Saturday, February 28, 2009

Going Gentle

[This piece appeared in January 2009 on the blog site of The Kenyon Review. I want to repeat it here partly in the interest of completeness and partly to help contextualize some upcoming material.]

. . .voices

talking, in Eternity:
names being mentioned,
things cleared up finally;
what he said, what she said,
who got pensioned;

deaths, deaths and sicknesses;
the year he remarried;
the year (something) happened.
She died in childbirth.
That was the son lost
when the schooner foundered.

He took to drink. Yes.
She went to the bad.
When Amos began to pray
even in the store and
finally the family had
to put him away.

“Yes . . .” that peculiar
affirmative. “Yes . . .”
A sharp, indrawn breath,
half groan, half acceptance,
that means “Life’s like that.

We know it (also death).”

–Elizabeth Bishop

My father died on December 17, 1994. When his lung cancer had been diagnosed a few years before that, I was not surprised. I have never seen a more intransigent case of nicotine addiction than his. He smoked unfiltered Lucky Strikes and Camels for decades; in later years he switched to filtered brands, but was never able to give up tobacco, though he tried many times. He was a poster boy for lung cancer. Still, the small-town doctor he insisted on using missed it, for how long we still don’t know. Emphysema was diagnosed; cancer, no.

Surgery for the initial cancer went well; the upper right lobe of his lung, with a “self contained” tumor in it, was removed; he recovered. For a couple of years, he did well. The removal of part of a lung caused him some difficulty; decreased lung capacity coupled with emphysema made it hard for him to breathe at times. Still, on the whole, he was in reasonable shape, and his prognosis after radiation treatment was guardedly good. But his health began to decline, and in the fall of 1994 a new diagnosis came in: brain tumor.

An intelligent man without much education, reared on a farm with a farmer’s intimacy with the up-close-and-personal knowledge of the fate of the body that farmers have, and a non-combatant but nonetheless real participant in World War II (serving in England during the Blitz), my father was a fatalist. He never talked about faith or things of the spirit, whatever one may mean by those things. The closest he ever came, in my presence, was to say once, after the lingering death of one of his uncles, “When my time comes to die, I want to go off by myself in the woods alone like an animal; animals understand how to die.”

He was hospitalized in late November of 1994. I was living and teaching in Eugene, Oregon at the time, and was prepared to go home for the holidays to be with my parents in any case; I stayed in touch with my mother to monitor his progress (toward what at first we were not sure). His tumor was diagnosed at first as inoperable and then as operable, but on the eve of surgery his case was studied by an anesthesiologist, who said, “This man cannot be put under general anesthesia; his lungs are too weak: it would kill him.” In the end they opted for a less intrusive procedure to attempt to shrink the tumor: draining it with a syringe, which could be done with a local anesthetic.But that procedure failed; the tumor, to the doctors’ surprise, contained no fluid, and so there was no benefit from what must have been, to my father, a terrifying and demeaning process.

My office phone rang one afternoon while I was revising an essay I had long been struggling to write–”Ex Machina: Reading the Mind of the South,” which is about race and class in the Mississippi where I was born; my father figured in it, as he had to do, as the racist he was, and I was there as the bewildered boy I was, trying to understand his loving, brutal lessons about how to be what I was supposed to grow up to be: by his definition, a white man. The essay had been in and out of my thought for a decade, and I was finally wrestling it onto the page; it was a deep emotional struggle, and I was exhausted by it, as I was exhausted by the knowledge of my father’s illness

When I answered the phone, my mother said–without preamble, as I recall–”Your father says he wants to leave the hospital, go home, and die. What do you think?”


My mother is a person of strong and to all appearances unquestioning religious faith; my father, I think, was a nihilist: a home-grown country-western meat-and-potatoes anti-philosophical nihilist, but a nihilist nonetheless. His ideas, insofar as I know them, were atavistic, pragmatic, materialistic, and pessimistic. He was quiet about all this, as he was quiet about almost everything; strong opinions erupted from him only when he felt threatened. Impending death, you might say, is the ultimate threat; in the end he had one opinion and he expressed it.

The morning he died, my mother woke me at 4:30 a.m. I was sleeping on the living room sofa so I would be as close as possible to what we knew by then was to be his deathbed: a rented hospital bed placed not in my parents’ bedroom but in the guest room that had originally been a garage, but had been converted years before for my grandmother when she could no longer live alone; after her death, that room was largely deserted.

“I’m sorry to wake you so early,” she said, “but your father’s having a hard time breathing. Come see what you think.”

What do you think; what do you think? What can you think? What is there to think?

When my mother asked me that question a week before, when she called me in my office in Oregon, my answer was the only one I could make: “I don’t know. What does his doctor say?”

