Unpreparing

A further post on the matter of mentally preparing for death. Or un-. Not sure why I’m on this kick. But as I was in the middle of all these thoughts, a high-school English teacher of mine, David Weber, sent me the gorgeous poem below. It was written by another former teacher at Exeter, Charles W. Pratt.

The poem takes the opposite angle from my last post, where I was saying that I would want a little bit of time to meet my own death. Not enough to linger, but enough to say my goodbyes, to express gratitude, and to beg forgiveness where necessary. To get the kind of footing under me that Jane Kenyon seems to have found in her famous piece, “Let Evening Come.”

Let me be immersed in life when it happens, Pratt says in his powerful poem. I hope you’re as moved as I was.

 

Resolution, by Charles W. Pratt

 

When the tsunami draws back its fistful of waters

And crushes the city, let me for once be ready.

Let me be washing the dishes or patting the dog.

 

When the great windstorm angles across the flatlands

Hungry and howling, let me be patting the dog.

Let me kneading the bread or picking an apple.

 

When the ground shudders and splits and all walls fall,

Let me writing a letter or kneading the bread.

Let me holding my lover, watching the sunrise.

 

When the suicide bomber squeezes the trigger

And fierce the flames spurt and wild the body parts fly,

Let me be holding my lover or drinking my coffee.

 

Let us be drinking our coffee, unprepared.

 

“Resolution,” ©2010 by Charles W. Pratt. Used with permission. In From the Box Marked Some Are Missing, New and & Selected Poems, Brookline, NH: Hobblebush Books, 2010. www.hobblebush.com

 

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Julian and Tony on The Ridge at Loveland Ski Area, Christmas Day, 2010.

Night Terrors

Just last week I met a very elderly man with a terminal illness (let’s face it, we’re all terminal) at a party. We had a frank discussion. He said he was tired of funerals and hoped when he returned to his home state he could attend a few weddings or christenings instead. He dreaded reading alumni publications, he added.

eclipse

(Solstice Total Eclipse, photo by Melinda Johnston)

I said, You know, it’s getting to be the same for me, even at my age. Nearly every year, if not every issue, there’s a death notice for someone in my class. Maybe only one, but it’s happening.

We were interrupted, but I was about to ask this man if he feared dying, because it sounded like he did. It actually felt like a comfortable question in the context of our conversation, and I suspected that his own family was steering clear of questions like this.

He had mentioned his minister, so I wondered how his thoughts about death fit into his religious system and if his beliefs affected how he felt about dying. And if he grew more or less fearful with age.

Right now, I feel afraid. No particular reason, I just do. I felt less fearful when I was younger.

When I was 23, I had a terrible horseback riding accident. There were quite a few seconds—I’m not sure how many, because there’s always time dilation in these situations, so maybe 10, maybe even 30—between when I lost control of the horse and when I hit the tree to contemplate my fate.

My mind was and is capable of handling a lot of threads at once.

I knew it wasn’t going to end well. The horse was an Arabian, going at a full gallop, and the trail through the woods was narrow. I knew I would be thrown, if not into a tree or rock, then over the horse’s head when he stopped. Aside from the horse, I was alone. Serious injury or death seemed the only likely outcomes.

So, I was lucky.

Some of the injuries took years to recover from, but I wasn’t killed or paralyzed.

When I realized I’d lost control over what might happen, I experienced a tremendous calm. I wouldn’t say my life flashed before me, exactly, but there was a kind of… reckoning. I let it go. I thought, this could be it, and there came an acceptance.

No fear at all.

I think my body was scared, but on a mental and spiritual level, the I-ness of me, there was serenity.

And then a few years later, my first child died. Afterwards, I sort of wanted to die, too. I wasn’t suicidal, exactly, though I did think I might not fight the wheel if my car started to drift toward the edge of a cliff. I was very curious about dying. Even if death meant oblivion, which I didn’t think it did, I wanted to know. I wanted to discover what Jake had experienced. I figured there would at least be an instant when you would realize that, yes, you were being obliterated. And at least it would be settled. 9780385262217

When my second son came along, I knew I was committed to living. And delighted by life again. Even so, I was certain that if I lived a very long time, eventually I would welcome death. I’d be tired of loved ones dying. Death was part of what made life, and it was the contract we all signed.

But now I’m scared of it.

Why is that? I really wanted to talk about this with the man I met at the party. The poem below poses one reason, but I’m not sure it’s the whole truth.

 

 

 

Night Terrors

 

I was around 40,

after the embolism,

waking nightly

in the track-lit bathroom.

Sitting to pee, I’d think,

I’m going to die.

Not because of the embolism

exactly, or directly.

Just death, its certainty.

 

I was surprised

by my terror.

After your death,

nothing seemed more certain

than death.

I would follow you gladly,

full of curiosity,

even eagerness.

How can a bereft

mother fear death?

 

Yet, as the chips

come closer to being down,

I do. Fear I won’t find

you there, either.

In Honor

Dear little Jake,

You had your great-grandfather’s nose, or so we imagined, based on photographs of him. You were alive for only three days, and writing that phrase makes me have to stop typing and cry. You were only alive for three days, and so we can only do an age-progression in our minds.

When I was pregnant with you I had many dreams of you at various ages, and around six months after you died I dreamt of you as a young man, walking toward me across the alpine tundra, I guess during a hike we were taking together.

That is all I have, really. It’s not much.

We have the your little baby coos, echoing down these 21 years, the memory of your furrowed brow, the clench of your hand on our fingers. I have your lips nuzzling my nipples. And then your hands and feet turning so blue and cold, your terrible cries of alarm, near the end. And those last, quiet gasps.

And whatever it was that came into the room between your penultimate breath and the final one. I thought it was the nurse, but when I turned, no visible person was there.jake2

Twenty-one years, Jake. I’ve marked these years in various ways. Sometimes I’ve baked a cake. Other times I’ve returned to the place we lived when you were conceived and walked along some of the trails where I used to hike, ski, and snowshoe, pregnant with you, just the two of us, when I was still unadulteratedly happy, hopeful. This year I’ve just returned from a trip with your “younger” brother. He’s choosing a college, Jake! My nest will really be empty now. I can’t even begin to express how complicated my feelings are today, the day after returning from this tour with your beautiful brother, of whom I feel so proud, writing these words on your twenty-first birthday.

Each year the gulf between us has yawned more widely. The wonderful baby smell on your clothes began to fade. One year the lock of your hair was no longer among your “effects.” A terrible blow even today, when I long to touch you. The dreams have diminished in frequency. Even a nightmare is a treasure now.

Your brother has taught me much about the mysteries of parenting. Nothing is as I fantasized when I was carrying you. Grief experts say that when a child dies a dream is lost. But that happens in any case when a parent raises a child; it’s just that in the ordinary experience the process is more gradual. The child of one year vanishes into the child he or she becomes the next year. Your father and I divorced; we didn’t become the parents we thought we’d be. So it’s not just our dream we lost, but who you’d actually have become… somewhere along the way, we lost all sight, all way of knowing, of even being able to imagine who you might have become. And who we might have become.

Little son. We didn’t get to exchange all of the gifts we had for each other. You didn’t get to share everything you had with the world.

How I wish I were like other parents, taking things for granted. Simply sending a card, and a care package, to you……off in some college or study-abroad program… or wherever you might be…

I simply have no idea.

Happy Birthday.

Love,

Your Mother, still here, loving you

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