My father’s death was not what I had expected. Not what I had been led to expect by, say, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, which I had for a while perused, distractedly, to prepare myself, and maybe to prepare him. In the Book of the Dead death comes slowly to the infirmed, a fog on quiet feet; in the Book of the Dead we are told to watch for a change in breath, which signals the first stage of departure; we are told that this stage lasts about the length of an evening meal; we are told what to chant to our departing loved one through this and subsequent, less obvious stages, in order to guide him on his alarmingly perilous journey.
We are told that if all goes well and it is done right, our loved one will find a peace that passeth understanding. But we are warned that it takes serious practice to pull off a good dying. And of course I hadn’t practiced, nor even broached the subject of death (let alone Tibetan death) with my father. He had been dying by degrees for months, but recently had been better—so much better that my brief visit home was almost a joyful reunion.
So I had put off the whole notion of a death rehearsal. And of course death came not subtly but suddenly, with no stages that I could see, waking me at midnight in a violent gust of breathlessness. And of course I had no Book of the Dead with me, and couldn’t remember a single word of any chant or prayer. And of course I could find nothing in my frantic search through the Bible (itself the object of a frantic search) that wouldn’t implicitly threaten or frighten my departing father.
So all I could say was I’m sorry, and I love you, and try to breathe, Dad, please? And wake up my mother and phone the hospice nurse and hold his warm hands and wonder at their persistent warmth.
I’m really not a stranger to death. Many years ago I was a nurse and saw death regularly: cardiac arrest, trauma, organ failure, shock, infection. And yet it took a long time–a day, at least–for me to realize that the immediate cause of my father’s death was respiratory arrest. Then it took another few days to realize that I didn’t see it for what it was because he was in a rented bed in his living room, and not a patient in an ICU. And then another few days to be grateful and horrified that I hadn’t recognized the sudden, familiar medical event. I might have tried to resuscitate him, in spite of his advance directives; and even now I am shocked that I didn’t. The pupils changing, the chest caving: how can one not resuscitate one’s beloved father? Twelve hundred years ago, in the Book of the Dead, the infirmed die at home via a quiet script: death slips in, needing no introduction; the spirit of the beloved is guided by chanting voices, and soon enough it sets off on its own.
A few months after my father’s death I was teaching the poetry of W. B. Yeats to bewildered undergraduates. Yeats and more Yeats, week in and week out for an entire semester: the Ireland he loved and hated, the spirits he pursued through history, his lion and woman and the Lord knows what. And above all, everywhere, his dramas of death:
Ah! When the ghost begins to quicken,
Confusion of the death-bed over, is it sent
Out naked on the roads, as the books say, and stricken
By the injustice of the skies for punishment?
Does the ghost that comes to life on the occasion of death—the newly-quickened ghost—tumble naked into an impersonal realm, without attachment or protection? Or is it welcomed somewhere with blessings and forgiveness? Summoned by the breathless mouths of Byzantium? Stripped of all earthly dust until it is the very substance of strangeness?
Dying is different in each poem and play, but it is always a complex event. Never the easy Christian story of stepping into heaven or hell, which, Yeats insisted, merely relieves us of the arduous contemplation of dying. And never the easy atheist story of blank, biological cessation, which also neatly lets us off the hook.
Could my students understand the poetic urgency behind Yeats’s persistent imaginings of death? Barely. I tried to convey to them two of his related precepts. First: although for three hundred years and more, modern Western culture has increasingly veiled dying and death, the fact is that any understanding of human life is framed by life’s contingency upon death. If we were immortal, “life” would be as unthinkable as “death”; as human mortals, we are constituted by death as much as by life. (Think of Spenser’s Fairie Queene, I told them: living forever is no life at all.) Which led me to the second precept: death can never be known, for it obliterates mind and erases its own trace. Human consciousness cannot empirically encompass the experience of its own end.
For this we look to the visionaries—the poets and the prophets, the mystics and the nonhumans. Yeats took up the mantle, retrieved dying and death from invisibility, defended them from the flattening forces of modernity, shaped them into an array of terse visions. Life unwinds like a mummy-cloth; dolphins transport souls; a human at the edge of life hears a bird’s strange cry, or begins to sing bird-like, or becomes a bird. Like the Irish rural folk whom he admired in his youth for their evasion of modern doxa, Yeats brought death into life, dying into living. He set dialogues between tattered body and cold spirit, at times even haunting himself with his own death, knowing that death would confer meaning on his life in ways that he could not anticipate:
All that I have said and done,
Now that I am old and ill,
Turns into a question till
I lie awake night after night
And never get the answers right.
Could my students, neither old nor ill, imagine this struggle to answer the questions that might put a dying life in order? Did my father, old and ill, kept awake by wracking pain at night, put on the knowledge of death or wrap himself in a vision of dying? We never talked about it. But once he told my sisters that he knew he would pass into heaven.
It is the passing that possesses me now that I have lost him. Now that I am a literary scholar and no longer a nurse, and this “going,” this “dying,” is not something to be averted, but, rather, to be spread out like a strange treasure map and traced through poetic marks, with a classroom of students born into a violent country in a violent world, where death arrives in brutal portions. Now that the idea of dying in predictable stages seems an unimaginable luxury from another world.
When I confided to my cousin’s husband, a minister, that I feared my father had died too quickly, that he hadn’t had enough time to chart a course through death, or (I stumbled) whatever one calls the events of dissolution, he gently pointed out that the mind knows different times—some so elastic and impossible that even the most elaborate dreams last but a few minutes on the clock. I had forgotten this somehow—me, a modernist steeped in Henri Bergson’s durée—and I was flooded with gratitude for this reminder of time’s multitudes.
On the day he died, my father and I talked about his watch. It was a cheap digital with large numbers and a Velcro band, but it looked elegant on his wrist, marking off his strong hand, his purposeful fingers. Once it timed his biking sprints, but now its tiny beeps marked a complicated medication regime. He glanced at it and said he would eat his dinner with us in the kitchen. Eight hours later the hospice nurse slipped it off his cold wrist and laid it on a table next to his newspapers. I picked it up after the undertakers left at dawn and wore it on the flight home to Pennsylvania later that day. I would give it to my son Jamie, my father’s joy, a boy with a slower life, to whom my father had given all the time in the world.
When I got home, pale and cracked, my little dog Lucy, who loves me (and my father), ignored me and went straight for the watch. She was strangely frenzied: she tried to tear it off my wrist. She wouldn’t leave it alone. And then she went and found Jamie’s old Velcro watch on the table next to his bed and she just destroyed it. As if to protect him from a death-dealing timepiece, or as if to undo my father’s death.
A few years ago my sister’s dog died suddenly, after waking them in the middle of the night. They laid that wonderful dog in state on her pillow in the living room while friends paid visits and helped build a coffin and dig a grave. And for months afterwards, any dog who came into their living room froze, as if under a spell, at the spot where Mamie had lain, and slowly examined with their noses every inch of the floorboards, reading her secret text.
What did Lucy divine in my father’s watch? The shock of a death that was too sudden to be redemptive? A dying that should have been prolonged or subverted? A complex journey in stages, or a swift entry into heaven, or a man-becoming-bird, or just the chemical trace of abrupt biological cessation? Or perhaps a coded message legible only to dogs, whose sensoria after all are so different from ours as to seem supernatural. I don’t know, and I know I can’t know. But from the poets, the nonhumans, the dogs, my father, from my own fractures, there emanates a composite wisdom that I am attuning myself to, about the medium of dying that shifts and flows between all the living and the dead.
Janet Lyon is an English professor at Penn State University, where she also directs the Disability Studies minor.