Monday, September 18, 2006

Going gentle into that good night

The memorial service for the father of a good friend of mine was held at the retirement community where he and his wife had lived for the last couple of years. The place is one of those spectacularly lovely and well-designed "total life care" environments, independent living and assisted living and skilled nursing care in one facility, with movement from one section to another possible as time and health dictates.

My son is about the same age as this friend's children, and during the twenty-five years I've known her we've shared several Thanksgivings and Christmases and weddings. That's where I met her parents.

So I already knew that her father had been a great raconteur with a seemingly endless supply of funny stories, and a skilled craftsman who loved to build things around the house. But at the service I learned he'd been much more. As we entered the room we saw a display of photos of her parents and the family--parties and trips and good times, and several of her father when he'd served in the army with Patton during World War II. During the service I heard warm and loving recollections from his children and grandchildren, and from colleagues and friends.

But one person was mysteriously missing: his wife. They'd met at the age of thirteen and been married for sixty-six long and happy years. I looked around the room but could not find her. Then during the service, the minister explained that no, his wife would not be attending.

I'd known that she was in the middle stages of Alzheimer's disease. But I also knew that she'd been told about her husband's death, and since they'd still been living together in an assisted living apartment, surely she felt his absense, whether she could recall it or understand it. But the minister noted that experts in Alzheimer's had suggested that her attendance at a service such as this would be a pointless cruelty: she would only be saddened by it and yet would not remember it. It would reopen the wound of her husband's death freshly from moment to moment, to no purpose. And so it had been recommended she stay away, and come down only for the reception and luncheon, which would seem to her a sort of party.

And a sort of party it was, actually. When a 90-year-old dies after a rich full life, that life can mostly be celebrated, although of course there's grieving, as well.

My friend's mother looked very well when she arrived, greeting all with a smile, clearly happy to see the assembled crowd of relatives and old friends. Someone such as myself--a very tangential figure in her life--no longer was identifiable, although graciousness still ruled her behavior and she greeted me warmly.

But for now she still knows her close family and dearest friends, although that will fade, sadly enough. Throughout the luncheon her smile seemed genuine, seated next to her older sister on her right and her younger brother on her left, all looking far younger than their 90-or-so years. And even when, because of her Alzheimer's, she forgot to use her fork, and picked up pieces of her salad with her hand, her fingers grasped the lettuce leaf oh-so-delicately in a gesture that could only be described as polite and refined.

Gone are the days she used to hold forth with strength and vigor, speaking on many subjects, giving advice and counsel. Now she seems tentative and childlike, with a sweetness about her that makes everyone want to protect her. But protection can only go so far; although I hope it surrounds her to the end.

Years ago I read Dylan Thomas's famous admonition to his father to fight against the vagaries of age and the coming of death:

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.

Perhaps that way is best for some. But for others, perhaps it's best to try to say with Ecclesiastes:

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted.

A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance...

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