Is “The Hearing Trumpet” a First-Person Story About What It’s Like to Die?
Leonora Carrington's surrealist classic gave me a new way to understand my grandmother's final days
The 90-minute drive from my childhood home to visit my grandmother necessitates passing a pair of gigantic road signs written in all-caps white lettering on a black background. “IF YOU DIED / TODAY,” the first inquires, “WHERE / WOULD YOU SPEND / ETERNITY?” The second advises that “HELL IS / REAL.” The “H” in that one gets its own special red color to signify how seriously the sign wishes itself to be taken. This is some biblical shit, some hefty contemplation for the cars trundling innocently toward the nearby outlet mall.
My brother and I have always loved these signs. We chuckled at them growing up, snarkily admiring their confidence with the self-satisfied glee of children who have recently discovered irony. What, exactly, was ironic about the signs we surely could not say, not then. Recently it has been much easier. In part this is because we have learned the definition of irony; mostly this is because the sicker Grandma got the more likely it became that, as we sped toward her condominium and then nursing home and then funeral site, contemplations of eternity had filled the vehicle long before the signs appeared.
The conversations about my grandma’s future had started around the time I moved home, early in the pandemic. Grandma isn’t doing so well, we were told in low, pained tones. Grandma doesn’t know how poor her health is, Grandma needs help, Grandma might have to move. She’ll be better off in a home, we agreed, agonizing over logistics. Then, later, when she began her quick descent, the conversations grew vaguer, more equivocating. Grandma was slipping away and Grandma forgot things and Grandma couldn’t eat or walk or speak but it was okay, really, because now she is in pain but soon she won’t be, and that will be a relief, really, actually, if you think about it.
I do not and have never liked death. I understand that life’s value derives from its finiteness, and that dying imposes such a necessary truncation on existence. But I find nothing inherently beautiful about the dying itself, not conceptually and certainly not in practice. There was no glamor in watching my grandmother’s brain disease spread into her synapses, eating through her memories, dulling her opinions, depriving her of the ability to rearrange her pristine collection of antique cow figurines or dress herself in colorful beaded sweaters. Her impending death seemed manageable when we talked of it in abstractions, when my parents fed us sinewy assurances crowded together in the kitchen. It seemed okay until I had to think about it in any substantive, material way. When I tried to envision what went on inside her head, all I could picture was a white noise machine with the volume all the way up, drowning out everything that comprised her selfhood, making the world look like a staticky television.
In the dead of the pandemic winter, I drove past those two prosthelytizing signs to visit my grandmother for what I did not yet know would be the last time. My family stood awkwardly in the soil of a dead garden and waved to Grandma in her wheelchair through a looming picture window in the hospice unit. We spoke across the glass through a phone whose corollary a nurse held to my grandma’s ear. That woman’s arm must be getting sore, I kept thinking, watching it slowly start to quiver, though she never once complained. My mother kept motioning me to talk—she responds to your voice, she whispered—but the words stuck like too much peanut butter down my throat. I imagined how lonely it must feel for her, straining through the brain fog toward people who seemed to slip further and further out of reach. She pointed to her chest and then through the window, toward my father, her son. She groaned and hummed and repeated the gestures. We know, we said each time, as she pointed and shrieked, pointed and let out a horrible, high-pitched scream. We know you love us, we kept repeating, but she couldn’t make the noises into words. Her body was tired, the nurse was saying, but I could see her eyes and they didn’t look sleepy at all. I’ve watched horses’ eyelids stretch open in a lightning storm; this looked like that.
The nurse told us, after, that we shouldn’t worry about the noise grandma was making, the horrifying screeching that sounded to me like some staggering blend of fear, frustration, and pain. “She’s developed her own language,” the nurse explained calmly, warmly. It’s a common symptom of dementia, apparently, this sort of nonverbal communication. I didn’t know whether to believe her; I still don’t. Whatever I had told myself about the gentle transition from life to death seemed belied by the obvious pain she was in. What I heard sounded to me like a primal distillation of human suffering. It seemed ludicrous to pass it off as an alternate means of conversance.
No one commented on the road signs that day on our drive back home. Frankly, I found their scare tactics unconvincing. I didn’t so much fear what came next for her; it was the getting there that troubled me.
