I buried my father
in the sky.
Since then, the birds
clean and comb him every morning
and pull the blanket up to his chin
I buried my father underground.
Since then, my ladders
only climb down,
and all the earth has become a house
whose rooms are the hours, whose doors
stand open at evening, receiving
guest after guest
Sometimes I see past them
to the tables spread for a wedding feast.
I buried my father in my heart.
Now he grows in me, my strange son,
my little root who won’t drink milk,
little pale foot sunk in unheard-of night,
little clock spring newly wet
in the fire, little grape, parent to the future
wine, a son the fruit of his own son,
little father I ransom with my life.
The earth will never be the same again
Rock, water, tree, iron, share this grief
As distant stars participate in the pain.
A candle snuffed, a falling star or leaf,
A dolphin death, O this particular loss
A Heaven-mourned; for if no angel cried
If this small one was tossed away as dross,
The very galaxies would have lied.
How shall we sing our love’s song now
In this strange land where all are born to die?
Each tree and leaf and star show how
The universe is part of this one cry,
Every life is noted and is cherished,
and nothing loved is ever lost or perished.
What I want shouldn’t be confused
with final inactivity:
life alone is what matters,
I want nothing to do with death.
If we weren’t unanimousabout keeping our lives so much in motion,if we could do nothing for once,perhaps a great silence wouldinterrupt this sadness,this never understanding ourselvesand threatening ourselves with death,
perhaps the earth is teaching uswhen everything seems to be deadand then everything is alive.Now I will count to twelveand you keep quiet and I’ll go.
I was young once. I dug holesnear a canal and almost drowned.
I filled notebooks with wordsas carefully as a hunter loads his shotgun.
I had a father also, and I came second to an addiction.
I spent a summer swallowing seedsand nothing ever grew in my stomach.
Every woman I kissed,I kissed as if I loved her.
My left and right hands were rivals.
After I hit puberty, I was kicked out of my parents’ houseat least twice a year. No matter when you receive thisthere was music playing now.
Your grandfather isn’tmy father. I chose to do something with my lifethat I knew I could fail at.
I spent my whole life walkingand hid such colorful wings.–Brian Trimboli
from Rattle #29
I chose the book haphazard
from the shelf, but with Nabokov’s first
sentence I knew it wasn’t the thing
to read to a dying man:
The cradle rocks above the abyss, it began,
and common sense tells us that our existence
is but a brief crack of light
between two eternities of darkness
The words disturbed both of us immediately,
and I stopped. With music it was the same—
Chopin’s piano concerto—he asked me
to turn it off …
But to return to the cradle rocking. I think
Nabokov had it wrong. This is the abyss.
That’s why babies howl at birth,
and why the dying so often reach
for something only they can apprehend."
This present tragedy will eventually
turn into myth, and in the mist
of that later telling the bell tolling
now will be a symbol, or, at least,
a sign of something long since lost.
This will be another one of those
loose changes, the rearrangement of
hearts, just parts of old lives
patched together, gathered into
a dim constellation, small consolation.
Look, we will say, you can almost see
the outline there: her fingertips
touching his, the faint fusion
of two bodies breaking into light.
Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks.
We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect the shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe that their husband is about to return and need his shoes.
In the version of grief we imagine, the model will be “healing.” A certain forward movement will prevail. The worst days will be the earliest days. We imagine that the moment to most severely test us will be the funeral, after which this hypothetical healing will take place. When we anticipate the funeral we wonder about failing to “get through it,” rise to the occasion, exhibit the “strength” that invariably gets mentioned as the correct response to death.
We anticipate needing to steel ourselves for the moment: will I be able to greet people, will I be able to leave the scene, will I be able even to get dressed that day? We have no way of knowing that this will not be the issue. We have no way of knowing that the funeral itself will be anodyne, a kind of narcotic regression in which we are wrapped in the care of others and the gravity and meaning of the occasion.
Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.
the year of magical thinking
Didn't you like the way the ants helpthe peony globes open by eating the glue off?Weren't you cheered to see the ironworkerssitting on an I-beam dangling from a cable,in a row, like starlings, eating lunch, maybebaloney on white with fluorescent mustard?Wasn't it a revelation to wagglefrom the estuary all the way up the river,the kill, the pirle, the run, the rent, the beck,the sike barely trickling, to the shock of a spring?Didn't you almost shiver, hearing book liceclicking their sexual dissonance inside an oldWebster's New International, perhaps having justeaten out of it izle, xyster, and thalassacon?What did you imagine lies in wait anywayat the end of a world whose sub-substanceis glaim, gleet, birdlime, slime, mucus, muck?Forget about becoming emaciated. Think of the wrenand how little flesh is needed to make a song.Didn't it seem somehow familiar when the nymphsplit open and the mayfly struggled freeand flew and perched and then its own backbroke open and the imago, the true adult,somersaulted out and took flight, seekingthe swarm, mouth-pans vestigial,alimentary canal come to a stop,a day or hour left to find the desired one?Or when Casanova took up the platterof linguine in squid's ink and slid the stuffout the window, telling his startled companion,"The perfected lover does not eat."As a child, didn't you find it calming to imaginepinworms as some kind of tiny batonsgiving cadence to the squeezes and releasesaround the downward march of debris?Didn't you glimpse in the monarchswhat seemed your own inner blazonryflapping and gliding, in desire, in the middle air?Weren't you reassured to think these flimsyhinged beings, and then their offspring,and then their offspring's offspring, couldnavigate, working in shifts, all the way to Mexico,to the exact plot, perhaps the very tree,by tracing the flair of the bodies of ancestorswho fell in this same migration a year ago?Doesn't it outdo the pleasures of the brilliant concertto wake in the night and find ourselvesholding hands in our sleep?–Galway Kinnell
To Elizabeth Hamilton,This letter, my very dear Eliza, will not be delivered to you, unless I shall first have terminated my earthly career; to begin, as I humbly hope from redeeming grace and divine mercy, a happy immortality.
