Earlier this year I visited a woman who was gravely ill. She lay in a hospital cot, its side rails elevated. Her room was comfortably warm. Sunlight cast geometric patterns on pastel-green walls.
The woman lay under a quilted blue blanket. She was very old. Her eyes, half closed, were recessed into deep, dark hollows. She had sunken cheeks, their pallor gray, the skin dry. A wisp of gray-white hair touched her brow. The architectural lines of her jaw and chin were exceedingly fine. She had been beautiful once.
The woman breathed heavily. At times she uttered unintelligible words. She was clearly agitated. The nurse on duty administered drops of morphine under the tongue, and soon the drug had its desired effect. The woman slept.
As I stood and held the woman’s hand, which was cold and without movement, a curious phrase came suddenly to mind: she has not finished dying. I had read that. A page torn from a magazine—a writer’s reflections on the fate of an ill and aging uncle—had lodged in memory.
“Time has worked its relentless erosion,” the writer begins. “Death lurks in the interior of the tissues…and the action of time consists of peeling away [life’s] successive layers so as to render death ever more visible.”
The writer, F. Gonzalez-Crussi, is a noted Mexican essayist and physician. In the story he relates, he and his uncle are conversing in Spanish, and the uncle now speaks: “All my friends and contemporaries are long dead. Me, I just can’t finish dying — No me acabo de morir — I cannot finish dying.”
And the writer asks sharply: “Are you impatient? Would you rather finish?”
“Of course not,” the uncle responds. “Life is the most important thing we have.”
Yes, the writer agrees, life has transcendent value. Yet he questions the proposition his uncle’s utterance seems to imply: that life is, in effect, little more than a scale of mini-deaths. If it were, the writer argues, “final death could hold no terrors. It would be one more trivial event in a series of trivial events…a routine happening…without sudden sadness.
“But, in truth, extreme old age is no half death: it is every bit as vital as the bloom of youth, only different. The tempo is slowed, the tension has slackened, but the qualitative nature of being is the same.”
And when his uncle acknowledges the importance of life, the writer says, the old man is declaring himself “a passenger aboard
life’s vessel, a believer in life’s flow in the direction of becoming. For only death annihilates all sense, all becoming, to replace them with non-sense and absolute cessation.”
At this point, the writer enlarges on his philosophic construct that pairs youth with age. The two fuse; they are, for him, one and the same. And as he leaves his uncle, not knowing whether he will see him again, two scenes capture his imagination.
He recalls himself, initially, as a child who, for the first time, experiences the idea and the anguish of death. In the second scene, he witnesses that fragile antique, his uncle, exhibiting “the supreme lassitude of the last stages of life.”
And the writer says: “The youth who yearns to run away from a funeral chamber and the old man who anticipates his own funeral asleep in his armchair — the two are essentially equivalent. Infinite hope with few regrets, or infinite regrets with little hope: the tally is the same. A long stretch of futurity ahead and a brief stream of [past] behind, or a huge trail of (past) and a thin rim of futurity: they have exactly the same worth.”
As I read those words, I kept returning to the core of the writer’s essay, his uncle’s singular remark: “I cannot finish dying.” Yet despite the uncle’s startling announcement, the process of decline and decay was, and is, a seamless continuum that will not, of course, remain unfinished. It demands conclusion. It defines the universal reality that holds our gaze. It shatters pretense.
Musing on these matters, I considered, once more, the moribund woman I had visited and whose hand I had briefly held. Like the writer leaving his aging uncle, I had departed the woman’s bedside knowing it was unlikely I would return. And indeed, a day or two later, I received word that she was no longer “a passenger aboard life’s vessel.” She had completed her journey.
Alan Littell is former travel editor of The Sunday Spectator. He lives in Alfred.