Despite everything I knew and felt, two of my dearest friends died gasping for air. Another couldn’t stop her pain with morphine, so she disconnected her feeding tube. Still another has the same kind of cancer, and after a heartening remission it’s back with a vengeance. Two other friends are sitting with the niece and nephew, who have just had to pull the plug on their mother’s life support. All of them are sitting there at the mother’s bedside as I write, enduring the umpteenth day of death. It’s not a snap. My mother-in-law, while visiting us at our summer home last September, fell down the stairs at 2:00 am, alone, and died — she lay where we found her, five hours later, at the bottom of the stairs, in her moon-and-star pajamas. The idea of death is always a simile — old as the hills. It can’t hurt me. But the images have to be borne, and they are unbearable. In them, knowing and feeling fight for my soul, as if one or the other could win it. The evidences are as recalcitrant as they are unignorable. I suffer them as I will never suffer my own dying. In them, I feel the legacy of what befalls us — the Latin cadere, “to fall,” gives us all that “is the case” — casualty and cadaver too — and even grammatical case, as I was recently amazed to discover, comes not from the word meaning box but from the past participle of cadere, making nouns more fundamentally moving than we like to imagine.
…When feeling no longer evades, and thinking no longer avails, the two become woven together. You feel knowing can’t save you; you know feeling can’t save you. Their famous battles fall away, and in a flash or stretch, depending how things go with you, you do a lot at once: holding back while you hold forth, bearing down while you bear up.
–Heather McHugh, “Poise and Suspense,” from Poet’s Work, Poet’s Play, edited by Daniel Tobin & Pimone Triplett