And again Death, ever Death, Death, Death,
Hissing melodious, neither like the bird, nor like my arous’d child’s heart,
But edging near, as privately for me, rustling at my feet,
Creeping thence steadily up to my ears, and laving me softly all over,
Death, Death, Death, Death, Death.
Nine times one is the beginning of death—or life, if you read Whitman with an open, generous and healthy heart.
Unfortunately I don’t read him that way, unless I’ve drunk a glass or two of wine. Then I’m totally cool with Death. We get along just fine. But in the main, I have great anxiety over death and dying. I worry about headaches, lymph nodes, groin twinges, eye floaters and countless other symptoms, too silly to relate. Hell, sometimes I don’t even need a symptom. Once a patch of blighted grass sent me sorrowing over my mortality for the rest of the day. I’ve even abandoned a book when I learned the protagonist had melanoma on his shoulder blade. So it’s a minor miracle I persisted in reading Returning to Earth by Jim Harrison when this maddeningly stoic sentence greeted me in the first few pages, “I’m forty five and it seems I’m to leave the earth early but these things happen.”
It’s a good thing I persisted. Narrated by four different characters, the story explores reactions to Donald’s illness, his death and dying, and its aftermath. Unwilling to suffer uselessly, Donald participates in his own burial. He acquires a powerful tranquilizer from his doctor because he doesn’t want to make a mess with a pistol or deer rifle. He and his family cross the border above the Upper Peninsula and into Canada. A burial is dug beneath a granite escarpment as Donald watches on. His family lowers him into the grave. “Donald nodded to Herald, who quickly plunged the hypodermic into Donald’s arm. Clare and I got down into the grave and helped Donald stretch out on the bed of cedar boughs. Cynthia slid down and and lay beside Donald crooning softly. Within minutes Donald was dead and we helped each other out of the grave… And then we all drove home.”
Triple entendres aren’t easy to pull off, and when the landing sticks, they deserve special recognition. Donald is returned to earth; that’s plain enough. His daughter Clare, distraught by his death, struggles with his absence until she finds solace in the fact that Donald returns to earth in another form, as a plant, a tree, a bird or, as she earnestly believes, a bear. But there’s a third meaning to the phrase returning to earth, perhaps the most pertinent of all for those who struggle with the “incalculable rudeness of death.” In the end they, too, must return to earth and get on with the business of living.
I opened with Whitman. Why not close with Frost? Like Whitman and Harrison, he knows life is hard and demands toughness.
No one believed. They listened to his heart.
Little—less—nothing!—and that ended it.
No more to build on there. And they, since they
Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.