What does one speak into the space of dying?
My friend Ann is dying. Weeks ago, when we could talk, I asked her what she wanted me to do when our visits would no longer be conversations. She asked me to read Psalms (“but not the enemy ones”) and poetry. I’m not sure if she said the words, but what she told me was this: “I trust you to choose the right words.”
I’m not sure I have. I’m not sure I can.
I’ve spent the last month revisiting my bookshelves and have found that most of what the living write about dying is not for the dying, it’s for the living. The words we write about death are ironic, violent, protesting and sharp. Even the Psalmist greets his death and deliverance with promises of vengeance to enemies. Vengeance and protest are menus for the living and will not sustain those passing from this place.
So far, I’ve read her Wendell Barry (whom she called “that poor man in the woods”) and “Farewell to Shadowlands,” Lewis’ final chapter of Narnia. We shared one of Christina Rossetti’s prayers and Kailyn Haught’s “God Says Yes to Me.”
What does one speak into the space of dying? This is not a rhetorical question. What do I?
First – I love you, and I’m sorry. This is a hard question. I’ve spent a little time trying to imagine, if it were me, what I would wish to hear. But I’m not Ann – so I’m not sure whether this is helpful or not, but I love you and wish to offer something. I thought about beautiful writing – about Annie Dillard; about funny writing – about Anne Lamott; about stories – Charlotte Bronte, Emily Bronte; about poetry – William Carlos Williams and ee cummings; about Bible verses – those about peace, trust, rest, faith. And then I thought that all of those things are lovely – and I would accept any of them, as long as it was in the voice of someone I loved. I think stories about what’s happening in your life – with Soren and Gwyn and Hans and you – would be good, too. I think any gesture of love done with thought – which I know you have already put into it – will help her to know that you are there, that you are thinking of her and that you love her. Hugs to you, beautiful friend. Love you.
Perhaps if you were to just make a list of words that come to mind as you remember times you have spent with Ann. Little words like green and creamy as you remember laughing over a bowl of guacamole together. Whatever little words float to mind. Then read her the list.
thich nhat Hahn has a chapter on this in his book ‘Fear’. I’d recommend checking it out. So sorry you both are in this situation. I’ll be thinking of you two.
I’m so sorry you two are in this situation. Check out Fear by Thich Naht Hanh. He writes about this situation. I made a note to go back to it when the time came that I would need it.
Thank you all for you thoughts and suggestions. It’s good to be part of a community– even one far-flung and virtual– in an experience like this.