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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  • This reminds me of the night I spent at my father’s side as he was dying. They had finally taken him off the respirator–he seemed so exhausted by the effort it put him through–and since he had been in a coma all week and since I knew he didn’t want the life he would have woken up to, disabled mentally and physically, I was glad he was finally being allowed to do what seemed to be his time to do.

    Then, very late into the night, I heard him start to struggle to breathe. It wasn’t labored or painful, just the sound of someone trying to catch his breath, but I heard and felt him struggling, even if gently, and it was all I could not to call the medical people and have them put him back on the ventilator. I had to keep saying to myself, “This is SUPPOSED to happen, sooner or later, and there’s no point in making it be later–it’s SUPPOSED to happen.” I knew the decision to let him die was the right one, but it was an awful feeling not to act to prevent it, no matter what I knew, about death, about what he’d said he wanted when we’d talked about it.

    I think we take our struggles with us when we go, but maybe what hurts about being left behind, besides missing the person who leaves, is not being part of those struggles any more–really not being able to help, or share, or celebrate, or mourn together. Or maybe that’s just my own perspective of wanting to be in on everything, even another person’s struggles–not even wanting to be left out of that. What was hard about being with my father as he died was knowing that it mattered that I was there but still, I couldn’t do anything–that any of the choices that were there for me to do EXCEPT the choice to be there were irrelevant. I had fought for his right to die, and I had chosen to be with him, holding his hand, while he did it, but helping him or keeping him from dying seemed equally irrelevant when the time finally came. It was his death, and he went. It didn’t seem agonizing for him to go, but it did seem hard. And then he went. And then he was gone. I always think of holding his hand all that night and believing that I could feel him holding mine, though since he was unconscious, that seemed like it couldn’t be true. And then, another moment came, and he let go. Which was how I knew that all along he had been holding on.

  • Robin Bates

    I needed this, Rachel. Thank you.


  • 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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