Memorial Day, 2020

Long, long ago when I was a freshman in college and had overcome my dislike of poetry, I memorized Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night” because I loved the sheer sound of “Do not go gentle into that good night/Rage, rage against the dying of the light” and because I identified with the poet’s attitude towards death.  

Do not go gentle into that good night

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

It’s still an amazingly powerful poem.  I certainly knew at that age that my wisdom had “forked no lightning” and that I wasn’t ready to depart this world.  I believed that even more fervently when Lt. Wright died when his tank was blown up by a Viet Cong bazooka while escorting a supply convoy, a death that still haunts me every Memorial Day.

I’ll have to admit, though, that I hadn’t thought of this poem for a long time until I read Pastan’s “Go Gentle,” a very different view of death. 

Go Gentle

You have grown wings of pain
and flap around the bed like a wounded gull
calling for water, calling for tea, for grapes
whose skins you cannot penetrate.
Remember when you taught me
how to swim? Let go, you said,
the lake will hold you up.
I long to say, Father let go
and death will hold you up.
Outside the fall goes on without us.
How easily the leaves give in,
I hear them on the last breath of wind,
passing this disappearing place.

The similarity between the titles of the poems doesn’t seem entirely coincidental — though their views on death are diametrically opposed.  “Go Gentle” made me reexamine my views toward death some fifty years later. 

At 78, my attitude towards death is no longer so black-and-white.  Seeing my mother spend the last years of her life suffering from Alzheimer’s disease in a residential care facility  might well be the worst experience of my life, especially knowing how much she hated seeing her own grandmother die from the same disease. Faced with the same fate, I’d be sorely tempted to use the shotgun on the top shelf of my closet.  Visiting a close friend slowly dying from lung cancer after his throat cancer spread was nearly as painful. 

I’ve overcome three different cancers in my life.  When I was told that I wouldn’t live for more than six months if they didn’t immediately treat my throat cancer at the age of 57, I opted for surgery three days later. After the surgery, I wasn’t sure I had made the right decision.  Being on a feeding tube for three months unable to talk can make you question the value of your life.  Twenty years later, the pain and suffering seem justified but faced with the same decision at 78 I suspect my decision would be different.

What do you think?

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