Death, Be Not Proud

Just Thinking….

I’m writing a new short story: one about the final moments before death. I taught American lit for years, and know that this is not a new theme. Some of my favorite stories concerned this: Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (Bierce) and The Jilting of Granny Weatherall (Porter). Both of these stories are intriguing in the characterization and the language use.

The Southern sympathizer in Owl Creek is executed on a bridge for the crime of spying. As he plunges, dangling on a rope, his final thoughts are the split second story that he gets away and finds his way home to his wife. She meets him in the antebellum garden and as her arms go around his neck, DEATH! The rope tightens, and he is dead. I always found the description of these last moments to be gripping.

Granny Weatherall, in The Jilting, goes about her regular day, and then just lays down and dies. She has had premonitions all day that this would be her last. Images from a past love crop up to link the present with her past. She has the belief that something else exists beyond death, but her final thought is the revelation that there is nothing else, and that once again she is cheated. (the first cheating came with the man she loved).

Poetry, too, has grabbed my attention when it refers to death. Archibald MacLeish in The End of the World compares the ending to a circus tent. The circus acts are going on when BOOM! It all ends. Some have compared this to the end of the planet; others compare it to the end of an individual life. Whichever way you choose to interpret the poem, the ending lines are sad:

“There in the starless dark the poise, the hover,
There with vast wings across the cancelled skies,
There in the sudden blackness the black pall
Of nothing, nothing, nothing—nothing at all.”

It’s much like Granny Weatherall discovering that it is all over, that there is nothing else.

Another death-themed poem is from one of my favorite authors: Robert Frost. Out, Out concerns a young boy on a Vermont farm who is cutting wood. Somehow his hand is cut off in the saw, and he bleeds to death. Here are the final lines of the poem:

“The doctor put him in the dark of ether.
He lay and puffed his lips out with his breath.
And then – the watcher at his pulse took a fright.
No one believed. They listened to his heart.
Little – less – nothing! – and that ended it.
No more to build on there. And they, since they
Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.”

This part of the poem concerns the reactions of those who saw him die. A little earlier in the poem is the boy’s reaction to the accident and his impending death:

“Half in appeal, but half as if to keep
The life from spilling. Then the boy saw all –
Since he was old enough to know, big boy
Doing a man’s work, though a child at heart –
He saw all was spoiled. “Don’t let him cut my hand off –
The doctor, when he comes. Don’t let him, sister!”

The boy saw all….. and all was spoiled. Life was seeping out of him, and he had some sort of feeling that it was about over.

So…. with vast wealth of literature already dealing with death, why would I add to the collection? I’m adding because I don’t totally agree with the attitude or message that most authors have given concerning death, especially the last moments before death. I don’t want to write a scientific explanation, or a religious thesis. I want to write an artistic description of a character’s last moments, but I want to give the message of hope and salvation, and not a message of nihilism.

I’ve been sketching out my character, an elderly widow, who finds that her senses are sharpening at the end, who touches the quilt on the bed to remind herself of her husband, who wants to comfort her children but can’t, who awaits the moment of death as a journey on which she has never gone before, and who realizes that one must make this journey alone, as those who have gone on it before cannot guide her through it. As she takes her last breath, she arises from her body, realizing that the body was not her, that the body had never been her. She had been spirit and soul all along, and just had the use of the body. She looks back on her body, and thinks that it is like the shape left in the bedding when one arises in the morning: just a hollow….

Through it all, she longs to see Jesus, and wonders how it will be to first see Him. She finds herself excited about the revelation, and not fearful. She finds that language as she has known it is slipping away from her; she more and more is losing words, but gaining concepts. The same is happening with time; she dwells on the concept that time will be no more, and that she has no more need for measuring things by time.

Well, that is the essence of the story. I’m working on the structure and the wording now. And I will share more as it develops.

Death is common theme of literature; it is at the same time common and mysterious. It is our common end, but we have never gone through it yet. And once we have gone through it, we can’t tell others. No wonder artists and writers have contemplated the idea of death and tried to explore it. I’m among them. But I hope to impart the hope of Jesus as I do so.

You are the Author of life; You number our days and hold our existence in Your hand. Oh, to be ready! Help me accept Your timing. Help me find the right words to show Your glory and Your perfect plan for life.

To God be the Glory….