Wednesday, June 17, 2015

On not raging against the dying of the light


Dylan Thomas wrote the poem “Do not go gentle into that good night,” but it is worth noting that he wasn’t writing about himself.  He planned to go into that good night as quickly as possible and managed it at age 39.  He was writing about his father who died at age 75 or 76. 

I was interested in Thomas when I as back in my 20s and 30s.  Raging at the dying of the light seemed the sensible thing to do.  We back then had a lot of rage, but did poor old David John Thomas (1876–1952) when he was in his mid-70s rage as his son Dylan suggested?  I read some biographies of Dylan years ago but can’t remember how his father died.  I recall quite well how Dylan died.  He literally drank himself to death.  Does one do that in a fit of rage or is self-indulgence more to blame?

Dylan in his poem urging his father to resist death, presumably because he loved his father, didn’t want to lose him, and wanted him to hang onto life as long as possible.  He didn’t say in his poem “do it for me, dad,” but that is implied by what we know.  But how unreasonable and inconsistent is it to on the one hand urge his father to resist death for the sake of his son, while he personally drank himself to death?

Perhaps he didn’t intend to drink himself to death.  As someone who did some heavy drinking in his youth, gave it up, and is now a fairly-healthy 80, I’m not the best judge of someone who couldn’t give it up, but I judge him nonetheless, especially now that Susan has decided not to rage against the dying of the light.

Years ago Susan lost a lot of blood and was close to death.  I literally carried her to the ER at Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach.  I recall her telling me on a gurney that she was looking forward to being with the Lord.  I was mad at her.  I didn’t want her to do that.  I wanted her to stay with me.   Later after a transfusion I told her my feelings and she never said that again until recently.  Back then she had not yet turned 40, Dylan Thomas’ age, but now she has turned 70, very near the age of Dylan Thomas’ father when he died.  Back then I wanted her to rage at any dying of the light, but now when she is 70 and I am ten years older, and I have changed my mind.  I was admittedly selfish back then, but now I want what is best for her, and while I’ve played a potential struggle in my mind where I exercise some anti-dying rage, it always involves a lot more pain for her and surely at some point a person as old as Susan or Dylan Thomas’s father has suffered enough. 

I recall my own father, someone who did indeed rage against the dying of the light and managed to live until age 78.  He like Dylan was a heavy drinker and drank almost his entire life.  He was much healthier to start with and so didn’t die early.  After I got back from Korea, having learned to drink, I spent a lot of time with him.  He was in good shape and wanted me to pretend I was his brother and not his son, for the sake of some lady or ladies he was interested in.  He was about 5' 11" and 185 pounds and in very good shape, but when he was close to the end and had raged as much as possible, he was below 100 pounds and told his wife of that time that he couldn’t struggle on any longer. 

Susan when I saw her on Monday retained all her dignity.  She didn’t rage and wasn’t bowed down.  She knew as I had to admit that if she were to rage, something very much not in her nature, she would be bowed down which in her case would resemble severe dementia.  Thanks to modern science she was given, temporarily, a clear enough mind to think about the future.  There was no hope of a liver or kidney transplant.  There was no hope of eliminating the duodenal blockage.  A whole team of specialists on the Loma Linda transplant team had determined those things.  Susan’s choice wasn’t between having these transplants and not having them, it was between going to some half-way house, returning to less and less clarity of mind, severer and severer dementia and the indignity of being cared for in the most weakened of conditions or letting them disconnect the artificial aids at Loma Linda, letting her retain her clarity of mind and some dignity, letting her say good bye to family and friends and know that she was doing that. 

I know no one with a stronger faith than Susan.  She isn’t worried about what will happen to her after death.  She knows she will be with the Lord.   The chaplain who came to pray with her on Monday was surprised.  Most Christians he said had faith but still had doubts, but he soon realized she didn’t have any.  She was more a blessing to him than he was to her, but she said she like him and hoped he would come back and pray with her again.  She didn’t need him to bolster her faith.  She liked him and would welcome him back.  She was not raging at the dying of the light, she was blessing those around her even as the light died.

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