Death’s Dramatic Prelude
Death’s Dramatic Prelude
The following excerpt is taken from chapter 4 of Villette (1853) by Charlotte Bronte:
“Is it a fine night?” she (Miss Marchmont) asked.
I (Lucy Snowe) replied in the affirmative.
“I thought so,” she said; “for I feel so strong, so well. Raise me, I feel young to-night,” she continued; “young, light-hearted, and happy. What if my complaint be about to take a turn, and I am yet destined to enjoy health? It would be a miracle!”
“And these are not the days of miracles,” I thought to myself, and wondered to hear her talk so. She went on directing her conversation to the past, and seeming to recall its incidents, scenes, and personages, with singular vividness.
“I love Memory to-night,” she said: “I prize her as my best friend. She is just now giving me a deep delight; she is bringing back to my heart, in warm and beautiful life, realities–not mere empty ideas, but what were once realities, and that I long have thought decayed, dissolved, mixed in with grave mould. I possess just now the hours, the thoughts, the hopes of my youth.”
“The night passed in quietness; quietly her doom must at last have come: peacefully and painlessly: in the morning she was found without life, nearly cold, but all calm and undisturbed. Her previous excitement of spirits and change of mood had been the prelude of a fit; one stroke sufficed to sever the thread of an existence so long fretted by affliction.
A final burst of energy. This is how countless people have described to me the behavior of a loved one when, unbeknownst to them or the dying, death was, indeed, imminent. Though I always listened attentively to each individual as he or she recounted what it was like to witness this final flourish of life, I never could really conceive of it. Even reading the pamphlet, which read like a What to Expect when You’re Expecting…to Die manual, left by a well-meaning Hospice nurse, didn’t properly prepare me for my sister’s dying act. But what was foreign then is now oh so painfully familiar.
My sister, Ginger, always had a flair for the dramatic. Dress up, dialogue, dance, impersonation. She was beautiful, bubbly, silly, smiley. What wouldn’t I give to hear her sing “Baby Love” or “You Are My Sunshine” just one more time? I have a fond though blurry memory of watching her perform in a Catawba College production of The Crucible when I was about 5 years old.
On Sunday, October 19, 2008, Ginger, cancer-ridden, awoke with a cough, and not just any cough, but the cough, the death rattle. My sister, cloudy-minded but still conscious, actually commented that if she could breathe better, if this pesky cough would go away, she might not feel so bad. After contacting the nurse, confirming what the cough indicated, and administering an expectorant to my sister to help break up the mucus in her struggling lungs, it came—her final performance.
Hospice had provided a wheelchair so that Ginger could get outside, watch her children and dogs play, meditate in the sunshine, breathe in a new day, new hope, new peace. It seems my sister only used her wheels when I was visiting, so I asked if she’d like to take a stroll, and she graciously obliged. My niece, Elizabeth (my sister’s now 14-year-old daughter), joined us. And it was simply joyful, exhilarating for us all, and yet so sorrowful. Up and down the street in front of her house, we strode. The sun was shining, a light breeze was blowing, and Ginger was smiling, eyes closed, absorbing it with all her other senses as if it were a dream. We circled the cul-de-sac, and I readied us for the hill that would complete our walk, but Ginger wanted to do another lap. She was savoring and prolonging all the good these moments outdoors were capable of providing. When we returned to the house, she rested, content enough.
In the early evening, following a conversation with my mom and aunt about a scripture passage, Ginger sprung from her bed (with my mom chasing behind fearful she would hurt herself by moving so quickly) and walked decisively through the kitchen into the dining room, straight to the buffet, like a, well, like exactly what she was—like a dying woman on a mission. She opened the cabinet of her buffet and proudly presented us with a plate, given to her by a friend, bearing the inscription: All things are possible with Christ’s help. We placed it on the table and allowed it to direct our conversation. My sister sat down, reiterated her peace with life and God. I quickly grabbed my camera and began snapping shots: Ginger with my dear Aunt Peggy, the greatest spiritual mentor and caretaker one could ever wish for; Ginger with Elizabeth and my daughter, Violet; a group shot of us all. Ginger was the resident photographer in the family; the fact that I was the one taking the pictures made the moment that much more ominous. The hourglass was almost out of sand.
While the events of that Sunday marked my sister’s final acts, movements, gestures, it was that night that she delivered her final monologue, which poured out of her like a stream-of-conscious soundtrack, one continuous loop emptying the contents of her mind, fully uncensored and fully unconscious of audience. My aunt and I took turns through the night lying in the room with her. But even when off shift and on the sofa, she and I could still hear Ginger’s utterances because of the baby monitor in the kitchen. We couldn’t escape bearing witness, much like Bronte’s Lucy Snowe. It was at once the most mortifying (in the truest sense of the word) and humbling experience of my life. She spoke softly, effortlessly, and rapidly: “curtains, curtains” (she had never gotten window treatment for her new home); “golf, golfing” (in years past, she had begrudged her husband, Mike, for golfing too much instead of being home with the family); “dancing, dancing, my baby sister is probably out dancing” (I had snapped in the year prior to her death and desperately tried to recapture my early 20’s); and on and on and on, she gave final vent to her regrets and grievances. Talk about tragic catharsis.
When morning came, her voice had left her; by 8pm, her breath had, too. Close curtain.