Sunday, December 12, 2010

Night thoughts

I had been having night thoughts anyway (albeit on a cold, cloudy Sunday afternoon) when I picked up the current New Yorker off the floor beside my chair and read an absolutely stunning essay by Joyce Carol Oates about the death of her husband of nearly 50 years.

As you would expect, Oates' piece is personal writing at its best. She describes how her robust if elderly husband, Raymond Smith, was hospitalized for an apparent case of pneumonia before succumbing a week later to raging bacteriological infections in his lungs. Interspersed with wise reflections about the nature of marriage, her memoir is a record of terror, wild hope, and ultimate despair. It is well worth the price of the Dec. 13 New Yorker.

As it happened, those night thoughts of mine had involved a similar topic. Oates spent most of her waking hours during her husband's last week at his bedside. When my Dad died - while my mother was home packing to stay with him at the hospice - I was 1,200 miles away. When, years later, my mother died of heart failure at 89, I was 1,800 miles away.

According to long tradition, a family gathers at a death bed to see a loved one off. The recent dispersal of family members across the country often makes that impossible. That last outpouring of feeling for the dying must be done from afar, and after the fact.

It can be suggested that, given what little we know of a dying person's last hours, the presence of family at the end may not really matter. It also can be said that, given the hopelessness and inevitability of the outcome, such a gathering is somehow futile. It even can be said that I was lucky to be 1,800 miles away.

Maybe. So why don't I feel lucky?

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