I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my feet the Sea.

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch -
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience.

Emily Dickinson, c. 1864

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Gently going into that good night

My son Chris and me in 1966
Ever since Emily died last month, the whole concept of loss, grief, and death have been uppermost in my mind. Seeing my new doctor and talking with him about the cholesterol problem that caused the loss of my son when he was forty only magnified these thoughts. I think maybe I can use this vehicle to explore my own feelings a little. I hope you won't find it too depressing, but I need to go there.

Dr Whitehead is a very young-looking 36 years old, engaged and interested in his profession. He must deal with a fair amount of grief and loss every day, so it must be possible to come to terms with it. I notice that I usually submerge my feelings of loss until an event brings them up again. Frankly, though, loss and grief are part of the package when we come onto the scene here on Earth.

Long ago I thought about the fact that I would not live forever, but when you are young and have not experienced massive loss firsthand, it's all academic and doesn't carry much weight. I remember using the phrase "the rest of my life," which seemed infinite, and in a way it was, stretching out as far as my mental eye could see. Then at 22, my first really big loss occurred when my baby Stephen died of spinal meningitis. Devastated beyond belief, that event changed my life's direction forever. But I did recover. I still remember the day I was watching an infant and realized that I no longer averted my eyes from his beautiful baby's smile of delight. I was smiling back. It had been ten years.

Now I am childless, with Chris gone for almost a decade now, my parents both having died in their sixties, and now I am two years away from the Biblical life span of threescore and ten (seventy). That seems incredibly premature now, but it's not, really. I know I have lived most of my life and that going into that night is somewhere not in the distant future. I wonder how I want to go. Emily died suddenly and so prematurely that it still seems unreal. Not that way. Not in a parachuting accident, or car accident, or anything so... truncated. Not having the time to say goodbye, to make arrangements, to face the event.

My father's heart attack put him into the hospital for three days before he died. All six of his children came home to see him, to say goodbye before he "popped off," as he put it. His heart had been severely damaged and there was little hope, and he knew it. His last words to us were, "I love you all."

Mama had so much illness and pain in her life, and her final heart attack followed so many others, all of which she had pulled through. None of us thought it was the end, but Mama knew. Every one of us came to see her, and she went through her jewelry box and furs and gave them all away. She was in bed, sitting up and looking like her old self, but she knew it was time. I wonder what it is that lets us know? Will I know? She slipped into a coma for a few days, but suddenly she rallied and for a few precious hours she again was lucid and herself. She said God had let her come back to say her goodbyes.

That's an interesting word, "goodbye." It means so many things to me, and I am not exactly friends with that word, but a good bye is something to wish for. I have not had any family members die lingering and painful deaths from cancer, and I hope I never do. Now that I think about it, dying of heart disease might not be such a bad way to go. To me, the heart is the seat of emotion, the place I carry memories of those who have gone on ahead, the place that carries my core beliefs about life and love.

And the heart breaks, and the heart heals, and sometimes, the heart knows the future. Whenever it comes, I do want to go gently into that good night.

28 comments:

Norma Jean said...

We always avoid talking about what is inevitable for all of us, don't we? The older I get, the more amazed I am at how resilient people really are when faced with something no one can change. Life goes on...until it doesn't.

Linda said...

Good and thoughtful post. I'd never thought about dying from heart disease in that way. I think dying of heart disease is definitely better than dying of cancer and some of the other horrible things out there.

After Bob's heart attack in 1994 I spent years thinking he might die anytime. I no longer think that. His old enlarged heart is probably going to slowly take him into that good night. I can handle that.

Linda Myers said...

My mother died of heart disease two years ago. I was with her for the last two days and when she took her last breath. It was really quite beautiful, not scary. I'm grateful I got to be there.

I do want to take care of myself as best I can, so my body is my friend for as long as possible. That means the usual - healthy diet and exercise. It would be good to live fully right up until the last days, then pass quietly.

Blue Ridge Mountains said...

Thank you for this blog.
We are celebrating my husbands 80th birthday today and a happy one it is.

Linda said...

I've been thinking a lot about death too. My only parent left is my step-dad who is 90, and in fair health. My cousin's hubby was dx with bile duct cancer. Prognosis, fatal. He is 60. My nephew, 36, needs a valve replaced in his heart. Prognosis, not good. He was born with many health problems, and we are surprised he's lived this long.

A friend's 14 y/o niece was murdered Sat nite.

We lost 3 very special people this people this past summer.

We are now the 'older' generation, and I want to go peacefully into the night too.

Trish and Rob MacGregor said...