New York, July 4, 1804
If it had been possible for me to have avoided the interview, my love for you and my precious children would have been alone a decisive motive. But it was not possible, without sacrifices which would have rendered me unworthy of your esteem. I need not tell you of the pangs I feel, from the idea of quitting you and exposing you to the anguish which I know you would feel. Nor could I dwell on the topic lest it should unman me.
The consolations of Religion, my beloved, can alone support you; and these you have a right to enjoy. Fly to the bosom of your God and be comforted. With my last idea I shall cherish the sweet hope of meeting you in a better world.
Adieu best of wives and best of Women. Embrace all my darling Children for me.
A HJuly 4. 1804
On July 11, 1804 Alexander Hamilton was mortally wounded in a duel with Aaron Burr, and would succumb to his wound the following day. This letter to his wife was written in the days prior, during which he noted his other reflections on the upcoming “interview."
I even hear the mountains
the way they laugh
up and down their blue sides
and down in the water
the fish cry
and the water
is their tears.
I listen to the water
on nights I drink away
and the sadness becomes so great
I hear it in my clock
it becomes knobs upon my dresser
it becomes paper on the floor
it becomes a shoehorn
a laundry ticket
climbing a chapel of dark vines. . .
it matters little
very little love is not so bad
or very little life
is waiting on walls
I was born for this
I was born to hustle roses down the avenues of the dead.
We were filled with the strong wine
of mutual struggle, one joined loud
and sonorous voice. We carried
each other along revolting, chanting,
cursing, crafting, making all new.
First Muriel, then Audre and Flo,
now Adrienne. I feel like a lone
pine remnant of virgin forest
when my peers have met the ax
and I weep ashes.
Yes, young voices are stirring now
the wind is rising, the sea boils
again, yet I feel age sucking
the marrow from my bones,
the loneliness of memory.
Their voices murmur in my inner
ear but never will I hear them
speak new words and no matter
how I cherish what they gave us
I want more, I still want more.
Stay, I said to the spider,who fled.
Stay, leaf.It reddened,embarrassed for me and itself.
Stay, I said to my body.It sat as a dog does,obedient for a moment,soon starting to tremble.
Stay, to the earthof riverine valley meadows,of fossiled escarpments,of limestone and sandstone.It looked backwith a changing expression, in silence.
Stay, I said to my loves.Each answered,Always.
Knocking on Heaven’s Door (Scribner, 2013) by Katy Butler is a map through the labyrinth of a broken medical system based on her experiences between choosing between sustaining life with medical technology and assessing her father’s quality of life. It will inspire the difficult conversations we need to have with loved ones as it illuminates the path to a better way of death. The following excerpt is from the prologue.
On an autumn day in 2007, while I was visiting from California, my mother made a request I both dreaded and longed to fulfill. She’d just poured me a cup of tea from her Japanese teapot shaped like a little pumpkin; beyond the kitchen window, two cardinals splashed in her birdbath in the weak Connecticut sunlight. Her white hair was gathered at the nape of her neck, and her voice was low. She put a hand on my arm. “Please help me get your father’s pacemaker turned off,” she said. I met her eyes, and my heart knocked.
Directly above us, in what was once my parents’ shared bedroom, my eighty-five-year-old father, Jeffrey—a retired Wesleyan University professor, stroke-shattered, going blind, and suffering from dementia—lay sleeping. Sewn into a hump of skin and muscle below his right collarbone was the pacemaker that had helped his heart outlive his brain. As small and shiny as a pocket watch, it had kept his heart beating rhythmically for five years. It blocked one path to a natural death.
After tea, I knew, my mother would help my father up from his narrow bed with its mattress encased in waterproof plastic. After taking him to the toilet, she’d change his diaper and lead him tottering to the living room, where he’d pretend to read a book of short stories by Joyce Carol Oates until the book fell into his lap and he stared out the sliding glass window.
