Judith Lambert was dying at last. She had come home from the Medical Center for the fifth and final time in how many months?–eighteen?–since her cancer was first diagnosed. But the Institute party was scheduled for that night, the hand-written invitations sent out weeks ago, so they were at the party, Judith’s many friends and a number of her colleagues from the Bedminister Choir College where Judith had taught voice for fifteen years, how sad they were saying, how tragic, she is such a young woman,–forty-seven: and looks ten years younger despite the chemotherapy–gathered about the long candlelit table where plates of hors d’oeuvres were set amidst coolly fragrant spring flowers, daffodils, jonquils, hyacinth, taking up Swedish meatballs on toothpicks, jumbo shrimp dipped in Mexicali hot sauce (Take care, the director’s wife warns,–that sauce is hot), how lovely everything looks tonight, and this wine, this is superb wine, German, is it? and how delicious the stuffed mushrooms, did you make these yourself, Isabel? Judith Lambert’s spring concert last year was a great success everyone said, I wasn’t able to get to it myself because I had to be out of town, yes you missed a lovely concert Judith sang songs by Schumann, Schubert, Faure, I think, miniatures, most of them, such a fine clear beautiful voice she had, something plaintive about it, not strong of course, not powerful, once I heard her sing that Mozart aria “Bella mia fiamma”and you could tell she’d reached her limit but she had a haunting voice, it’s all such a pity. Judith’s daughter was saying, Mother?–please, Mother?–are you awake, Mother? The bedroom was papered in a floral design, fine-patterned, French silk, lavender, soft green, ivory, matching bedspread and a thick ivory carpet, Ginny Mullin had visited her the week before, it’s so sad she said tears welling in her eyes, yes she has changed a good deal now, she looks so frail, so thin, thank God her daughter is with her, and thank God for morphine. A new couple had just entered the hall, shaking hands with the Institute director Dr. Max and his wife Isabel, tall flaxen-haired sharp-eyed Isabel, if you decline one of her invitations she will never invite you back. That dinner party Judith gave at Christmas,–there must have been twenty of us and she tried to do it all herself, not even a student to help in the kitchen, of course it was a buffet, and not so much trouble: but still. And do you know I never got around to inviting her back, this season has been sheer madness, we were in Minneapolis, and we were in Atlanta, and where else, Los Angeles of course. I am reminded of a line from a play, or is it a poem, Shall I ever have time to die? the heroine asks. Her doctor said she’d have a year to live with the treatments, I think that was terribly blunt, and cruel, don’t you,–and wrong by about six months too. She has been taking chemotherapy off and on all this time and the wonder of it is, her hair, her lovely hair, didn’t fall out: can you imagine Judith without her lovely red hair? So brave, such a model of courage, endurance, such a vital attitude toward the future,–this cheese is exquisite–this is goat cheese, Mark you must try it–her attitude was so positive it was daunting sometimes, the way she spoke of the future, plans for next year’s concert series at Bedminister, and the year after, Mark says it was a necessary blindness, a kind of denial, where did you get this pate, Isabel?–it’s duck isn’t it?–That little store on Charity Street, off South Street, do you know the one I mean? Yes I’ve seen it but I haven’t gone inside. I feel so bad about Judith, that lovely party she gave and I never invited her back, it’s so awkward with a single woman at a sit-down dinner don’t you think. Did I tell you, Mark is flying to Johannesburg on Monday, some sort of confidential government business, I’m concerned there will be a civil war while he’s there and he won’t be able to get out. Judith looked so lovely at the Christmas concert, directing the women’s choir, that white dress she wore that looked like an antique dress,–full-skirted, flounced, with ruffles at her throat, long sleeves, lacy cuffs–I think it was to disguise the fact she’d lost so much weight. Oh just the Messiah I think–the usual. Yes it was a shame about Rod leaving her but it seems to have worked out for the best, Judith was the happiest I’ve ever seen her after the divorce came through, there’s no bitterness between them that anyone ever noticed, though there must have been some emotion involved, you can’t be married for twenty years without some emotion being involved, yes but the daughter is grown up, all our children are grown up. Have you noticed, it has happened so quickly: all our children are grown up, and most of them are moved away. A faint sickle moon was shining through the tall leaded windows of the Institute’s main hall, where one hundred guests were gathered, and a string quartet played in a corner, on a raised platform edged with flowers. In the din of voices no one could hear the music but the musicians, good sports from the Bedminister school, played briskly on: something by Beethoven, it sounded like. Is that the moon? Where? In the trees. There. The moon?