I have spent considerable time on the road in snow and ice storms this month, visiting ailing friends and family whom I may never see again. This past weekend was particularly raw in central Ohio where my boyhood friend and his wife live. Their daughter and two grandchildren were sitting at the dining room table when I arrived. Soon after, I was by Beverly’s bedside and she woke to listen to my stories as attentively as she was now capable. Earlier, she had decided “no more” medicine and hospital visits as the treatment for her cancer was now futile and doing nothing more than making her uncomfortable.
As her eyes went from bright to cloudy when she slipped back into a different kind of sleep, I wondered what was happening inside her mind. Was she just so worn out that she was simply giving in to the warmth of another inner world she had never quite known before? Was this new world becoming a refuge she was feeling more comfortable with each day? Was she now on the threshold of still being in our everyday hustle and bustle world, but not really any longer much of it? Of course, I kept my quiet as she fell asleep. I felt on the edge of something of great import, but had neither the means nor the right to reach toward her, over that unknown barrier that was separating us.
Years earlier as my late wife Lilian lay dying, she too opened her eyes from more than plain slumber to tell me that dying was not easy. I had some slight privilege to ask if she could tell me what was happening to her. She simply smiled and said nothing else. Perhaps as we lie there and sense more and more that our moments are fast becoming fewer and fewer, we see ourselves as buoys floating silently on whatever warmth we have that still keeps us afloat before that final and total moment when our lungs open and the rush of water takes us away.
Later that same weekend, I visited one of my two surviving first cousins who is also dying. The same pulmonary fibrosis that took her mother and her lovely sister is now causing her shorter and shorter gulps of breath. She’s matter of fact about her condition and knows what is in store for her sooner now more than later. Although she still keeps her schedule and enjoys the company of family and friends, she told me she also is no longer entirely of this world.
The chill in my heart went even deeper as I remembered spending a few days earlier in the month with another childhood friend who is slowly disappearing. Some mystery disease is stealing her muscles and will ultimately prevent her from even swallowing. When I sat with her and her husband, who was my old university buddy, she stared quietly off into the distance with little ability to speak. He brushes her teeth, helps as he must with her toilet, dresses her for the day and undresses her for sleep. He cuts her food into small bites and showed me the tube he has close by in case she chokes and has to have his quick response to dislodge whatever is stuck. He does all this with love and even humor. She can still smile a bit and made what we thought was a chuckle at his attempts to bring some levity to her life. My heart breaks.
As I said, December has been a cold month. Perhaps when our time comes, it is best to go in winter with its short days and long and dark nights, amidst the bitterness of storms that take our remaining warmth. I think my time should be a moment when I have finished my work, tidied up my tools, kissed those I love goodnight, and not have to worry about what new change is afoot in the world. My exit will perhaps be best when rebirth is still months away from the first green of spring.
Driving home yesterday in a grey overcast world where trucks were constantly throwing mud and slush into my windshield, I remembered a poem I had read recently by Tom Hennen, the American poet and author of Darkness Sticks To Everything. As I passed over the great Eastern Continental Divide just west of Cumberland, Maryland, the sun broke through and the sky was blue. With this view, I could hear the lines from his poem, “What The Plants Say,” in which he pleads:
Help me to be in the world for no purpose at all except for the joy of sunlight and rain. Keep me close to the edge, where everything wild begins.
I found solace in those words as I began the final miles of my journey down through the Appalachian hills to my home in the forests of eastern West Virginia. As I continued to reflect on what I had seen these past couple of days, I remembered another of Hennen’s poems, which ended:
The owl and rabbit were wondering, along with the trees, if the air would soon fill with snow flakes, but the power that moves through the world and makes our hair stand on end was keeping the answer to itself.
The mystery will always continue. I have no choice but to live with that philosophy.