Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Allegra Goodman’s “Apple Cake” was originally published in the July 7 & 14, 2014 issue of The New Yorker.
In “Apple Cake,” Allegra Goodman tells the story of a woman’s death. It is touching and unsentimental, maybe funny and tough at the same time. Jeanne is 74 and dying of lung cancer. She has reached the stage where she is mostly in bed, sleeping quite a bit, but still working out what’s what in this current situation. Her “situation” remains current right up until the moment of her death, something that is both unsettling and deeply reassuring. Her older sisters compete over who can take care of her better, her sons hover around ineffectually, and grandchildren come and go.
Her sisters sat chattering about the heat, the traffic, and the rain. They were afraid to leave her alone — although she had lived by herself for fifteen years, a widow. She lived alone because she liked it. Her late husband had been difficult, to say the least.
Jeanne herself finds controlling the full-court press of visitation a bit of a task; sometimes she pretends she’s asleep. Some of these visitors are not comfortable with cancer’s slow time-table. One of them manages the anxiety of having no control over when Jeanne will ever die by remarking to her daughter, in Jeanne’s presence, “She left no instructions.”
There is a fierce humor in all this. Jeanne’s oldest sister, eighty-year-old Helen, is a bit of a bad guy. This death brings out the worst in her. Another sister is a bit of a good guy, but, nonetheless, the two sisters use Jeanne’s illness as a stage to play out an old fight about who’s in charge. This round of the fight is clearly caused by having no idea what to do to ease the prickly Jeanne, or having no idea what to do with the uncomfortable fact that what they really want is for her not keep going on and on like this — in their view, not quite alive and not quite dead either.
In the meantime, Jeanne is, in her own way, quite alive, right up until the last minute. She, too, is fighting an old battle — whether she or her older sisters will be in control of how she lives her life — whether Jeanne will have the last say in what matters about her death.
One thing in the set-up of the story caught my eye. Jeanne is alert until the very end. There is no morphine coma. I am wondering if palliative care has reached this point where pain does not require as much morphine. This is actually a very important plot point, but it poses an editorial question as to whether Goodman needed to have clarified the morphine question in some way. Many of us have been at the side of someone whose cancer seemed to require a morphine coma, even in a Hospice setting.
In her Page-Turner interview with Cressida Leyshon (here), Goodman remarks:
From a hospice point of view, [Jeanne] is fortunate. She gets to die at home, and she gets to say goodbye — multiple times. From Jeanne’s point of view, she is unfortunate, because she wants to keep on living. There is no such thing as a good death for her. She is ornery, but also very human.
I liked that — that elegant, musical Jeanne was ornery in the face of death.
Allegra Goodman’s engaging website (here) reveals that she is a mother of four who writes while the children are at school. So far — seven books. I like the deep respect she has for the ordinary lives of women. I also found her account of Jeanne’s death deeply true — a death from cancer can take a very long time. People want to think of it as static — that they’re there at the bedside, being loyal, being brave, being true, being statues at the grand event. What really happens is that ordinary life happens while some one is dying. Ordinary egos push and pull maybe a little more in the press of impending death. Goodman gets that completely. It makes me very interested in all her other work.
Finally, I like the way the apple cake functions in the story — like life, it embodies both argument and pleasure, and like life, it calls to everyone, even Jeanne.