a prayer before dying
clap your handskiss yourselfsay goodbye
Sarah Tehillah Bercovitz, age 5
Consider the Ravens: they do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them.… Who of you can add a single hour to his life? Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?
Jesus of Nazareth, as quoted in Luke 12: 24–25
Love is life. All, everything that I understand, I understand only because I love. Everything is, everything exists, only because I love.
On the third day of October, 2002, my father entered Swedish Hospital in Seattle and began his final journey, heart and liver and kidneys failing. He loved life, and loved his family. Even in the last days, filled with toxins and heavily sedated, our father was teaching us to rejoice in every living moment. One evening, when I was alone with him, when he had been down in a deep sleep almost all day, he suddenly surfaced, wildly, joyfully awake. He looked out the window at the glittering water of Puget Sound, the gleaming towers of Seattle, the blue sky swirling pink and gold and lavender at twilight, and he said, with all his strength and all his delight:
Oh boy! What a beautiful night! Holy cow!
It is a gift he has given me forever. A dozen times a day I pause to see, to sense:
Holy cow! What a beautiful tree, slant of light, song of sparrow.
On the tenth of October, he was stable enough for us to plan to bring him home, to my sister Wendy’s Rose Room, where we might care for him ourselves, where the polished mahogany and sparkling music of his mother’s piano might bring comfort. I had plans to go to Montana the following week, to begin a reading and teaching tour that would include visits to several tribal colleges, Montana State University, and the Women’s Correctional Facility in Billings. The trip still seemed remotely possible.
That evening at twilight, my sisters Laurie and Wendy and I walked along the beach of Lincoln Park. We heard the clear, sweet notes of a woman playing her recorder for crows and seagulls, for any wandering ones who might have ears to hear her. Sea reflected sky in ripples of orange and blue, magenta and violet. The sliver of a high ghost moon drifted high above us, and my sisters and I joked that we could buy an RV for my Tribal Tour, a huge Windstar or Winnebago, that we could take Daddy with us, hospice care on the road, one last great family vacation, all of us together: Wendy and her husband Tom, Laurie and her four children — Melinda, Hayley, Chris, and Kelsey — my brother Gary and his wife Glenna, their two sons, Mike and Brad — Mike’s girlfriend, Jenny — our mother and me and our dear father, moving like the homeless Métis, reservation to reservation.
Sick as he was, our father stayed present. Two nights before he died, my sister Laurie kissed him tenderly. She didn’t expect him to wake, but she whispered so she wouldn’t scare him:
It’s just me, Daddy. Our father, hearing the thought beneath the words, said:
Just you? You’re very important.
In his suffering, he became brilliant, his singing heart fully awakened.
Another day, when he seemed plunged, drowned in sleep, Laurie sat watching him, her eyes and mouth pulled down by grief and weariness. She knew how quickly he might leave us. Our father never opened his eyes, but he said, very clearly, with full apprehension of her sorrowful gaze:
Don’t look at me that way.
He had learned to see through his skin, through his closed lids, through his hand in my sister’s hand, through his fingertips.
Each new day we thought we might be able to bring Daddy home. The hospital bed was there in the Rose Room with two fleece blankets, bright maple leaves and wild horses. His favorite yellow sweater hung with his soft flannel shirts and tattered blue jeans in the closet. On the fourteenth day of October, our father was still in the hospital, his ammonia and creatinine and potassium levels so high the doctors and nurses couldn’t believe he stayed with us. We knew this day that we could never bring him to my sister’s house. I said,
Home is wherever you are, and it was true: home is where the heart breaks, and breaks open, and love flows in and out of us without limits.
He was teaching us that even as we loved him more and more, we might also love and receive love from one another, that accepting love is as holy and important as giving it.
My father received love perfectly. Our love was keeping him alive he often told us. I postponed my tribal tour indefinitely. That night I whispered,
You look beautiful, and he chuckled.
Day by day, the lines of Adrienne Rich’s poem “Phantasia for Elvira Shatayev” poured through me:
… Now we are ready and each of us knows it I have never loved / like this I have never seen / my own forces so taken up and shared / and given back …
Just one day before our father died, Doctor Margo Kober, a wise and extraordinarily kind woman, came to see him on her morning rounds. She was surprised, again, astonished really, that he had lived through another night, that he could look at her with joy, ready to answer questions. She said:
How are you? And he said:
How am I? I’m great!
As she listened to his lungs with her stethoscope, as she bent over him, as her long blond hair brushed his chest, she said, with awe, with quiet reverence:
You are an amazing person, sir.
I repeated the words to him all day.
The next day, the sixteenth day of October, a warm day with a glorious sunset, my father’s spirit left his body as the sky streaked deep rose and green and gold before it finally sank, blue-black, soft behind the shimmering towers of Seattle’s skyline. Laurie — a doctor, my sister, his daughter — sweet mother Laurie who had cradled him like a child through so many long nights, whispered the hour and minute of departure: 8:40 p.m., Pacific Time.
Reeling in the confusion and sorrow of the weeks that followed, I realized I’d felt transcendent clarity during those last days with my father, with my family. Every day we had nothing to do except come here and love. Here was my father’s hospital room, my sister’s or brother’s houses, the grocery store. Here was the street outside where we passed people like ourselves: sentient, suffering humans, acutely aware of the potential for loss imbedded in every moment. Here was the park where we walked among massive pines and firs, fantastical dahlias, red-skinned madronas. My love for and from my father, my family, spilled and flowed to and from every living being, every potent entity I encountered.
The Sufi poet Hafiz whispered:
This place where you are right now / God circled on a map for you.
