CNF: Because I Could Not Stop for Death

by Jacqueline Doyle

“People with dementia often ask to go home. … many nursing homes and hospitals have installed fake bus stops. When a person asks to go home, an aide takes them to the bus stop, where they sit and wait for a bus that never comes.” Larissa MacFarquhar, “The Memory House,” New Yorker (October 8, 2018)

On our nightly walks, my husband and I see a bus trundling by, lit up inside like the diner in Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks,” but completely empty. Every night, the dark outside, the artificial light inside the bus rumbling along the empty street. The silhouette of the driver, the rows of empty seats. We’ve contemplated getting on the phantom bus, just to see if it’s real, but some superstitious dread prevents us.

Imagine instead the Alzheimer’s patient who sits patiently at a fake bus stop. “I’m going home,” the elderly woman says to no one in particular. She fiddles with the top button on her coat, plants her purse more firmly in her lap. The aide has promised to pack her bags and send them later. She’s been waiting a very long time. When is the bus due? There’s no schedule posted. She’s hungry and tired and wants so badly to go home. Night is falling.

Even as she waits, she knows that her home is no longer there. The cupboards with their orderly stacks of plates and bowls and cups, the drawers with silverware neatly sorted, the closets filled with outdated clothes she couldn’t bear to part with. The yellow sofa she should have reupholstered. All gone.

Still, she waits. She can picture the phantom bus so clearly, the empty interior brightly lit, the driver who will kindly stop for her. The brakes will wheeze as it pulls up to the bus stop. The folding doors will open with a thunk and the courteous driver will get out to help her up the stairs. He’ll be wearing a plaid shirt like her husband’s. He’ll comment on the weather, ask how she’s been doing. Best get moving, he’ll say. You don’t want to be late for your family reunion.

She stands and raises her arm, ready to wave when the bus appears.


Jacqueline Doyle lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has a recent flash chapbook (The Missing Girl) with Black Lawrence Press, and recent flash in Wigleaf, Post Road, matchbook, Hotel Amerika, and New Flash Fiction Review. Find her online at www.jacquelinedoyle.com and on twitter @doylejacq.

What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “Because I Could Not Stop for Death”?

I was fascinated by Larissa MacFarquhar’s article in The New Yorker on “comforting fictions” for memory-impaired patients, particularly the fake bus stop. Was it comforting or was it cruel? What exactly did patients mean by “home”? And it reminded me of the eerie bus that my husband and I see on our walks. This is the sixth draft of “Because I Could Not Stop for Death.” The first drafts were considerably shorter, but seemed too cryptic. I felt I needed to spell out what I meant by the Emily Dickinson line and what, exactly, the patient might be waiting for.


Check out the write-up of the journal in The Writer.

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