The Song at the End of Your Life

“Hi mum,” I called out as I opened the front door. I walked down the hall and I heard my mom talking to someone, which was strange because I didn’t recognize the voice.

“Oh hi love, how are you?” My mother stood up and gave me a hug. “Would you like some tea? I just made some.”

“Sure, I’d love some.” I replied. The other woman sitting at the kitchen table was unfamiliar to me. She was drinking tea out of a mug that I had made when I was in school. She seemed about my age, mid-twenties, with long, dark red hair.

“Oh honey, this is Aisling. Aisling, this is my daughter Brenna.” I shook her hand, and she gave me a warm smile.

“Your mother has been telling me all about you” Aisling said. “You live over in Cambridge, right?”

“Yeah, I do.” I drank my tea and waited for my mother to explain who Aisling was, exactly. I tried to think about how they might have met. From the hospital? Or maybe volunteering?

“Oh yes, Aisling stopped by and I made her some tea. We’ve been talking for oh, maybe an hour now. She’s just lovely. She’s a banshee, you know.”

“Sorry? A banshee?” I look at my mom, then at Aisling, confused. I must have misheard.

“Yes dear, a banshee. Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten; Lord knows we’ve talked about them a lot.”

By “our stories” my mom meant fairy tales and Irish stories. We didn’t have a lot of family; it was just my mum and me for my entire life. But she told fairy stories like they were family secrets, passed through the years.

“Yes mum, I’m quite familiar with the term, I just, I don’t know…” don’t know what’s worse, this random woman in my mum’s home saying she’s a banshee, or my mum believing her, I thought.

My mum had been sick for a long time. Cancer. I was at her house almost every day, taking care of her, cooking, cleaning, bringing her to appointments. She talked about “our stories” all the time. I was worried about her dying, of course. I worried about it at every moment. I was taking care of my mother at 24 the way that many people care for their elderly parents, except my mother wasn’t elderly. Just very ill. But she told me not to worry, because her banshee would warn her when she was to die. She didn’t seem to be afraid of death because of it. She said had a heard a banshee when her mother died, and her father as well. I didn’t have the energy to tell her these last few months that there wouldn’t be a banshee. She would just die, maybe at the hospital, maybe at home. I wasn’t sure if my worst nightmare was seeing my mother die or not being there for her in the end. She believed whole-heartedly in the stories; banshees, fairies, everything. But I never did. They were always more of a mythology to me. Legends.

Awhile ago, my mum had told me the story about when she had heard her father’s banshee. Her father had been a farmer and had been working on the fields. She had been a kid, only ten years old. She had heard a song then, that was sort of a combination a song and a scream. She wondered who was singing, and went outside to check. She saw her father laying on the ground, dead from a heart attack.

She said that she had heard a banshee every time someone in her life had died. Her mother, her brother, her best friend from childhood. She had only met a banshee once, when her brother had died. The woman was very old.

She even had a painting that she had done of a banshee hanging in our living room, like a shrine. She felt that she was being followed by banshees her entire life. I thought that perhaps she was being followed by Death.

My mom went to the cupboard and took out some biscuits. She looked quite young, though her illness had made her look very tired over the last few years.

“Well I was in the kitchen, washing the dishes, and I heard the most beautiful song. At first, I thought it was on the radio, but then I knew what was happening. Then Aisling here appeared. I was so excited to meet her Brenna, I told you I’d get to meet her. I had just put the kettle on and I invited her to stay for tea, I couldn’t be rude.”

“You know, people never invite me for tea. It’s been ever so lovely being here, thanks again.” Aisling said. She smiled shyly and I noticed her green eyes.

Again, I stared at my mum. She seemed fine. She didn’t seem at all worried about the fact that, apparently, she was to die any moment.

“Mum” I started out, cautiously. “Are you sure you heard her singing? If you heard the song, then…you know what that means, right?” I didn’t know whether to start laughing or start crying.

“Of course I know what’s happening. Look, I’ve left you this journal, just some stories I’ve been writing these last few months, I hope you like them. I think everything else should be squared away, right? Funeral, the burial the will, all that?” She was going through a mental checklist in her head apparently, like it was as simple as packing for vacation. Or a shopping list.

“Mum, if you’re feeling ill, we should call an ambulance right away. Call Dr. Lawrence, get you some help. Have you been taking your treatment medication?”

“Brenna, we knew this day would come and I’m not dying in a hospital when I could die at home. Not with those doctor staring at my like I’m under a piece of glass.”

I was torn between panic and confusion and anger. “Mum, we’ve got to do something.”

“I already told you…” and at that moment, she bent over and yelled in pain.

“Mum! What’s wrong, what hurts?”

“I think I should lay down.” Aisling grabbed my mother’s other arm and helped me guide her to the bedroom. I was in such a panic that I couldn’t be mad at Aisling. Some part of my brain was questioning why the hell this woman was here, why she wasn’t telling me what was wrong. But panic took over.

Once we laid her down, Aisling started to sing. All I could do was stare. Again, I wanted to yell and scream and say that singing wouldn’t help. But I couldn’t. Because it was the most beautiful song I had ever heard. Heartbreaking and loving all at once. I couldn’t describe it. I couldn’t even tell you what she was singing about. I didn’t understand the words, but I somehow understood that the song was about thousands of years of pain and sadness and suffering and love.

