After my mother died, I discovered I hated Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle.” It is a cruel poem, a poem that cannot imagine a kind death, a gentle death. It is, a friend told me, a poem by a selfish young man. Why demand rage from the dying? What demand that the dying fight? Why demand a hero narrative? A story of courage?
What is a good death? For whom must it be good? Since the dead do not leave reviews—3 out of 5 stars for that death, 1 out of 5 stars for that death, package did not arrive on time would give no stars if possible—only the living—the left behind—can rate death and dying.
The “how to tell if a person is dead” websites, usefully located next to “how to tell if a person is dying” websites—my internet history for the past few months has been, well, it has been—tell us that muscles relax in death. This is a physical kindness that we translate to mean someone died “peacefully.”
Aaron Bady wrote,
We use euphemisms to talk about death, clichés worn smooth with use. We say things like “passed away” or “gone home” or “departed” or “at peace,” all to make it sound like dying is something common and easy. But these phrases translate the strangest thing a person will ever do — the strangest thing, perhaps, besides giving birth or being born — into something that seems like the easiest and simplest thing in the world. Dying isn’t easy or simple. Dying is hard work.
My mother was very Kenyan of a certain generation. She believed that talking about death welcomed it. But she also mothered till the end. She told her friends and her sister that she was “ready.” She had picked out the dress she wanted to be buried in. She had made arrangements I knew nothing about. It was a kindness. A day before she died, she snapped at me that I was her kehinganda—the last born, the one who closed the womb, the one she had sworn to protect.
A day before she died, I sat with a friend of hers and asked what was happening. I did not want euphemisms. I was tired of hearing “at this stage.” What stage? I wanted stage directions. A map to dying. I wanted something like a checklist—I wanted Terry Pratchett’s Death to show up, have a cup of tea, announce an hour, a minute, a second. How much of grief is this frustration? There were items scheduled on her calendar. Phone calls to be made. Queries to be answered.
(The fiction of last words.)
[At the hospice] we asked questions about dying, for the first time, the only questions left to ask. What it would look like, what could happen, how it would occur, and what we could do? We wanted to know, because we knew nothing, and because they knew everything. How will we know it’s happening? What should we look for? How can we help?
A hospice nurse answered,
You can be there, and you can wait. But there is nothing you can really do. They are doing it all themselves.
The fiction of a good death.
We have been comforting ourselves: “at least there’s no more pain”; “at least she died lucid, fully there mentally”; “at least there was no crushing hospital bill”; “at least she chose where she would die”; “at least she celebrated one last birthday.” “At least” fills the silences. I am comfortable with silence. Others are not.
A high school friend reminded me that I’ve been here before—my father died when I was 14—but also told me that this kind of death is different. I am trying to inhabit that difference.
In the last few weeks, we measured what we could obsessively: blood oxygen levels, blood pressure, blood sugar. Over and over. Even when the machines could no longer provide readings. On the very last day, as the machines refused to provide readings, I put them aside, perhaps admitting what I did not want to admit. It had been enough measuring. We were tired.
Forgive me, Aaron, I need to borrow more words.
Euphemisms open up a great blankness around death, a space of careful obscurity. You can spend your whole life, if you try, never looking at the thing itself. You can know about the people who have “passed on,” who “rest in peace,” and you can feel the absence of “the departed,” and you can mourn their loss. But the euphemisms peel away quickly in the face of the thing itself. Dying is not peaceful; dying is hard fucking work. Dying is active. We leave this world with the same movement as we came into it, and just as there’s no wrong way to be born — as the hospice nurse told us — there’s no wrong way to die. There’s only the struggle of getting there. There are only varying levels of comfort and fear. There is only the time it takes to do it. There is what you leave behind, and who you leave it with.
I’ve been thinking about “comfort measures,” not as Aaron uses the term, but as the work that’s left to those who remain.
To comfort is to speak in available vernaculars—we step out of those we have fashioned for ourselves to extend something else. And the work of those left behind is to comfort. To reply, “I’m okay” to questions. To smile in response to queries. To affirm afterlives to those who need them. To pick up the phone. To take well-meaning advice: leave the house, shower, go out, plant something, eat something, fill space-time with activity. My own mourning rituals—I’m still discovering what they are—are fashioned alongside the comfort I must extend to others. Yes, I am sleeping. Yes, I am eating. No, I’m not overeating. Yes, I am. Yes, I am. Yes, I am. Affirmations of being, not lack.
No one asks, “are you sad?” It’s difficult to sit in the pocket of someone else’s sadness. It’s easier—perhaps necessary—to imagine futures beyond that sadness: “it will be well.” “It will be okay.” “It will.” I am trying to see beyond the “well” and “okay” into that “it will,” that impossible imagining of a “beyond this.” I have bureaucratic things scheduled, trips planned, a book to shepherd into the world, other books to write. It’s easy to name possible “wills,” even planned wills. A different kind of freedom, a kind aunt told me.
A tangled fence of bougainvillea and climbing roses and other things forms a canopy over the entrance to the gate. The rain has caused the main rooting structure to bend over: it threatens to fall over, blocking the gate. It will be cut, reimagined, redesigned—the entrance to the house will change. It is still Mumbi’s house.