“Let me disclose the gifts reserved for age
To set a crown upon your lifetime's effort.
First, the cold friction of expiring sense
Without enchantment, offering no promise
But bitter tastelessness of shadow fruit
As body and soul begin to fall asunder.
- T. S. Eliot
Bob Gordon is dying. I am sitting by his hospital bed, holding his hand.
He wanders in and out of awareness and sometimes mentions my name as I talk to him, not with him. I remind him that he still owes me a dinner and a faint smile crosses his lips. He heard me. We sit in the stillness and invisibility of old men and I stay for as long as I can tolerate the sadness and the scent of dying. I do not enjoy being in the sterile atmosphere of a hospital; it’s not a good place to sit, let alone die. Give me my own bed with crumpled sheets and the Egyptian cotton blanket that has kept me warm all these years. Let me smell the odors of my well-known world as I pass into the next. I want to die in the same world in which I was glad to live.
I learned early to keep death in my field of vision, but it has taken most of my life to acclimate to her, to treat her like the kind messenger she is. What I cherish has most often come to me slowly. Death has a softness that belies her oft perceived cruelty. It takes effort and an attentive soul to detect this gentleness, but when you see it, she will love you back. Death’s appearance changes with the eyes that look upon her. There’s a grace to being at the bedside of the dying as they make their transition. It’s a sacred space. Sitting with the dying strengthens the bond between you and the dying and with death itself. You come to understand and fear her less. As hard as it often is to admit, we long for Death to take our loved one so as to end the suffering and enable the healing anguish of perceived separation to begin.
A lifetime denying our mortality and a failure to accept Death’s inevitable arrival can leave one with strong feelings of fear and terror when she finally shows up, although, truth to tell, she is always just a few steps behind. We are well-advised to look back over our shoulder with a wink and a nodding awareness of her presence. It helps, when she catches up, to know she is no stranger.
But, to be clear, death is not the same as dying.
Bob is dying and is focused on that. The pain and medication short-circuit any thoughts about the meaning of life and death itself. He wants out. Racked with pain and struggling to find release, he twists in contortions as if trying to fit himself into some portal that opens on eternity. He moans and falls back into now. It’s difficult to watch. With each attempted escape, he looks a shade paler, a birthing in reverse. He suddenly whispers that he will be gone in two days. Two days later, the thin veil between living and dying opens and alone, with nobody to hold his hand and whisper him across the divide, he twists one last time and slips through. A man of his word.
A few days before this hospital visit, I had stopped by his home to check on him. I knew he was ill and he had not responded to my phone calls for two days. Getting no response from knocking, I let myself in, the door was unlocked. I was frightened. I truly expected to find him dead, on the floor or still in bed. How does one prepare for moments like these? What do you say when first meeting the dead? I twice called out his name but got no answer. Feeling desperate, I called again, but louder. Nothing. Finally, tiptoeing about in fear, I softly speak his name like a prayer, waiting for an answer. Silence.
The house was a nightmare. As Bob’s illness got progressively worse he couldn’t keep up with daily tasks. There were fruit flies in the kitchen hovering over a bag of groceries left on the counter. Cigarette butts were everywhere and scattered papers littered the floor. The only place in the entire house that was uncluttered was the dusty baby grand piano which took up most of the living room. Bob was an excellent pianist but couldn’t read music to save his life, if you’ll pardon the pun. He would hear a piece and then begin to tap it out on the keyboard. His musical skills were an inherited gift from his father. It was one of his few joys and, as his health declined, the only solace he found.
I didn’t find Bob in the house, but the car he’d purchased only a few months earlier was parked outside. He had recently gotten his driver’s license back after having been without it for 12 years. I let him practice driving my truck for the exam but when we arrived at the testing station a few weeks later, the instructor wouldn’t allow the truck to be used as it had no hand brake. Not to be outdone, Bob paid $100 to a driving school instructor, who happened to be at the facility, to use his car to take the test. Even after calming down a bit and leasing the student driver car, he failed, and the drive home I will never forget in terms of Bob’s broad vocabulary of profanities. I learned combinations of expletives that I never before encountered.
Not finding Bob in the house and with his car in the driveway, I was afraid that he had wandered off and fallen down somewhere. He was not solid on his feet. I searched about the yard and in the field across the road where he used to walk his beloved dog, Squiggy, who had recently died. Not a sign.
I called his sister, who lives in Arizona, and inquired if she had heard from him. She had not and suggested I contact the hospital to see if he was there. I called the medical center and sure enough, Bob had been admitted the day earlier. They had found him unconscious in the grocery store parking lot and had taken him directly to the hospital. How his car got home, I don’t know. The groceries were still in the back seat.
It's been over three months since Bob died and I am not aware of any memorial service. I’m not sure what his position on such a matter might have been. He was a private person and lived alone. He has a daughter who lives in Florida and I spoke with her shortly after his death. The burden of settling his affairs fell on her.
