Posted by: scintillatingspeck | November 2, 2012

Death’s door.

It appears that my father-in-law, Paul, is dying.  He had a heart attack a little less than a week ago, and from what I can piece together from what family members are saying, it sounds like his body is very weakened and has multiple problems that could lead to his near-term demise.

I arrived here with Tom and Lily last night, driving across western Massachusetts and all the way across the large, silent, rainy openness of New York State.

We had dinner with my mother-in-law, Anne, and my husband’s brother, Ed.  We started to have a discussion about what Paul’s wishes might be regarding prolonging his life or perhaps wanting a DNR (do not resuscitate).  This is uncharted territory for Hartleys, it seems.  There was a visit from a palliative care doc yesterday– I wish I knew exactly what he said.  There is an email exchange going on between the four siblings, and Tom shared some of the back-and-forth with me; his sister Nora seemed to emphasize that the palliative care doc was saying how serious it was.  Anne has said there were two “Dr. Doom’s” who were trying to impress upon the family the direness of the situation.

Last night the phone rang; it was a doctor at the hospital, saying Paul’s condition was worse and asking for Anne’s wishes about treatment.  She said into the phone, “Yes, do everything you can.”

I sense my mother-in-law’s deep ambivalence about what to do.  My heart breaks for her.  She says she is not ready to lose him.  She also says she knows he wouldn’t want to be kept alive with tubes and apparatuses.  She’s trying to put a brave face on everything, saying, “I’m not going to get hysterical.  My grandmother did that.  I’m not going to do that.”  And I see in her eyes that inside, she is hysterical.  I told her, if you need to let your hair down, you can do that.  She doesn’t want to.  I’m ready for it, though.

My stoic and not-so-verbal husband and brother-in-law are being their stoic, not-so-verbal selves.  But they are very much present.

I’m not sure what will happen today.  I’m hoping I will be able to get Lily into the cardiac care unit to visit her grandfather.  Supposedly she is not allowed in there.  Ed also brought up the idea that maybe Paul wouldn’t want Lily to see him in such a state.  We agreed that we would ask Paul what he wants in that regard.  Anne said she thinks he would be delighted to see her.  I think so too.  Ed was worried in part because Paul was very belligerent yesterday.

I say all this because I don’t believe in keeping this quiet.  I don’t want death’s door to be hidden behind a curtain.  I think it’s ultimately unkind and cruel to maintain silence around the reality of death and suffering.  Increasingly, I’m seeing that I have a role to play in facilitating openness about this.  And not just about Paul’s inevitable, looming death.

My brain is leaping to connect the dots about my purpose now.  My own suffering and closeness to death in my lifetime.  My daughter’s closeness to death at her birth.  The emotional immersion into the suffering of parents whose babies died.  Overarching all of that, the dire awareness of the state of the world, the staggering destruction, the wars, the warping of the climate, the twisting of souls through cultural imperialism, the repeated murder of countless species, the march towards extinction.

Not long ago, a fellow collapsitarian pointed me to a very timely podcast about death (thank you again, K).  It rings over and over in my ears.  Do not hide your children away from death.  Show up.  Be there.  So here we are, ready.  My five-year-old, she can do this.  I know she can.  The alternative is to stuff it away and pretend we’re all okay.  We’re not okay.  Paul will not be okay.  The world will not be okay.

I think we need to delve deeply into Wendell Berry’s poetic statement, “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.”  I do agree with him, but I think I may be interpreting the implications quite a bit differently from the standard interpretation.  I can’t accept that “be joyful” means “shunt aside the suffering.” The joy cannot be mutually exclusive with the very real anguish.  “Considering all the facts” to me means allowing the reality of near-term extinction to be present in one’s consciousness.  It’s an extraordinarily difficult step to take.  It is stepping over an invisible line that shakes the foundations of everything we’ve ever believed.  Some might say it’s stepping off a cliff into an abyss of insanity and despair.  What I’m finding is that, instead, it’s stepping into a new kind of sanity, a changing of priorities, an experience of being fully alive.

I gain considerable comfort from connecting with others, mostly through this here electronic device.  My heartfelt gratitude to you kind-hearted, radical truth-tellers.  You know who you are.  I picture us together in a clearing in the woods, around a fire, arms around shoulders, weeping and laughing, talking and being silent, offering sustenance to each other.

I ask for your love and words today.  And I ask on behalf of all the Hartleys as well.



  1. My prayers and thoughts and gratitude go out to all of you. I am grateful that you are teaching Lily that it is ok to grieve, to worry, to show up for what you are feeling. That little girl is receiving more than just a home schooling education, but also a life education. I’m sorry that this is something she must face. I’m grateful she gets to face it with you, someone who has the courage to feel what you are feeling. I so appreciate how much of yourself you are sharing. Thank you.
    My heart and prayers are with ALL of you. I love you all. ❤ Moe

  2. You have my love, Jen. And my words echo Julian of Norwich’s words: “All shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” I believe that, Jen, even in the face of death. Julian lived through plague epidemics and spoke these words in the midst of them. And, yes, I agree with you that we must look into the face of it all. You are brave and good.

  3. Thinking of you all today, as you help each other and hold each other through this. Love you very much and wish I could be there to help.

  4. Oh my, Jen. I agree deeply with each word that you write. I am there with you, standing in the clearing in the woods…

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