My mother is dying. I’m sitting in a chair in her room, and she’s dying in the bed next to me. She has stopped eating. She is drinking very little. She is sleeping almost continuously. She is breathing well, and seems quite comfortable. She’s just dying. It will likely be no more than a couple of days now.

I have no idea if I’m going to spin out of control when she dies, or if I’ve been doing enough grieving in these past weeks and months . . . and years, frankly. It will probably be a little of both.

When I was an active member of St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., I sang in the choir. One of my favorite services of the year was in Holy Week (the week between Palm Sunday and Easter); on that Wednesday we’d hold a Tenebrae service. “Tenebrae” means “shadows” in Latin.

The church was utterly dark except for a large candelabrum by whose light we sang our plainsong chants, ancient psalms of grief and sorrow. After each psalm, one of the candles was extinguished. The shadows would grow, and when the last candle was put out, the congregation and singers would find their way out of the church in complete silence, the only light coming from the church’s open door to the street.

The shadows are lengthening now as Mom dies. I will try to read this, one of my favorite poems, at her funeral:

And if tonight my soul may find her peace
in sleep, and sink in good oblivion,
and in the morning wake like a new-opened flower,
then I have been dipped again in God, and new created.

And if, as weeks go round, in the dark of the moon
my spirit darkens and goes out, and soft, strange gloom
pervades my movements and my thoughts and words,
then I shall know that I am walking still
with God, we are close together now the moon’s in shadow.

And if, as autumn deepens and darkens,
I feel the pain of falling leaves, and stems that break in storms
and trouble and dissolution and distress
and then the softness of deep shadows folding, folding
around my soul and spirit, around my lips
so sweet, like a swoon, or more like the drowse of a low, sad song
and the silence of short days, the silence of the year, the shadow,
then I shall know that my life is moving still
with the dark earth, and drenched
with the deep oblivion of earth’s lapse and renewal.

And if, in the charming phases of man’s life,
I fall in sickness and in misery
my wrists seem broken and my heart seems dead
and strength is gone, and my life
is only the leavings of a life:

and still, among it all, snatches of lovely oblivion, and snatches of renewal—
odd wintry flowers upon the withered stem, yet new, strange flowers
such as my life has not brought forth before, new blossoms of me—

then I must know that still
I am in the hands of the unkown God,
he is breaking me down to his own oblivion
to send me forth on a new morning, a new man.

— “Shadows,” D.H. Lawrence

Categories: Death, Spirituality | 8 Comments

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8 thoughts on “Shadows

  1. indigo bunting

    Know that you and Marguerite are loved and that your friends are here for you.

  2. Strength to you…

  3. You are loved. All things are as they are. You will be as you will be and all will be right. All things come and all things go but the holding-on causes us pain. We all hold on. If we love, we hold. If we love, we will have pain. Treasure that pain as it now grows and then seeps. It is a sign of the joy you have in her. The pain is that blessing in the end. When gone, there is space and joy and love and naught else. Space and joy and love.

    And so there is Love Buddha, and Joy Buddha and Compassion Buddha and Suffering Buddha. This is just Suffering Buddha. Nothing lasts.

  4. It’s so strange. I keep catching myself holding my breath, or breathing very shallowly. Breathing deeply feels good, but it also feels like release. So there I have both my explanation and my prescription.

  5. Keep well, as well as you possibly can, good friend.

  6. Nanu

    You are not alone.

  7. I wish you peace, strength, and serenity. May you find consolation in these last shared, sacred moments.

    (Indigo told me what was happening, and sent me here.)

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