I have been thinking a lot about death lately, because so many of the generation of writers before mine have been getting up from the table and people are no longer calling me and my friends "young writers." What does it mean, living and dying, all of which is witnessing and writing for us? I have noticed that many of my country's finest fiction writers are women, an alarming number of them picked off by cancer before they have written their definitive book of old age. We have lost Adele Wiseman, Margaret Laurence, and Marion Engel before they got a chance to be grandmothers. Laurence's son has just had a daughter, whom he and his wife named Adele. How Wiseman and Laurence, literary friends from childhood, would have loved that.
I wonder if our young country is not yet ready for its King (or Queen) Lear? I have been present at the deathbeds of many friends, including Robin Skelton, Wiccan editor of the Malahat Review, Charles Lillard, Amer-Canadian poet and historian, and Al Purdy, Canadian Poet of the Land, and I have noticed a pattern. The curiosity that marked their lives as writers also characterized their adventures with dying. Wiseman got out of bed and crossed the room before she died. I would like to think she was going to choose a favourite book.
Purdy, hooked up to oxygen, refused morphine because he wanted to keep his mind clear to read the poems of tribute that were filling his mailbox every day. These people did not fear death like others I have known. Dying with pen and paper on the bedside table, I do believe they were hoping to write about it. Just as they had spent their lives recording every personal and cosmic event that touched them, they were very interested in their dying.
I sometimes find myself with a near jealousy. Just as I wanted a bra or a baby to mark my earler passages in life, I am now wondering what it is like to wake up every morning, knowing that it is one of my last. What special pleasure would I have taken in yesterday, Mother's Day, when the sun lit up the flowers in my garden and the children and pregnant daughter in law, had it been my last, like my friend Carol Shields, who is in the final stages of cancer? How would the celebratory lunch have tasted? Is there an elixir of death that makes every smell, taste and sound unbelievably exquisite. I am writing a novel about a woman with a mortal illness and to that end have been interrogating everyone I know about their experience as a dying person. The writers like to share it as others do not. Just as we have spent our lives together rejoicing over titles and metaphor, "You saw it. It's yours!" now they are sharing that sacred voyage beyond the phenomenal world and family as we know it to the place where they bcome part of memory and the stories and poems they have written.
Carol says she is in her final chapter. The curiosity that has made her one of the finest fiction writers of the twentieth century sustains her now. She watches the people around her. How are they reacting? How will they react? How is she reacting? Every bad and good thing that happens in our lives, whether it is illness, an accident, a love affair, a windfall of some kind, has been treated the same way. We file our joy and our pain in the memory bank that pays interest when we withdraw them from memory and rearrange them in poems and stories that are always true in their details, even when the sum is fiction. If a piano fell on me while I was walking down the street, I'd be carried away on a stretcher, saying, ""Boy am I lucky. This will make a great poem!"
This is what my friends make of death, great poetry. Carol was determined to finish her last novel, Unless, in which she examines the nature of goodness. It comes from the twilight zone, where all of us become transparent as we cross the bridge between our mortal and immortal lives. Carol's transparency is a medium through which we see ourselves more clearly. With her characteristic humour, she pushes the boundaries of femininst thought, examining the principles of unconditional and indifferent love as defined by Simone Weil and getting in her final digs at a world where women novelists are still fluff. Unless is her final gift and she focused the energy that many use to grieve for themselves before dying into showing us that redemption and a state of grace are still possible in a world of conditional values. In footnotes to the book, she has given each of her friends the notion that they are valued and valuable, an act of generosity that transcends concern with herself.
Why is it that writers, so many of them cut short, possibly exhausted by their passionate engagement with the world and a sedentary lifestyle that has them attached to machines that translate for them, treat dying as if it were labour, an opportunity as opposed to a tragedy? I think it is because we value the work we do. In telling and retelling the human story, we have a relationship with the world that others might miss in their quest for fame, fortune or just an ordinary living. A writer who writes gets to be fulfilled whether or not he or she reaps the rewards of the very successful. We get to leave something behind. We get to say our piece, unlike others who didn't for one reason or other get to bring their lights out from under the proverbial bushels where they are hidden.
You hear about people who hang on and wait to die at a particular time. They want to see the grandchild born, or the daughter's wedding, or the last migration of geese. Shields has waited for the reviews for Unless, even though she feared it would annoy readers who saw a more congenial and complaisant deus ex machina behind her earler books. Maybe she secretly wanted to see the effect. When you fill a balloon with water, it's more fun to watch it splash that run away. Now the reviews that are coming in sound like obituaries and I want to tell their authors, those critics who as often as not don't get it, that they are not getting it. This woman is not dead yet,and, furthermore, she never will be. You cannot kill a tree that flowers like the Pilgrims' staffs in the opera Tannhauser, by an act of God.
This year, my husband and I were invited to read poetry and play music in Cardiff. Because it didn't fit our schedule, we had our Welsh experience in paying a visit to the website of our friend, designer Patricia Lester, who happens to live in Wales. Patrica's sister also suffered from cancer. All this long winter, we have been watching someone we love struggle with a fatal illness. Patricia's sister was angry. In the words of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, she raged. The day she died, Patricia sent me a letter saying two apple trees had fallen in her orchard. One, bare branched and angry, crushed her roses. The other flowered the ways plants sometimes do at the end of their plant lives. It occurred to her that this was the difference between the two women. She has sent me one of her beautiful silk scarves to give to Carol Shields, who has the gift of a scarf as the moral and philosophical central metaphor of Unless. That scarf comes to my mailbox like the poems that came to my friend Al Purdy, as the gift of love between friends. The transparent form of our friend may slip through our fingers, but the knot that ties our friendship will endure, because her wisdom and love reside in every word she has written. Nothing, not even death, can take that away. Aren't we the lucky ones?
Linda Rogers, teacher, broadcaster and past president of The League of Canadian poets and The Federation of British Columbia Writers, writes poetry, fiction, non-fiction and children's books. Canada's People's Poet for the year 2000, she has been awarded the Leacock, Livesay, Confederation, Acorn, Alcuin and Millenium Awards in Canada, The Voices Israel prize, The Cardiff, Kenney and Bridport prizes in Great Britain, the Acorn-Ruckeyser Award in the U.S., and the Prix anglais in France. With her husband, mandolinist Rick van Krugel, she writes and performs songs for children. Upcoming titles include The Bursting Test, poems, Tango Gallo, a novel, and Honorable Menschen, conversations with men in the arts.