I don’t like describing what the thousand shocks of late old age were doing to my father—and indirectly to my mother—without telling you first that my parents loved each other and I loved them. That my mother could stain a deck, sew a silk blouse from a photo in Vogue, and make coq au vin with her own chicken stock. That her photographs of Wesleyan authors had been published on book jackets, and her paintings of South African fish in an ichthyologists’ handbook. That she thought of my father as her best friend.
And that my father never gave up easily on anything.
Born in South Africa’s Great Karoo Desert, he was a twenty-one-year-old soldier in the South African Army when he lost his left arm to a German shell in the Italian hills outside Siena. He went on to marry my mother, earn a PhD from Oxford, coach rugby, build floor-to-ceiling bookcases for our living room, and with my two younger brothers as crew, sail his beloved Rhodes 19 on Long Island Sound. When I was a teenager and often at odds with him, he would sometimes wake me chortling lines from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam in a high falsetto: “Awake, my little one! Before life’s liquor in its cup be dry!” On weekend afternoons, he would put a record on the stereo and strut around the living room conducting invisible orchestras. At night he would stand in our bedroom doorways and say good night to my two brothers and me quoting Horatio’s farewell to the dying Hamlet: “May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!”
Four decades later, in the house where he once chortled and strutted and sometimes thundered, I had to coach him to take off his slippers before he tried to put on his shoes.
My mother put down her teacup. She was eighty-three, as lucid and bright as a sword point, and more elegant in her black jeans and thin cashmere sweater than I could ever hope to be. She put her hand, hard, on my arm. “He is killing me,” she said. “He. Is. Ruining. My. Life.” Then she crossed her ankles and put her head between her knees, a remedy for near-fainting that she’d clipped from a newspaper column and pinned to the bulletin board behind her. She was taking care of my father for about a hundred hours a week.
I looked at her and thought of Anton Chekhov, the writer and physician who died of tuberculosis in 1904 when he was only forty-four. “Whenever there is someone in a family who has long been ill, and hopelessly ill,” he wrote, “there come painful moments when all, timidly, secretly, at the bottom of their hearts long for his death.” A century afterward, my mother and I had come to long for the machine in my father’s heart to fail.
Quality of Life
How we got there is a long story, but here are a few of the bones. On November 13, 2001, when my father was seventy-nine and apparently vigorous, he suffered a devastating stroke. A year later—gravely disabled yet clear-minded enough to know it—he was outfitted with a pacemaker in a moment of hurry and hope. The device kept his heart going while doing nothing to prevent his slide into dementia, incontinence, near-muteness, misery, and helplessness. The burden of his care crushed my mother. In January 2007, when my father no longer understood the purpose of a dinner napkin, I learned that his pacemaker could be turned off painlessly and without surgery, thus opening a door to a relatively peaceful death. It was a death I both feared and desired, as I sat at the kitchen table while my mother raised her head from her knees.
Her words thrummed inside me: Please help me get your father’s pacemaker turned off. I’d been hoping for months to hear her say something like this, but now that she’d spoken, I was the one with doubts. This was a moral choice for which neither the Anglicanism of my English childhood nor my adopted Buddhism had prepared me. I shook when I imagined watching someone disable his pacemaker—and shook even more when I contemplated trying to explain it to him.
At the same time, I feared that if I did nothing, his doctors would continue to prolong what was left of my father’s life until my mother went down with him. My fear was not unfounded: in the 1980s, while working as a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, I spent six weeks in the intensive care unit of San Francisco General Hospital, watching the erasure of the once-bright line between saving a life and prolonging a dying. I’d never forgotten what I saw.
If my father got pneumonia, once called “the old man’s friend” for its promise of an easy death, a doctor might well feel duty-bound to prescribe antibiotics. If he collapsed and my mother called 911, paramedics would do everything they could to revive him as they rushed his gurney toward the emergency room.
With just a little more bad luck, my father might be wheeled into an intensive care unit, where my mother and I—and even my dying father—would become bystanders in a battle, fought over the territory of his body, between the ancient reality of death and the technological imperatives of modern medicine. It was not how we wanted him to die, but our wishes might not mean much. Three-quarters of Americans want to die at home, as their ancestors did, but only a quarter of the elderly currently do. Two-fifths of deaths now take place in a hospital, an institution where only the destitute and the homeless died before the dawn of the twentieth century. Most of us say we don’t want to die “plugged into machines,” but a fifth of American deaths now take place in intensive care, where ten days of futile flailing can cost as much as $323,000. If my mother and I did not veer from the pathway my father was traveling, he might well draw his last breath in a room stripped of any reminder of home or of the sacred, among doctors and nurses who knew his blood counts and oxygen levels but barely knew his name.
Then again, the hospital might save his life and return him home to suffer yet another final illness. And that I feared almost as much.
I loved my father, even as he was: miserable, damaged, and nearly incommunicado. I loved my mother and wanted her to have at least a chance at a happy widowhood. I felt like my father’s executioner, and that I had no choice.
I met my mother’s eyes and said yes.