Is there no summing up when we die?

How could things after one’s death not have been left “messy, unresolved, dangling.”


Katie Roiphe, in her recent Times op ed piece, Dying with nothing to say, writes:

We have an idea that when someone is dying, a new, honest, generous space opens up; that in the harrowing awfulness of dying there is a directness, an expansiveness, a loosening of inhibitions, the potential for things to be said that could not be said before. But if one does actually manage to pull off a last conversation, what can it be but a few words in a lifetime of talk? How can it be enough?….

[Furthermore] Words, even if the right ones miraculously presented themselves, would not be enough. The confession and forgiveness we want to fill the room do not spring up more naturally in extremis, under duress. It may be the last chance for the dying person to clarify, but clarity doesn’t necessarily come. In this way, death is a lot like life.

Roiphe found that even “the writers she was researching — people who lived in structure, plots, words — mostly did not find their way to conversations that offered a satisfying ending. They left things messy, unresolved, dangling.”

I think of my own experience with death, in particular with the deaths of first my mother who was young, barely into her sixties, and my father who when he died was in his nineties.

Neither one of my parents was a word person, although we often saw one another and when we did we mostly talked, mostly about what I was doing. They wanted to know.

But at the time of their deaths there were few or no more questions. In my mother’s case there was only her love, which we could read in her eyes, for us, for all of her children. And she wasn’t afraid. And at the last moment there was a directness, an expansiveness, and this was her love for us. In respect to her love there was nothing left dangling.

My father had already left us well before he died. Was it dementia, probably, and not yet Alzheimers? If there’s a line to be drawn between the two I’ve never known it. In my father’s case you might say that his dementia had left things between us “dangling.” Still there, as they had been at some earlier time.

At the time of his death nothing was clarified between us, and we could only look back, as we had been doing already for a year or two, far back to what we had been together, to all those alive and happy moments when we had been father and son. The moment of his actual death, the drawing of his last breath I missed it entirely when I stepped out of the room for something. His death, unlike that of my mother, was a blessing. And in fact it did away with all the dangling, bringing all things between us to a final and merciful and given his situation satisfying ending


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