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A Place to Stay, Untouched by Death

Jane Ratcliffe | Longreads | October 15, 2018 | 2,950 words
Posted inEssays & Criticism, Nonfiction, Story

A Place to Stay, Untouched by Death

After her mother’s passing, Jane Ratcliffe considers the role everyday objects play in a good death.
Unsplash / Pexels / Photo illustration by Katie Kosma

Jane Ratcliffe | Longreads | October 2018 | 12 minutes (2,950 words)

A place to stay untouched by death
Does not exist.
It does not exist in space, it does not exist in the ocean,
Nor if you stay in the middle of a mountain. 


When my mother grew quite ill and it became clear she would soon die, we brought her from the hospital to my parents’ house where they’d lived for nearly 50 years. My father, brother, niece, and I moved the dining-room table and chairs into the living room and hospice came in and set up one of those heavy, mechanical beds with cold metal side rails and a device that moved the head and feet up and down. It was an ugly bed. How many people before my mom had died in it, I wondered. It came with a sparse, lumpy mattress. My mom was skinny as a blade of grass by then and needed padding for her jutting bones. So we purchased an additional mattress to rest on top of her existing one; a mattress that would be hers alone, upon which no one, besides her, would die.

My parents grew up working class in London during World War II where they acquired a lifelong frugality. Inspire by one of the more popular war slogans, “Make Do and Mend,” they reused cooking oil, saved aluminum foil, and sewed up holes in our socks. So, it wasn’t a surprise to discover the Marimekko sheets of my late teen years in my parents’ linen closet. I was 54 then, but the background white on those sheets was still crisp and bright; the pinks and oranges and yellows of the flowers still exuberant. There were no other twin sheets in the house, so as my mom rested in her favorite velvet chair in the family room, my dad and I made up the bed with them. It was February, so we placed one blanket on top and folded another near where her feet, now tender in their slouchy socks, would rest.

And there it was: My mother’s death bed. All done up in my college dorm sheets.

My mind raced through the things that had happened on those sheets. Things that didn’t belong to this moment. I remembered my parents moving me into my college dorm in 1980. My mom always said that the moment all my belongings were in my room, I shushed them away. But I don’t think that’s entirely true. I remember unpacking my brand-new sheets, freshly laundered by my mom, and together, the three of us, making my bed. I remember them being so proud of me: There I was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan. My mom’s education had ended at age 12 when her school was bombed and my dad’s at 14 when he began his apprenticeship in the tool and dye trade. Such was England in those days.

I was struck by this repurposing of an object for a completely unexpected use. Back when I was 18, screwing my boyfriend on those sheets, slipping between them after a late night at the clubs, over-sleeping for classes sandwiched in them, eating junk food and studying for exams, books sprawled on top of them, sharing secrets with best friends with the sheets tucked around our knees, I could never have imagined my mom would die nestled between them.

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