“Why don’t you call him?” my mother said, and gave me the number of an oncologist in Jackson, Mississippi, where the hospital was.

The oncologist was a sympathetic and yet no-bullshit man. “When your father came in here two weeks ago,” he said, “I thought we could do a lot for him. Now, I think there’s nothing we can do for him. You might as well honor his wishes. Take him home.”

We made arrangements. My parents lived in a remote rural place, 120 miles from the hospital in Jackson, 15 miles from the hospital in Macon. We signed up for home health care: a nurse would visit every other day, starting on Monday, the 19th of December. A bed and an oxygen bottle were rented. I bought an overpriced short-notice airline ticket.

“How long does he have?” I asked the oncologist.

“Impossible to say with any kind of certainty,” he told me. “I’d estimate somewhere between one and three months.”

So we were preparing for a siege.


In old novels the term death rattle is shorthand for a host of unpleasant things neither author nor reader wants to dwell on. Stridor seems to be the word most used in contemporary medical literature for the sound a dying human makes struggling to breathe, or not to breathe. My father was clearly struggling. He was not unconscious, but whether he was conscious in the usual sense was impossible for me to tell. His breathing was loud and labored–

A sharp, indrawn breath,
half groan, half acceptance. . . .

“Let’s give him oxygen,” I said, and we broke the seal on the new oxygen bottle. If the oxygen helped, neither of us could see it.

“I’m calling the nurse,” I said, and when the rented health care professional groggily answered her telephone, I said to her the same thing my mother had said to me: I’m sorry to wake you so early. What do you think?



Most films do a very poor job with death scenes. A gut-shot soldier, or policeman, or criminal, closes his or her eyes and quietly goes. This is the cinematic version of the literary term death rattle. My experience tells me death is harder than that, and noisier.

One film that is an exception to the rule is the excellent Carrington, in which the death of the author Lytton Strachey is anything but dignified. In the midst of his own death stridor, he pauses and says his last words: “If this is dying, I don’t think much of it.” Then he carries on with the noisy, messy process of shutting his body down.

I flew from Oregon to Dallas, where my brother met me at the airport, and we set out immediately for home. We drove through the night and arrived in Jackson in the morning, just in time to check my father out of the hospital. When we got there, he was alert and clearly glad to see us, but he did not speak. He seemed to have given up speaking.

My mother took us aside while the nurse got my father ready for the two hour ambulance ride home. “He stopped speaking a couple of days ago. He hasn’t said anything at all.” At some point a little later, when we were alone for a moment, I asked her “What was the last thing he said?” With a stricken look, she said “He told me ‘I’m ready to die; I just don’t know how to do it.’”

Just how do you do it? What do you think?

I think we’re in rats’ alley
Where dead men lost their bones.


“It sounds like he’s not getting enough oxygen,” the nurse said sleepily. “You have oxygen there, right?” Of course. And we’re already using it. We had a small clip on his nose that held the oxygen tube in place. “Try the mask,” said the nurse; “That should work better. Call again if you need me. Otherwise I’ll see you Monday morning.”

The oxygen was useless. I tried keeping the mask on, but it clearly didn’t change anything.

I imagined my father in a room, in the dark, looking for a door.


My father and I did not have a terribly close or easy relationship. We loved each other; his love for his children was enormous, and instinctual, like his love for the farm on which he was born. He wanted to return to that farm to die; he wanted us with him.

What stood between us was nothing less than a world view. We could not see eye to eye on virtually any issue. Race was the deepest rift between us. His racism was intransigent and virulent. After a series of confrontations when I was in my late teens, we hardly ever discussed the matter again; it was clear to both of us that we were on opposite sides of an abyss. If we had continued arguing about it we would have ended up hating each other. I visited my parents often during the years of my adulthood; we all wanted to see each other. But we hardly talked about anything of any real importance. In a very real sense we all knew there was nothing to discuss. We lived, so to say, on different planets, in different mental worlds. There was no bridge across.

No bridge save one.

His dying–the process of it–changed things by reduction. In that state, my father was incapable of ideas. He had no world view, or his world view was reduced to a single question: where is the door? How do I get out?

The night before, late, I was with him alone. My mother had gone to bed, worn out. My brother had left earlier that day; he needed to go back to his office in Dallas, and planned to return for Christmas; we had time; hadn’t the doctor said my father had at least a month?

I’d given him pills, which he took easily enough. He had a lot of medication, including a mysterious drug called Zocor; I had no notion what that was, but a little research revealed that it was a new antidepressant. Antidepressant? The man is dying; isn’t he entitled to be depressed? Still, I counted them out, I gave him water.

He seemed to be asleep. I sat in a chair beside his bed, reading. The death stridor was still hours away. But he became restless. He threw back the sheet. He sat up, for the first time since he’d been home. And for the first time in over a week, he spoke.

