The Christmas ornaments, decorations, and lights are packed away, a New Year’s Day ritual that is tedious but satisfying. This year, my sense of accomplishment is troubled by a nagging sense of something unfinished, something demanding my attention. But the task before me is not mine to complete: it is my mother’s. She is dying. We are merely keeping vigil.
Her Alzheimer’s has run a rapid course since her diagnosis 3 years ago. Nevertheless, this last stretch has caught us by surprise, so precipitous has been her decline. Last week, we received word that she’d stopped chewing her food. We drove up to Connecticut the day after Christmas. When we got to Arden Courts, she was dozing in her wheelchair. She never fully woke up, though I think she knew we were there. Luke claims she mouthed my name, but I never saw or heard it. The next day, Matt and I joined my Dad there at lunchtime, keeping company as he spoon-fed her pureed chicken and vegetables, urging her to swallow as she slept through the meal. His efforts were gentle, loving, and persistent, yet so futile. Why push her to eat, I thought? Why sustain a body whose mind has exhausted itself? Dad’s pastor arrived, told us about the St. Lucy’s Eve music at church, and asked us to join him in a prayer about letting go.
Outside, the sky is that pearl gray so common in Connecticut in December, when the icy, white sun never gets much past the horizon, even at midday. I think of John Donne’s “A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy’s Day”:
‘Tis the year’s midnight, and it is the day’s,Lucy’s, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks;The sun is spent, and now his flasksSend forth light squibs, no constant rays;The world’s whole sap is sunk;The general balm th’ hydroptic earth hath drunk,Whither, as to the bed’s feet, life is shrunk,Dead and interr’d; yet all these seem to laugh,Compar’d with me, who am their epitaph.
We stop in an Irish pub for lunch, with handsome woodwork and mismatched, faded velvet stools. I order a bowl of Guinness lamb stew—hearty, comfort food that quickens my appetite. We drink our pints and go on with the business of life, as Mom winds down hers.
Let me prepare towards her, and let me callThis hour her vigil
She didn’t eat that evening or the next morning. By early afternoon, when my sister and I stopped in to see her, she had been moved back to her bed, so she could be more comfortable. Her pulse was up to 134 beats a minute, she was running a fever, and her legs were turning blue. Mom has strict DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) instructions that prohibit feeding tubes, IV hydration, or even antibiotics. The nurses had ordered oxygen and morphine.
The end seemed nigh, yet she was awake and seemed to focus intently on us. Her wakefulness seemed like a gift—a last chance. When I said, “I love you,” she whispered, “I love you too.” My sister Elizabeth talked to her about not being afraid to let go and felt that Mom grasped her meaning. We called our sons to come back from their hike, and all six of them, ages 22 to 13, took turns alone with their Nana. Stoic and teary, they made us proud. I called Mom’s brother David, and put the phone to her ear so she could hear his voice. Dad arrived, hugged us, and held her hand. Later my brother Jonathan, his wife, and kids came in and sang her a lullaby. Jon, a trained EMT, hooked up the oxygen. We each said our goodbyes, believing, maybe even hoping, they would be our last.
The next morning, however, she had stabilized. She said “good morning” to the nurse and squeezed my father’s hand. Her fever was down, and though her heart rate was up to 150, her oxygen levels remained steady. We stopped in on our way back to North Carolina. I said goodbye again, this time leaning over and resting my head on her shoulder, feeling a warmth and softness that instantly transported me back to childhood, to the rocking chair in the living room, to her lap. I climbed back in the car, and in 12 hours, we were back home in Davidson.
Today, two days later, Mom remains “about the same.” Dad sits by her bedside, holding her hand; Sandy and Charles Wiseman drop in; my brother comes with a speaker to play some Gilbert & Sullivan for her; her nurse Emily—so loving, gentle, and attentive—checks on her; Hospice nurses measure her pulse and temperature; pastors offer prayers. And we wait.
Mostly it is my father who keeps vigil. As I imagine him there beside her bed, weeping and wracked with grief (he married her when he was 21! who is he? what is his life without her?), I think of another poem, from Tennyson’s In Memoriam:
Be near me when my light is low,
When the blood creeps, and the nerves prick
And tingle; and the heart is sick,
And all the wheels of Being slow.
Be near me when the sensuous frame
Is rack’d with pangs that conquer trust;
And Time, a maniac scattering dust,
And Life, a Fury slinging flame.
Be near me when my faith is dry,
And men the flies of latter spring,
That lay their eggs, and sting and sing
And weave their petty cells and die.
Be near me when I fade away,
To point the term of human strife,
And on the low dark verge of life
The twilight of eternal day.
Tennyson may be praying to God, but I also think he’s calling to his beloved friend Arthur Henry Hallam, to whom the long elegy, written over the course of 17 years, is dedicated. This is just one of 133 numbered cantos, all written in the same verse form but in different lengths, expressing the many shapes and stages of grief. When I searched for the poem online, I found another gorgeous, wrenching “Be Near Me” poem, this one by Faiz Ahmed Faiz:
Be near me now, My tormenter, my love, be near me— At this hour when night comes down, When, having drunk from the gash of sunset, darkness comes With the balm of musk in its hands, its diamond lancets, When it comes with cries of lamentation, with laughter with songs; Its blue-gray anklets of pain clinking with every step. At this hour when hearts, deep in their hiding places, Have begun to hope once more, when they start their vigil For hands still enfolded in sleeves; When wine being poured makes the sound of inconsolable children who, though you try with all your heart, cannot be soothed. When whatever you want to do cannot be done, When nothing is of any use; —At this hour when night comes down, When night comes, dragging its long face, dressed in mourning, Be with me, My tormenter, my love, be near me.
That’s all I’ve got. This post may be overpopulated with poetry, but “When whatever you want to do cannot be done,/ When nothing is of any use,” that’s where I turn. Because, as Philip Sidney wrote in his “Apology for Poetry” (1595): “Dire sights, bravely pictured forth, do bring delight.” It is a delight—an exquisite pleasure and great relief—to find your own inconsolable torment expressed so perfectly by a perfect stranger.