What a beautiful post, DJan. I have never understood how a parent survives the death of a child and that you not only survived but can write about it like this is a tribute to the hugeness and beauty of your heart.

Buz said...

I predict (1) you will attend my funeral between a couple of your mountain hikes, and (2) you will see more years on this planet than Aunt Quetita, who will soon complete her 90th. If I'm wrong about the second part of my prediction, I'll buy you a beer when you join us on the other side.

gigihawaii said...

Buz's comment made me laugh! Comic relief!

I don't fear death, but I do fear pain and suffering. Having abdominal pain and cramps recently was a terrifying experience, taking me to the ER. However, it is chronic, and it seems I must cope with it.

Ah well, who said life is a bed of roses?

Retired English Teacher said...

This was a very thoughtful and powerful post DJan. I understand you on so many levels. My heart goes out to you as you ponder your losses. It is not an easy thing to do. Your honesty is helpful to me.

I agree with your mom. Saying "good-bye" is a blessing. The worst part of losing someone suddenly is that you can't say "good-bye." It is nice to know that the good-byes were important for your mom. I know they are for those who are left behind.

I may write a blog post soon using this same theme as I have written about it in my journal.

You are strong. You take care of yourself. I hope we all have you around for a long time.

Linda Reeder said...

I have pondered the topic of death, my death, too. We would all love to go peacefully, but more common in my family is slow death by cancer. It's not a good way to go.
My mother is beginning to plan for the end of her life. She is ready. Because of her liminted sight, hearing, sense of touch and mobility, she feels so useless, and she fears having to leave her home. But she is still quite healthy otherwise. She has no "escape plan".

I have not suffered the kind of loss you have, and hpoe I will precede my children and grandchildren in death. I have read your story in ths blog, and find it remarkable how you have survived the pain of loss, and are the wonderful person you are.

Bragger said...

Very, very thoughtful. I too have spent a lot of time thinking about death, but not in a morbid way. I sort of wish I could know if it's the last time I will see someone smile, the last time I will hold someone's hand, etc. But on the other hand, I've always hooped for a quick ending. I guess there's no right answer.

Blissed-Out Grandma said...

My mom had colon and liver cancer, and after about a year of chemo she decided to stop that particular form of torture and live as well as she could as long as she could. She used a lot of her time to teach my dad to cook for himself. I'm torn. Just don't wake up one day? Or have some time to say goodbye? I do find myself saying, "Please, no death by fire, drowning, or car accident." Other days, it's still incomprehensible that we all have to die.

Grandma Nina said...

It's one of the only "for sure" things about life, isn't it? I've had to come up close and personal with this subject myself this year with the loss of my mother in law, grandfather and grandmother. MIL and grandmother had long suffering illness and grandpa just went to sleep. If I am able to choose, grandpa's path to life beyond was much easier. I'm sure we probably don't get that choice, though.

Red said...

Great post D-jan! I think it's rather healthy to consider our end in a very realistic way. We have to accept that there is an end to our life. When we do that we can go on living the rest of our life. Many people who have cancer clearly express that the last part of their life is the best. That time is special and they make good use of it.
I don't want to live my old age like my Dad . He died at age 95 but had Parkinson's so the last five years were not good quality time.
I think you've made many people think by revisiting some of your losses.
Thanks for the post.

gayle said...

Although it's my greatest fear, I try not to think of dying. I have already lived longer than I thought I would (my mom died very young). For me I would like to tell those I love goodbye. I guess since we don't know how or when we will die we/I should tell them all I want them to know now.

Whitney Lee said...

I would imagine it's pretty natural that death is on your mind. I think it's a blessing that your parents both had the chance to say their goodbyes.

Aside from the fear that something might happen to my children, my biggest fear about dying is that it might happen before my children no longer need me. I would hate to die while they are young. Still, I doubt I have an overabundance of control in the matter. I intend to sit down and write them letters telling them what I deem important, just in case the worst should happen. Though of course it won't. I don't know that I'm nice enough for it to be a concern, for, as Billy Joel says, only the good die young...

Jo said...

I was only 31 when I lost my father, and 39 when I lost my mother. I have missed them my whole life. Life is bittersweet in that it is so beautiful, and we all know one day we will lose it. It makes it all the more precious.

Jack LaLanne died today, and he was 96.

Michael Douglas said the other day that he is definitely in the third act of his life. I guess it is not how long we live, but how well. I think you live very well.

#1Nana said...

Good post...lots of lively comments. I have limited experience with this topic. I'm not going to spend a lot of time wondering about how I will go because I don't expect to have any control over it. But, just in case, a peaceful ending surrounded by loved ones gets my vote.

