“Beyond Imagining,” by Lore Segal

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Lore Segal reads.

RUTH

Bessie, Lotte, Ruth, Farah, and Bridget, who had been lunching together for half a century, joined in later years by Ilka, Hope, and, occasionally, Lucinella, had agreed without the need for discussion that they were not going to pass, pass away, and under no circumstances on. They were going to die. It was now several years since Lotte had died in an assisted-living facility. Then, when Covid worried their ­children, Ruth had undertaken to Zoom ladies’ lunch. She suggested that anyone who had something to say should show a hand.

Farah put up her hand. She said, “I don’t find it difficult to think about . . . ,” then paused in surprise at not being able to say “dying,” “about choosing not to live if I’m going blind.”

Bessie, Zooming from Old Rockingham, said, “That would be Colin’s choice when he hurts and he hurts all the time.”

Bridget raised her hand. “I think that the reason I think I won’t mind being dead is that I can’t imagine it, and I don’t think we know how to believe what we aren’t able to imagine.”

“You want to repeat that?” Ruth asked her.

“No,” Bridget said and laughed. “I’m not sure that I could.”

Then Colin died and Bessie allowed herself to collapse. Her daughter Eve called Ruth to tell her that Bessie was in a Connecticut hospital. Ruth called her there and reported to the group: “Bessie says the room is bright and pleasant enough. I lamely asked her how she was feeling, and she said, ‘Sad. Sad and ill.’ ”

When Farah called her, Bessie said, “Eve wants me to temporarily move into our minuscule Ninety-fourth Street pied-à-terre, which I had made over to her.”

“That’s a good plan, is it, ­temporarily?”

“Temporarily. Colin and I agreed that Old Rockingham must go to his ­children. It was never my world. There’s a line I remember, from I forget which school poem, to ‘dance an hour beneath the beeches.’ That’s what my Connecticut years have been. It’s New York that’s for real.”

Hope said, “Ruth has been hosting our Zooms all this time and we’ve never done her agenda.”

Ruth asked, “What’s my agenda? I forget.”

“You said you wanted us to discuss our take on wokeness?”

“Which is not a word in the Oxford English Dictionary,” said Ilka, and Bridget said, “Use ‘wokeness’ in a sentence.”

“Just vote it in the next election,” Ruth said.

Farah took out her phone and read: “ ‘Wokeness. The quality of being alert to and concerned about social injustice and discrimination.’ ”

“What we used to call being a liberal,” said Ilka.

“With the gloves off,” said Ruth.

“I’m trying to remember who described liberals as not having enough sense to argue in favor of their own opinions,” Ilka said.

“That’s nice. I like that,” said Bridget, brightening. “I’m going to write a story about two liberals fighting a duel. On the count of ten, they turn and each shoots himself in the foot.”

“Herself in the foot,” Ruth said.

“Themself,” said Ilka.

Ruth called Farah and said, “I’ve been feeling stupid and woozy. The doctor is doing tests.”

Farah said, “Can I come and visit you? How is Monday?”

“Monday is good,” Ruth said.

Ruth’s elegant daughter opened the door. “It’s Helena, isn’t it?” Farah said, remembering her from a long-ago mother-­and-daughter ladies’ lunch.

Helena said, “Mom is expecting you. Mom, it’s Farah.”

Ruth in a severely buttoned dress and slippers was sitting in an ample wing chair in the familiar living room. Her son, Ben, introduced himself and asked if it was too early for a glass of wine. Ruth said, “The doctor says it will do no harm.”

“Then yes, please,” Farah said, and Ben left the room.

Ruth said, “I have a tumor.”

“Do we know what that means?” asked Farah.

Ruth said, “I find I’m grateful for that conversation,” and Farah understood her to mean the conversation about dying and said, “I’ve been trying to think that I’ve had the use of my eyes for upward of ninety years and it doesn’t seem unreasonable to be expected to give them up.” She paused and said, “One looks for a way to think about it.”

Ruth said, “They may try radiation, but the doctor says it will do no good.”

The son returned with two small glasses of wine. There were the minutes ­occupied by the business of clearing two surfaces where the two glasses could stand within easy reach. Ben left the room. Farah was aware of searching for something to talk about. She talked about Bessie temporarily sharing the Ninety-fourth Street pied-à-terre with her daughter Eve.

Ruth said, “Temporarily?”

“Colin has left Old Rockingham to his children.”

Farah told Ruth about Ilka’s latest argument with her cousin Frieda; she talked about Trump, about Bibi and Jerusalem. She said, “Is next Monday good to come and see you? Bridget wants to come.”

“Next Monday is good,” Ruth said.

It is the nurse who brings Farah and Bridget into the empty living room, goes out and returns with Ruth in a wheelchair. The nurse goes out. Ruth looks like Ruth but her voice is so low that they have to ask her to repeat what she is saying: “My right side has shut down. I don’t have the use of my hand.” The nurse comes back with three small glasses of wine, for which she arranges three convenient surfaces. The nurse goes out.

Ruth watches Farah and Bridget talk.

When, the following Monday, Ilka and Hope ring the doorbell, Helena opens the door and says, “Mom is unresponsive, but come in.” Ruth is sitting in the wheelchair. They sit down. No wine, thank you. Helena remains in the room. The fingers of Ruth’s left hand play a nonexistent keyboard on her lap. She looks into the room before her but does not speak.

Afterward, Ilka and Hope talk over a cup of coffee in the corner Starbucks. Hope says, “One yearns to be comfortable for her, but one just sits there.”

Ilka says, “I looked up ‘tumor’ and it’s too much information. What does it mean that ‘the body shuts down’?”

Hope says, “What is the Ruth in the wheelchair thinking? What do we know? Is she in pain?”

Bessie comes to see Ruth and takes her hand and presses it to her cheek, weeps and says, “Colin is dead.”

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