The Valley of the Shadow

 Published in the Mountain Gazette, March 2006

            It was just an afternoon ski, up the Slate River valley, but like a lot of things these days, it made me think about dying.

            A narrow valley, and the mountains to either side go up so steeply to the sky that the low winter sun doesn’t linger long in the afternoon. I’d thought I might ski up to the old Pittsburg townsite, not because there would be anything going on up there but just because it’s a kind of a marker, a former outpost of mostly human culture in otherwise mostly omniscient nature; it’s a good place to go to and turn around if you’re just out for exercise, or for the beauty of the day. It’s also where the road doubles back on itself and starts to seriously climb out of the valley toward Paradise Divide; you don’t just start up that part of the road in the late afternoon in December unless you’re seriously prepared for something more than a little leisurely mucking about on skis.

            But I was still a couple miles down from the old townsite when I realized the night was coming down the valley faster than I was going up it. There it was, just ahead: not exactly a hard line, but a very distinct transition. I was gliding down a slight slope in the bright (if deeply slanted) sun, and ahead was a deep blue twilight. Far up the valley—really far—the sun still lit the tops of the distant peaks, but filtered as it was by the deep twilight below, it was not a warm light. Beautiful, all of it, achingly beautiful, but cold, cold.

            So I glided to a stop that afternoon, in the penumbra of the coming night—went into the deep orange-violet light where the sun was visibly dropping down behind the high southern ridge. And was immediately chilled—got out the windbreaker, got my gloves out of my pocket. The sun was still on the steep north slope just above me, but I could see its not-so-slow withdrawal up the slope. And I thought, that day: a good place to turn around—go with the shadow back down the valley.

            And it all of course made me think about dying.


            While I don’t consider myself to be an especially morbid person, I’ve been thinking about dying often, these days. I’ll hasten to add that this is still a largely abstract preoccupation with me. I have friends for whom it is less abstract, friends who are going to die within the next year or two or five, and who know it and know why. Some of them younger than I.

            Me—at 65, I am still (knock on wood) getting a pretty clean bill of health when I get around to going to the doctor for my more or less annual checkup. Blood pressure up but kept under control with a daily five migs of some comparatively inexpensive drug; bad cholesterol creeping up but not yet in the danger zone; minor arthritis in various joints, noticeable in the morning but nothing disabling; eyes probably being gradually destroyed by too much time staring at this screen; hearing in one ear mostly surrendered to a growing tinnitus that I’ve gotten used to—et cetera.

            Getting old, in other words, but nothing that our very capable medical establishment can’t handle without even thinking about it. Barring better planning, I might last to 80 or 90, like too many of my peers—and therein lies my problem, our collective problem.

            I know that one of these years, I’m going to go to the doctor for a checkup and he is going to find something he doesn’t like. Or I’m going to wake up realizing I’ve been putting off asking the doctor about a nagging something or other that, instead of going away after a few days or weeks, seems to be getting a little worse.... And then I am going to have to make the kind of decision about myself that I’ve had to make all my life about my automobiles: should I fix up the old hulk one more time (even though there are noises and rattles indicating other incipient breakdowns on the horizon), or is it time to just trade it in? Except that, with me (other than the parting-out of organs), there’s no trade-in value.

            Junking it, is what it amounts to, and what I wonder, fear about myself, is whether at that point I’ll have the courage of my convictions—whether I’ll have the gumption (and today, the necessary guile) to stand up to the heroic health industry and the perfervid Christians and conduct myself through a reasonably dignified process of dying. That’s what I think of these days, when I think about dying: whether I will be brave enough to carry out a decent death as a final obligation, a last but by no means least gift to my children, maybe to the whole earth, but certainly to myself: to die in a timely and dignified way.


            This is of course one of those conversations that we’ve made to be culturally inappropriate. Like belching and farting, dying is something thoroughly natural about ourselves, and therefore something to be suppressed in our civilized and unnatural world. Bring it up, and everyone is faintly embarrassed; someone else starts talking about the weather, or how it’s time to get dinner on the table.

            But the topic is here, more and more. My partner and I have begun to talk about it—quite a lot, in fact, because she has just finished going through what most of my friends today are going through: the death of parents. Or to say it as it really is—the long, slow, and often painful death of parents who know they have outlived their productive years, who know that every additional year of their poor excuse for living diminishes what they have to leave to their kids, who have ceased to really enjoy life and are horrified at the looming prospect of the Happy Golden Years Managed Care Facility, but who are too polite to object to the strenuous efforts of a health juggernaut determined to keep them alive forever or at least till their annuity and other assets are milked dry. That, coupled with the fanatical contradictions of the aggressively religious, who claim to believe in an afterlife but so aggressively fear death.

            One of my friends had the trauma this past spring of losing both of his parents within a matter of weeks—both through the relentless accumulation of natural causes, but with the second death undoubtedly facilitated by grief at the impossibility of imagining life without the partner who left first. But traumatic as that was for my friend, I think he was luckier in a way than my partner because the same process took a decade for her.

