Posted by: Harold Knight | 09/19/2011

“. . . to banish death awareness furthermost from our active attention. . .”

like a roaring lion walketh about

like a roaring lion walketh about

We have been here before. Every family has. Watching and waiting for the death of a person we love, one of those who comprise our circle of protection as we enter and leave this world. For our family so far—my partner, our mother, our brother-in-law; and now, our father.

Growing up, we experienced the New Year among the Baptists not with Guy Lombardo and Auld Lange Syne, but with what we called a “Watchnight Party” (no booze but silly games and kids determined to make it to midnight when the grownups had a Communion service, and the hymn “Blest Be the Tie that Binds”).

Last night was a watchnight for me. I slept in a funky pink chair-bed thing parked  beside my father’s bed in his skilled-nursing-facility room. It has been many years since my father and I slept in the same room. I don’t remember a time since I was a senior in high school. That high school night was New Year’s Eve in a hotel in Monterrey, Mexico. A family trip. Wonderful and strange.

I went down to the bar to see in the New Year, 1963. A family from Mexico City who had been on a trip to the U.S. were in the bar. They bought me drinks. I danced with the mother at midnight and sang “Las Golandrinas.” And felt so grown-up and sophisticated. Then, because of the configuration of the hotel room our family were in, I had to crawl into bed beside my father, reeking—I was pretty sure—of vermouth and champagne. I heard about it later.

Blest be the tie that binds
our hearts in Christian love;
the fellowship of kindred minds
is like to that above.

Before our Father’s throne
we pour our ardent prayers;
our fears, our hopes, our aims are one,
our comforts and our cares.

We share each other’s woes,
our mutual burdens bear;
and often for each other flows
the sympathizing tear.

 When we asunder part,
it gives us inward pain;
but we shall still be joined in heart,
and hope to meet again
(1).

His body is my body

His body is my body

The main difference between my private watchnight and the old Baptist ones and my dancing in Monterrey is the certain knowledge of the outcome last night. There are no toasts to the New Year, no resolutions to make, no black eyed peas to cook.  How can I remember—perhaps I don’t; perhaps it’s one of those made-up memories—hearing the words, “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour” (2). For some reason I have it in my mind that was one of the lessons read at the Watchnight Service. I don’t know why. But last night it seemed particularly appropriate.

Not the adversary—death—walking about to devour us but “be sober, be vigilant.” We moderns (or postmoderns or post-postmoderns or retros or steam punkers or whatever we are these days) have no clue how to be vigilant in the presence of death. Indeed, the

tendency to place a buffer between oneself and the Void is as inveterate as the fear of death. “We run heedlessly into the abyss after putting something in front of us to stop us from seeing it,” Pascal wrote in his
Pensees. That “something” Pascal called human activity, which, he argued, could as a whole be placed in the category of diversion (3).

It is not clear today if my father’s death is immanent. Everything points to hours.  His breathing has “become irregular and shallow; [he is] experience[ing] periods of apnea (absence of breathing); noisy breathing.” He is restless—asleep or awake—with “involuntary movement, agitation, repetitive motions such as picking at sheets or clothing” (4). Last night, when he appeared to be unconscious, he managed to pull his hospital gown off as I watched, mystified, unwilling to stop him.

Watching my father’s struggle (and all one can do is watch—and be sure the comforting, rest-making drugs are given in a timely manner) should inspire letting go, but

here is the paradox: we desire to banish death awareness furthermost from our active attention, yet not to ‘face down’ the power of its terrifying beauty is to restrict our availability to the deepest life forces of humanitarian feeling (5).

I want to be available to the deepest life forces of humanitarian feeling. I am somewhat a humanitarian in the usual sense of the word. I “hav[e] the interests of mankind at heart” (6), but I am not “a person actively engaged in promoting human welfare.” Perhaps I should not quote John Hills. Perhaps all I want is to be available to the deepest life forces of my own feelings.

It is all good. All.

It is all good. All.

Last night I discovered my father’s eyes open. I bent over his bed, and his face, frozen in the same unconscious, mouth agape and frightened position since I have been here, changed into what I will forever believe was a smile. He shook his head almost imperceptibly in that (either approving or disapproving depending on the situation) way he has done for as long as I have known him and reached his hands up toward my neck. We hugged for one second. I know that for one moment, at least, he knew I am with him.

John Hills prefaces his article quoting the Buddhist Dhammapada, “Like a fish which is thrown on dry land, taken from his home in the waters, the mind strives and struggles to get free from the power of Death.” I sat holding my father’s hand for an hour—no activity, no diversion—and came to the most peace I’ve known as one who has been thrown on dry land gasping. I cannot put into words the source of that peace. But I know his body is my body. My body is his body. His body is actively dying, but my body is only in the beginning stages of dying. My process may take another thirty years, but it is inexorable. I have no son to live on half in my body. But I am part of the large (universe-sized) mystery of living on and dying.

I am the most blessed person I know at this very moment. Blest be the tie that binds. Christian love, our father’s throne, I don’t know (I actively doubt). But it’s not “shall be joined in heart.” Are joined in heart. Heart as in body. Heart as in essence. Facing death in a way I never could/would on my own and knowing it is all good. All.
________________________
(1) Fawcett, John (1740-1817). “Blest Be the Tie that Binds.”  Hymns Adapted to the Circumstance of Public Worship. Leeds, England: 1782.
(2) 1 Peter 5:8. The Bible. King James Version.
(3) Antinoff, Steven. “Spiritual Atheism. Part Two: The Quest for Atheistic Salvation.” American Poetry Review 35.4 (2006): 23-35.
(4) “General Signs & Symptoms of the Terminal Phase.”  Pamphlet. Vitas Innovative Hospice Care.
(5) Hills, John. “Facing Down Death.” Existential Analysis: Journal of the Society for Existential Analysis [serial online] 21.1 (January 2010):124-135.
(6) “humanitarian.” Collins English Dictionary – Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition. HarperCollins Publishers. Dictionary.com Web. 19 Sep. 2011.

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Responses

  1. Harold, I’m so glad he was able to stay on until you arrived and that he knew you were there. I saw that same struggle and fidgeting in my mother last year, and while it troubled me, I agree that it is life-affirming. Do not go gentle into that dark night. We can talk more about this when you get back.

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  2. What an astonishing blessing to be with this man who has loved you so well as he dies.

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  3. […] I quoted this same passage of Antinoff quoting Pascal in my writing the day before my father died. I guess I’m stuck here. Shall I comment on circular […]

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