When my siblings decided to bring my sister back to my parents' house under hospice care, I was opposed to the idea. Strongly opposed. I wanted her to go to a nursing home under hospice care. I didn't think my sister with Down Syndrome could handle it, and my mother is very confused. I also wasn't sure I wanted my kids watching my sister die. All I could picture were days of suffering and tears.
In retrospect, I know now that I was wrong. The last days of my sister's life were peaceful and happy. She was able to speak a little. Smile. In her last days, I think she was really happy.
That's what Wendell Berry's poem brought home to me, and that's why Wendell Berry is the Poet of the Week. Here is the poem my friend sent to me . . .
Only His Hands, Quiet of the Sheet
by Wendell Berry
Three Elegaic Poems
Let him escape hospital and doctor,
the manners and odors of strange places,
the dispassionate skills of experts.
Let him go free of tubes and needles,
public corridors, the surgical white
of life dwindled to poor pain.
Foreseeing the possibility of life without
possibility of joy, let him give it up.
Let him die in one of the old rooms
of his living, no stranger near him.
Let him go in peace out of the bodies
of his life –
flesh and marriage and household.
From the wide vision of his own windows
let him go out of sight; and the final
time and light of his life’s place be
last seen before his eyes’ slow
opening in the earth.
Let him go like one familiar with the way
into the wooded and tracked and
furrowed hill, his body.
I stand at the cistern in front of the old barn
in the darkness, in the dead of winter,
the night strangely warm, the wind blowing,
rattling an unlatched door.
I draw the cold water up out of the ground, and drink.
At the house the light is still waiting.
An old man I’ve loved all my life is dying
in his bed there. He is going
slowly down from himself.
In final obedience to his life, he follows
his body out of our knowing.
Only his hands, quiet on the sheet, keep
a painful resemblance to what they no longer are.
He goes free of the earth.
The sun of his last day sets
clear in the sweetness of his liberty.
The earth recovers from his dying,
the hallow of his life remaining
in all his death leaves.
Radiances know him. Grown lighter
than breath, he is set free
in our remembering. Grown brighter
than vision, he goes dark
into the life of the hill
that holds his peace.
He’s hidden among all that is,
and cannot be lost.
I miss my sister. A lot. I regret that I didn't visit her more this past year. To be honest, I always thought that she was going to get better. Up until a month ago, I still held on to that hope. Her dying simply wasn't an alternative. I couldn't and wouldn't accept it.
And now, I feel like I'm stuck in tar, and everybody else is moving on to higher ground. It sort of pisses me off. I'm walking hand-in-hand with grief. My sister--the one I worked day-in and day-out with for 17 years--is dead. I'm not ready for the world to keep spinning. At least not for a few more days.
I started teaching again today. Usually, I'm happy to get back in the classroom after a long summer. This afternoon, however, I was performing. Playing the part of the happy, wise-cracking professor. The students bought it all. Inside, all that kept going through my head was: "None of this is important." At the end of life, God's not going to care if you know the difference between a comma splice and a gene splice.
My question this Ives dip Monday:
Was my sister happy at the end of her life?
And the answer:
The phonograph music would fill the living room, and she would find her head turning and digging deep into the easy-chair headrest in rhythm to the beat, as if she were a 1940s bobby-soxer, and she would daydream about the time when Robert had used their living room as a rehearsal studio for a kind of jazz group he put together with kids from the neighborhood. Some knew what they were doing, others didn't, and the neighbors knew it too. During those sessions he played a snare drum with brushes and foot-tapped a high hat and felt so honored, so formal about jazz, despite his ecclesiastical training, that he used to shine his penny loafter and put on a tie before playing.
That's Annie Ives thinking about a happy moment in her son's life. A time when Robert really was joyful, playing in a jazz band with his friends.
Saint Marty will take that answer as a "yes." His sister was happy at the end of her life.
Adventures of STICKMAN