One day in late October I was hiking in the Santa Monica Mountains when my wife texted to tell me that Michael, an old friend I hadn’t seen for awhile, was dying. One of his closest friends, Tim, didn’t have my phone number, so he came by my house and told my wife that Michael was in hospice care at his home. I tried to call Tim but cellular service was spotty out on the trail and we didn’t manage to connect until I got back to the trailhead late in the afternoon. Tim said Michael was in and out of consciousness, so if I wanted to see him I should get over to his house, although at that moment family members had arrived and should be allowed to say their goodbyes without the intrusion of friends and acquaintances.
When my wife and I finally saw him lying on his side in the bed set up in his living room, with the hospice nurse sitting nearby, his eyes were closed and his shallow breaths seemed to be drawing him towards an end, rather than giving him life. I thought of my mother when she was in palliative care, beyond response to any stimuli, and how a hospice aide had urged people to talk to her because the faculty of hearing, this woman asserted as if it were settled fact, was still functioning. One need go no further than the internet to find discussions and debates over the question of whether people in comas can really hear what is said to them, but nevertheless my siblings and I tried to carry on sensitive conversations outside her room. My only attempt to talk to her, to tell her I loved her even though I had done a terrible job of demonstrating it during most of her life, felt awkward and unnatural. If she really could hear the words, I thought, would they sound sincere? Or too little, too late, prompted only by an attack of guilt?
When I spoke to Michael I wanted to tell him that I was sorry our once-close friendship had grown distant over the years, but in my few minutes at his bedside I mostly felt that I was talking to myself. Michael’s brothers and sisters were there, and we stepped outside where I shared some memories with them—a long ago bicycle trip, late night scrabble games when he lived in an apartment at the beach, ping pong marathons in his back yard. Then the hospice nurse appeared and called them inside, and we walked back home. It was a warm, sunny day but I felt like we were moving through shadows. Just before we got to our house, Michael’s sister texted an image of a face with a single, large tear, and the shadows deepened, creating the sense that the earth had stopped circling the sun, that all the natural processes of the world had gone astray. Is this how I will feel, I wondered, when I am dying?
When I was a very young boy, my great-grandmother lived in my grandparent’s house. She was bed-ridden, and I don’t remember ever going into her room, although I may have. My impression from glimpses through the open door was of overwhelming whiteness, her hair, her skin, the bedclothes. One day we came to visit my grandparents and she was gone. I assume there was a funeral, but I don’t remember going to it or hearing anything about it, or indeed, hearing much of anything about her from that moment on. A few years later, my mother’s uncle died and I did go to the funeral, but all I remember is the hushed atmosphere in the church and the fact that the sight of the man in the casket didn’t evoke anything of the man I’d seen in our house, the man who had spoken to me, who may have mussed my hair and bounced me on his knee.
I grew up on a farm, where it wasn’t uncommon to see the death of animals or its aftermath. The cow who strayed into the alfalfa field, her legs sticking straight up from her bloated body, her stench sufficient to keep my curious brother and me at a safe distance. The hog chosen for butchering, collapsing as if his short legs were suddenly jerked from under him when the trigger of the rifle aimed behind his ear was pulled. The chickens destined for the kitchen table wildly flapping in a kind of terrified flight after their heads were lopped off. The dog or cat that had been part of the farm’s fauna for years, one day simply gone, their familiar yaps and yowls never to be heard again.
I was sitting at my mother’s bedside, looking at her face and thinking nothing in particular, when the rasping breaths through her open mouth stopped so suddenly that I was startled, even though we had expected this moment for hours. The nurse performed the formalities of confirming what we could plainly see, and when she was finished I asked her to close my mother’s mouth, because I wanted her face to resume an expression familiar from some point in the past, not as it was in the long, slow throes of death. But her jaw was in a kind of clench and it wasn’t possible. Someone said that the morticians would break her jaw to close it, and while I didn’t care to imagine the mechanics of that, I thought that the next time I saw her, the artifices of the mortuary would have smoothed the deepest wrinkles on her wasted face and added color to her gray skin, and while I would recognize the person I had known all my life she would also be a stranger.
And perhaps that is the essence of living at an age when family members, friends, acquaintances both private and public, will be having a kind of final word on newspaper obituary pages and social media postings written by other family members and friends and acquaintances. They will be become strangers, not forgotten but simply gone, faded from our lives, leaving a space of definite dimensions that will be joined by other spaces, an accumulation that will eventually become vast and unfathomable.
I went to two memorial services for Michael, one at the elementary school where he had given so much of his time as a volunteer, and another at his house. There was food and drink, and I spoke to some people I had met through Michael but hadn’t seen in a long time. One of his most notable traits was congeniality; almost always on display despite a painful, physical disability, and that spirit seemed to pervade those gatherings. But I was sorry that I had been out hiking the day his friend Tim called. I was sorry I couldn’t drop what I was doing and walk over to his house and catch him in a moment of sensibility and somehow perceive what he was feeling in the face of impending death. I hope he was a peace, but what I felt when I last saw him, unconscious, drawing his final breaths, can be best described by the lines of Dylan Thomas’s famous poem.
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.