A TGB READER STORY: What Will You Share in Your Last Lecture?
Physician Assisted Death

Poetry of Dying

Last week, well-known American poet, Mary Olivery, died in her home in Florida at age 83. She had won both the Publitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

In Oliver's obituary, The New York Times reported:

”Her poems, which are built of unadorned language and accessible imagery, have a pedagogical, almost homiletic quality. It was this, combined with their relative brevity, that seemed to endear her work to a broad public, including clerics, who quoted it in their sermons; poetry therapists, who found its uplifting sensibility well suited to their work; composers, like Ronald Perera and Augusta Read Thomas, who set it to music; and celebrities like Laura Bush and Maria Shriver.

“All this, combined with the throngs that turned out for her public readings, conspired to give Ms. Oliver, fairly late in life, the aura of a reluctant, bookish rock star.”

Many TGB readers noted Oliver's passing - so many that it feels like every one of you sent this particular poem of hers. I thank you all and can't imagine how I have missed it all these years.

When Death Comes
By Mary Oliver

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence

and each body a lion of courage, and something precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom; taking the world into my arms.

When it's over, I don't want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.



Comments

Somehow the last stanza of Oliver's iconic poem was left off. It says:

"When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world."

You have not been a visitor either, Ronni Bennett!!

I wonder whether death hasn't inspired even more poetry than life, and perhaps, even more than love, especially when religious, war and funereal works are taken into consideration and the focus and volume of writing prior to the 20th century . I think I can say that I have spent more time thinking about my mortality than the fact that I am alive and sentient. I'm not sure why that is, but I'm pretty sure it's true. I've drawn few conclusions and to this day waffle between believing whether sentience is a blessing or a curse.

I was so sadly stunned to hear of her death. She was my favorite poet, especially in my elder years. She gives clean, strong voice to my heart. And this poem gives comfort and inspiration to my concept of aging and dying. Such a mentor, like Ronni.

The more I ponder death and read what others think, the less I know how I feel. I was so sure that there is no afterlife, much as I wish I would be continuing on another planet or in another form here on earth.

Now I am experiencing confusion about what to believe. None of us will know what happens until it happens; that much I know. I only know that I DO want to go gently into the good night. I agree with the last stanza of the poem.

Hear hear Darlene.

Marvelous words. I don't want to bound around like a kid, still it would be nice to stand up and cheer a little. Her words are worth cheering over.

Love her poetry and her mind! She's such a beautiful architect of language and feelings!
Thank you for sharing this poem which I'm not familiar with. Truly captures my state of mind presently!

I've long loved and read Oliver's works. It was warming to have different people posting her poetry on Facebook after her death. My earliest impression of her thoughts was in the statement "What do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?"

Thank you for posting this, Ronni, along with all your excellent, honest submissions about your own journey.
There are 5 more lines to When Death Comes; perhaps whoever sent the poem left them off? I love them in particular because they have helped me slowly move out of being "....frightened, or full of argument."

Here are the last 5 lines:
"When it's over, I don't want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don't want to end up simply having visited this world."

Thanks again, Ronni.
Elizabeth River

So, how do we know at the end if we have "simply visited this world"? Interesting question.

Thank you Elizabeth for the very interesting question "how do we know at the end if we have 'simply visited this world'? I know that is a question I will frequently pose to myself now that you have ask it.

What's wrong with visiting this world? Visitors are (or should be) on their best behavior. They tread lightly. They appreciate their host's kindness. They try not to damage the furniture, and if they accidentally do, they try to make it right.

The world could use more gentle visitors, and fewer selfish greedheads.

I just want to say that I loved Sylvia's comment!!

Lovely tribute to her Ronni, and the comments are truly to be cherished I am sure, touching as they all are.

You are an inspiration at this time as always, a true treasure as a friend and confidante.

Ken

I loved Sylvia's comment too!

Personally I think we're all simply visiting this world. Some of us have just forgotten that and think we own the place.

I too like Sylvia’s comment. We can be gentle visitors, and most of us at this site will have been exactly that because we are remarkably civilized people, who may not have distinguished ourselves in the larger world, but who have been intelligent and empathic people who were loved and respected by our families and friends. We can also make an indelible mark and be remembered by people outside our families if we are poets or writers or artists or famous criminals or professors like yesterday’s Randy Pausch. We are what we are.

We will remember Ronni because she gave us all something to remember in a blog that was much more than a blog to those of us who desperately needed somebody to bring us and our feelings about aging and death together. If we have lived gently on this earth and done as little harm as possible—or were genuinely sorry when we inadvertently did harm—that’s the best most of us can do.

I would like to be considered a “gentle visitor” of this world. Very much so. In fact, it might be my greatest wish as I think of my time here. And I would also like to be thought of as “particular and real.”

Thank you again, Ronni, for sharing this and making me continue to think and wonder. You are leaving a legacy.

I love Darlene’s comment. I so agree.

I was not familiar with the woman’s poetry, but I like it.

Where do we come from.... Where do we go....

Visitors do not engage, they keep their hands clean. They nod friendly and bite their tongues. I think Mary Oliver didn't want a life doing that.

I see they all say what I am thinking. You have not been just been a visitor.

Would I elect physician assisted death vs. a painful, lingering, debilitating, dignity-robbing "natural" demise? YES, absolutely! I've made that crystal clear to my family; everyone who knows me understands that this is what I would choose. I have also signed a POLST and prepared a specific written statement in addition to official advance directives. I live in WA State, where the process is legal, but as Ronni notes about Oregon, it is strictly regulated in both states.

Being unencumbered by religion, I join those who believe that every competent adult who so chooses should have the right to exercise control over the end of life, including a peaceful and dignified death at a time, place and means of their determination. Currently, many elders end up losing that right at the hands of the medical-industrial complex as they practice extreme medicine to preserve "life".

I have done my best to ensure that my wishes are carried out. I fervently hope that, when my time comes, it comes quickly and mercifully. If that doesn't happen, I hope I meet the requirements for physician-assisted death and am able to self-administer the medication. I realize that, if I develop dementia, I would need to consider other arrangements, but a peaceful death in my own home would for sure beat driving over a cliff or leaping from a tall bridge (which I likely couldn't pull off at this age anyway!).

Wow, she sounds like Walt Whitman in that poem.

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