The Long Goodbye


Edvard Munch, Death in the Sick Room

My friend Alan Paskow is in his final days.  Although not in a coma, he appears in perpetual sleep, and each day his breathing is more labored.  His face is shrunken, one hand is paralyzed (as is the lower part of his body), and his mouth hangs open.  Fortunately he is not in pain.  Yesterday I stood next to him, holding his good hand and loving him.

I was emotionally conflicted.  Part of me was numb, refusing to acknowledge what I was witnessing.  Part of me wanted his breathing to stop so that this long dying process would end. Jackie is worn out with waiting and grieving, and I wanted the inevitable to arrive so that she, and so that we all, could move on to the next stage.

At times it appeared that I would get my wish.  His breath would catch and I would listen—fearing yet hoping for—the next inhalation.

But death doesn’t come when we want it to.  It has its own timetable and we, reminded of our powerlessness, can only stand and wait.

Here’s a poem that captures something of the experience of waiting and watching.  It is by Thomas Hood, the British Romantic who wrote “The Song of the Shirt” that Barbara Beliveau posted recently.  “Death Bed” was written at a time when people were far more familiar with such scenes than we are today.

The Death Bed

By Thomas Hood

We watch’d her breathing thro’ the night,
Her breathing soft and low,
As in her breast the wave of life
Kept heaving to and fro.

So silently we seem’d to speak,
So slowly moved about,
As we had lent her half our powers
To eke her living out.

Our very hopes belied our fears,
Our fears our hopes belied-
We thought her dying when she slept,
And sleeping when she died.

For when the morn came dim and sad,
And chill with early showers,
Her quiet eyelids closed – she had
Another morn than ours.

Alan doesn’t believe or disbelieve in another morn. In our discussions about “life after death” and “a world beyond this one,” he used to say that he had problems with the words “after” and “beyond.”  Given that they are prepositions of time and space, how can they articulate a reality that presumably is neither time-bound nor spatial?

Nevertheless, it comforts me to think that he may be joining his sister (a spatial verb), who died of ovarian cancer when she was in her ‘30’s–possibly of the same mutant gene that led to Alan’s cancer.  We cling to these images, maybe because the vision of loneliness is otherwise too much to bear.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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