“We have all agreed,” announces Marian Leatherby’s son early on in The Hearing Trumpet, “that she would be much better off in a home.” The “she” in this edict is Marian, the 92-year-old protagonist of Leonora Carrington’s 1974 surreal novel about a home for elderly women that becomes the epicenter of the apocalypse. The pronouncement is news to Marian, who has lived peaceably with her family in Mexico for the past fifteen years. “She would be much happier in an institution where there’s proper help to take care of her,” Marian’s daughter-in-law continues. “She ought to be dead,” concludes the grandson. “At that age people are better off dead.”
Marian’s family speaks about her callously, unaware that Marian is now equipped with the eponymous hearing trumpet, which makes their conversation discernible. They say things no reasonably empathetic person would say about the elderly, but the first time I read The Hearing Trumpet, about a month after my grandmother passed away, this scene elicited in me a trickle of guilt, a rising heat around my neck. It recalled those pained conversations in my parents’ kitchen when we articulated, however kindly, a similar sentiment: this woman does not understand the reality of her suffering. I imagined with a pang that my grandma, like Marian, crouched nearby, jotting down notes as we spoke. I felt ashamed to envision how she might feel, hearing us speak about her like a child. But as I pictured her scoffing at our sighs about her future, I was surprised also to feel a thrill of satisfaction on her behalf, imagining that where we perceived a senile brain draining of consciousness there was, instead, an astonishingly colorful internal life.
Marian’s family soon recedes from the plot of The Hearing Trumpet, and their early remarks serve mostly to establish a contrast between the drab world Marian inhabits at the beginning of the novel and the resplendence of her inner life. Most of the narrative, in fact, focuses on Marian’s adventures upon arrival at the Well of Light Brotherhood, a home for elderly women. Here, Marian witnesses a murder and prevents another, leads a coordinated hunger strike against the home’s tyrannical religious leaders, and uncovers and then enters into a centuries-old mystery. Though early sections of the novel are written in a quirky but plausibly realistic style, its central portions consist of an increasingly fantastical story about a heretical nun who acquires sinister, supernatural gifts on her quest to find the Holy Grail. Apocalypse descends, heralding catastrophic climate change, Marian’s rebirth via pot of boiling stew, the arrival by ship of a wolf-woman, and a composite queen made of bees. The novel culminates in a dreamlike haze, gloriously liberated from the bounds of earthly logic.
Most critics have framed the novel’s construction this way, anyhow: as an ascent toward surreality, and a triumph of that form—delightfully absurd, inventive, cannily psychological, without the Freudian phallocentrism of much traditionally male surreal writing. But encountering this novel as I did in the immediate aftermath of my own grandmother’s death, I found a complementary storyline buried within The Hearing Trumpet’s surrealism.
Reading that early scene wherein Marian’s family sends her away, I wondered if the family, however selfish and unkind their remarks, had gotten something right. Perhaps they were watching a very old woman approach death; perhaps that very old woman narrating the novel did not and could not know this. Perhaps that family conversation is the last trace in the book of a world external to Marian’s narration, one watching warily as Marian’s formidable soul outgrows its container. And perhaps in addition to all the reasons I admired the book—its feisty, feminized surreality, the droll wit of its nonagenarian narrator—it might do something else less glamorous, which is to tell a first-person story of someone dying. Marian, after all, begins the story clinging to the last vestiges of her human sentience. She transcends reality through the apocalypse. I wondered if she might simultaneously transcend life through, well… death. If this is so, the vision it presented was, for me, a revelatory one. The Hearing Trumpet replaced my claustrophobic imagining of my grandmother’s death with a lavish narrative of adventure and cataclysmic triumph. In doing so, the novel presented a liberating framework for envisioning her passing, one that granted it a semblance of beauty.
