Just Shelley

Accepting death

The Robert Lowell poem Terminal Days at Beverly Farms focuses on the poet’s father’s death, which he dispassionately describes in the poem’s closing:

Father’s death was abrupt and unprotesting.
His vision was still twenty-twenty.
After a morning of anxious, repetitive smiling,
his last words to Mother were:
“I feel awful.”

Loren Webster rejects Lowell’s father meaningless smiles and resigned acceptance of the end, seeing himself fighting that long slow slide into night:

When death finally comes I won’t be greeting it with polite civility (my apologies to Emily). No, I’ll be raging, raging against the dying of the light, not standing around with my “cream gaberdine dinner-jacket,/ and indigo cummerbund sipping an “old-fashioned.”

The Dickinson poem Loren references is her Because I could not stop for Death, which begins with:

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.

We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labor, and my leisure too,
For his civility.

Rather Loren agrees with Dylan Thomas, who wrote at the death of his own father, Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Three months ago I would have been in complete agreement with Loren, and had even re-published Thomas’ poem here in these pages. However, that was before the death of my own father in the beginning of October; a death in which he did rage against the night. For a time. But it was a hollow victory that lasted only five days, and left behind much devastation in its wake, as all battles tend to do.

I wrote about this in a post, and subsequently pulled the writing, still trying to find a way to deal with his death, and the manner of his going. However, Loren’s post reminded me how difficult Dad’s death was made because I didn’t know what to expect in the end–we never talk about death in anything other than the most poetic terms.

I had assumed that my father would quietly die in his sleep, or be there one moment, lucid and talking, and next his eyes glaze over as he took one last gentle inhale of breath. I expected to see the same dignity and strength in dying that I saw in my father in life. I expected many things, from Loren’s noble rage to Dickinson’s polite and genteel acceptance. I wasn’t expecting what happened.

I decided to re-print the entire post I wrote, including the writing which I had pulled–if for no other reason then a reminder that there is a difference between fighting for life and fighting against death.


In Memoria

I had finally gone through all of Dad’s books and decided which to keep, and which to give away. I called the library, but they weren’t accepted any new book donations until April. The lady I talked to asked what kind of books they were. I said they were mainly mystery and detective novels. She suggested I call the local Veterans hospital and see if they could use them.

The hospital said they’d be grateful for the donation, and I went down to drop them off at the Jefferson Barracks Medical Clinic. The weather was fine today, and the place was very pretty with the old barracks buildings and their peeling paint. I asked the person who helped me unload the books if I could take pictures, but she I better not – the place is also the local Homeland Security office.

The hospital is right next to the National Cemetary and I stopped by it to take photos. There were several funerals underway in various places and I could, from time to time, hear the faint echo of shots being fired. It never fails to move me to see the row after row of white gravestones, especially so soon after my own father’s death. I was grateful for the camera, because through it I could view everything dispassionately. I managed fine up until I heard the single trumpet playing Taps.

The sound brought back the memories I still haven’t resolved yet, of my Dad’s death. Especially the Monday before he died, when I was the only one with him in the early morning when the morphine started wearing off.

Dad was dying of congestive heart failure, and it can feel like you’re drowning at times, which is why he was kept so heavily sedated. When he started to become aware, he began to panic when he had trouble breathing and kept patting at his chest and asked me to help him. The most I could do was ring for the nurse and ask for more sedation.

It was the morning busy time and she was late, and Dad got worse and I finally screamed out “..for someone to come help me, Damn it!”

Several people ran into the room, and one nurse went to get the shot, and a second came in to help calm Dad and me, because by this time I was crying so hard I couldn’t stop. When she left, I sat next to Dad, still crying, telling him how much I loved him.

I don’t know where he found the strength, but he pushed himself up on his left side and somehow brought his arm around me, and dragged himself over to the edge of the bed so he was almost in my arms.

I clasped him tightly, and softly told him that it was okay now, and that it was time to think about letting go; we had been advised to tell Dad this, so he could face the resolution of his death. He held me tighter and said just one word, in a voice that was like that of a child, exhausted and high-pitched with confusion and fear: “No”.

The nurse who went to get the shot opened the door and then stopped in astonishment at what she was seeing. She helped me get Dad back into the bed and gave him the shot. After she left, I told Dad that I loved him again, and he said, so faint I could hardly hear him, “love you, dear”. He then fell asleep, and from there to a coma, and never woke up again.

What price

I sat that last night alone with Dad, as his eyes slowly began to turn a odd color since the eyelids never completely closed. I watched the Travel Channel all night long, and held Dad’s hand and just listened to him breath. For four days, I had sat there and listened to my father breath.

What was the most difficult aspect of Dad’s death is that we could have made decisions to move him to a hospital and given him extraordinary care, rather than keep him in his bed at the nursing home and just provided comfort. If we did, he might have lived longer, perhaps even a few months.

Did we make the right decisions? Did we deny Dad his last chance to rage, rage against the dying of the light? I don’t know, and I never will know.

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