I snapped out of it and ran to the other room to call 911. I told the operator that my mother was sick with cancer and she was ill. Aisling was still singing when I went back to my mother’s bedside. My mother looked lovingly between me and Aisling. Again, part of my brain thought that this random woman didn’t deserve to see my mother dying. But at the same moment, I understood what was happening, just as my mother understood for all these years.

When Aisling stopped singing, I said “Mum, it’s going to be okay, we’re getting you help, the ambulance is on the way. You’ll be fine.”

“Brenna, I love you more than you will ever know. You always were my entire world.”

By the time the paramedics got in, she was already gone.

Aisling came to the hospital with me and was there when they pronounced my mother dead.

Over the next week, she stayed with me in my mother’s house and held my hand when I cried and cried. She would sit with me in the middle of the night when I couldn’t sleep. I didn’t have the energy to ask why she was there, in the house, with me. I knew a lot about banshees, from all the stories over the years. And I never heard a story where the banshees stayed to help the grieving. Those who were left to sort through it all.

“So is this part of it?” Aisling had been in the house for two days, through all the visitors and phone calls. I was sitting at the kitchen table, organizing the funeral information. brought me a cup of tea.

Aisling tilted her head and tucked a piece of long hair behind her hair. “Is what part of it?”

“This. You, here. Bringing me tea. Helping me. I didn’t know banshees stuck around. I guess I had never thought about it, but…”

“Oh, did you want me to go? I don’t usually stick around, but I thought…I’m so sorry, I should have asked. Gosh, I’m being so rude.”

“No, I didn’t mean it that way, I was just wondering. You should stay. Please.”

And that was that. She stayed the rest of the week. None of my friends or other visitors questioned the woman with the dark red hair and kind eyes who sat next to me, in the kitchen. She didn’t come to the funeral service, because she said she didn’t want to intrude. But she helped me go through my mother’s things. We laughed at old pictures from me as a baby, ridiculous pictures of me in Halloween costumes from childhood.

Aisling never told me that it would be alright, like everyone else did. She was just there. Eating dinner with me. Drinking tea and watching whatever was on tv. I told her stories about my mum. How she had been a teacher before she got sick. How the students sent her cards. How much she loved those goddamn kids.

My mum had a big old house in Brookline. One of those houses that was built in the 1800s. It had lots of rooms and she was always having friends over, especially when she got sick. It wasn’t the house that I grew up in; that was in Vermont. She loved that house, and I did too. The hardwood floors that creaked and the old doors. She had made me promise not the sell it when she left the house for me. So, two weeks after my mother died, I moved all of my things out of my apartment in Cambridge and moved in. Aisling helped me, and I set up one of the spare bedrooms for her. We never even really talked about it.

Aisling eventually told me about her life. How she was born with the power to be a banshee. The power seemed to transfer almost randomly to different women. The first deaths that she had announced were her parents’. Now, she just travelled around, announcing deaths. She was quite alone.

She told me about her travels. She had been all around England, Ireland, and now America, announcing deaths.

We had developed a routine. One of us would make tea and breakfast in the mornings. I was a writer and worked full time at a local bookshop that was quite popular. Aisling would sometimes stay home, sometimes come to work with me. Eventually she got back to work too, so to speak. She started announcing deaths again. Sometimes she would be gone for just an afternoon, sometimes a few days. She announced a lot of local deaths, but sometimes would go to another part of the country and stay awhile to see the town or city. But she always came back to me.

I eventually moved into the spare bedroom with her. She would read while I would work at my desk on some writings, or do a book review for the local paper.

I once asked her how she knew where the next death was.

“I just know the address. In my head. And I know how to get there. Sometimes I just find myself there without even having thought about it. The travelling can be instantaneous. But I like to drive, sometimes.”

We were sitting in the living room. She was reading a book, head on my lap. I looked down at her and said, “You know, I never asked. Why did you stay? This is your job, you usually don’t stick around with the family afterwards.”

“Because your mother wasn’t afraid of me. And neither are you. I have never had a person be nice to me when I’m announcing their death. Not ever. If they do know what’s going on, they usually beg and plead and cry. Or get angry. And it was hard at first, but I’m used to it now. But your mother made me a cup of tea. She asked me about my day, as if she wasn’t going to die in a few hours. Most people ask me why, what’s happening to them, blame me for their death. And it’s not my doing; I’m just the messenger, not Death. Death right now belongs to John. I knew him as a boy, actually. We were childhood friends.”

I laughed, “You were friends with Death as a kid?”

She laughed too. “I suppose it does sound a bit weird, yes.”

After a while she spoke again. “Why weren’t you afraid of me? Why did you let me stay?”

“I suppose for the same reason as you. Because my mother wasn’t afraid.”

I loved Aisling for so long. I can still remember what falling in love with her felt like. It had been five years since my mother died. Aisling and I even got married, last year, though it was a small ceremony and there were only a few people in attendance. We went for a walk in the park after our wedding. Then we went to Ireland, and went to all of the places that my mom had told me about in her stories.

One day, in October, Aisling came home crying. I was worried, because she was in Vermont on some death calls and was taking a long drive back.

“Hey honey, I thought you weren’t going to be home until tomorrow. Is everything okay? God, have you been crying? What’s wrong?”

She said nothing. She just held me and sang that song again, the one that I had only heard once before. And I knew.

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