Death, Dying, Grief and Mourning

            "Death is always the same,
                               but each man dies in his own way."

Carson McCullers, Clock Without Hands, 1960


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An Anthology by  Adrienne Nater

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Death, Dying, Grief, and Mourning

in Western Literature


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Henry James, Portrait of a Lady, 1881


Death of Ralph Touchett

Death of Ralph Touchett:

Chapter 54:

How he knew was not apparent, inasmuch as for fear of exciting him no one had offered the information. Isabel came in and sat by his bed in the dim light; there was only a shaded candle in a corner of the room. She told the nurse she might go — she herself would sit with him for the rest of the evening. He had opened his eyes and recognized her, and had moved his hand, which lay helpless beside him, so that she might take it. But he was unable to speak; he closed his eyes again and remained perfectly still, only keeping her hand in his own. She sat with him a long time — till the nurse came back; but he gave no further sign. He might have passed away while she looked at him; he was already the figure and pattern of death. She had thought him far gone in Rome, but this was worse; there was but one change possible now. There was a strange tranquility in his face; it was as still as the lid of a box. With this he was a mere lattice of bones; when he opened his eyes to greet her it was as if he were looking into immeasurable space. It was not till midnight that the nurse came back; but the hours, to Isabel, had not seemed long; it was exactly what she had come for. If she had come simply to wait she found ample occasion, for he lay three day in a kind of grateful silence. He recognized her and at moments seemed to wish to speak; but he found no voice. Then he closed his eyes again. As if he too were waiting for something — for something that certainly would come. He was so absolutely quiet that it seemed to her what was coming had already arrived; and yet she never lost the sense that they were still together. But they were not always together; there were other hours that she passed in wandering through the empty house and listening for a voice that was not poor Ralph’s. She had a constant fear; she though it possible her husband would write to her. But he remained silent, and she only got a letter from Florence and from the Countess Gemini. Ralph, however, spoke at last — on the evening of the third day.

"I feel better to-night," he murmured, abruptly, in the soundless dimness of her vigil; "I think I can say something." She sank upon her knees beside his pillow; took his thin hand in her own; begged him not to make an effort — not to tire himself. His face was of necessary serious — it was incapable of the muscular play of a smile; but its owner apparently had not lost a perception of incongruities. " What does it matter if I’m tired when I’ve got all eternity to rest? There’s no harm in making an effort when it’s the very last of all. Don’t people always feel better just before the end? I’ve often heard of that; it’s what I was waiting for. Ever since you’ve been here I thought it would come, I tried two or three times; I was afraid you’d get tired of sitting there." He spoke slowly, with painful breaks and long pauses; his voice seemed to come from a distance.

When he ceased he lay with his face turned to Isabel and his large unwinking eyes open into her own. "It was very good of you to come," he went on. "I thought you would; but I wasn’t sure."

"I was not sure either till I came," said Isabel.

"You’ve been like an angel beside my bed. You know they talk about the angel of death. It’s the most beautiful of all. You’ve been like that; as if you were waiting for me."

"I was not waiting for your death; I was waiting for — for this. This is not death, dear Ralph.

"Not for you — no. There’s nothing makes us feel so much alive as to see others die. That’s the sensation of life — the sense that we remain. I’ve had it — even I. But now I’m of no use but to give it to others. With me it’s all over." And then he paused. Isabel bowed her head further, till it rested on the two hands that were clasped upon his own. She couldn’t see him now; but his far-away voice was close to her ear. "Isabel," he went on suddenly, "I wish it were over for you." She answered nothing; she had burst into sobs; she remained so, with her buried face. He lay silent, listening to her sobs; at last he gave a long groan. "Ah, what is it you have done for me?"

"What is it you did for me?" she cried, her now extreme agitation half smothered by her attitude, She had lost all shame, all wish to hide things. Now he must know; she wished him to know, for it brought them supremely together, and he was beyond the reach of pain. "You did something once — you know it. O Ralph, you’ve been everything! What have I done for you — what can I do today? I would die if you could live. But I don’t wish you to live; I would die myself, not to lose you." Her voice was a broken as his own and full of tears and anguish.

"You won’t lose me — you’ll keep me. Keep me in your heart; I shall be nearer to you than I’ve ever been. Dear Isabel, life is better; for in life there’s love. Death is good — but there’s no love."

"I never thanked you — I never spoke — never was what I should be!" Isabel went on. She felt a passionate need to cry out and accuse herself, to let her sorrow possess her. All her troubles. For the moment, became single and melted together into this present pain. " What must you have thought of me? Yet how could I know? I never knew, and only know today because there are people less stupid than I."

"Don’t mind people, " said Ralph. "I think I’m glad to leave people."

She raised her head and her clasped hands; She seemed for a moment to pray to him. "Is it true — is it true?" she asked.

"True that you’ve been stupid? Oh no," said Ralph with a sensible intention of wit.

"That you made me rich — that all I have is yours?"

He turned away his head, and for some time said nothing. Then at last: "Ah, don’t speak of that — that was not happy." Slowly he moved his face toward her again, and they once more saw each other. " But for that — but for that —!" And he paused. "I believe I ruined you," he wailed.

She was full of the sense that he was beyond the reach of pain; he seemed already so little of this world. But even if she had not it she would still have spoken, for nothing mattered now but the only knowledge that was not pure anguish — the knowledge that they were looking at the truth together.

A few mornings later, Ralph was dead.




Adrienne Nater, 2008

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