The chapter revolves around the book Tenth of December by George Saunders, which was one of my book club’s choices, if I remember right, but I did not read it.
The character Don goes into the woods (on the 10th of December) to end his life after being becoming sick and weak with a fatal disease to “ease the burdens of those he loves” (p.213). A boy, Robin, finds the coat Don took off and searches for the owner. “When Don spies the boy carrying his coat in search of him, even his weakened mind is troubled at the thought of a child stumbling across the scene of death he is about to create…’That could scar a kid,’ he thinks (pp. 213-14). Then the boy falls through the ice on a pond and Don manages to save his life. They go to Robin’s home and the boy’s mother cares for Don, who realizes a “renewed joy in life.” Then he is reunited with his wife.
Before they reunite, though, “Don pauses one more time to consider whether he really wants to continue living, knowing the days he has left are numbered and will be filled with great pain (p. 217). Quote from The Tenth of December:
Did he still want it? Did he still want to live?
Yes, yes, oh, God, yes, please.
Because, O.K., the thing was—he saw it now, was starting to see it—if some guy at the end, fell apart, and said or did bad things, or had to be helped, helped to quite a considerable extent? So what? What of it? Why should he not do or say weird things or look strange or disgusting? Why should the s----- not run down his legs? Why should those he loved not lift and bend and feed and wipe him, when he would gladly do the same for them? He’d been afraid to be lessened by the lifting and bending and feeding and wiping, and was still afraid of that, and yet, at the same time, now saw that there could still be many—many drops of goodness, is how it came to him—many drops of happy—of good fellowship—ahead, and those drops of fellowship were not—had never been—his to [withhold].
Prior says whenever she reads this passage, “it pierces [her] every time” (p. 218). She confesses to being “terribly, terribly afraid of dying.” Afraid of all the things Saunders writes of Don fearing. As Prior says, these fears are natural and normal, but she feels they are heightened for her because her husband’s father killed himself when faced with the fate of dying from a fatal disease. It scarred her husband and all his family.
For those so sick or scared or depressed that they think their loved ones would be better off without them, I so wish for them to know what Don Eber came to know; caring for those bodies we inhabit for a while—whether that care is of our own or someone else’s body—isn’t a distraction from what life is all about. It is what life is all about.
In lieu of death, be kind to one another.
That pierces me, too. I think of many things. Jean Vanier and L’Arche, living with and befriending lonely, mentally challenged people. My brother finding so much humor in his life during the 6 months it took him to die of ALS. My mom feeling so ashamed when she came home from a walk around the block with exactly what Saunders listed, s------ running down her legs. My sister and sister-in-law faithfully present for Mom as she declined both physically and mentally with Parkinson’s. My dad, from his own deathbed saying, “Move her closer, closer,” when we wheeled Mom in to his room so he could hold her hand and say, “Hi, sweetheart.” Dad holding my own hand, kissing it, and saying, “I love you so much.” My aunt – my mom’s sister – sitting beside Mom shortly before she died, looking at old photos and knowing exactly what my mom meant as she managed to speak one or two words the memories those pictures evoked. My sister reading Psalm 23 to Mom as she breathed her last breaths, with Mom silently echoing the words. Yes, that is what life is all about.
* On Reading Well, Finding the Good Life Through Great Books by Karen Swallow Prior. Brazos Press, Grand Rapids, MI. copyright 2018.