Learning To Love You More




Assignment #31
Spend time with a dying person.

Emily Lattimore
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania USA
Email Emily



On June 25th, 2005, I attended a party for Bill O'Connor. Bill is 82 years old and dying from bladder cancer and old age. Our mutual friends, Frank and Libby, hosted the party at their home in Baltimore. They emailed us, their friends and Bill's friends, and invited us to come listen to Bill read his poetry, something he's been doing for us for years as part of a discussion group we all belong to called Generations for Peace and Democracy. Bill is our sage in the group. My parents and I got to the party late, but Libby said they had waited for us. We all sat out in their backyard on the most perfect of perfect summer evenings and Bill started reading. He read some of his own work and he cited other great writers, William Carlos Williams and Walt Whitman. He read rhapsodies he had written to street urchins and haikus about his progress into death. He read an opus he has been composing in these days preceding his death. It wasn't until he had been talking for a little while that I understood he was telling us all goodbye. I realized that I have been dreading this moment and his death as long as I've known him, because he's been old as long as I can remember. He has always fascinated me. He fought in WWII and then, during the VietNam war, threw his medals back to the government and helped burn draft records with his friend, Philip Berrigan. He ran two miles a day up until the cancer made that too painful, and he continues to engage in the mental equivalent of running 20 miles a day, reading and writing and providing insight and social commentary as he always has. I am not so much afraid of his death because of my personal feelings of grief, but because of the sense I have that Bill still has so much to offer the world through his writings and activism. As he read, he occasionally paused and asked us questions or fielded questions. I wished I could be as strong and mature as the others gathered there, who were able to share stories about death's many depictions in mythology or about death in an abstract sense, but I couldn't. I just felt sad. I wanted to say so, but I knew I would cry and cry as soon as I did, so I just kept my mouth shut. I wondered if I should just go into the bathroom and weep until my throat and eyes stopped aching, but I also couldn't walk away because I knew that Bill's words are now so limited. Instead, I stopped drinking wine and tried to concentrate on something ordinary, like the way my father smacks his lips when he eats. It brought me back to a place where I could listen without feeling unbearably sad. But then Bill told us about a Native American practice whereby many elderly people would simply decide to stop breathing and die, and I felt myself stop breathing because I just knew that's what he was about to do. Bill is violently opposed to the idea of artificial life support and has been in touch with the Hemlock Society to learn methods of taking one's own life. I held my breath and stared hard at Bill to burn his image into my mind, but I was wrong, and he began speaking about mysticism in the three desert religions--Judaism, Christianity and Islam-- and then Dean Pappas fell over, out of his chair, and I could laugh. Bill talked and talked, and then he stood up and said, "now I can go piss blood," leaving us each to our solitary musings.