Camryn Hughes clicks open her email at the notification sound—an annoying squawk that sounds like a flock of birds in crisis. She doesn’t want to miss an email from a client or a potential client, because to them, time is everything. In the hourglass that is their life, there are only a few grains of sand left.
The whole mortality thing is the part that makes most people so uncomfortable when they hear what Cam does for a living. Just the other night at book club, she started to recommend The Needs of the Dying after they’d all read Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. There was polite tolerance for a moment or two before someone suggested they talk about something “lighter.” So typical. As if on cue, one woman launched into gossiping about her neighbor’s affair with a married man, while another couldn’t wait to update the group on her niece’s boyfriend’s cousin’s awful Covid saga. So much for “lighter” topics. Cold shoulders are as common to Cam as cracks in the sidewalk. You do what for a living? Oh, I see, well, I’d better not be needing your services anytime soon, ha ha.
Cam does so much internal eye rolling that if she were rolling her eyes that much for real, they’d have fallen out of her head by now. But she wouldn’t trade her job for anything, no matter how much social awkwardness she has to endure, because the work makes her feel more real, more connected, than anything else she’s done in her life. Akin to how a midwife or birthing coach helps prepare a woman, a family, for a baby’s arrival, Cam, as a death doula, helps her clients and their loved ones prepare for a soft landing to wherever it is that their soul is going after their body dies. Sort of like getting ready for a trip, is how she thinks of it. If her clients want help cleaning their house or putting their legal affairs in order, no problem. If they want help communicating with health care providers or even estranged family members, she will do that too. She’ll read out loud to her clients, take them to appointments, fetch them a milkshake to satisfy a sudden craving if that’s what they want. Spending time with the dying has been a gift to Cam—a daily reminder that not only is life fleeting, but that it’s meant to be lived.
These days, Cam doesn’t have to advertise. Word of mouth, after putting in the legwork of getting to know local social workers, clergy, doctors, and nurses, has given her more work than she can handle. She can afford to be selective about her clients and her workload, and so she hesitates after reading the email from a dying man who wants to hire her.
Landon Ross is a professor at Northwestern Michigan College, here in Traverse City, and he isn’t a total stranger to Cam. He used to walk the cutest, friendliest little dachshund a few streets over, and Cam would sometimes stop to chat with Landon and Harvey. She even started carrying treats in her pocket for Harvey, but the dog must have died because, now that she thinks of it, she’s only seen Landon walking alone over the last few months. Actually, she hasn’t seen Landon at all in probably two months now, maybe longer. She’s sorry to learn that this friendly stranger is dying of pancreatic cancer.
There’s a snag, though. Landon Ross not only wants to hire her as his death doula but also to make a trip out of town on an undisclosed errand. The request raises a red flag, because Cam can’t simply take off for days without a lot of planning and organizing. She’s had clients before who seem to think she’s a genie who can grant them wishes before they die or can complete their bucket list vicariously. It’s awkward, because her work isn’t supposed to be about her. It’s why she’s learned to become quite adept at setting boundaries, at saying no, though sometimes she says yes. It all depends on the client and on the task. The last line in his email grabs her attention: My budget has no ceiling.
Visions of a new furnace tempt her, so Cam hits the reply button. It can’t hurt to sit down and talk with Landon. Maybe she can talk him out of his road trip request. Or maybe she will like him enough to feel compelled to do it. She’s learned not to judge clients before she gets to know them, and even then, the prospect of death can be a lightning rod to change.
Take Jim Duffy. He was an elderly curmudgeon who screamed at the poor paper carrier daily for not taking the time to set the newspaper exactly so on his doorstep. He threw snowballs in winter or tennis balls in summer at stray cats who dared step a paw on his property. The man was despised. And yet by the time Cam visited Jim in hospice, he was the sweetest, most polite old man she’d ever met. Holding her hand, asking her how she was doing. It is the biggest misconception of all that people don’t change, because in her experience, people change all the time.
Cam walks to Landon’s for their first meeting; his house is not far. It’s a two-story English Tudor with vines crawling along its exterior walls of brick and stucco, which seems to make it the perfect house for a professor (his email signature line says he teaches economics). A middle-aged woman with one of the most disarming smiles Cam has ever seen opens the door. She is tall, willowy, not gorgeous exactly, but pleasant-looking. She looks like someone you can count on to tell you the truth but in the least harmful way possible. Cam likes her right away.
