Home >> Volume 5, Issue 01

Dying by Degrees

William Luse


As I bid my daughter goodbye when she hopped into her car last Saturday for the long drive back to college, she was full of that enthusiasm which is the domain of the young. She could drive long distances on her own now, her adulthood approaching fruition, her life an abundance of as yet unchosen possibilities. She drove off with her arm waving out the window, before disappearing around a corner and leaving behind whatever protection I could afford her, and to which I’d sworn my very life from the moment I learned of her existence in her mother’s womb. She never saw the signs of the sudden and unexpected sadness that then gripped me, and which I strove mightily to withhold from the world’s eyes. It was the strangest feeling, like the end of something, though of precisely what I couldn’t say. But my wife saw it (wives see everything), putting her arm around me as she pointed out that these temporary goodbyes do not get easier with repetition (“little goodbyes,” she called them), and I wondered if that were not because we sense something over which we'd rather not linger: the little ones are prelude to the Big One. We spend all our lives saying goodbye to each other, and then one day one of the parties to the ritual doesn't show up anymore. Sometimes it's expected, sometimes it isn't. We resign ourselves to the former, and are jolted by the latter; either way, it seems hard to get close to the mystery.

We are admonished to ponder daily the four last things: death, judgement, heaven, and hell. After avoiding the unpleasantness of number one, I'm pretty good with the last three. Numbers two and four aren't a worry, because I've always presumed God's mercy, for me if not for others. Number three provides fertile ground for hours of dreamlike revelry, as long as we don't recall too often Newman's reminder of how difficult it is to get there, that the nature of sin is this: "it and God cannot be together." It's number one that gives us grief and misery. It's the nature of Nature that becomes the stumbling block; to imagine ourselves without ourselves, as not ourselves, seems like something we ought not have to do, a task only a hard master would assign. You would think the deaths of others would assist us in this labor, but they don't. The event may get us to thinking, but we end up putting it off to another day because we just can't get to the bottom of it. Life in the body is all we know; it's a cruelty to have to give it up. We can't even imagine it, though we try endlessly, and worse, we can't accept it. I've heard there are some who can, saints, I suppose. More than accept it, they welcome it. So I hear. I don't happen to be in their company yet. Have you ever been in such straits that you feared you might die? And were you afraid, petrified even? And did you plead with God, abjectly, to spare you? Ah, so we have something in common. It's all right. Even Christ was afraid in the Garden, or gave a good likeness of it. And when you recovered, how gratified were you to know that the bullet was not meant for you? Very? I was. But it won't make me less fearful the next time. When we hear that someone has died in an accident or in war, why is it we want the details to confirm that he, or she, "did not suffer"? It's not just the physical pain. We can all put up with that for a while, especially if we think we might come out alive on the other end. It's also that other pain, the mental one, the one that does not merely feel what's happening, but knows.

When we watch others die we experience many things—sorrow, empathy, prayerfulness, charity, helplessness, impending loss, even anger—but the one thing we do not experience is fear. We are like the witnesses to Ivan Illyich's agony: it is a terrible thing, but, thank God, it is not I in his place. After all, there's nothing to be done about it, and life calls me away. In one of his books, Dietrich von Hildebrand remarks upon how poorly we participate in the deaths of others. I think he was on to something.

Not to become too morbid about it, but I've seen someone die only once. I've seen others in the process, and bodies in coffins; I saw a guy who'd been stabbed writhing in the middle of the street, and a little boy who’d drowned pulled out of a murky backyard swimming pool in mid-winter; I've seen the omens and the aftermath, in other words, but only once have I seen the light go out. He was an old man who'd been waiting for the bus along the Pulaski highway thirty miles north of Baltimore. Somehow, while waiting, he'd carelessly stepped off the curb and managed to get run over by a truck, one of the big ones. The tires had sucked him under like the downturn of a conveyor belt. The truck's trailer now shielded him from the sun. As we looked on, and the highway traffic slowed to a ghoulish crawl and the ambulance people went gingerly about their work, the man rose to his elbows and looked around, turning his bald head this way and that, his bespectacled eyes surprised and puzzled. I was fascinated by the fact that his glasses hadn't moved. He did not seem to be in agony. His lower body was limp and useless, twisted at an impossible angle, his pants torn and some part of his entrails hanging out the tear over his rear end, so crushing was the blow. No doctor was going to put this mess back together. And then he folded his arms and laid his head down upon them and, even as he still looked at us, the gauze of death came into his eyes. I watched that thing inside of us that lets the world in go vacant. It just disappeared, evaporated. Whatever made him move was now, not still, as though at rest like his body, but simply not there, stolen away by that thief in the night. Life is supposed to be sacred, miraculous, but this seemed too simple. God hides his miracles well. I was nineteen or twenty, home from college for the summer, and later wrote a poem about it which I haven't looked at in years. It's probably not worth a damn, our words often approximating the moment without penetrating it. I remember a couple of lines, though, the spectators surmising that the old fellow must have slipped and fallen, and his befuddled eyes replying, "Ah, but I slipped likewise from the womb."

