12 May 1974. Josh may be dying. It seems so witless and so unreal. I cannot relate to him as other than a living force. Words seem superfluous to the privacy and loneliness of his experience. He is Josh as he always has been; I make clumsy assurances of my love and hope. My suffering for him can only make it harder.
16 May 1974. Josh has a rapidly growing carcinoma, metastatic, inoperable. I feel cut off and far away. Many questions, no answers.
27 May 1974. Relief to find Josh recovered from his surgery. I am relieved for him but identify my own defenses. Don’t feel the full weight of his illness when he is restored to a superficial semblance of health.
20 October 1974. Josh is making plans for his death. He is supporting us; I hope we: him.
8 January 1975. Josh is holding steady. “How are your white cells holding up?” Laughter. Sunday, Josh, Dave and I drove to the mountains, sloping ridge and valley into clear blue sky, and rising moon behind.
20 March 1975. Josh: “The monster laid another egg” — and “despite all, life is a celebration.” He is a teacher.
13 May 1975. Josh is back in the hospital with a small bowel obstruction. Dr. Ferree is guiding things, which helps because of his confidence and love for her, and her willingness to be available for him.
25 May 1975. Josh is preparing for death, a process of withdrawal — he from us, his friends guiltily from him. He is very sick, thin and deeply depressed. It is fullblown summer almost over night with a wonderful sweetness in the air of honeysuckle and ripening grasses.
29 May 1975. Josh stands at the edge of anything one could call life. He is home and we plan his death.
11 July 1975. Josh died tonight, after an overdose of sleeping pills. He vomited, aspirated and died. It was very quick. I was very frightened. As Danny said, it is a crazy kind of pain/joy.
My wrong starts are filling the wastebasket. Somehow in the transition from heart to head clarity becomes confused and tries to explain itself. I try again.
The journal entries above describe the illness and death of a classmate and loved friend. My childhood experiences with death are somewhat vague to me — the death of my father, who did not live with us and whom I did not know; our neighbor; friends of my mother.
As a health student and worker, contacts with dying and dead people became more intense and frequent. Bodies were wrapped, tagged, and transported to the morgue. A young man in the intensive care unit had a cardiac arrest and was resuscitated. After long discussion, intensive support measures were continued and he died two months later, without ever fully regaining consciousness. A family agonized over honoring the decision of a cancer patient to die at home as she labored for breath, in great pain. I gaze helplessly at an examination question: “Is man truest to himself in struggling against his finitude or accepting it?”
Needing coherence, I fashioned a structure of semi-borrowed, semi-owned concepts. Death is a process, not an event; we are all dying. Death is natural and inevitable; not a problem to be solved but a mystery, ambiguous and paradoxical. Death with dignity is a human right, increasingly violated by medical technology. Death practices and mourning rituals are necessary and creative, integrating loss, confirming love, restructuring community. Fear is tied to attachments, which can be given up; we create our reality.
My friend’s death widened the gap between belief and faith. The thoughts above seemed a bizarre epitaph, a hazy rationalization for my fear, sorrow, confusion, anger and impotence. Following a self-imposed expectation of gentle and compassionate acceptance, I could not permit the raw, selfish terror at the possibility of my own death and fury at the removal of my needed friend.
Recently, my horse died. Young and playful, he became severely ill over a month and was unable to stand the last few days. We called the vet to put him down. At midnight I was waiting beside the open stall door when suddenly Shadow staggered up and out of the barn, heading for the woods on some ancient instinct. Confined by the fence line, he plodded blindly round and round. He died just as the vet injected the tranquilizer, before it could take effect.
I mourned Shadow as I was unable to do for Josh, permitting myself need, rage and doubt. I acknowledge my passionate attachment to the future, to evolving realities — loving relationships, creative work, broader understanding, self-acceptance and clarity, possibilities of intimacy and nurturing. I recognize aspects of my health practices as bargaining and others as baiting. I detect secret agendas of power, as death-denying as the high priests of technology. A friend radically converts his lifestyle and says he’ll never die. I fight feelings of spiritual ineptitude, thinking others grow toward resolution of these questions more quickly than I, I resist the urge to bring to this article a sense of closure I do not feel.
The descent beckons as the ascent beckoned. Memory is a kind of accomplishment, a sort of renewal even an initiation, since the spaces it opens are new spaces inhabited by hordes heretofore unrealized, of new kinds — since their movements are toward new objectives (even though formerly they were abandoned). No defeat is made up entirely of defeat — since the world it opens is always a place formerly unsuspected. A world lost, a world unsuspected, beckons to new places and no whiteness (lost) is so white as the memory of whiteness With evening, love wakens though its shadows which are alive by reason of the sun shining — grow sleepy now and drop away from desire Love without shadows stirs now beginning to awaken as night advances. The descent made up of despairs and without accomplishment realizes a new awakening: which is a reversal of despair. For what we cannot accomplish, what is denied to love, what we have lost in the anticipation — a descent follows, endless and indestructible — William Carlos Williams