Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.
What a roller coaster ride this week has been, ending yesterday morning with an early morning telephone call announcing my uncle’s death. It was no surprise, certainly, for the night before was spent as witness to this battleground between living and dying. I have become all too familiar with death, have seen it often enough to recognize all the signs and symptoms. It isn’t an attribute to admire, nor a skill I ever wanted to have, but there it is…and I have been further schooled this week, watching someone go into that everlasting night, raging against the dying of the light.
All the familiar platitudes apply – it was a blessing, he’s in a better place, he’s finally at peace. True enough, I suppose, for a frail, elderly man with Alzheimer’s Disease, a man who no longer recognized his family, his home, or I suspect, even himself when he looked into the mirror.
And while I’ve become all too familiar with the roadsigns pointing to the final exit, I’ve also become familiar with the journey we survivors take, the road we travel along with our dying companion, and the things we learn along the way.
Unlike any of my other more recent experiences with death, I was able to share this journey with others. And what a difference that makes! You see, though my aunt and uncle had no children of their own, he has two other nieces in addition to myself, women I have known since my childhood, but who I have rarely seen since we became adults and went our separate ways into family and work lives of our own. This past week we became like three sisters, joined in a common cause to support our uncle on this last journey. How amazing to reconnect with such intelligent, caring, loving, women -strong and faithful, yet full of fun and light. Their mother and my mother are friends as well, and they joined us in the cause. I realized how much I’ve missed in not having a sister, and how my way will always be darker because of my oneness in the world. I’d like to think the three of us will remain friends, and greedily wish they could adopt me into their large family, but realistically I know we’ll return to our corners of the universe and likely not cross paths again unless until death comes calling once more.
But there were huge disappointments, which no amount of camaraderie could restore. The lack of caring and attention by hospital staff continues to amaze me, the way the medical profession has no idea how to respectfully or humanely deal with end of life situations. I know that doctors and nurses are trained to preserve life – but when they become aware there is no hope of doing so they beat a hasty and terrified retreat. I had hoped that things were changing – sadly, they are not. One of the biggest challenges facing the medical profession within the next generation is learning to provide humane, compassionate care to elderly people in the end stages of their life.
At the end of it all, we come to the end of this particular road, the life of this man, a man most of us remember as one who gave unselfishly of all he had to those he cared about. A man who embodied the American dream, born the child of Mexican immigrants and becoming an educated, professional man. A man extremely proud of his service to the nation, filled with stories of his exploits in the “big war, WW2.” A man who liked the “better things”…suits from Brooks Brothers, automobiles from Cadillac. A man who lived in the same house in Michigan for almost 60 years, but never lost his longing for the hills of Texas, which he probably always considered his true home.
And though I know he wouldn’t want me to be sad, I can’t help but mourn the loss of a man who was like a second father to me, a man who cared about me without reservation, who thought I was perfect no matter what I did, who somehow always saw the little girl I once was, even after I was grown and had a child of my own. It’s hard to lose those kinds of people, because it forces you one step closer to the point when no one will recall you in that special way, when you too will be old and facing the dying of the light.
But I’m not ready to go there just yet, and will not go quietly…no indeed, you will find me raging against the dying of the light.
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.