–I don’t think so, it looks like one of the lights in the parking lot. Mother, said Judith’s daughter,- can you hear me? Are you awake? Mother I love you. Judith’s daughter said, but it wasn’t clear that Judith heard. The skin around here eyes looked stitched, bruised pouches beneath the eyes, it must be the mask of death since Judith is dying but her daughter stands transfixed unable to judge. I remember Roslyn Lambert when she was a little girl passing plates of hors d’oeuvers at one of their parties, a lawn party is was, Rod and Judith certainly gave the impression of being happily married then, such an attractive couple, Judith looked like on of those pre-Raphaelite women, you know the ones I mean, didn’t that artist who lived in the Hawleys’ coach house paint her?–and what came of the portrait, I wonder? His new wife is very sweet they say though I’ve never met her, one of his graduate students evidently. Doesn’t time pass swiftly now! And incessantly. They were talking of the new women’s choir director from Juilliard whose husband is assistant dean at the Seminary. An attractive young couple but there are so many attractive young couples these days. Thank you so much Isabel for inviting us. Thank you for coming but isn’t it a little early to be leaving? I called Judith last week but Rosalyn said she was sleeping and couldn’t be disturbed, she spoke rather sharply to me, I thought, I was a bit hurt, after all I’ve been a friend of Judith’s for so long and was one of the first people Judith told. Max said he’d bought a case of this by way of that dealer in Pennsfield, Bernkasteler Doktor Auslese 1982, not what you’d call cheap but it was a bargain. The funeral will be next week probably, and the memorial service has to be planned, not until May I suppose. Did you go to Dr. Emory’s memorial?–it was fairly well attended but I was surprised at the people missing you’d have expected to see there. He was so well loved, his students adored him. That’s usually the case, this time of year. It’s madness this time of year. I’m committed to a conference in Geneva next week I wish I could get out of, a week-long session in Tokyo next month, loans and financing for the Third World, more of the same thing, the situation is hopeless and getting worse but don’t quote me. Is Judith’s daughter with her? No? I thought someone said she was. She is? I heard they’d hired a private nurse, I guess you have to, in cases like this, dying at home, poor Judith, but at least she’s in comfortable surroundings, and where is Rod?- He won’t dare miss the funeral but he hasn’t visited her in a year. He’s very big, they say, at La Jolla: found his niche at last. Did Florence tell you, they’re having a reception for the French ambassador next week, I hope there isn’t going to be an awkward conflict with the funeral. Judith closed her skeletal fingers around her daughter’s wrist and seemed about to smile as she so frequently did though her eyes flashed with panic but this time she did not smile, she whispered, Help me, and her daughter said, I’m right here, Mother, I’m not going to go away. A faint moon through the window, in the trees beyond the house, hazy like the lamplight in the room, the only light burning, filtered through the fluted flesh-colored shade. Our new astrophysicist is being wooed by the California Institute of Technology already, did you hear?–it’s outrageous. Everyone bids on the stars and no one much wants the others. I hope I won’t be out of town for the party, this time of year is such madness. Are those dogwood sprays? Apple blossom? So lovely. Shall I ever have time to die, she wondered. She was staring into a corner of the room where friends with the look of strangers were talking and laughing loudly. Someday yes. Judith’ s daughter dialed the number she knew by heart and said into the receiver calm as words said many times, I think she has died. Yes A few minutes ago. The funeral will be this week, the memorial service in early May, we’ll have to get together with those boring Bedminister people to plan it. At the door Ginny Mullin squeezed my hand and whispered in my ear, the invitations should be in the mail by next Friday but remember: keep the night of May 11 open. For us.

Originally published in the August 1988 issue of Boston Review