Back to a recurring theme (for those of you who know me, that is), one that has haunted me for years and is (sorry for the cliche) close to my heart. At least any sort of mention of it makes me cry, so I suppose it must be. Story first, then poem.
Most people who know me know that my parents ran a boarding home for elderly people for most of my childhood, from about 4 years old till I was a junior in college. We had many people stay at our house, some for literally hours, some for several years. I’ve often thought about writing a book about it, but the fact that I was so young for most of it makes it difficult to give any sort of real details rather than hazy memories. But one lady I remember very clearly. I think she stayed about two days, maybe three, and I was probably twelve or thirteen at the time.
I’m not sure exactly what was wrong with her, but she had some sort of cancer and had basically come to our house to die. When she came the first day, I helped make her welcome and comfortable, as we always did. She was cheerful and sweet (from what I can remember), and I didn’t think she was all that sick.
Within hours, though, she had worsened dramatically. The next day, or maybe the day after, she was so close to dying that they brought in a priest to give her last rites. After he and her family left, I stood in her doorway. I had seen plenty of our elderly people worsen, and some I had seen dead after they died in their sleep, but I had never seen someone actually dying before.
You know how they say that someone’s breath rattles in their throat? Hers did. I remember standing in the doorway listening to her breathe, the rattle in and out. I felt like I could hear her life leaving her, and there was nothing I could do about it. I don’t know how long I stood there, but I remember thinking, “I don’t ever want to get old. I want to die young. I never want that to be me.”
I tried once in college to explain this to a friend of mine; we had gotten into a debate on the ethicality of euthanasia — I was for it, she was against. It was emotional on both sides, of course. I don’t pretend to know what should be done in all situations, but I also remember my grandfather dying of cancer, very slowly. I was too little then to know if he was in much pain, but I’m sure he was. It seems to me that is is more dignified to let someone go while they are still themselves, still human and in control of their mind and body. It seems cruel to let them hang on and wither away to nothing, to die with a rattle in their throat because they can’t breathe anymore.
I wrote a poem a while ago for all those who I saw die over the years, and all those who have to watch their loved ones disappear. To me, death for them is letting go of life, and maybe it should be a choice to let go sooner, and maybe that is wrong. But here is a threnody for that lady whose name I can’t remember, and the others who drifted away quietly, letting go and floating into the Dark.
Full of surprises and sunshine
Till the frost came,
Now she lies like a snapped flower,
Limp white petal-hands,
Her head fallen to one side,
Soon she’ll be a husk
Becoming earth again.
Why is “to die” an action verb
When it renounces all action
Gives up, slips out, fades away like the mist,