“Hi! How do you do? You must be Camryn Hughes.” The woman’s handshake is warm, firm, her gaze direct.
“I am. It’s very nice to meet you.”
“Likewise. I’m Tenley Sutton. Come on in. Landon is expecting you.”
This is always the part Cam is most eager—and nervous—about. What shape is he in? And most of all, will she like him? If there is anything about his demands or personality that aren’t a good fit, she’ll decline the job. She always tells prospective clients the same thing—that if they too feel it’s not a good fit, she will help them find an alternative.
Tenley leads her toward the back of the house and knocks softly before opening the door to a spectacular library with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, stained glass windows, a leather sofa and a couple of comfortably worn wingback chairs facing a gas fireplace. I could lose myself in a room like this, with its scent of leather and books, Cam thinks with a trace of envy. Landon is sitting in one of the wingback chairs, looking gaunt in sweats with a fleece blanket wrapped around his shoulders like a shawl. He is obviously chilly even though the ambient temperature is comfortable enough. Cam notices that he is markedly thinner since she saw him on a walk in early winter, and his skin has the pallor of the sick. His brown hair, gray at the temples, is thinner too. He half pulls himself out of the chair to greet her until the effort proves too much and he sinks back down with a smile that’s more a frown.
“Hello, Camryn Hughes. I’m so glad you’re here.”
Cam shakes his hand; his fingers are dry as twigs. “Just Cam is good.”
“Okay, Just Cam. You already know I’m Just Landon. And this is my partner, Just Tenley. Though you already met her at the door.” He lowers his voice to a whisper, mischief alight in his eyes. “I keep trying to marry her, but she doesn’t believe in the grand institution. Even now that I’m dying she won’t marry me. Have you ever heard of anything so grievous?”
Cam breaks into a smile. She likes Landon and his dry sense of humor. “Well. I’m a little shy about the grand institution myself.”
“Not me,” Landon proclaims. “I already tried it. It’s not half bad, you know. Though it helps if you have the right person to walk down the aisle with.”
Tenley rolls her eyes as she lays an affectionate hand on her partner’s knee. “Even a divorce wasn’t enough to dull the incurable romantic in him.”
“That’s because I actually like my ex.”
“Unfortunately, I can’t say the same about mine,” Tenley says on an aggrieved sigh. “Which is why I won’t walk down the aisle again. But I’d go anywhere else with this big goof.” She squeezes Landon’s bony knee. “Please, Cam, have a seat. Can I get you anything? I’ve got tea on.”
“Tea sounds perfect.” It will give her a few moments alone with her prospective client.
Cam sits on the leather sofa and watches Tenley switch on the gas fireplace before clicking the door shut behind her. It is already warm enough in the library, but Landon needs the warmth and winter hasn’t entirely yielded to spring yet.
“Let me look at you, Cam,” he says. His gaze is scrupulous. “You look exactly like your photos, you know.”
“My photos?” Cam absently runs her hand through her thick hair, a life-long habit of trying to tame it.
“From my Google investigation. When I used to see you in the neighborhood, I had no idea what you did for a living, until I needed…well, the services of someone like you. Can’t hire a death doula who might, I don’t know, rob me blind or take advantage of my body, you know.”
She laughs politely, but a small pit lodges in her stomach at the knowledge that Landon Ross has been investigating her. And while it makes her uncomfortable, she can’t blame him for wanting to be confident in her credentials. When he next mentions her mother, it throws her for a second, and she wonders exactly how deeply he’s been looking into her background. “You knew my mom?”
“I did. I remember her well. Ruth was a wonderful veterinarian. I’m sorry she’s…no longer here. Is she the reason you came back to the place you grew up?”
“She was. I was looking for a fresh start and she needed my help. I came back here nine years ago, after her diagnosis. I never left.”
“And that’s what convinced you to become a death doula? Looking after your mother?”
“It was. I already had a social work degree that I wasn’t putting to good use, so it seemed natural to segue into this. Plus, I think I’d forgotten how nice it is living so close to the lake. When you spend years landlocked, you forget the power and beauty of water.” Earth with air but no water has always made Cam feel incomplete.
Landon nods thoughtfully. He’s taking everything she says and storing it in his memory, she can tell. Little files alphabetically labeled in his mind. She understands because she does the same. “You fled after high school.”
