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going gentle into that good night

going gentle into that good night

by Judy
February 21, 2013

The thought came to me the other day that my mom is going gentle into that good night. That expression came to mind in relationship to Dylan Thomas’s famous poem that begins: “Do not go gentle into that good night. Old age should burn and rave at the close of the day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” This poem, that I always loved, was actually written for his very sick father, but Dylan himself lived raging in his own way against the dying of the light. He ended up dying at the young age of 39 from hard living and drinking and writing fiercely beautiful poems, but unfortunately not taking great care for his own life. I don’t think he ever expected to live very long. The poem symbolized to me living life to its fullest, living with intensity which also fit with a time when poets and artists in general romanticized a life of extremes, a life pushing against the norms of the day, but which could easily veer into indulgence and self-destruction. They say one dies how one has lived. I don’t know if this is always true, but certainly in Dylan’s case it was. 

In stark contrast now is my 96 year old mother who has lived a long life and is slowly fading in a very gentle way. She is still very funny, but mostly she’s quiet and appreciates gentleness, kindness and humor; a shared laugh, an expression of care. She loves hearing from Pat, her primary caregiver, about her children and grandchildren. My mother has developed a real relationship with them; gives them presents and they give her presents and loves seeing them.

It’s interesting to reflect on how my mom is going into that good night. During her life, she was always a fighter, a survivor and very independent, but at the same time when she really could not change a situation, in her own way she “surrendered.” I remember when my brother was dying at the age of forty and it was clear that there was no hope, she still fought and would not give up on him, until the last two weeks before he died. She finally accepted what was happening - something of course a mother never deeply comes to terms with - but she accepted it and when he finally breathed his last breath, she was the only one in the room with him and he went gently, much to our relief. He went gently and for that day and even during the funeral, she let go, as much as a mother can, and there was peace.

After my brother died, she went into hibernation for months and didn’t do much. It was almost like a hurt animal that knows it has to have a lot of rest and quiet in order to heal. My mother instinctually did that and afterwards she began to paint and didn’t stop painting until she was in her nineties. Painting was a real creative outlet for her and she dove in head first. She did take courses but she had a natural feel for color and design and developed quickly. She would paint for hours outside on her terrace which gave her great satisfaction.

There is something similar in my mother’s relationship to old age and dying. She knows instinctively that she can’t fight this aging or dying. All her life she was a doer; got up early in the morning and was very active, going from one thing to another, but now she doesn’t have the energy. She really doesn’t. And so she has accepted her situation. She is in tune with this phase of her life. She still gets dressed, puts on makeup and makes effort, but she’s not resisting and she’s not afraid of dying. She doesn’t talk about it much, but I know she is not afraid. Whenever she does mention death, it’s in a very simple and matter of fact way. For example the other day after speaking with her first cousin, Leo, ten years younger than her, she turned to me and said: “When I go, please call Leo and let him know.” It was spoken without any trace of drama.

My mother has always been in many ways very simple and straightforward. A pragmatist. And fundamentally she has been a positive spirit. In this way she is aging and “dying” like she lived her life. She is not trying to hold on to what was. She is not in denial or avoidance. It’s not that it’s always easy for her. She can be very uncomfortable at moments, just in the simple chores of living, but overall she has spirit. In the same way that she lived her life, she is very simply facing reality and is softly letting go in the most dignified way. 

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