“I want.”

Clearly speaking was nearly impossible for him. His voice was a rasping whisper. He seemed to have to struggle to find the words he wanted.

He said it again: “I want. . . .”

“What do you want, Dad,” I said. “Do you want water? Ice chips?”

“I want . . . I want . . . .”

I went near him and put my head down so as to be certain not to miss what he might say. “What do you want?”

Then he found it, and said it all in a tortured breath: “I want to be a corpse.”

Having delivered that sentence on himself, he lay down and went to sleep.

By 6:30 the next morning, he’d found the door, he’d turned the knob, he’d gone.

The doctor had said at least a month. My father lasted four days.


At 7:00, the doorbell rang. It was my uncle, the middle brother of three; the oldest had died a decade before, also of cancer. As he came in, he said “I just stopped by to see how Cap is.” He was a farmer; 7:00 was already the middle of the morning as far as he was concerned.

He must have seen something in my face, because he paused and leaned forward. “What’s wrong?”

“Dad died about half an hour ago, Uncle Earl,” I said.

I might as well have struck him in the face. This was his little brother, the baby of the family, the smartest and handsomest, in many ways the darling of the whole community. When he was a boy they started calling him “Cap,” short for Captain; his other nickname was “Wheel,” short for Big Wheel. He was the little captain of his world, the CEO of the family. He couldn’t be dead.

I took my uncle into the bedroom where my mother stood beside my father, holding his hand, stroking his forehead. He looked peaceful, as they say, but hardly natural. He looked very dead. As he had wanted, he turned into a corpse.

My uncle hugged my mother, and they both stood silent there, reduced to helplessness by my father’s death. It was up to me to be the grownup; they were incapable of it.

“Well,” I said. “I have to call the coroner now.”

At that point something happened that, remembering it, I still find unbelievable, while at the same time I know it was utterly predictable. My uncle, roused from his shock, looked at me so angrily he might as well have run at me with a naked knife.

“NO!” he shouted. Literally, he shouted; he was almost screaming.

“Excuse me?” I said.

“You will NOT call the coroner. I will NOT have that–that–nigger woman–come into this house and paw over your father’s body!”


I thought hard for us all, my only swerving. . . .

About fifteen minutes before my uncle appeared, and about fifteen minutes after I was certain my father was dead, I had one of those unwelcome epiphanies that often arrive at such moments: I had no idea what to do next. Generally deaths such as my father’s occur in hospitals, with plenty of authority figures armed with forms to fill out waiting in the wings. But there was nobody here but my mother and me. Neither of us had thought to ask what the aftermath of my father’s dying would entail; we thought we had plenty of time.

“Call your cousin Glen,” my mother suggested. “He’ll know what to do.”

My cousin–who happened to be Uncle Earl’s son in law–was a doctor who lived forty miles away, one town over. I called him up and repeated the formula, “I’m sorry it’s so early.” He was kind, and professional. I must call the coroner, he said. The coroner will come and examine the body, and then take it to the funeral home of our choice.

In the moment of my uncle’s outburst, I had to think. I felt, frankly, like kicking his racist ass out of my mother’s house. I felt like screaming back at him. He was standing on the far side of my father’s body from me; my father, who might well under other circumstances have sat up and agreed with him, said nothing, having assumed his corpsehood fully. My mother hardly seemed to have heard what my uncle was saying; she continued stroking my father’s forehead, crying quietly.

In the end I said nothing. I needed to spare my mother any further trouble. I dialed my cousin’s number again. Let the son in law deal with the old man. I had other things to do.

. . . then pushed her over the edge, into the river.


Not an angel. Not a spirit. Not a ghost. A corpse.

As he was dying, all my differences with my father evaporated. I stood by his bed through the last couple of hours of his life; I gave him ice chips, which he accepted thirstily: the “death rattle” dries the throat powerfully, and even a dying body, turning into a corpse, wants water. He was no longer at a distance; the ideas that separated us were gone. He was a man, dying, and I was his son.

Even the violent, familiar ugliness of my uncle’s outburst did nothing to change that understanding.

The county coroner in that part of the world is elected; for years, the electoral process had belonged to the white minority. By 1994, that had long changed, and virtually every elected official there was African American. That fact alone was enough to enrage a man like my uncle, or my father either, come to that. In his mind, too, there was something especially intimate about the ministrations following death that he found simply unbearable.

I made certain he was gone by the time the coroner arrived. She was cool, smart, sympathetic, and thorougly professional. She arrived in a hearse, with an assistant; she examined the body. I signed some forms. She shook my hand and gave me a gentle, tired smile.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “We’ll take care of him now.”

(Quotations are from Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Moose,” T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” and William Stafford’s “Traveling Through the Dark.” The title alludes to Dylan Thomas’s poem “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.”)

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