Donna B said...

Oh DJan. You have the most beautiful soul and such a strong spirit. I too marvel at the loss you have endured and still managed to become the wonderful person you are...my dear friend.

I have been thinking of this subject recently myself. I lost a blogging friend last August. she was suddenly killed in an automobile accident, sustaining severe head injury. She remained in a coma for a week and then died. I only knew her for four months. We never met and I never even saw a picture of her, but I cried and mourned her loss as if we had been life long friends. I still think of her. She lived in New Zealand.

I can't even imagine the grief at losing a child, a sibling, a parent... Just the thought of it can bring me to my knees...

There is a TV program called I SHOULDN'T BE ALIVE on the Discovery channel. People who have died and came back to life tell of their experiences. My friend, who recently lost her Mother has been getting great relief from it.

My husband and I have watched several of the episodes, and it is very comforting.

Death and birth are two events we all will experience and all can relate to. I learned through my fiance's death in 1974 how important it is to leave nothing unsaid, to love those we love so they have zero doubt, and not to allow an agrument or conflict to go unsettled.

I used to work for an Oncology Surgeon. I was humbled and in awe of the majority of people who were told they had limited time to live, and took the news with such dignity and grace.

Personally, I believe in God and Heaven, so it gives me peace. How I will die...and when, only He knows...

You really got me thinking again....

TechnoBabe said...

You have had several difficult times in your life to do with death. It says to me that you are a deeply caring person to be thinking of death and analyzing the results when someone is no longer here in person. Sometimes your ache is palpable but I know you need to work through your feelings and experience what you must. Watching your inner travels through the window of your blog is like having a comfy chair at the window of your apartment patio.

Paul C said...

You have experienced your share of premature loss. I lost my father at 89. Never really sick in his life, he had a heart attack and died three days later. Thanks for sorting through your thoughts for us.

Robert the Skeptic said...

I am now 62, many of my friends around my age, and even younger, have died from cancer, heart attacks, accidents. I am the age my mother was when she died of cancer. She too was in a coma then came out of it briefly, spoke with us for a few hours, then was gone.

I have no supernatural beliefs and feel all these things are explainable. But because they can be explained does nothing to alleviate the sense of wonder for the gift of life and the sense of loss when it is over for any of us.

Nancy said...

This was such a thought provoking post. I've been pondering life and death these days as well. I do think we know when it is our time. I've seen family members as they wave or say goodbye in their own ways. I wonder what I will do, but unlike you, I don't want to say goodbye. I want it to be fast and unpredicted. I hope I live my life with nothing left to say.

Robynn's Ravings said...

I love the way you write, DJan, even though this is such a hard subject. When Jack LaLanne died recently I commented that he had a 96 year health span. That's HUGE. Life spans aren't always the thing. You can live a long time in misery. I'm so sorry for all your losses. You and Kate have both lost two children and THAT is unimaginable to me.

In my immediate circle I'm facing changes that we all face at one time or another. Some have to be grieved and others accepted - but mostly, both. But one thing I've witnessed is the process of illness and dying is very hard. It's amazing what the human body can and will endure. I want enough time to say goodbye but no lingering, thank you very much.

Grandmother said...

The loss of a child is the hardest. My heart goes out to you. I found this post thoughtful and thought provoking. I'd like to live fully and then die, with a short span for good-byes.

Friko said...

This is a wonderful post, full of gentle thought and acceptance.

This is my first visit, I don't know you well enough to be able to say the words that would help, so I won't bore you with platitudes.

Simply the fact that this post is beautifully written makes me want to come again, so I shall follow you. Please come and visit me if you feel like it.

PS: we visit many of the same blogs, I have seen you around.

I Wonder Wye said...

thoughtful post. I had two very close friends die when we were 12 and 13, and I have survived and lived with a rare cancer for longer than I lived as a 'normal' person now..at 52 I have seen my share of death and illness...I do hope for every one of my loved ones a 'good bye' and my goal is to die at home in my own bed surrounded by my beloved kitties with my husband holding me...I am a facilitator for grief-bereavement workshops -- the hardest are parents of children who have died -- it's just something tragic that never should've happened. I am so sorry for your losses. Keep writing - it's cathartic. PS I love the photos of you through the years -- you haven't changed - same beautiful eyes and smile...

Far Side of Fifty said...

Going gently into the Good Night..Don't we all wish for our end to be painless and with dignity..I know I do. I don't know when to be ready..so I try to live everyday ready. Goodbyes are overrated it is the hello's that are much more fun:)