In 1983 I hit an age when friends and family members started dropping with a regularity that seemed to mimic some rhythm of nature. My brother went first, dead at age 31 of a brain tumor. Cancer. He suffered terribly. I'll tell his story one day. My aunt, my mother's sister, was next. Cancer again, of the lung. It had invaded her aorta, and was inoperable. A girl from North Carolina, she had lived and worked far away in New York City, first as a model, then as editor of 16 Magazine. When I was a little boy, I saw her on the "Today" show (hosted by Dave Garroway) modeling one-piece swimsuits, and I ran up to kiss the television screen. When I was in Little League, she sent me a baseball autographed by Mickey Mantle; she had run into him in a restaurant. When I was a teenager and the Beatles burst on the scene (I couldn't stand them—none of the boys could), she got me a picture autographed by all four, which I gave to the girl next door as a favor. The girl nearly passed out from joy. The Beatles had addressed it to her. My aunt could do things like that and did them frequently and unstintingly. She knew everybody, and lived a cosmopolitan and, I came to find out, not entirely upright life. She had been intimate with Lenny Bruce, and never, in spite of the details of his life and manner of death, would she condemn him. She was married once, briefly, but always kept that husband's last name for her own.

Here's how she found out she had cancer: after my brother was diagnosed, she made the grand, big city gesture (but also the right one), booked an immediate flight for Florida, and came down for a visit. The three of us—she, my brother, and I—sat out on the dock behind the house, watching the setting sun shimmer in the lake water beneath our dangling feet, and talking. About what I don't remember, but she could talk and had a lot of stories to tell. The one thing we didn't talk about was that which hung most heavily in the air. It seemed enough for the time being that we were together. We had to rub her shoulders, and she ours. She had an enthusiasm for something called Japanese shiatsu, points along the spine which, when pressured, were said to bestow relaxation and well-being. To me she seemed simply a very physical and affectionate creature, touch comprising some great part of love, and this was her way of appeasing it. Her presence was one long, flourishing gesture, and after a week of having bestowed many hugs and gifts and words of praise, she returned home. One night a month later, she had a dream, and in the dream she saw my brother, and said to him, "Tom, I can't let you go alone." It woke her up, though she didn't know its meaning. A few days later the doctor told her what the problem was.

