Do Not Go Gentle
A friend once told me about going to see her father shortly before he died. He had advanced Alzheimer’s and peered at her blankly. Then he said: “You are home.”
“Yes, Dad,” she said. “I’m your daughter.”
He said, “I had you too much under my thumb.”
Home, and what constitutes it, is the most potent of memories. It’s not excess of love we regret at death’s door, it’s excess of severity. If we lived every day as the last day of our lives, the only quandary would be how to find the time to shower love on enough people. We live distracted and die with too much knowledge to bear.
December has come, the last month of an awful year, and I am sure I am not alone in saying good riddance to 2016. It’s been the worst of years, one of those periodic reminders that the raging beast in humankind always lurks.
For me, the menacing political storms of America and Europe have been accompanied by family illness; and I’ve found myself in recent days cocooned in thoughts of those I love, the fragility of life, and its delicate beauty.
I listened this week to an inventor, a brilliant man convinced of the proximity of human immortality, which he believes to be just a couple of medical bridges away. He’s taking dozens of pills to ensure that he reaches the first of those bridges, perhaps around 2030. I confess immortality, whose attainment is a hot theme in Silicon Valley, does not interest me.
When I think of it the image that comes to my mind is of a blazing hot day with the noonday sun beating down in perpetuity. The light is blinding. There is no escape from it, no perspective, no release.
The most beautiful times of day are dawn and dusk when shadows are long, offering contrast, refuge and form. Death is the shadow that gives shape to existence, urgency to love, brilliance to life. Limitless life is tedium without resolution.
As Ecclesiastes has it, there is a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted. I find it hard to imagine what inner peace can exist without acceptance of this cycle — the bright green of the first spring leaf, the brittle brown leaves of fall skittering down an alley in a gust of wind.
None of which is to urge mere acquiescence to death, whether physical or political, in this season when death merchants are on the march. On the contrary, this is a time to rage, a time to heed Dylan Thomas: “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
Another friend, who has battled and vanquished cancer, told me the other day of going to lunch with his 98-year-old father a couple of months before his death. My friend fought back tears as he recalled how his father leaned over to him toward the end of the meal and said: “You know, I did not want to die before I knew you were well.” It is for sons to bury their fathers, not fathers their sons.
Ah, fathers, they wait so long before they let down their guard with their sons. When they do the power and poignancy of it is overwhelming.
My own father, now 95 and withdrawn, wrote to me on the death 17 years ago of my manic-depressive mother: “I know that my spirit will not soon be released from those cruel demons that tore so relentlessly at the entwining fabric of love between Mom and me. I did strive within the feeble limits of my human fallibility to preserve and cherish and sustain her. But alas — for Mama ultimately, death was the only angel that could shield her from despair.”
The most vulnerable parts of our nature are often those closest to our greatest gifts. I will always be grateful for the moments I was able to see my gifted father unguarded.
And his brother, my uncle Bert, who died three years ago at 95, having fought for this suddenly fragile free world, battling across Italy in the 6th South African Armored Division, 19th Field Ambulance. He would have been disgusted by 2016.
But for one thing: the World Series victory of the Chicago Cubs. After World War II he studied dentistry at Northwestern University and retained a passion for the city’s baseball. He was at the opening game of the White Sox (losing) 1959 World Series and would recall to me the bedlam created by Ted Kluszewski’s first home run as it crashed into the bleachers at what was Comiskey Park. He felt the crescendo “would lift us off our feet.”
I’ve been having imaginary conversations with Bert about the Cubs and Chicago. I hear his voice. The dead whisper to us, they console us, they admonish us. Love more, love better. Do not — Dylan Thomas again — go gentle into that good night.