My private memorial service for Bob will consist of planting an Airlie Red Flesh apple tree this spring and pounding the ground around it with Bob’s rubber mason’s mallet that I borrowed and failed to return. One of Bob’s last requests was to taste an Airlie apple and I was hoping to bring him one from my friend at Old Frog Pond Orchard in Massachusetts. I will give voice to a few prayers, recall a pleasant memory or two and then go about my business, grateful for having known him and shared a bit of his journey.
Without knowing, Bob’s parting gift was to have his death serve as preparation for my brother Matt’s passing, which would follow not long after. I would again find myself sitting bedside, straining to have a conversation and hoping to provide some measure of comfort. As one ages, opportunities to sit with the dying become more frequent and our practice improves. Mostly, we learn the value of silence and hand holding. There’s little to say but much to be present for. It's a form of meditation.
Despite being in considerable pain, Matt struggled to respond and our few conversations were generally lucid and the exchange was rewarding, I believe, for both of us. But words don’t carry the message as well as the love and energy behind them. Like Bob, he heard me and knew I was there. Grace was realized in the brotherly love we shared.
As his condition worsened, he would often forget the topic of discussion and repeat how desperately he wanted out of where he was. At one point, he was so distressed, that when left alone for a few minutes, he tried to get out of bed and fell, breaking his shoulder and lacerating his leg. He was not one to give up easily. Like Bob, he wanted out; out of the hospital, nursing home, hospice, pain, and life. He was ready and, from what I perceived, unafraid.
Leaving Matt alone at hospice with Doris, his girlfriend, as his caregiver and support, I undertook the task of cleaning out his apartment with the help of two nephews, a friend of one of them, and a brother-in-law from West Virginia. To say that these fellows were a godsend would be to understate their contributions. Starting early, with a light mist falling and snow on the ground, we picked up the U-Haul, and arriving at his home, began the process of sorting through the remnants of my brother’s life.
Although not nearly as trashed as Bob’s house, Matt clearly had a habit of not throwing anything away. It’s a habit I also possess and am working to change, especially in light of all the “junk” I found at Matt’s which led to the realization of “junk” I have at my home. It’s peculiar what we treasure and what others see as “junk”. Most startling to me was the collection of socks, more than 50 pairs of them. Perhaps it’s a mailman thing? I don’t know. Besides the socks, we found other keepsakes; old comic books, programs from “Moon Dog” concerts he loved so much, newspaper obituary clippings from many people I didn’t recognize, and dozens upon dozens of scrawled lists of songs on envelopes and scraps of paper of every sort. Occasionally, he would compile a list of these songs, send it to me and I would burn a CD for him. Sharing music we loved was a strong connection for us.
Matt was an inveterate coin collector. He lived in a rather “rough” neighborhood and his fear of getting robbed found him hiding his coin collections in a dozen locations around the house; high in a bathroom closet, under chair cushions, stuffed in old coffee cans in the kitchen cupboards. I don’t believe we missed any. I have no idea of the value of these collections but I do have an idea of their weight as I put them all in one box and then tried to lift it.
My brother died in hospice care at Doris’s home. She is an angel. I have never witnessed a love as generous and giving as Doris displayed for my brother, especially in his final days, and I will be forever grateful for her kindness.
These two deaths and others are kith and kin of growing old. Each death creates another hole in the fabric of my world and facilitates my own ability to easily pass through. As I experience another’s passing or receive word about others who have gone, I am reminded that my moment is also approaching. I am left to ponder what to do with the time remaining on this unwinding clock of mine.
In the land of the living, the forces of friction generate heat. In the land of the dying, the friction of holding on makes death colder. Death is not the enemy and the coldness is meant as a welcoming. I do not intend to desperately cling to life when my time comes. I practice by letting go every day; someone’s name I can’t remember, places I was hoping to visit, a thought I briefly held, and an hour badly spent. Just how this will play out will have to wait for the moment when death approaches, but I am getting ready.
In this regard, I am inspired by Japanese folklore, which contains a practice called ubasute (親捨), captured in the 1983 film “The Ballad of Narayama “.
The film is set in a small rural village in Japan in the 19th century, where, according to tradition, elderly people were carried to a mountain and abandoned to die. The movie concerns Orin, who is 69 and of sound health, but notes that her neighbor had to drag his struggling father in a net to the mountain, so she resolves to avoid clinging to life beyond her term. She spends a year arranging all her affairs and when satisfied, instructs her son to carry her up the mountain. It is a difficult film to watch. The scenery and music captivate but the subject matter is challenging in a variety of ways.
As the son carries his mother up the mountain on his back, she stretches out her arms, catching the twigs and scattering them in their wake. As a final act of motherly affection, she does this so that her son will be able to find his way back home.
The way up the mountain where death awaits is traversed anew with each passing life. Bob and Matt have just made this journey, scattering thoughtful debris in their wake. I was privileged to witness this and even walk a part of the way. I have benefited from observing many a traveler on this well-trodden path and have gained valuable lessons as to how to go quietly into that good night.
It can be a long walk if one is not prepared and it helps to have someone hold your hand and accompany you as far as they can. But really, there’s nothing to fear. All those who have gone before you that you know and love are waiting for your arrival.
In the depths of the mountains,
Whom was it for the aged mother snapped
One twig after another?
Heedless of herself
She did so
For the sake of her son.