They knew death was coming. Eventually. Maybe even soon.
But none of them knew Death well enough to know how soon, and so it took them by surprise. It took all of them by surprise when the doctor said, he may pass tonight.
They all stared at her. What? Pass? What does that mean, “pass…” Oh. Oh. Wait, what? Now? Tonight? But how? No, that can’t be right. He was fine just yesterday. He rallied yesterday, he was sitting up, talking, laughing, making jokes, like his old self. He even got up and went to bathroom by himself.
But that was yesterday, and now was now, and it was true that he’d been a bit quieter again this morning, and it was true that he’d seemed maybe … a bit far away, maybe a little confused, talking about his father as if he were still alive and not gone all these long years, as if he’d just seen him yesterday. He’d seemed maybe … distant, yes, that was it, distant. Not closed-off distant or pissed-off distant, but distant as if he were hearing and seeing something only he could see. But still, none of them understood, none of them got the slightest whiff of a sense that some part of his vision was already focused over there somewhere, some part of his consciousness already moving on. They didn’t know. They didn’t know these were signposts along the way, this rally and then quick decline, with that far-awayness, that drifting, that time travelling. They didn’t know.
They’d noticed only that he’d started a few days ago to refer to his belongings as “the” instead of “my” — Do you know where “the” glasses are? Have you seen “the” watch? I think the nurse hung up “the” bathrobe, would you fetch it for me please? — as if he no longer had need of possessions. They noticed only the drifting, the fatigue, the time travelling. But they didn’t know what it meant. They thought there was still time.
She, of all of them, had witnessed death before, many times, but never human death, and never slow death like this. What she’d witnessed — and even caused — was the quick, violent taking of life for food, countless chickens, ducks, geese, victim to her deadly-sharp knife, as fast and humane as she could make it, but still distasteful, repugnant, and yet she did it, freaking out inside every time, a city girl transplanted into the thick of things where they were all learning how to live on the land, looking after livestock, building their own houses, chopping wood for the stove — she had never even seen a wood stove before moving out there — canning their own tomatoes, freezing beans and broccoli, and, yes, killing and butchering pigs, calves, sheep, rabbits, and all those birds. She’d received a copy of The Joy of Cooking from her brother before she left the city, and followed the carefully illustrated instructions for how to butcher the different animals to get the cuts of meat they wanted; how to pluck a chicken; skin a rabbit; collect the down from ducks and geese; how to make head cheese; how to cook absolutely anything.
In time she’d become self-righteous about knowing how to kill your own food, often declaring to anyone who would listen that if you couldn’t, you should be a vegetarian. But the self-righteousness was merely armour for her shock and brokenness, a shock that never faded no matter how many chickens, ducks and geese she’d had to kill.
But that was a lifetime ago, and though death was still no stranger to her, it was a distant memory; it had become abstract again, until now. Until this dying. This person she loved so much, dying. This was entirely new, as new to her as it was to the others. It was new, and they didn’t know what to look for, so they didn’t know what was happening; they didn’t know how to say goodbye, and they’d thought they would get more time to figure that out. And then it was upon them. The dying, so slowly for so long, and now the death, so quick.
And so, in the end, the tragedy of it was not in the dying itself, nor in the cause of the dying, though both of these were tragic enough in the ordinary ways they are. No, the tragedy was that none of them could talk about it with him. None of them could say, oh, oh, oh, my dear one, you are dying and you know it and we all know it and we love you and we can be of some comfort, if only you would let us. They all felt, without discussing it among themselves even, that he would have to be the one to say it first. Intimidated by his natural reserve, none of them could figure out how to raise the subject, as if they were all deeply embarrassed for him, dying as he was.
Even when the doctor came in and said, he may pass today, you should call whoever else needs to be here, even then, nobody took his hand. They just stood there, all three of them, awkwardly, not knowing what to do or say. Nobody said, you don’t have to do this alone. Nobody said, we’re right here with you till you go. We’re not ready and we never will be, but we will be okay. Not today, not tomorrow, not for a long time, probably, but in the course of time, we will be all right. We will remember your love, we will remember, together we’ll remember, and your love will see us through the pain of losing you, and we will hold each other up so none of us will need to be alone… So you see, you can let go when you’re ready, and we’re here with you and everyone will be okay.
None of them knew they could say any of these things, to him or to each other. They were afraid, afraid to pierce his reserve, afraid he wouldn’t want to talk about it with them and then they would all be mortally embarrassed; and anyway they didn’t know what to say. So instead they had short visits, played cards or checkers, told jokes, told him he was looking great and he’d be out of here in no time, went home.
They didn’t understand how he’d changed, in these last moments, days, weeks, of his life; he’d changed, and it would have been all right, he would have welcomed some honesty, he would have felt comforted. But they didn’t know they could.
He himself didn’t know they could. He himself didn’t know he’d changed, or rather how much he’d changed, not until the very very end, when the doctor said, he may pass today, and he understood that to mean he had permission to go, even if nobody else was telling him he could. And by then he was in any case beyond speech, beyond reach. He could only gaze in wonder, at the lovely lights around all of their heads, at how everything had begun to glow, at how his vision seemed to be fading, unfocused as a newborn’s, but still, it was all so beautiful. He wished he could tell them now, but he could no longer speak. As his heart slowed down and prepared itself to stop, he suddenly had so many things to tell them all, was suddenly utterly overwhelmed by love, ineffable, inexpressible; suddenly utterly overwhelmed with a wish to tell them all this, but it was too late. And they didn’t speak to him either, they spoke around him, but not to him, as if he were already gone and perhaps he was and just didn’t know it yet.
And so, in the end, he died alone, alone after all, surrounded by loved ones yet entirely alone, and not just in the way we all die alone, as we must, but with the particularity of those whose hearts didn’t know there could be more.
Photo credit: Copyright © 2018 Tunde Nemeth