over 154,000 people die every day. There are no escape clauses, no detours around the end point there is no way to drop out of the race. Yes, we already knew this, but did we know how it feels to die?

Soon, a collection of 17 short stories by A. G. Mojtabai, lets us know:

The legs are lost first, then the arms and the neck. Everything sags near the end: the earlobes flatten, lie close along the skull, the jaw goes slack, the head lolls, too heavy to lift secretions pool and thicken in the throat the fingers, before this so restlessly seeking, fold in, and are still. It's a relentless letting go... ("Zone”).

More important, do we know how it feels to be a young man dying of AIDS? Michael is disturbed by the metal crucifix on the wall, the fig leaf that covers Christ's nakedness. "The nakedness is important for this particular shame, Michael feels sure of it, was also a wound, not the least of his wounds” ("Isolation”).

Or an older woman desperately using the last of her strength to write letters to relatives? Or Abe Farley, a reserved and dignified but mentally confused country man, whose wife preceded him in death?

We learn these things, too. Published over 10 years ago but still undiscovered by many, Soon is essential reading for our lives today. It is never too late to review a book this smart, this observant and understanding. Mojtabai, author of seven novels and a nonfiction book, Blessed Assurance, and recipient of impressive awards and grants, is nevertheless not as well known as she should be. In her preface to Soon, she tells us that she volunteered at a Catholic hospice in Amarillo, Tex-partly in an attempt to deal with her own fear of dying. When she began to write about her experience, "I was not privy to family histories, or medical histories, so I was forced to invent. All I had were glimpses.... I noticed a woman in a turban, sitting up in bed, writing one letter after another. What was in them? I had to write those letters myself in order to find out they are brought together in "Last Things.’”

The imaginative intelligence here is remarkable. We become involved with the patients, the priests, the nurses, the volunteers and housekeeping staff-a world that is inhabited, like our own, with people arriving and leaving. It is a world as detailed as our own, with orchids and a silk rose, dirty linen, three kinds of acceptable hugs ("the side-to-side, the A-frame, and the full body front-to-front-this last one only if you've been very close. And it's meant to be taken slow and easy,” from "Leaning”), broken crayons and a dump truck, "the smell of sage in wet ditches” ("Still Here”), a one-legged man wearing a single snakeskin boot.

In "Sightings,” a full-time creative writing teacher, wanting to give back to her community, adds to her course load by taking on a continuing-education night class for adults. Mary Owen, older than Sue and the other students, has enrolled in this class year after year, never learning how to write any better, always writing only about "porch swings and summer romance” or the equivalent. When she stops coming to class, and Sue learns that she is in hospice, Sue begins to visit her on Wednesday nights, despite, one week, hammering winds. At the hospice she encounters handmade signs, each with an "A” for "Alert"-tornado alert. Even in Mary's quiet and impervious room, Sue thinks she can still hear the wind blowing outside like "a giant bird circling overhead, wings flailing.” Mary asks Sue if she has seen the posted signs and goes on to explain that "they're telling us the angels are here.”

Sue does not believe in angels. She believes that poets have made great poems about angels, but not that angels actually exist.

Mary begs to differ. She believes the angels are there and that they are, furthermore, mischievous, sometimes annoyingly so, and occasionally downright "unfriendly.” If they play harps, none has played a harp for her. "Sometimes all I can make out are shimmers of wavy air, like you see around a jet plane,” she says. "What I see mostly is feet, flashes of feet.” Sue struggles to make sense of what Mary has said. Mary concludes: "And so I know...the spirit yearns to put down feet.”

Like Sue, we do not have to believe in angels to appreciate Mary's odd and real sense of them. Mary, whose creative endeavors have been irremediably jejune, has somehow been graced in her final days with the true poetry of her own soul.

In her preface, Mojtabai discusses the derivation of the word "hospice.” "Hospice (practice and place),” she tells us, "is about hospitality to strangers.” Her stories are themselves small hospices, accommodating and attentive to their wide range of characters. Before we find ourselves at death's door, this book is both a vestibule and a blessing.

Kelly Cherry is the author of 17 books of fiction, nonfiction and poetry, the most recent of which is Hazard and Prospect: New and ed Poems (Louisiana State Univ. Press, 2007).