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
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
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.
These things begin to get
as confused as he is.
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)