“Doesn’t everybody flee their hometown as soon as they can?”
“Good point. I sure did. Couldn’t get out of Indiana fast enough. But I love it here. Tenley’s originally from here. I moved here over a decade ago after we met because I couldn’t stand the idea of living without her.” He chuckles to himself. “Tenley has a habit of getting what she wants, but moving here wasn’t a tough decision for me. And for the record, I’m glad you stuck around after your mom passed.” His eyes pierce her as though by merely staring he can suck out every scrap of information about her. “No career or spouse or kids you had to leave behind?”
“It was the right time for me to make a change.” It’s a dance, sharing personal information. Cam likes to share enough about herself to put her clients at ease, to make sure they understand their arrangement is unique and special. Too much sharing and intimacy can make it emotionally tough on her when her client dies, though emotional aloofness and an overabundance of formality aren’t productive either. She walks a line with her personal feelings. She and Landon will get to where they need to be with one another, but it won’t be today. Today they’re simply feeling one another out.
Landon takes her answer and seems to roll it around in his mind for a minute before breaking into a crooked smile. “Any regrets?”
“None that would put me anywhere else right now.”
Tenley is back with the tea.
To her, Landon says, “I like her, Ten.” To Cam, “When can you start?”
“I…well…once we’re sure that we’re all on the same page and that we think we can work well together.”
“I see. So have I passed your test yet? ’Cuz you’ve passed mine.”
Cam laughs and sips her tea. Landon Ross seems like a good guy, like someone who genuinely seeks the truth and who doesn’t spend a lot of time bemoaning things or looking for trouble. And that is good enough for her. “Yes, you’ve passed my test.”
His smile splits his whole face, giving Cam a glimpse of how he looked as a younger man. Tenley looks pleased too. Relieved, more like. Clients and their loved ones always exhibit relief when Cam agrees to take them on, as though their burden has been instantly lightened. Handshakes all around are enough. From this day forward, they are a team, the three of them.
They spend the next several minutes going over her rules (she doesn’t give medical assistance, but is there to talk and listen, to run errands, to liaise with medical professionals and anyone else he wants her to, to help plan his funeral, to fetch groceries, to give whatever emotional, spiritual, and holistic support—to both of them—that she can). Then Landon and Tenley outline what they expect of Cam, which isn’t a long list and includes the enigmatic little “trip” they want her to go on. She wants to press them on it, but Landon is starting to nod off.
“More on that some other time,” Tenley says, clutching Landon’s hand to wake him up. “I think this is probably good enough for today.”
Landon’s voice halts Cam as she is about to get up. “Tell me something, Cam. You came back to Traverse City. You came home. Does that mean you believe that you can go home again?”
Immediately she recognizes the old saying “you can never go home again,” straight from the title of a 1940 Thomas Wolfe novel. How many millions of times have people asked that question? she wonders. “I think…” She pauses to watch him, to gauge whether he is teasing her or testing her. In any case, it’s pretty clear that Landon Ross is the kind of man who, when he asks a question, expects to receive an answer. “I think you can go home again, whether home is a physical place or a place in your mind. But what you find may not be what you expect.”
He nods once, his eyes drifting toward the windows that look out onto a lovely perennial garden whose shoots are emerging from the receding crusts of winter. Purple and yellow crocuses timidly poke their heads out of the cool soil. “So then…what do you find when you get there? Home?”
Her shrug is noncommittal, but Landon’s eyes, a shade of blue that match the still-freezing-cold lake a few blocks away, swing her way and pin her like it’s the big final Jeopardy question he’s waiting on. “Your homework,” he says pointedly. “To be discussed further, next visit.”
This client, Cam knows in her gut, will challenge her. Not only challenge her, but quite possibly change her, as some clients do. Second thoughts creep in like a bad dream and she is tempted to make her excuses, to reject this job. But she loves a challenge because they keep her fresh, engaged, and because the last thing she wants is for her job to feel, well, like a job.
Plus, she likes Landon and Tenley.
“Yes, Professor. I’ll get on that.”
“Good,” he answers, his eyes drifting shut. The meeting is adjourned.
At the door, Tenley gives Cam a brief medical rundown of where Landon is at with his illness and promises to email more details later.
Walking home, it feels to Cam as if she’s just stepped off something surefooted and predictable and into something that is neither of those things.
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