She came back for several more visits. The three of us made a few trips down to the dock, but we didn't stay long. She and my brother, traveling this road together now, tired quickly. Her thoughts sometimes turned to God, for whom I don't think she'd had much time in her day for many a year. She had some "theories" about him. I wanted to evangelize, proselytize, firm up her vagueness, but refrained. Better to let her thoughts keep turning. She was getting closer, and how close was close enough was not mine to say. Besides, she had a cross to bear and I didn't, and it was this: she'd be lying on the couch in the den, watching television with us and conversing in her usual, voluble, outgoing, New York style from which she'd never eradicated the echoes of North Carolina. She had a beautiful speaking voice. She could have made a career on television or in acting, and had the connections to make it work, but never tried. Suddenly the voice fell silent as a spasm of pain rolled in like the dark edge of a storm front pushing waves across the ocean. I'd watch the crests and troughs of it wrack her body. It happened repeatedly, and I'd kneel beside her to ask if I could help (for you really do want to help), and she'd shake her head. People in pain are very much alone. They withdraw into it. They are impaled upon it, like a butterfly on a pin. They curl up with it and live it. Its presence is their life. You'd like to make some of it your own, but you can't. It's their pain, not yours, and possesses a life of its own. It comes and goes as it pleases, and holds its victims spellbound by the knowledge that it must end, but without the knowledge of when or how. The mystery approaches, but only they, not you, will see it resolved. Eventually the spasm would pass, and life went on. The last time we put her on the plane for home, this time in a wheelchair, she fell to tears. I asked what the matter was. "I don't want to go," she said. She had friends up there, but it wasn't the same. Those big city friends from your limelight days tend to wander off. When you're sick you're a drag. In the end, it's the people who know where you came from, and from whom you came, that count. She had money and could afford a private nurse. One night that nurse helped my aunt sit up in bed so that she could go to the bathroom. She had pneumonia now—doctors like to call it edema of the lungs—and when she sat up her lungs burst, and she fell back dead, right there in the heart of Manhatttan. She was fifty-six years old, childless, no husband at her side, and I have lingered upon her story because I could not have loved her more unless she were my own mother. She and my brother had been diagnosed within a month of each other, and almost exactly one year later, they died separated by that same span of time. Later that month my second daughter was born, and joy with her, but I'll tell you true, you need not envy the faith of the saints to be grateful for the little you have, for without Christ these cycles of death and birth, these so-called signs of hope, would very quickly become just deadly dreary. I sometimes wonder how the world got by without Him.

My grandmother went next. She was in her nineties (no one was sure of her exact age—she had "misplaced" her birth certificate), and bedridden. Something they couldn't operate on was blocking her esophagus. She withered away, and her voice grew faint. It was heartbreaking to see my grandfather wait on her, solicitous but helpless. From the hallway I once heard him ask her, "Sweetie, is there anything I can get you? I wish there was something I could do. My sweetie." And she whispered back that she didn't want to die. You'd think that people that old, who had to have known it was just round the corner, would be prepared for it. But sometimes they aren't. To most people she'd just have been another old woman whose time had come, but to him she was once a flower in the sun, the girl in the summer dress he'd married. Perspective is everything.

Then their other son went, my father's brother. He fell to myeloma at the age of 68, dying before his own father.

And then that father himself went at the age of 93. On November 4th, three days after his birthday on All Saints, the old atheist (or so he claimed; for an atheist, he was awfully generous to all of us, all our lives) and decorated (many times over) hero of World War II, passed away. He had fought in the Battle of the Bulge, serving in General "Lightning Joe" Collins' 2nd Army. He had seen the heat of true battle, been wounded for his trouble, and no one ever doubted he'd lay down his life for his country, or a friend. Patriotism seemed to substitute for God, but only God knows the truth of it. Like my aunt, he sat up one night with the help of a nurse and his lungs gave way, pneumonia again, death's friend and the enemy of old people, and the sick and dying.

And all these people died within the space of five years. Just family members. Of friends and acquaintances there are many more. I haven't done the math, but isn't it true that many more have lived and died than are living on Earth at this moment, that the City of God is the City of the Dead, while we cling to this life as if there were no other?

If you thought we were getting to the bottom of a mystery, I'm afraid I'm not the man to take you there. I'm not a mystic, but made of rather ordinary stuff. I don't divine things but merely think about them, and tremble before the elements as readily as the next fellow. It's that first of the four last things again, to which we pay too little attention. If we shy away, we can't do justice to the other three. We imagine that we love God while running full tilt away from the very moment that would take us to Him. I wish we could depart just as we have lived—together. But we can't. We have to look at this moment alone. Nothing can help us except grace, and that only if we ask for it, and we won't ask unless we believe. Like my aunt curled up in her pain, it’s between you and God and no other.

I started off remembering a goodbye said to a daughter, and soon after remembered as well that this wasn’t the first time. Last spring, at the end of break, I saw this same daughter off at the airport. After passing through security, she headed for the glass tube housing the shuttle that would take her to her gate. Walking at a leisurely pace, her head slightly down (off in that world of hers), chestnut hair lilting gently from side to side, she never turned around for a final wave, just disappeared into that tube. It was as if she were leaving for that world soon to come—of husband, I suppose, and children, in a home that could very well be far away—when her life would be fully her own and no longer partly mine. My heart fell hard and suddenly at the thought, and I died a little inside. Life is full of departures.