The conversation among Marian’s family was the first clue that I might read an end-of-life story within Marian’s narration. Others followed. Despite the acuity of Marian’s observations and the prowess with which she unravels the mystery set at the elderly home, she admits occasional lapses in lucidity. “Sleeping and waking are not quite as distinctive as they used to be,” she reflects at one point. “I often mix them up.” Even before the book has departed from its early realistic portions, Marian refers to a geographically distant living mother. Marian is ninety-two; a living mother would have to be well over 100, but Marian never acknowledges this preternaturally advanced age. Could this detail, I wondered, present merely an early suggestion of the surrealism to follow in later portions of the novel? Or might the reference to a living mother signify a fracture in Marian’s cognizance, a hint that she was not, after all, gripping so tenaciously to her consciousness? As the novel’s plot accelerates, logical barriers slip away. The world seems to bend to Marian’s will; every barrier to her aims resolves with a curious neatness. When the weather grows ice-cold, for example, Marian’s friend drops by, announcing herself newly a millionairess, and distributes fur coats and provisions to the women. Marian, it seemed to me, might well be losing hold of reality just as the book does, inserting her own fanciful narrative in its place.
If this is indeed death, the process seems remarkably pleasant. Marian’s passing does not seem to deprive her of any capability. In fact, the book offers a touchingly humanizing, invigorating portrait of old age. Marian and her peers are liberated from the norms that confine younger people, especially young women, within prescriptive social boundaries. As the residents begin their rebellion, one of the other elderly women delivers a rousing speech. “Although freedom has come to us somewhat late in life,” she informs the home’s matron, “we have no intention of throwing it away again.” She continues:
Many of us have passed our lives with domineering and peevish husbands. When we were finally delivered of these we were chivvied around by our sons and daughters who not only no longer loved us, but considered us a burden and objects of ridicule and shame. Do you imagine in your wildest dreams that now we have tasted freedom we are going to let ourselves be pushed around once more?
The old women in this novel are not enfeebled by their proximity to death, but seem freshly aware of their worth. As the writer and activist Olga Tokarczuk reflects in the afterword in the New York Review of Books’ reissued version, out this past January, there is an inherent feminism in writing such a protagonist. “In old age a person becomes eccentric,” Tokarczuk observes. “This appears to be a natural law of development, once adapting to society is no longer essential, and the paths of the individual and the community start to diverge. Perhaps old age is actually the only time in life when we can finally be ourselves, without worrying about the demands of others or conforming to the social norms that we have been constantly instructed to follow.” That the book proves legitimately empowering of Marian and her fellow elderly women presents a vision of old age and even death that seemed exhilarating. In this way, The Hearing Trumpet gave me a story about my grandmother’s passing in which the world inside her head grew more vibrant, not less, as I had imagined.
Crucially, though, the novel doesn’t make death seem desirable, the way troubling narratives that romanticize suffering sometimes can. Marian seems to relish being alive. “With age one becomes rather less sensitive to the idiosyncrasies of others,” she reports early on. “For instance at the age of forty I would have hesitated to eat oranges in a crowded tram or bus, today I would not only eat oranges with impunity but I would take an entire meal unblushingly in any public vehicle and wash it down with a glass of port which I take now and again as a special treat.” She seems amused by the increasingly turbulent turn of events, responding with as much composure to her friend’s makeover in a matching lilac wig and lilac limousine as to global climate destruction and famine. The Hearing Trumpet counsels not that death is good but merely that death will come, and that when it does, it might do so gloriously.
My father spoke even less than I did at that final visit to my grandmother’s nursing home. The last thing he said came out quiet and strangled, slipped in as we were saying our goodbyes. “Don’t be afraid, ma,” he managed, and then he was trampling flower stems in his haste to return to the car. I didn’t ask, because I didn’t want to know, whether he said this in the hopes that she understood, or with a prayer that she was already beyond comprehending that there might be anything to fear.
I don’t know what it felt like for her, those final months, weeks, and days, that slipping away from here toward elsewhere. I cannot possibly know if it was pain and fear and then a sea of blackness, the way I imagined it went. It doesn’t make a difference, in any case; the period of her life that we termed the dying part is finished. But the dead remain in memories, in the stories we tell of them. And the story I choose to tell of my grandmother, the one I hope for though may not entirely believe in, is one in which the end felt like or perhaps consisted of a harrowing, glorious adventure. A cabal of fearsome old ladies swaddled in furs, sharing a tin of biscuits, sailing home.