I am not used to writing about people who are actually dying. I kill people off in my novels. But it’s fiction, written with the assumption that the book and I will continue. But this important and wonderful book, Fragments of Loss by Annie Smith, written in lovely, clean free verse, is about someone dying who really dies. Her husband Jack. It is a different kind of writing. It makes my fiction writing seem suspect, slightly disingenuous and make-believe. Her book is about the real thing. Something that will happen to me—and to you. It’s an event I have been pushing back down into my unconscious my whole life. Into the drawer labeled Denial. I suppose I do it through my writing, as well. Maybe that’s one of the functions of writing, of art and creativity in general. Perhaps along with everything else we do. To not fully consider the reality of one’s coming end. To not include it in the list when we look forward into the future.
And yet, two things. In my case, it’s no longer working. I am bumping up against the end of my life, like a rowboat drifted ashore, the waves not yet strong enough to drive it all the way up on the beach. And, two, I was lucky enough to come across Fragments of Loss and realize, just in time, I will need it for the next step, for what will happen to me and those I love.
Don’t get me wrong. This is no westernized Tibetan Book of the Dead that guides our consciousness through the interval between death and the next rebirth—an interval they call the bardo. That was what we read in the Sixties, thinking it would help us find our way. In fact, rebirth or any other form of continuing is not part of this book’s thread. Except for those who are not dying.
And, of course, that is where the difficulty lies. The idea of not continuing. If at this moment, your impulse is to run, I urge you to first buy this gentle, beautiful book and keep it for later. Because this is a subject that will not go away. And someday you will need someone wise and truthful who has gone on before you. In the meantime, I’ve been finding both comfort and humor in Mark Twain’s words: “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.” And we’ll be dead for billions and billions of years afterward, so why should that bother us either?
Annie Smith invites us to learn things as she takes us on her journey. Things like the gradual loss of intimacy—but not of love—with someone we have slept beside for years, whose heartbeat we’ve felt, who has been our friend and warm harbor. About the loved one’s gradual withdrawal, as they use more and more of their energy to face the task of leaving. This is just one of the insights Annie Smith shares with us. She knows more than I do about dying, and am willing to let her lead. I wanted to call her something like a thanátogogue, a word I made up. Thanatos (θάνατος), the Ancient Greek word for death. Plus, Agogue (ἀγωγός), the word for guide. But it’s too clumsy and not clear enough. I prefer the word doula, a female slave in ancient Greece. In the modern sense, a woman who supports the birthing mother before, during and after the birth, offering continuity and peacefulness. Ensuring that the birthing mother is protected and has a chance to have an experience that is deeply spiritual. Which is not something likely to happen in a hospital.
I like the idea of substituting dying for birthing. In the first case, the doula helps us emerge. And then, when the time comes, she or someone like her helps us depart. That is what Annie Smith and her book offer: the example of the doula who, at least metaphorically, protects the process, for herself and for Jack, to the best of her ability. Letting it take place at home and in the context of discovered rituals that, given free course, are both spiritual and comforting. It’s as if she leads us through scenes of a play, where we are spectators who are invited to get involved.
Scene 1. And the first lesson. She is not allowed to talk about what was happening to Jack, because he remains in disbelief. Hence, and she feels shut out. “Adding to the growing distance.” Bladder cancer had escaped and was on the loose. And he is dying. Losing control over his body. First in the hospital, then at home, as the body was trying to shut down. The difficulty of keeping food down, of getting air. At least three things were happening. Trying to keep Jack with her. At the same time, letting him go, and admitting to her own denial and deepening dread.
Scene 2. Her home is threatened. Home is the place where your loved one is. When’s he or she’s gone, will home be gone, too?
Scene 3. On hearing the diagnosis, Jack lists of all the foods he wants to eat before the time comes. The essence of contradiction. Because food is emblematic of continuation. Death, of non-continuation. A juxtaposition hard to contemplate for those of us who continue to continue.
Scene 4. Where will you choose to die? Jack chooses Mexico as a better place to die. Annie measures the time left. “Will this notebook be full?” by then, she asks. And what will she do to keep from running from it all? She chooses qigong, meditation, writing and reading. She keeps a journal, from which come, years later, these shared insights. At the same time, like a spider, she weaves threads to things that sustain her and keep her in the world. The moon at dawn, “a thin lunar cup.” While listening to Jack moaning nearby.
Scene 5. There’s room for resentments. At so many little things to constantly do, like refill Jack’s green oxygen bottle. In the next moment to be filled herself, with sadness. Things grow in the garden, reassurance that life continues. As Jack goes in the other direction and “rides the cramps of life’s contraction back to its rest place.”
Scene 6. Part of the terror, his and her, is Jack’s panic. His phlegm-clogged lungs, not being able to breathe, being breathless and scared. I am told Morphine can take the edge off this panic. Annie feeds him a marijuana cracker with cheese. It gets him through the night, keeps him from waking up in terror. This gives two nights of respite. She considers the coming change in pronouns. Foreseeing I, not We.
Scene 7. Thanksgiving. Twenty-seven people come to celebrate, knowing it will be Jack’s last. He chooses the idea of food over its pulverized, hence edible version. Afterward, she closes up the house alone. A truthful, surprising, subtle commentary. “There’s a certain excitement in being so close to the spot where death will close in.”
