Ninety-year old “John” still drives to church. He comes alone now, one month after his wife died.
He parks his car on the street, as he has for forty years.
“Good morning, John! Good to see you. Am I remembering correctly that you lost your wife recently?”
“Yes,” he says. It would have been 62 years next month.”
“I’m so sorry for your loss. These days must be very lonely.”
“Yes. Very,” he says, his gentle eyes seemingly thankful for the momentary recognition of his plight, followed by a pause. “I don’t know why I’m still here,” he says. “I’m ready to go. I’m not saying I want to go, but I’m ready.”
“Old age ain’t for the faint of heart, is it, John?” “It sure isn’t,” he says.
During his wife’s long illness, she, too, had spoken about being “ready to go.”
“I want to die,” she’d said, “before you have to put me in memory care.”
The thought of transfer from independent living to the lock-down memory care unit seemed worse than death. She’d made too many visits there. Seen too many old friends get lost in there, taking food that no longer nourishes, spoonfuls of institutional food administered for the purpose of keeping inmates alive for no reason but to prolong bodies that can’t remember their own names.
“I wish I could just walk off into the woods,” she’d said, “the way other animals do. This is unreal. I’m not afraid to die. I’m afraid of becoming a burden.”
“DEATH IN THE WOODS”- Thomas MacDonagh
When I am gone and you alone are living here still,
You’ll think of me when splendid the storm is on the hill,
Trampling and militant here — what of their village street?–
For the baying of winds in the woods to me was music sweet.
Oh, for the storms again, and youth in my heart again!
My spirit to glory strained, wild in this wild wood then,
That now shall never strain — though I think if the tempest should roll
I could rise and strive with death, and smite him back from my soul.
But no wind stirs a leaf, and no cloud hurries the moon;
I know that our lake to-night with stars and shadows is strewn–
A night for a villager’s death, who will shudder in his grave
To hear — alas, how long! — the winds above him rave.
How long! Ah, Death, what art thou, a thing of calm or of storms?
Or twain — their peace to them, to me thy valiant alarms?
Gladly I’d leave them this corpse in their churchyard to lay at rest,
If my wind-swept spirit could fare on the hurricane’s kingly quest.
And sure ’tis the fools of knowledge who feign that the winds of the world
Are but troubles of little calms by the greater Calm enfurled:
I know then for symbols of glory, and echoes of one Voice dread,
Sounding where spacious tempests house the great-hearted Dead.
And what but a fool was I, crying defiance to Death,
Who shall lead my soul from this calm to mingle with God’s very breath!–
Who shall lead me hither and perhaps while you are waiting here still,
Sighing for thought of me when the winds are out on the hill.
- Thomas MacDonagh (1 February 1878 – 3 May 1916 / Cloughjordan / Ireland), executed by firing squad 3 May 1916 at the age of 39 for participation in the Irish rebellion called “Easter Rising”.
John now visits his wife among the ashes he’s scattered in the wooded glen behind their home, in the greater Calm under the old oak tree, among the animals, “sighing for thought of [her] when the winds are out on the hill.”
- Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, April 12, 2017.