The Apostrophe Blog
Photo by Peter Balcerzak
I wish this body
might be dew in a field
In March 2009, a dear friend chose to begin the process of dying “consciously.” What does that mean in this culture so notoriously youth-obsessed and morality-denying? It means that, when C. learned that her in-remission breast cancer was back and had spread to her brain, she made the decision to do only the most minimal, palliative round of radiation and then live out her last days—however many were left—with a quality of life that she, as much as possible, continued to control. As part of this process, she wrote about the experience, a conscious call-and-response correspondence by letter and electronic mail with a circle of friends. I was privileged to be part of that group.
She wrote about the quiet mystery and subtle newness of the dying process, and her endless curiosity about it. She celebrated the view from her tiny, low-income apartment window, a soon-to-bloom cherry tree, the first scent of roses that wafted up from the garden she’d reclaimed from a scrappy bit of industrial wasteland a few years before. She found humor in the ways her bodily functions were betraying her desires and her will. She closed every communication thanking us all for being part of her life.
Fearless and open. Reflective and wise. Cheery and grateful. Humble and self-deprecating when appropriate. Conscious with eyes wide open, metaphorically speaking, until very close to the end. Never before had I been part of such an experience.
C. kept writing—and drawing and corresponding—until early July when the tumors pressing on the nerves in her brain shut down motor functions and other critical bodily functions. By then, friends and family had rallied, and she was able to die with grace and dignity in her home on the evening of July 13, 2009.
I originally wrote this blog post three months later when C.’s clarity and courage around death (a subject that I have to confess I am still unsettled by) continued to stun and astonish. I began to wonder how many others—writers or poets or mere chroniclers of this peculiar human journey we are all on—had the foresight? the good fortune? the tenacity? the privilege? to be able to “get down” so much and so vividly on the journey to one’s final moments of this life.
It turns out there is a centuries-old tradition in Japan of writing jisei, actual “death poems” or a single farewell poem to life. Yoel Hoffman has compiled many in a volume called, Japanese Death Poems Written by Zen Monks and Haiku Poets on the Verge of Death. The book’s introduction offers a mini-history of Japanese poetry including the evolution of haiku and renga from the tanka and why. Like traditional haiku, these death poems also include an image of the season, in this case the one during which the poet died. Many are also focused on imagery that are traditional Japanese symbols of death, i.e., flowers like the morning glory or the lotus, clouds and mountain, birds like the cuckoo or the raven, dew and fields of rice. Over time, this tradition grew to include elements of both Buddhist and Taoist thought, particularly the importance dying person’s state of mind.
As I read page after page of end-of-life haiku, I found myself drawn to examples of clear, conscious minds at that aha! near-death moment. Nearly all of the poems included in this collection—and most are haiku—were written if not a few hours before death, then a few days or weeks before. I found in many of them motifs and preoccupations to parallel what my friend was writing about in the four months leading up to her death: Calm at the anticipation of the voyage to whatever might be next. Humor at what the final moments come down to. Everything resolved, settled, detached, in readiness.
The esteemed haiku poet, Basho, wrote that any of the poems written throughout his life could serve as his death poem. Here is his final one:
On a journey, ill:
my dream goes wandering
over withered fields.
Hokushi was a sword sharpener and a student of Basho’s who died 1718:
I write, erase, rewrite,
erase again, and then
a poppy blooms.
Sunao, who died in 1926 at the age of thirty-nine, reminds us, as my friend also did, that when a dying body is sick, it is hard to live in a fantasy:
clears up reality
and dream alike.
Ransetsu, another Basho student, died in 1707 at the age of fifty-four—the age I will be in two short months. Like so many of the haiku in this collection, he captures the ephemeral:
One leaf lets go, and
then another takes
And Kiko, dead at fifty-two in 1823:
That which blossoms,
falls, the way of all flesh
in this world of flowers.
Dying in the West is so often a private and hidden matter, over-medicated and “medicalized” for many to the end. And it remains a taboo subject. I can’t but think how much easier it would be if we could find a way welcome it, as C. did, rather than turn away, to face it rather than cower in fear. These words from a sage in a story told by Chuang Tzu spoke to what my dying friend heartily embraced: “I was born when it was time to be born, and I shall die when it is time to die. If we are all in peace with time and follow the order of things, neither sorrow nor joy with move us.”
In one of her last e-mail notes, barely two weeks before her death, C. wrote:
“This letting go thing is really interesting. It works best when I move at my own speed. What happens is that there’s this almost miraculous loss of interest in this or that thing which no longer seems to be relevant. I am so grateful to be having this time to do this in my own rhythm. I can see how nice it will be when I’m more detached, and I also can see that it does not work well to rush such things. There must be layers of detachment involved…or something… all I know is that once I am no longer feeling attached there’s another layer of freedom that opens up. That feeling of everything being in its place, nesting happily.”
I pass as all things do
dew on the grass.
On July 5, 2009, eight days before her death, C. sent a final e-mail note to us all: “I am not afraid of anything.” The next day, a caregiver reported that, when awake, she was joking and laughing; she lost consciousness soon after that. A week later, family and friends beside her—release. On September 6, 2009, C.’s ashes were scattered in a meadow at Cerro Gordo Eco-village, a place where she once lived—and deeply loved—near Cottage Grove in Curtin, Oregon.