            Her father died in his eighties, a brilliant, energetic and creative man who lived long enough to see the juggernaut of civilization trundling away from—and in some ways, over—the ideas to which he had dedicated his life. His wife (my partner’s mother), who had dedicated her life to him and his work, lived on beyond him a decade without really wanting to at all, or so she said. She said she wanted to be dead; she started to wear the “Do Not Resuscitate” bracelet—but at some point, for whatever reason, took it off, and so was resuscitated once from what was apparently just a minor (but sufficient) stroke. After that, she survived a couple other incidents through nothing more nor less apparently than her body’s habit of being alive. She all but stopped eating—took in nothing, my partner said, but coffee and chocolate. She became so physically emaciated that it was literally dangerous for her to try to go out on a windy day. But until cancer came to her pancreas finally, her heart kept thumping away in a low-pressure way, pushing enough blood through a relatively functional system to keep her brain and body alive. My partner made half a dozen trips to Madison that final year to be with her.          

            I escaped this thing that so many of my peers are experiencing; both of my parents left when I was still in the decades between being part of their responsibility and being able to take them on as part of my responsibility. My father died in his mid-60s, my age now, of a prostate cancer that didn’t get diagnosed in time and spread to his bones—a couple years of pain, including the pain of chemo and every other all-out treatment to fight the inevitable. My mother died much younger, at 48, of the complications associated with lupus, when I was still in my early 20s—a long, lingering, sad death from one of those mysterious auto-immune diseases in which the body essentially turns against itself.

            Both of them were robbed of a sense of completeness to their lives—I remember my father, when he called to tell me about the diagnosis, saying he had hoped for a few years after retirement to “sort things out.” And my mother—I just think about an easel up in the attic with a half-finished painting on it. A kind of a Norman Rockwell picture of a young girl with ballet slippers slung over her shoulder looking at a ballet poster. And a drawerful of stories and poems. But mostly, had she been unladylike enough to mention it, her sense of incompleteness would have resided in not getting to see—for better or worse—my sisters and me grown and out in the world.

            But they—and I—were at the very least spared this strange situation facing people today, moving into their eighties and beyond, and their grown children, confronted with a ridiculous paradox: a society that seems to appreciate nothing but youth and its follies on the one hand (go Brad: get’em all), but on the other hand seems to have a fanatical will to keep the aged alive for as long as possible, in diverse situations of cultural irrelevance and even disrespect, culminating in the “nursing homes” where they are treated in the same patronizing and demeaning way we treat slow children.

            And this in a world that so obviously needs, more than anything else we can or at least could actually deliver, fewer people.


            So I’m thinking about this; my partner and I are thinking about it. We are, in fact, working with a lawyer trying to draw up a “medical power of attorney” for each other so powerful that would, in effect, let us each be the other’s “executor” in the most basic sense of the term—help with the syringe, the overdose, the pillow, whatever works. That’s just the ideal, of course, and of course it’ll never fly in the current political/medical environment, enforced by strange inconsistent politicos who focus their mercy on human vegetables but can’t extend it to healthy Iraqis and Afghanistanis whose bad luck it is to get in their way, or for that matter, young Americans who also get in the way of something thrown back.

            But the afternoon ski up the Slate River did suggest an alternative.

            It made me think, for example, of one of the books by a great nature writer who was doing nature-writing before nature-writing was cool. Farley Mowat, The Snow Walker. Mowat had a penchant for the far frozen north, and The Snow Walker is a set of essays that, as I remember, stemmed from a season (up where it’s all one season) trading stories with Farnorthers in a trading post he worked at.

            The title essay—“The Snow Walker”—was a terrible story, a sad story, of a tribal band of far northern native Americans who were starving to death in an unusually severe winter when the animals that nurtured them didn’t show up where and when expected—possibly because the far north was still in the process of adjusting to the efficiency we had brought to the region in the form of the repeating rifle. The band finally headed south to try to find a trading post where they could beg or borrow some sustenance. It was a literal death march. But periodically, through that terrible journey, one or another of the elders would just leave in the night—go to “meet the Snow Walker.” And when one of them would do that, almost invariably it seemed, the next day a lone fat buck or some other animal would amiably show itself, close enough for even a starving hallucinating hunter to draw an accurate bead, and the people would eat again.

            The Snow Walker. A euphemism for death, and raised as I was on Dickensian ghosts and other death images, I imagine the gaunt Grim Reaper, the tall black cloak empty of features, the armless sleeves that spread to enfold....

            But suppose the Snow Walker is actually—Santa Claus? Same neighborhood: a fat jolly spirit that opens a door out of the night and welcomes one into another kind of warmth? Why couldn’t death be as generous as St. Nicholas, a gift to the living, when the gift is timely for both the giver and the gifted?


