2020 – 062/366 – Intersections: The Dying Man

or, Notes On The Experience of Reading Fanny Howe’s The Needle’s 
Eye While Watching My Wife’s Father Die And Being Reminded, 
Perhaps Unavoidably, of Rilke’s First Duino Elegy



We arrive to wait and watch.
He lies, gape-mouthed and gasping,
flinching, wincing and moaning


We go and we sit in the room
and we watch the man die
                       the man dying
                       the dying man

We watch him breathe. We
watch him stop breathing.
We watch him start breathing


We watch him wince and
moan and flinch and wheeze
and we listen to his lungs
gurgle and at some point—
as his eyes open less and less,
as the words leave his mouth
for good, as the food and the
water enter his mouth less and
less and eventually stop their
entering entirely—at some point,
watching someone die changes
into something else, changes
into something harder. At some
point—if the dying takes long
enough—watching someone die
becomes watching someone not die.


She says, The end of life is hard for the living.


He says that room back there
(waving towards the bathroom off
his room) must be hotter than this
one because he can see a white…
(gestures—fingers fluttering, hand
moving side to side)…a white…
(mumbles something and…).




“A person can feel the impression of a soft body of air indicating 
presence or further life on her hands or arms or anywhere, sometimes 
in stillness and safety, and understand that the entire universe is held 
against her skin in an equilibrium that holds her steady for her life 
span. Too great a sense of the tremendous explosion of creation in 
which we live would obliterate us. We feel what we can on our skins 
and through its porous cells into the nerves and bones where our 
reckless and pathetic ancestors carry on.”


He says he can see steam
rising from his feet.


“Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels’
hierarchies? and even if one of them pressed me
suddenly against his heart: I would be consumed
in that overwhelming existence. For beauty is nothing
but the beginning of terror, which we still are just able to endure,
and we are so awed because it serenely disdains
to annihilate us. Every angel is terrifying.”


He says there was a woman
in his room wearing a peach dress
(Did you see her?) and holding a
basket in front of her.


“One thing surrounds you in parts, drops of sunshine, or shadows,
and these vaporous gods live on after you are gone.
But wait. Where have I seen that woman’s face before? Why did
she pause at the door as if she knew me?

She is folded in smoke from the crematorium over the hills there.”


She says that her mother's favorite
fragrance, White Shoulders, has been
in the room since the day he arrived.


“ ‘The trick is to follow the clue, to see the chance connection, 
attend to it, and against all reason, follow it to the next clue, 
or coincidence, yes, if the reading at Mass echoes what you were 
thinking about in the night, follow that message out into the 
streets, and the next, follow the coincidences.’ “


I don’t believe that my dreams
are prophetic. I don’t think that
they are trying to tell me anything.
But that doesn’t mean that I don’t
listen to what they are saying.


The nurses come and they
moisten his lips and the inside
of his mouth with small disposable
sponges on the end of a stick which
they dip into the cup of ice water
that he is no longer drinking.


His lucidity slips
his slips are lucid

His lucidity is slipping
(t)his slipping is lucid.


A movement catches my eye.
It is his foot twitching, under
the volunteer-crocheted afghan.

But when I look up from my
reading, I see there also the
child’s foot, my daughter’s,
like an echo, she in the recliner
that already he has stopped using
just beyond his bed, the two of them
in the same basic position, her
mother—his daughter—between
them in a chair, the mirror of time
reflecting both ways and al(l-)ways
changing—age and youth, the mother—
his daughter—between them, between
him and his daughter’s daughter.


“She was born on a rise in
time facing two ways.”


A woman—another dying
person’s visitor—sits in one
of the sitting areas reading a
magazine and I notice the
title, “Sophisticated Living.”

She does not look sophisticated.
She mostly just looks like some
thing is being emptied out of her.


Hard shadows and
soft shadows.

Near and far.

Light from the window falls

through the blinds and
across my foot and

onto the corner of the bed

which doubles as a socket

for I.V. poles.


Always there is one thing
ending as another begins.


All positions
are transitions.

All positions
are transpositions.


These things begin to get
as confused as he is.

         but….is he?

Perhaps these things only
begin to sound as confused
as he does/is/seems.

Is he confused or is it his or
our reality that is confused?


Which is harder, watching him die
or watching him not die?





(All quotes are from Fanny Howe's The Needle's Eye, Passing 
Through Youth except for the passage begginning, "Who, 
if I cried out...", which is from Rainer Maria Rilkes First 
Duino Elegy, Stephen Mitchell's translation)

7 thoughts on “2020 – 062/366 – Intersections: The Dying Man

  1. Much love. I feel like I just went on a journey, into the edge of dying and the essence of living. I don’t know what I mean by this that isn’t obvious, but this is just so poetic. That word is overused but I think it applies in this case (I know, I know, it’s a poem with some borrowed pieces but still – it’s poetic). I hope you write more, because you are extremely good at this stuff. Wish I had this talent to take someone on a journey in such a lyrical way.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much. I am working on the words. They have never left me. I just have to dig deeper to find them, and I don’t have much time for digging these days so the ones closer to the surface are the only ones I’m able to work on really. But I think that if I fiddle with them, they probably have little strings and threads and mycelium leading by networks to deeper and bigger things…..
      And I am quite certain beyond a shadow of a cliche’d doubt that you, good sir, have said talent in spades. Your stories sing in choirs of lyrical angels.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The first three stanzas alone, with this gorgeously wrenching image, do it for me. But to keep going has its rewards. Your experience brings back, inevitably, the vigil at my mother’s bedside, long ago and far away. I feel envy that you were lucid enough to reflect and think and write (even if you wrote this much later). When my mother died I wrote a little, and it was good (wherever it is) but mostly I was like the Sophisticated Living Lady because my own life was a horror. But it was my mother’s death that gave me the way out of the nightmare (emptied me?). So it was good, it really was. Not for her though.
    Thank you, Johnny, for honing your literary ability well enough to express this very personal and universal fragment of life/time in a meaningful way.
    And once again thanks for introducing me – this time, to Fanny Howe. I think I’ll get that book. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, well, the fact that it was my wife’s father and not my own parent certainly allowed me to be a little more clinical(?) perhaps. We were not super close. Not super distant either, just no real connection. But I have also found that the idea of death has become in a way, a member of my Society of Muses. I don’t know that I have dealt with it that much more than most, and certainly less than many, but it has become a thing like the rain. But this could just be my own coping mechanism, a kind of sociopathic self defense maybe. We have brushed up against each other so many times that I keep Death at a distance.

      Death can certainly be a doorway, even for the living. I am glad that you were able to find your way through that experience. Perhaps that is all I meant by my above comment, that if we can look at death as a companion on our journey instead of the end of the journey, that then perhaps she(he/it?) can help us to grow.

      I highly recommend this Fannie Howe book. I found it uncanny the connections my mind was making with the words and the experience(s) around me.

      And thank your for your close reading. That is so appreciated.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.