Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Death's door . . .

My apologies in advance for cross-posting -- I've put the following up at my other blog, Materfamilias Reads, where I keep track of my reading as well as of my responses to what I read. But this post, as you'll see, concerns the experience I described a few posts ago, so it seems to me to belong here as well. Also, I believe, it expresses part of the reality of life "at a certain age," and that's one of the goals of this blog.

I'm reading Sandra Gilbert's Death's Door: Modern Dying and the Ways We Grieve and it's helping me articulate something of what I experienced intensely through/at Pater's vasovagal episodes (fainting) last week. She uses Georges Batailles term, "disintoxication," which she summarizes as "a brief awakening from the 'projects' of love and work that function, thought Bataille, like 'narcotics' to help us repress the consciousness of our own mortality. On these occasions, [Gilbert explains,] the fearful knowledge that we're usually (and rightly) good at evading erupts into our dailiness as death's door swings so . . . dramatically open that we can't look away" (xvii). Yes, indeed. Dailiness one minute. Dinner. Wine. Putting the grandchild to bed. Watching TV. Then the eruption as death's door compels me to peer inside. No, that's not right -- for a moment I was shoved right to the threshhold . . .

A bit later, speaking of her own precipitous move through that door at her husband's sudden death, she speaks of how she and her daughters found themselves "star[ing] at the silent stone version of himself that he had become, in a space that was bleakly filled by corporeal substance. This death that had suddenly, gigantically, opened around us . . . . forced me, horrifyingly, to confront the metamorphosis of a body I had loved into a dead thing that now appeared to be the substance of fate itself" (5-6).

She speaks of the way her husband "wasn't there, but he was there. And his thereness, his presence at the center of massive absence, was what made death plausible, what flung it open like a door into an all too easily accessible space. . . into which it would be frighteningly simple to step" (6).

Gilbert is describing the mourner's temptation, no, compulsion is perhaps a better term, to follow the loved one into that space. I have not yet tested the truth of that perception although I am quite convinced by Gilbert. But what resonates with me is the image of my own husband's body, stilled, signifying death at least as much as it pointed to life. I am almost back now to the place where I can say, intellectually, "yes, of course, we are always only one incident away from death" while nonetheless being inured from that common-sense "knowledge." But for the moments I tried to pat him awake, urge him back, all while trying to call for help, I lived in a place where his death was the reality it has always already been. Several times a day, but each day with less frequency, thank God, I gasp out loud again at the intruding image of his body falling straight through space to the floor, to the grey pallor and sightless eyes of the corpse he one day will be. Disintoxification indeed. I need a drink, a narcotic, a drugged pretense, something to keep me from knowing what I know . . . what I never truly knew until last week, a knowledge I will soon, I hope, begin to forget, for now . . .


  1. Great post.

    At least 2 days out of every week I am suddenly consumed with a terrible horror of dying. When I was 12 I looked at my hands one afternoon, as I lay on my parents' bed, and understood in one instant that one day they would be the hands of an old lady. I have never forgotten. The absolute injustice of death, given the grace and beauty of life, pursues me in an unreasonable manner. I have no idea what to do about it. None.

  2. Thanks for this find--it articulates my perception so well, I have to find it.

    I teach Baudelaire fairly often, and while there are many ways to interpret his poetry canonically, I personally always see in his work the idea that the materiality that is left behind confirms absolutely the personality one treasured--that absence becomes the means by which one understands presence. I remember when a good friend died after a struggle with cancer, looking at her body in the hospice and thinking, she was so absolutely not there, so very much not Rose, that I had a clearer grasp of who Rose was.

    And seeing one's hands this way--yes, I did and still do that, too, imagining the absence of my youth in the future.

  3. Amazing post. Thanks for sharing this book and your thoughts. After losing both of my parents within the last five months, I think I'll add this one to the reading list.

    Most of the time I remember that our fear of aging has fear of death at the heart of it, and try not to let myself get consumed by the externalities. But age spots are easier to ponder than mortality, I guess.

    Once when I was in my early twenties, and was driving down Pacific Coast Highway south of Big Sur in a terrible storm (and experiencing no small bit of fear that at some point we'd go careening over a cliff into the ocean), my friend riding in the car said, "no point in worrying; when your number's up, your number's up." Odd, but I found that strangely comforting. It reminded me that all we can do is live in the moment, and keep driving through the storms.

  4. LPC: I'm glad I don't think about mortality as intensely or as often as you do. I'm interested in your recollection of your twelve-year old self's perception -- have been thinking a bit lately about this age after encountering some compelling fictional adolesent girls. Our intellect was so much more our own at that age, in some ways, I think . . .
    Put: Seeing my brother's body was the way I really accepted that he was gone -- absence/presence, absolutely. With my dad's death, I could even see that beyond the materiality of his presence, so much of him remained even in his absence because of those psychoanalytic phenomena -- introjection, projection, etc., etc.,
    Pseu: It's a rich book. Much of it is quite academic, with a heavy emphasis on literary criticism, particularly elegies, but Gilbert does a great job of weaving in and theorizing her own experience during and after her husband's sudden death.

  5. When I was a child, around the age of 8 or 9, for about three months I had nightmares about death, every single night. I would wake up before dawn and be so consumed with fear that I had to get out of bed and have a scalding hot shower until it got light enough for me to think of other things.

    Disintoxification is an extremely good way to express it - something to paper over the abyss we all know (but choose not to know, because otherwise how would we copy) is there ...

    A very profound post - one I'll continue to think about. Thank you for posting about such a difficult topic.

  6. One of the most important books I've read is Ernest Becker's "The Denial of Death", which won a Pulitzer in 1974. Becker describes the many ways we distract ourselves from the knowledge that each of us, one day, leaves this life. Our mortality is a fact, neither just nor unjust.

  7. Tiffany: I'm curious to know if there was any precipitating event to bring on your childhood worries. And also whether you notice such fears in your children.
    Papering over the abyss -- well put.
    Duchesse: I haven't read this and will make a note. I'm reading Gilbert's book in preparation for a course on elegies, and its focus is more on literary criticism than the average reader might want. Still, I think many non-academics would find it worthwhile and might even be tempted toward the poetry she references.

  8. I think my parents were on the verge of divorce (they held off for another few years) and this was my internal reaction to the tension. My kids show no such fears (thank goodness) although I have to say I do watch out for it. They are both quite sensitive - not in the sense of being quick to get upset, just quite attuned to emotional stuff - but neither seems to have the anxiety I had. Fingers crossed!

  9. Tiffany: Those must have been tough years -- glad to hear that your children don't have those fears. Sensitivity and intelligence so often go together -- a tough combo in childhood.


I'd love to hear your response to my post. Agree, disagree, even go off on a tangent, I love to know you're out there, readers. Let's chat, shall we? I apologize, though, for the temporary necessity of the Word Verification -- spam comments have been tiresomely numerous lately, and I'm hoping to break that pattern.

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