My students are working on Civil War projects, and obviously, the subject of death has been part of the discussion. The Civil War is ancient history to them, and even to me, Matthew Brady’s intense images of the dead on the battlefields seem surreal, like images from a time apart. Because the bodies are often so disturbing, it is hard to connect to the human-ness that was part of them as living beings. Despite the large numbers of dead that my students read about, they have difficulty grasping the personal impact of “casualties.” Walt Whitman’s poem “Beat! Beat! Drums” gives them some insight into the death that profoundly impacted every family, but their own experiences with death are of course, limited. They are, after all, only in 7th grade.
This year, death seems peculiarly present, and ironically, today during morning advisory, I had a brief discussion with my students about their former 4th grade teacher, who has been suffering since last spring through cancer. She braved rounds of surgery and chemotherapy, but she and her family have come to terms with the failure of modern medicine to cure her cancer. Perhaps we have grown accustomed to the miracles of medicine, and our understanding of death, because it seems to come at the end of a full and fulfilling life, has been truncated by other modern intrusions. What I mean to say is that our connection to death is less intimate in these modern times when medicine prolongs life, when many diseases are cured and curable, and when in the eventuality of death, “professionals” allow us to minimize our contact with our now dead family members. We are lucky, of course, to be able to benefit from the work of medical professionals, but the other side of the equation — the side in which we realize the intimate connection between life and death — is blunted.
Today, the students were contemplative as I explained that LH might only have weeks or days to live, that her children had been called home from college, and that her family was with her at home, to help her die with dignity. For some of them, this discussion is entirely new. For others, it brings up memories of a grandparent, an uncle, or perhaps a family friend.
I was caught off guard in my discussion this morning. My own brother and sister had been called home from college during the last days of my mother’s life. At the moment in which I revealed to my students that LH’s children were coming home to be with her, my eyes watered and my throat closed. It was a briefly passing moment, but in that moment, I saw visions of my mother’s death, surrounded by her family.
When my mother died, she also died in our home, with her family at her side. Because she was in hospice care, the hospice nurse arrived shortly after her death. The greatest gift given to me by that nurse was the lesson of respect and care for the body of someone whom I had loved. Nancy showed me how to wash my mother’s body, and together we accomplished this task, with gentleness and care. We dressed the body in a clean nightgown, and arranged her comfortably on the hospital bed in my mother’s room. We brushed her hair, gently closed her eyes.
Without planning it, our family then held a traditional wake. As we called family and friends through the day (she had died around 10 in the morning), our house began to fill with food, chatter, and visitors. One by one, a friend or relative would leave the warm and food filled kitchen, to venture quietly into my mother’s room. Each person had a chance to say farewell, to make some peace, to contemplate the loss. We have a snow storm to thank for this precious time, because the funeral directors could not come for my mother’s body until later that evening. We waited, and our waiting allowed us to stop, to experience the loss, to contemplate death in a private ceremony for which modern life hold no patience.
I’ve come to realize that the moments of intensive care I was able to give to my mother, even after her death, have been a gift, one that has allowed me to make peace. Certainly, some moments bring back the memories of loss, but there is solace in the rituals of caring for the dead.
I was also reminded of this last night, when reading more of Jeannette Winterson’s memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Winterson told a brief story of her mother’s friend, Nellie, who died in her home. The women of the church took care of Nellie’s body, and Winterson recounts the story.
The women washed her and they put her in the polka-dot dress. They showed me how to make a body look nice. It wasn’t my first body — I had sat eating jam sandwiches with Dead Grandma, and in the North in the 1960s coffins were kept open at home for three days and nobody minded.
But touching a dead body is odd — I still find it odd — the skin changes so quickly and everything shrinks. Yet I would not give up the body I love to a stranger to wash and dress. It is the last thing you can do together — both your bodies, as it used to be. No, it’s not for a stranger…
As I have thought about my colleague, preparing for death with her family, I have hoped — and been assured by her loving husband — that she will die with dignity, and that the opportunity I was given to fully engage in the process of dying with my mother is one that their family will also experience. I am also reminded of the rituals that sustain us, and that in remembering the dead, and in allowing ourselves to be fully present, even bodily so, at the moment of death, we give ourselves room to honor the lives that once complemented our own.
Winterson’s words remind me, too, that when my son Declan died, I did not have the chance to say goodbye, did not have an opportunity to make peace, to be with his body. His body was indeed given up to a stranger. And in the trauma of his death in a NICU, perhaps that is really the only way hospital staff could respond. I wonder, though, if perhaps a more humane and ritualized way of dealing with death should be part of medical training.
Finally, perhaps it is our poets who can best address our need for ritual, our desire to connect life and death, our most deeply held fears and our most wildly imagined dreams.
Because I could not stop for death (479)