Johns Hopkins Magazine -- June 1998
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JUNE 1998

Carol Donsky Newell (MA'78) lives in Earlysville, Virginia, and teaches American literature at a variety of community colleges. Her essay is the first in an occasional series of ruminative first-person essays from our readers.


Death in Life
By Carol Donsky Newell (MA '78)

When I taught literature to college freshmen, they would complain that while the class was interesting, they didn't understand why everything they read was about death. We studied William Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily" (murder mingled with the death of a way of life) and Katharine Anne Porter's "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall" (the mind shifts of an elderly woman drifting toward death), Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" (the town's ritual stoning of one of its own), and Raymond Carver's "A Small, Good Thing" (a couple loses their child). And then there was always Flannery O'Connor, brilliantly mixing humor and violence and death, and D.H. Lawrence's "The Rocking-Horse Winner," with its young child protagonist dying feverish and "lucky" at the end.

I would tell my students that writers worked themes around death because: it was a great leveler--we all faced the inevitable end; it was a universal fear; and it was one of the last frontiers of the expansive unknown. In truth, we never quite believe that our hearts will someday cease pumping and our lungs will quit pulling in oxygen and taking out carbon dioxide. Like the actors on Woody Allen's screen in The Purple Rose of Cairo, we cannot face having the projector turned off and being forced into a dark nothingness.

I explained this as a writer who often wrote about death, and as someone who had some experience with loss. I was born with a heart condition, and when I was 7 and going through my first heart surgery, my young roommate, who knew sign language because her mother was deaf, taught me how to sign my name and say I Love You on our first day together. The next morning she was gone. I knew from the way nurses avoided answering me and the way nobody would look me directly in the eye that she was dead, although I wasn't sure what that meant. I nearly died too, but I didn't know it then. I knew only that life can be painful and tough and isolating, and that laughter can sometimes heal the despair.

If what we leave behind gives us some kind of immortality, then my young roommate whose name I can't remember is forever part of me, for I can still sign my name and say I Love You with my hands.

Later, when I was a teenager, my grandfather died in our house of lung cancer. I missed him terribly, but to my mind he was old and so his death seemed more natural than that of my young roommate. Older people did die, and when you're 16, anyone over 30 is old. I have many memories of him, but the most vivid are of the faded checkered robe he wore, practically all day toward the end, and of the way he would watch old Nelson Eddy/ Jeannette MacDonald movies with me on the late show. He loved opera and fishing and baseball. His heroes included anyone of principle. He never lied, not even if the truth would hurt you, and he prided himself on his pancakes. The mornings he made them were a treat.

Still later, when I was a sophomore in college and undecided about career choices, I worked as a surgical technician for one year before admitting to myself that the medical field wasn't for me. I saw three people die on the operating table. Two of the deaths I accepted with professional non-involvement, but the third was a baby less than six months old. I was the circulating nurse who lifted that tiny bundle onto the table while she tightly grasped my finger. Her painfully thin body kicked and moved with life, despite a lack of oxygen that had hampered her growth and sucked dry her energy. Still, her eyes darted around in curious wonder and she smiled. Less than two hours later, I was bagging her stiffening body for pathology, and the surgeon was on his way downstairs to tell her parents that she didn't make it through the open-heart surgery.

Because we had the same congenital condition, and because I'd been through heart surgery twice, I felt part of this little stranger, and I couldn't understand why I made it and she didn't. She filled my dreams for months and my nightmares even longer, and it wasn't long afterward that I quit working in medicine and began majoring in journalism and creative writing.

Of course, leaving medicine doesn't make you immune to the reality of death. Six years ago my father-in-law, a vibrant man who swallowed life with gluttonous enthusiasm, died suddenly and quickly of stomach cancer. Then my great aunt, who always reminded me of bubbly champagne and delighted in life with the class of a bon vivant, yielded to finality after a few years of gradual decline. Now my father has been diagnosed with colon cancer. They've cut out what was there, along with half his colon, but they've told him there may be more cancer cells lurking somewhere in his body. As always in life, we don't know what will happen.

My father, who has lived every day as if it were his last, and who believes that there is humor in everything, has not lost his ability to laugh. When the doctors told him that the seeds (their word for cancer cells) were munching away at his adipose tissue (their word for fat), my father decided to sneak some chocolate into his new healthy diet, to keep plenty of fat for those suckers. Let them stay happily munching in harmless places, he says. He laughs and he accepts, and I marvel at his ability to joke.

"Perhaps it is not death we fear but life and what we don't make of it. Most of us take the days for granted, allowing them to flow one into the other, piling up like snowdrifts..."
What is even more remarkable to me is that my father has found something in each day to relish. He has done this even when it wasn't easy, when there were money troubles, illness, stress, disappointment. He has not only endured, he has lived. And his illness is something that is acknowledged. We can talk about it. We can still find a way to laugh. I love him for that.

I have been close to others for whom death has a pungent meaning. One semester I had a student who missed several classes for hospital tests. One morning she came to me and told me in forthright but tear-stained words that the tests showed an aggressive cancer in most of her body's organs. The doctors, she said, were giving her six months. She was 22 years old. I remember sighing, placing my hand over hers and saying, "I'm sorry." She said she knew she could tell me first because I wouldn't fall apart, but how would she tell her parents?

How indeed.

Perhaps nothing in life is more evident and inevitable than the fact that we will die. Yet our culture renounces the idea. In a country where youth and health are emphasized, death is considered a failure. When the threat of nuclear war hovered over us, we built bomb shelters and played "duck and cover" in school, pretending that would save us. With the AIDS epidemic, many are still indulging in unprotected sex because AIDS only happens to other people. We keep feeling safe by reasoning that it's not our time or that we don't deserve it or that we aren't in the category of people who are exposed.

Yet I have come to think that what is unacceptable is not death itself but the various forms of death we experience while we're alive. All the literature supposedly about death is really about death in life. Faulkner's Emily never had love and killed her lover in order to keep him with her. Granny Weatherall was left at the altar by her true love and she married someone she didn't love. Flannery O'Connor's characters are in need of redemption. Shirley Jackson's town is a hotbed of conformity, to the point that people would take part in barbaric ritual.

Psychic numbing, the inability to feel, meaningless days, lonely nights, the depersonalization of modern life, the stripping away of passion, the isolation of old age, the emptiness of Ivan Ilych's life, Hemingway's Nada, the realization of missed opportunities and lost love--these are the themes that concern writers. After all, what can be sadder at the end than a lifeless life?

Perhaps it is not death that we fear but life and what we don't make of it. Most of us take the days for granted, allowing them to flow one into the other, piling up like snow drifts, without noticing the moon or giving the stars their due or marveling at the awesome complexity of just being able to walk or remembering to hug each other. My husband and I often visit the maternity ward just to watch babies in all their minute loveliness begin life, and everyone thinks this is an eccentric quirk. It is in truth a renewal, a reminder of life's tenuous wonder.

My father's illness has attuned me emotionally to the pain of final chapters, but how he lives his life has made me aware that each day should vibrate with emotional intensity and laughter and music. When my father sits at his piano and plays, you can put your hand on top of the wood and feel the pulsating strings inside. I close my eyes and feel life throbbing as his fingers move up and down the keys like a whirligig. Faster and faster, a swiftly beating heart pounding to the ever speedier rhythms of a long distance runner.

We have no control over how long we live, only in how we live. If we make the most of one, perhaps we won't mind the other so much when it's time.