For the last four months, I have been in Chennai, living with my brother and his family, helping take care of my mother who has terminal cancer. This has been a new life for me in many ways: far from my home in West Harlem; reestablishing and deepening bonds of affection with my brother and his family; inverting more fully, with affection and irritation on both sides, my child-parent relationship with my mother; and touching that line between living and dying that is always present in every one of our lives — ‘living is dying’ is a startling truism — though mostly we remain unaware of this illusory line, and when we are forced to face it we tend to fear it, or pacify it by placing it as a central mystery in spiritual or natural cycles.
Death as a physical event is ordinary. Death as the end of consciousness is terrifying. There is no further dawn, or at least most of us don’t know that there is dawn after death. This is true even for those of us who have grown up with rebirth and reincarnation as commonplace scaffolding for being, meaningful and effective in their own cosmological register. Most, if not all, have no consciousness, no corporeal memory, of a dawn after death. Yes, dawn recurs over and over for those who live — I’ll see the sun rise again, ‘this too will pass’ — but is there dawn after death? I can have faith that there is dawn after death, but I don’t know it. I may never wake up again; certainly this body of mine will not wake up again. The hope immanent in that metaphor — dawn after death — may just be a fantasy of this consciousness, now, that will die. In itself, rationally, there is nothing disastrous about consciousness ending. Pain may be grievous. Losing someone who is part of one’s emotional universe feels like losing a part of oneself, but a self remains to mourn that loss. Injustice and betrayal may feel like mortal wounds, but short of death, a self remains to feel the hurt, the anger, the debilitation, the shame, thus to be alive.
Until my current experience of watching my mother live with her fierce energy, her obdurate independence and fierce though momentary pleasures, her recurring flashes of charm and tenderness, her sudden humor amidst her sharp changes in lucidity, until this current experience, I pacified death by drawing wisdom and succor from evidence and accounts of natural and spiritual cycles. But recently two things infiltrated my foundational calmness in the face of death. First, the smell of parsley cooking in my sister-in-law’s kitchen drew a very specific longing in me to cook one of my stews in my NYC apartment, with fresh parsley and fresh lemon thyme. My nose and stomach harked into that future: when I get home, I’ll smell that parsley cooking in my stew, in my home. The second infiltration came from Dylan Thomas’s poem “Do not go gentle into that good night,” one of his best-known poems. I can’t remember how it popped up on one of my screens a week or so ago.
At first reading the poem seems to be calling for a last barricading against death. But after my recent reading, the poem slowly turned in me. Now I read the poem as a raging for life, not just for life too quickly past, nor for life too quickly passing, but for life now, living as dying, dying as living. Live fiercely like my mother does.
“Rage, rage against the dying light,” sounds like an honoring of the last, frustrated fulminations of a dying consciousness that struggles but must slowly fade, and it is that. But I also found the energy of the poem coursing in me, and I see it coursing in my mother. Yes, there is frustration and fear as one part of my mother’s life after another slips away, more and more with no possibility of another dawn. Yes, this is happening throughout our lives. In the Japanese ichi-go ichi-e, each moment happens only once, each moment has no future dawn. Dawn, dusk, death pass quickly in each moment. This is palpable and ordinary if we dwell on constant change, but mostly we live our lives with the experience and expectation of regularity and continuity, the sun will rise again, spring will come again. In terminal illness, the irrevocability of change glares. This is gone, that will never come back. Each quick dawn is smaller, more fleeting, each smile, each lingering step, perhaps the last, each acquiescence to sleep, still only sleep, not death. When my mother’s smallest, most fleeting dawns cease, I will cook with fresh parsley again in NYC.
Is rage in the face of death impotent then, an impotent struggle against the inevitable end of life, better to replace rage with meditative calm among those cosmic — natural and spiritual — cycles? The simple answer is that rage, the full living of each moment, however waning, is part of those cycles, no false choice there between one and the other. The less simple answer — fraught and agonistic — is that each lost dawn is ok if you know you’ll see or feel or hear another dawn, but when each lost dawn narrows conscious time to that point at which consciousness ceases — what dawn lies beyond that point? — the terror is real. Palliate the terror, but the terror may not simply be palliated away.
One of my mother’s greatest gifts to me and the world is her joy of life, her unabashed vigor as she loves, laughs, dislikes, argues, fights, never shrinking, even now with her tired mind and frail limbs. I marvel at that vigor but to see her fully I cannot shy away from the contrast between my imagining parsley cooking in my West Harlem kitchenette again — a plausible future, wafting from my delusion of continuity — and her prospect of what dawn, what smells in what kitchens?
At that line between living and dying, in that gap between the possibility of parsley cooking again and all possibilities as ephemera in a possibly meaningless unknown, in that space between delusion and fathomless uncertainty, Dylan Thomas’s poem exhorts, “rage, rage.” Live now, live now! Live now, live now, my mother’s life proclaims. Dylan Thomas chose “rage, rage” — the words are mad and measured, the sound beats out, and beats against, time — but in his calling for, calling forth, that crazy human consciousness of life, he could as easily have written “laugh, laugh against the dying of the light,” or “love, love against the dying of the light.” Just live, live as long as you touch this life and this life touches you.