LEARNING TO DIE – POEMS IN MEMORY OF SARA GUT
As far as she’s concerned, she’d like
to have the whole thing over with—
At least that was the way it appears
when she moves into the ward,
clomping along on her walker.
And when I see the look on her face
I say, at least here you’ll be
the Olympic champion. And she
smiles ruefully. I think it was the first time
she’d ever seen people with those blank looks,
slobbering and tied artfully to their chairs. For me
it was like being back home again with my father—
the hall of the brain-damaged in the geriatric care center,
the most degrading place I’d ever seen.
It was fifteen years ago this week that he died
and the memory of his demise etches deeper
into my soul each year. So when I say goodbye to her
sitting helplessly on her bed behind the screen
in the dining hall, my heart breaks on those dotted lines.
I go back and say "Come let’s have lunch first," and help her
and her stunned attendant to the table, pointing out
the basil in the garden just outside the door,
hoping a pinch of good herbs
will stay the decay of her soul.
For she doesn’t really want to have the whole thing over with.
The foot she sacrifices tomorrow is meant to appease the gods,
not whet their appetite. “Take this damaged offering and leave me
the hair on my head, the ability to keep what’s left of my life
intact.” It is a fact – the cabbages that grow from the scar
where was her toe, are still local. Yet they return like wildflowers
with each new earth we turn over.
What no one seems to notice is that we are putting her in her grave
piece by piece. The day the doctor drew the lines
on her foot and said, this is what we must get rid of,
was for me a little funeral. Others thought differently,
I’m sure. For them it was like cutting out an ingrown toenail,
a pesky source of pain. We all face the truth, but the truth
is different, and theirs is much more bearable, more vital.
I mean it must be right to see life like an old snakeskin,
where you just leave what is dead behind and go on,
renewed. And I am just an souvenir hunter,
saving snakeskins in labeled boxes and wishing
I had time to work on something positive and new.
The day the doctor agreed
it wasn’t worth operating
any more on her cancer,
he seemed to have lost
his ubiquitous sense
of humor and sat glum,
even when I made some excuse
after we left the building
and came back into his office
to ask how much longer she had.
He answered, but mumbled,
and I had to repeat the question
in a few different ways
before he gave a clear answer.
Of course he didn’t really know
because he didn’t want to scare her any more
with tests that would pinpoint
the villainous source. So we figured
the parameters together and came out with
six months max.
Then I went back to the car and took out
the cognac I had brought for this
very occasion. But she didn’t dare
and I was driving, so we made
the long ride home in comparative quiet
as if concentrating on the road.
“Look at that sunset!” I heard myself saying
as if to a child and not a woman who would celebrate
her 91rst birthday that week. And she replied,
“Well at least we won’t have this
miserable monthly journey
to contend with again.” But I
would have given anything
to go back and forth with her—
sunrise, sunset – at least another
Farewell to you our dear dear friend –
we hold your withered hand and you grip back
with everything left in you: the blood
dripping into your blue-black arm
only gives you strength to say goodbye.
You told me months ago you weren’t afraid to die—
even when we drove back from the surgeon who had hacked
part of your foot (a sacrifice to appease the great God Cancer).
I said that for me it would depend on how and why.
A civilized death, you said, dignified
like a kiss. Yes, if only we could create
it, stage the way we want to go.
And then there you were on your bed at home,
sleeping quietly in a fever we couldn’t understand,
wishing only not to be moved, surrounded
by pictures of seventy years of man and wife
the same scene for almost your entire life.
And we just couldn’t let you go,
not without knowing
there was nothing more
that could be done.
Could we let you die of thirst, starvation?
Years ago I heard it was a gentle way to go,
that old people sometimes release themselves from life
and the pain of dying is barely felt. But we
feared to let you leave without protest – what if
in the hospital they found a medicine
to bring you back, and we would find you in the morning
reading your paper, wanting to go home.
Four years ago we put down our dog
and thought it gentle, humane. But a human being
is not the same.
So we caused you pain. Despite the ghostly note you wrote
wanting to die, we cried and called an ambulance.
What if all that was lacking was Prozac, a drink, a reason
to live. How could we not give you
that final chance.
One day two days we still had hope
but now we know
every road we could have gone
would just lead you away.
So here in Intensive Care
we sit throughout the day
patient children waiting
for Mamma to awake
and tell us what to do
for the rest of the day.
So much greater than the sum of your years
your love and wisdom
spreads over all of us now
with enough abundance to infuse
even the furthest stranger
standing cold in the rain.
Those of us whose lives were changed
forever for knowing you
can show those who did not achieve
that honor, that joy
how deeply you remain
in our hearts, in your sway.
Our ways are full of your directions,
your kind, gentle guidance.
We will miss you deeply, forever,
but each one takes you home with us
now as well.