I knew then as I know now that this surrender to love had become my life’s quest. How does love of this kind manifest through our repetitive, sometimes frustrating, painfully busy, fractured and too often frenzied daily experience? How does it look — how can we turn toward it — with our family and friends, in the classroom, driving in clogged traffic, waiting in line at the post office?
Writing helps me stay on the path, in the labyrinth that leads back to love. As I learn to love strange and miraculous beings in my fiction, as I imagine the secret lives and intimate grief of people who harm and who are wounded by others, as I celebrate the astonishing perceptions of bats, the generosity of bees and saguaros, the hearts of hummingbirds beating fifty times a second as they hover above ocotillo, I fall in love again and again — I remember, I remind myself it is my responsibility and my joy to bring this sense of rapturous curiosity and imaginative compassion into every moment, every encounter of my life. Writing is prayer, and prayer is attention — not paying attention, but attending, waiting, watching, listening, giving attention fully, deeply, quietly — without judgment or expectation.
I am not good at this, not accomplished, not consistent. I fail a hundred or a thousand times a day, and so I return to the prayer of writing.
Annie Dilliard says,
Assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case. What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?
I did not know these words during my father’s last days, but I felt them in my heart. Unless I was reading something that would not dishonor his presence, I could not open a book in his room. Even when he was deep in sleep, drifting toward coma. Especially then, when we were alone, in prayer, in silence.
I think of my fiction now as an extended love song to my father and my family, every sentient being, this fragile earth, our infinite cosmos.
When I imagine the lives of bees in “Vanishings,” the first section of Silence & Song, I am singing to them and you:
Yes, it’s true, the bees are vanishing, not just dying, but disappearing, buzzing away from the hive at dawn and not returning.
Their bodies are perfect:
On the seventh day, God did not rest: God began to imagine the honeybee and the flower. Time blossomed into light, the infinite possibilities of perception. One hundred million years of thought, and even now the evolution of love continues.
Our strange sister!
Who but God can fathom: two compound eyes, each with sixty-nine hundred lenses, four filigree wings beating two hundred thirty times per second:
Behold the honeybee!
Thirteen millimeters long, ninety-nine milligrams:
I make myself in her image.
As she flies, foraging for nectar and pollen, the friction of wind through feathery hairs builds a static charge, her body electric. Above or below, the flower opens: infinite blue, worlds of yellow, a murmuration of white shimmering into thirteen thousand eight hundred lenses. She’s blind to red, but sees a universe we can’t know, galaxies beyond violet.
So lovingly she lands!
Pollen jumps into the hairs of her charged body. Hidden in the flower’s folds, she plunges the tube of her proboscis deep, flicks her long tongue, sips love’s holy nectar. She can drink herself drunk and buzz away dizzy. Each time she rises, her body glows, dusted with pollen. All day she moves, transferring life one flower to another, fertilizing ovaries that swell to ripened fruit and feed the world: five thousand blossoms in a day: a hundred and seventy-five thousand in her lifetime: forty days:
Until her wings wear thin, until her tattered body falls and fails.
She pollinates apples, pears, pecans, strawberries: avocados, almonds, squash, kiwis: oranges, peaches, soybeans, cherries: papaya, pepper, mango, coffee: blueberries, grapefruit, cantaloupe, broccoli: lemons, limes, clover, celery:
Behold the honeybee who makes your life possible.
She is the spark between: without her, they cease to be, and we soon shall follow.
Imagine pollinating your own blossoms, scrubbing anthers, gathering pollen, carrying your treasure home in tiny baskets, remembering to dry it for two days at precisely the right temperature, returning to your fields and orchards, lying on your belly in the dirt or climbing high to fertilize each flower. You carry a tiny duster made of bamboo and chicken feathers. Too much is too much. One light dip, one flick, one flutter:
may you dwell in the open heart: clear your mind of all distraction.
Brothers and Sisters, as we lose our lives, we will love this world. Here is the path to peace, kneeling on the earth, bowing to the flower, surrendering our will blossom by blossom.
I hope my readers hear this music in every evocation. I hope they are amazed when they encounter shrimp lying dormant in the desert for thirty years, coming to life after heavy rain, mating with impetuous joy, spewing eggs with faithful abandon. I hope they can imagine a song too sweet, vibrations of a black hole whirling in space, shredding stars that come too close, humming through time, (swallowing light, swallowing color), tuned to B flat, fifty-seven octaves too low for any human being to hear it, that they can begin to fathom nine billion years of sound, and only stars listening. I wish for them to share my wonder. I want them to be freed by the immensity of time and space — to know that even as we love our frail, transient human lives, even as we fear the loss of those we hold most dear, even as we mourn the extinction of species, the inevitable transformation of our small, spinning planet — I want them to believe, to be delivered and transported by the understanding that there are ways to measure time that have nothing to do with being human, ways to survive, to continue to be, that are not defined by one location in space, one miraculous form, one precious body.
I pray for them to rest, here, in love, in silence.
Adrienne Rich’s poem, “Phantasia for Elvira Shatayev,” appears in The Dream of a Common Language, New York: Norton, 1978.
The lines by Hafiz are translated by Daniel Ladinsky and appear on his 2005 Calendar.
I thank my friend and colleague Scott Black for his thoughts (and his extraordinary writing) on attention and solitude and silence.
Selections from this essay first appeared as “The Tribal Tour” in Mid-American Review and “Galaxies Beyond Violet” in Five Points.
Melanie Rae Thon is the author of Silence & Song (2015) and The Voice of the River (2011) from FC2.