            Timeliness, timing, of course, is the problem. When one is young, it is easy to say, “Well, you won’t see me getting old and useless.” And there are certainly “untimely” deaths, moreso for people who hang out around mountains—falls, accidents, the mysterious heart failures that seem to strike vital and healthy men between 45 and 55, the ugly systemic malfunctions that took my parents before they’d had a chance to see their works at work.

            But for the rest of us—how will we know when it is “closing time”? Actually, I think my partner’s mother left an inferential clue. Her family had been typical enough of the postwar American families—there was no discernible reason for unhappiness, therefore no acknowledged unhappiness. But she had lived in the kind of strange estrangement from her two daughters that one often sees in once-ambitious women. She had wanted to be an actress, my partner’s mother, a serious classical actress (Checkov was her specialty), but she had married in college where she was studying acting, and had become a wife and mother instead, as women did in her time.

            So—it is my hypothesis that she took off her “Do not resuscitate” bracelet because she still had unfinished business; she wanted to make a kind of peace with her daughters. My partner basically gave her mother a year, and in that year they actually became friends, as much so as parents and their adult children can. Her mother’s greatest role in college had been Sonya in Chekov’s “Uncle Vanya”—stepdaughter of an old discouraged professor too civilized to really complain—and the morning she died, my partner was there reading the last scene of “Uncle Vanya,” where Sonya promises her Vanya that “there, beyond the grave, we shall say that we have suffered, that we have wept, and have known bitterness, and God will have pity on us; and you and I, Uncle, shall behold a life that is bright, beautiful, and fine. We shall rejoice and look back on our present troubles with tenderness, with a smile—and we shall rest. I have faith, Uncle, I have fervent, passionate faith.... We shall rest!”

            And that was apparently enough—that plus the year of mutual atonement—to let her let go.

            So—taking care of business, the business of making the best of the messes of life: maybe only then can we put on the bracelet, really decide to let go of life, when we’ve taken care of the business of living. “It is time I wrote my will,” said Yeats, somewhere in his sixties. I think I’m still trying to discover my will; there’s still unfinished business.


            But how will I know when it’s time? If I wait till I think I’ve done my work, I’ve got so many “writing projects” started that, were I permitted to stay till I finished them all, I’d be about 125 years old.  But I also know that many are called to great ideas, but few are chosen; many of my great ideas, maybe most of them, probably aren’t going to be done right (or at all) by me. Or I’m probably not going to do right by them. Probably. Unless, of course, in the process of working on them, they became infused with my peculiar brilliance, or, or, or.... Thus doth consciousness make cowards of us all.

            But there’s other unfinished business too. How long will it take me to expiate the life I’ve lived? Do something—played back or played forward—for all the damage I’ve done in the lives of those I’ve encountered on earth? An hour in silence for every cruel word I’ve said, a day by the side of a road for every hitchhiker I’ve passed up just because I didn’t want to share my 80 cubic feet of space with a stranger, a nickel begged for every nickel I’ve withheld from those who needed it more than I did if only for the purchase of forgetfulness, a hand-delivered apology for every stupid hurtful thing I’ve done without even the devil’s grace of intent, a year or so of slavery for the girl who got blamed for the china cup I accidentally broke in the fourth grade display about China the cup brought by the son of a mother whose husband had been lost in Korea, everything that whirs and flickers on the sky of the mind when the ironclaw owl comes to sit on my stomach at night.... If I’ve got all that unfinished business to take care of....

            Do I, in other words, really think I can come to a place where I believe that the earth is done with me—a place where I believe I am done with the earth?

            I can only say I think about it a lot these years.

            But that day up the Slate River helped me think about it. I saw how cold the coming night was, but also how beautiful. For the time being, the parts of me that feel the cold and the parts of me that see the beauty are still bound up in this concatenation of contradictions generally known as me. An occasionally interesting but often tedious writer, an iconoclast whose unique visions are damped down to negligible by an unaccountable sense of personal inferiority, a 65-year-old orphan who never felt like a father even when he became one, a sometime teacher who hates discipline and “rigor,” an almost, a not-quite—I’ve begun to really appreciate the observable truth of the compost pile: that matter and energy are constant; that the assemblage of matter and energy into forms like me is often interesting but always imperfect; that what is ultimately important is the fact that every iota of matter and energy gets a lot of opportunities.

            But do I have the courage of that conviction? When I look up the Slate River valley, as I did that day, beyond the nearer night to the sun on those peaks beyond—maybe. Maybe some day I’ll muster the gumption to leave a few cryptic notes (“Don’t call the Search and Rescue; I’m off to see Santa”), and just ski up to Pittsburg some brilliant afternoon, and when I get there, just make the turn that goes on up toward Paradise Divide, and just go and go till it’s just time to sit down under a tree and watch the moon reflect its glory, life’s glory, and there give my last unconditional gift hypothermally to the universe. Life grant me that grace.