Scene 8. Jack withdraws to his bed, the party continues, later he tells Annie he might like to have pie for breakfast. Annie wonders whether, in his shoes, she “wouldn’t give up, ask for something to end it.” She hasn’t brought it up, though years ago they “promised to help each other if life became unbearable.”
“Jack is still here after a night where he woke up
not being able to breathe
a loud noise in his ears….”
I insert myself here. Surely it is a time for Morphine or doses of Marijuana. In my case, that is what I would leave written instructions for. Enough for comfort, acceptance. For participating in the leaving.
Scene 10. Annie sleeps in a back room, where
“(I can enjoy) the view of the stars from my bed
I find that comforting….”
An important piece of guidance from the doula, for herself and us. It is all right to balance Jack’s approaching death with taking care of herself—separating, as he goes, and she remains.
Scene 11. Jack hangs on. On December 1, Annie gets out of his bed to shower. He wants her to stay. She goes anyway. Hospice, she writes, claims that our energy leaves our bodies from the bottom up. Jack puts a pillow over his head, perhaps so he will still be there when she gets back. It is late in the day. Night is falling as she returns from the shower.
Scene 12. Annie’s words move from free verse to prose. Jack wants to sit in his rocking chair. Once there, he faces one of his paintings. “He stared intently into the painting as though he recognized something or someone. His feet began to run in place and, to the extent he was able, he leaned forward. We held his hands telling him over and over that it was ok to go.” Annie switches back to free verse.
“(We told him) That we loved him
there were three ragged breaths
one more startling breath
Scene 13. The neighbors come. They light candles. Drink margaritas. “We told loving, humorous stories about Jack.” And then they ate dinner. In an extraordinary scene. “A chicken dish with tomatoes and curry that Jack had liked. We all ate at a large table next to his bed.”
Scene 14. She asks the doctor not to come until the morning to pronounce him officially dead. “Now we could have this one last night together.”
“I lay on the couch right next to his bed
eventually I fell asleep
happy he was finally at peace
goodnight my love”
Scene 15. That night, Jack lies dead in the bed next to her. Again an extraordinary scene.
“Candle light smooths the walls
rests on the mystery in his paintings.
I can almost see him breathing
see the covers rise and fall.”
Scene 16. When the van comes the next day and they take the body away, and
“the room spills it emptiness into me
my body was heavily here
with the knowledge
that I would never touch him again
never again be touched by him
Scene 17. She spends the day touching his clothes. As I did all night long the night of my father’s death. He, in a cooler at the hospital, I sleepless in his bedroom. I suppose looking for him, I who did not see him die, nor any trace of him afterward.
Scene 18. Passing in and out of the horror that your loved one’s body has been reduced to ashes. Like
A pale peach silk bag
resting on my lap
than a newborn baby.
Annie Smith’s brilliant grouping of words. And characteristic of her poetry in this book. And meaningful, because we know from earlier in the book that she had once brought a baby boy to full term, only to be born dead.
Scene 19. Another lesson. A “deep body grief” is inevitable, but it was not as bad as she thought it would be.
“I have always had a distance
that separates me from people.”
An important honesty for the rest of us. A protection from endless grief.
Scene 20. Also, the tide will come back in, eventually, if we sufficiently choose life.
“I woke up this morning
filled with happiness
for the first time in weeks.”
Scene 21. But where is Jack? And where was my father? I wish I had had this book then I was trying to understand.
“It’s time to recognize Jack inside me
that Jack is in my cells
I want a relationship
with that Jack
Scene 22. Over time, she experiences an emerging sense of freedom. She can go to New York, Santa Fe, Greece or Rome.
“He is no longer a reason
for what I can or cannot do.”
She chooses healthy continuation. But she still keeps a vigil, looking for Jack,
As the moon crosses over his studio
and slips behind
Scene 23. She writes a letter to Jack, in prose. On a Christmas eve. They had cleaved together, she writes, “and death does not have the power to undo that.” The whole family was wounded by his leaving. “Death wounds the way pruning wounds. It may be the best thing but it hurts and bleeds.”
At the end of the letter, with the power of the poet, she enjoins him: “My art is words. Help me with my words. I call on your love to be here with us this Christmas Eve 2003 and for all our lives.” At the same time, she sends him on his way, or shares him with the world. She leaves his clothes on a table in the patio, and people come to take what they want. “So at times I think I see you turning corners up ahead.”
Your clothes left your closet
in a soft warm tide
spreading across town
Scene 24. When my father died, and I was looking for him that night, really only his smell was left, and I recognized that it was the same smell I got when I rubbed my own scalp. She keeps Jack’s brush and glasses.
I could always smell
when you had used my brush
testosterone has a distinctive scent
which I inhale deeply now
Scene 25. Listening for the loved one’s car. We will think we hear his or her foot steps, or the key in the door. That is something that will not go away very soon. We listen for it. And that is a good thing, and should not surprise.
Scene 26. There is a well known phrase: “Oh, Death, where is thy sting?” Corinthians 15: 55-56. It takes on a specific meaning for me now, after reading Annie Smith’s Fragments of Loss. Her book takes the sting out of death, tames it to something which can not terrorize, now that we know so much more about it. A wonderful and important contribution to the biggest and most profound experience we will ever have. The one that walks along with us, holding our hand, our entire lives.