Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Putting pen to paper in the face of death

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea.

Writing about death is a challenge—I’m guessing that’s true for other writers, not just me. And in contemporary fiction it’s almost a requirement that death needs to be shocking, so authors mostly write about people being killed—intentionally or accidentally doesn’t matter so long as it makes for an exciting scene. We’re all about shock and awe these days.

But what about the quiet, tender taking leave of life?

I’ve been reading E.M. Forster. (Yes, I know he’s not an American writer, but I’m not exclusive. Tennyson wasn't American either.) In 1927 he gave a series of lectures that were collected and published as Aspects of the Novel. In discussing people/characters he says that the major facts of life are birth, food, sleep, love and death and then asks, ”Does the novelist tend to reproduce them accurately or does he tend to exhibit his characters going through processes which are not the same through which you and I go, though they bear the same names?”

Forster also points out that any depiction of death “is all from the outside.” There have been stories that try to venture beyond that line between life and death (and yes, I liked The Lovely Bones), but at that point the story has also crossed the line into fantasy, because there is no way of knowing if the fiction resembles at all what is real.

But even sticking to the portrayals from the outside, so many of the deaths we experience in books and plays and films tend to be of the exaggerated variety, which makes them seem distant from our own experience.

I lost a friend this week, so I am thinking about death and looking for comfort in words. I’m discovering that I have to venture back in time to find what I’m looking for. The first death I remember from my childhood reading was Beth in Little Women. I remember crying over the pages. And I look over those chapters today and find that those scenes resonate more—touch what I am going through now—than any of the shocking and sensational deaths in the modern fiction on my bookshelves.

Maybe that means I’m naïve or parochial. I don’t think I care. I’ll take comfort where I can find it. And I find it in some of Louisa May Alcott’s words. Beth endured a long illness, and her family drew close around her as she grew weaker: “It was well for all that this peaceful time was given them as preparation for the sad hours to come …”

The hospice movement didn’t exist back then, but that’s exactly what Alcott describes—a tender approach to the end of life.

“Seldom, except in books, do the dying utter memorable words, see visions, or depart with beatified countenances; and those who have sped many parting souls know that to most the end comes as naturally and simply as sleep. As Beth hoped, the ‘tide went out easily;’ and in the dark hour before the dawn, on the bosom where she had drawn her first breath, she quietly drew her last, with no farewell but one loving look, one little sigh.”

I lost a dear friend this week. We don’t use that word—dear—much anymore. Maybe as part of the opening in a letter, but how often do we write letters these days? Dear is a specific and special word, it means “loved or especially valued.” So it means exactly what I want to say here. I lost a dear friend, and I will always think of her that way.

As for those dark hours before the dawn, it makes me smile to know that the morning she died was also the peak of the Leonid meteor showers. So I know she rode those streams of light into the heavens. I like to think that’s not a coincidence, and it makes me smile to know that every time I see a shooting star I’ll think of her.

I love you, R. 


  1. What a touching post this week. Sincere and tender and it brings a lump in my throat.