by David Edgerley Gates
Years ago, I read Clancy Sigal's novel GOING AWAY, which is a terrific book about the decline of the Old Left, in the 1950's, but I bring it up because of the epigraph, a guy on his deathbed.
"Take it away," he says.
"What, the pillow?" he's asked.
"No, the mute. I want to play on the open strings."
Nowadays, in this age of antibiotics, we forget that people used to take some time dying. I'm not talking about AIDS or cancer, but more generic, commonplace infections, like pneumonia, which today can usually be cleared up, but before penicillin, were pretty much fatal. People would take to their bed, and in their slow decline, their family and friends would gather around, to bring comfort and prayer, and nobody thought it odd to make note of what you said in your final moments. It might be despairing, or funny, or brave, and often very graceful. There's also the sub-genre of those facing the scaffold. Here are a few.
Give Dayrolles a chair. Lord Chesterfield
All my possessions for a moment of time. Elizabeth I
A dying man can do nothing easily. Ben Franklin
Let not poor Nellie starve. Charles II
Give the boys a holiday. Anaxagoras
I shall hear in Heaven. Beethoven
I want nobody distressed on my account. Ulysses Grant
All is lost! Monks, monks, monks! Henry VIII
I always talk better lying down. James Madison
More light. Goethe
Kiss me, Hardy. Lord Nelson
I owe Asclepius a cock. Socrates
My neck is very small. Anne Boleyn
Some of the best lines seem absolutely unrehearsed, naive in their sincerity. And some are poetry. Stonewall Jackson, shot by one of his own sentries: "Let us go across the river, and into the trees." We can easily imagine being surprised by death, but sometimes it comes by inches. My own mom died a protracted death, and it wasn't easy on her, or anybody else. When my sister and I took her to the hospital for what turned out to be the last time, she was so weak she couldn't even talk. But she looked at me, and made a scissors gesture with her fingers, snipping across her hairline. She meant it was time I went to a barber shop. In effect, my mother's last words to me were a grooming tip. It made me smile then, and it makes smile now. It was so human, and so much in character.
Perhaps the question is whether we die with grace. My favorite quote is attributed to the late actor Sir Donald Wolfit. Close to breathing his last, a friend asked him if he found death hard. Wolfit shook his head.
"Dying is easy," he said. "Comedy is hard."