We obsess over lasts as we do over firsts. Last days, last images, last words. We want signs.
Last month, my brothers and I made a most difficult decision about our father who was, at the time facing a cluster of serious complications resulting from a stroke and car accident. Four days earlier we had gathered around our mother’s bedside as the respirator that was barely keeping her breathing was removed. Within four hours she was gone. After agreeing to discontinue treatment of our father, he would continue to live, slowly dying, for another week. As I kept vigil day after day I tried to remind myself that there was a time when death was allowed to take its course, in the home, even as so-called “normal” life would begin to spin, a troubled satellite, around the dying person. Death was part of life, not something that happened elsewhere, surrounded by tubes and machinery. Although my dad remained in the hospital until the end, he was moved to a quiet, private room where he was kept comfortable, free of pain, and cared for by the nursing staff. As a family we were supported and respected. It wasn’t easy, and we’re all still numbed and distorted in our grieving, but if there is such a thing as a good death, I think that both of my parents had good deaths, if good means having a chance to say I love you, over and over and over until the end.
When I first started to read Susana Moreira Marques’ Now and at the Hour of Our Death, I wondered if I was too raw, too plagued with second thoughts about the decisions we had made, to be able to surrender to a lyrical and experimental essay about death and dying. This book had been sitting on my shelves since it arrived last year with my And Other Stories subscription, several times I had opened it but somehow the time was not right. I suppose the book was waiting for me.
Over the course of five months in 2011, Marques made several visits to a palliative care project in rural north-east Portugal. She accompanied a team of health care professionals as they traveled from village to village to assist those on their final journeys, allowing them to be able die, as comfortably as possible, in their own homes; and along the way she recorded her own observations, collected anecdotes, and listened to the stories of the people she met. The result is powerful meditation dying, as a lived experience shared by a family, a community.
The first half of the book is fragmentary in style and form, blending facts and definitions, character sketches, brief stream-of-conscious like passages, pieces of wisdom—all presented with a quiet dignity in lucid, affecting prose:
The swallows have already built their nests above the back door; this is how they do it every year. They are useful birds, and beautiful, and have always been a favourite of his. But now he watches them as he never has before, because he might not see another spring.
AGONY: 1. The last struggle against death. 2. [Figurative] Anguish, affliction. 3. An imminent conclusion (preceded by a great disturbance).
‘Agony,’ the dictionary does not note, is a technical term.
Immortal in the morning. At night, the fear of never waking.
Lands, roads, people, time, time, people, roads, land. What matters here is different, very different.
The second half of the book, entitled “Portraits”, offers a closer look at three individual stories. Here Marques becomes a gentle presence as she describes each situation, then she steps back and lets those involved have their say. There is Paula, a woman with a young family, who is dying of cancer. She speaks with a brave spirit about how she and her husband had taken their time, waiting to have their second child, assuming they had “all the time in the world.” She will only have another year to live at the time that her thoughts are recorded. Then we meet João and Maria, a couple in their 80s who reminisce about their years in Angola. Both are ill, yet neither feels that they are ready to die, they live for visits from their children and grandchildren, and each one fears being the one left behind.
Finally, in the third portrait, the dying person is silent by the time Marques meets the family. While their father Rui lies on his death bed, his adult daughters, Elisa and Sara, each respond in their own way in his final months, the latter driving home from France every fortnight to spend time with him and her mother. Their own accounts follow his death, capturing the early weeks of grief, anger and regret. Very different in temperament, the sisters respond in their own ways to the loss, but for each of them it is the first time they have come up against the close experience with death and it is a leveling experience. Sara realizes she had never appreciated the magnitude of what others she had known would have been going through when they lost a parent, regretting that she had failed to say anything. I can’t help but feel that that is a common occurrence. Nothing but the death of a close friend or family member prepares you for the experience. Elisa, on the other hand, is surprised to find that she is unable to shriek and scream in anguish the way her sister and mother do when her father finally passes:
. . . I couldn’t react. It must have been two months before I cried. It’s really hard for me to cry. And now I’ve finally started crying, but only because I’ll get all worked up over something minor, and then I might cry a little out of frustration. But when it happened – and the atmosphere at our house was just so strange . . . It took me a long time to realize what was going on.
The final section, a single page long, is a guide for “When you come back from the journey no healthy person wants to take,” a list of the ways “you”, that is anyone who survives the death of a loved one, can be expected to act. . . paying attention to time, the things and people that are precious, the bridges that need to be mended and, simply, endeavouring to live well. I hope I can follow this wisdom even if, at the moment, I am inclined to relate to Elisa’s reaction, with grief coming in angry outbursts more than tears.
Now and at the Hour of Our Death is translated from the Portuguese by Julia Sanches and published by And Other Stories.