A Very Easy Death

A hard task, dying, when one loves life so much.

A Very Easy Death, by Simone de Beauvoir, is a beautifully written, powerfully emotional account of her mother’s death and her own emotional journey through her mother’s illness and death.

At age 78, her mother fell and broke the top part of her femur. She was hospitalized and during examination, the doctors found that she had cancer. It was a highly aggressive sarcoma, and her illness and decline were rapid. Simone and her sister, Poupette, spent most of their time at the hospital with their mother throughout that time, and Poupette was there the night she died.

This is a story that so many of us have gone through with a parent or loved one. Because the journey through illness and decline is a familiar one, I was acutely aware and appreciative of the honesty with which de Beauvoir shared their story — the story of two daughters in the process of losing their mother, and of their mother’s struggle to LIVE while dying.

Before reading the book, I thought that the term “an easy death” meant that the person didn’t have to suffer very much before dying. My family used that term about my father’s passing. He didn’t suffer long with his illness, and we were so grateful for that. But that is not what de Beauvoir meant by “an easy death.”  On the contrary, her mother suffered terribly before she died, but she had her daughters with her throughout the decline, and they helped her, advocated for her, and shared courage together in facing the inevitable. That was a luxury that de Beauvoir felt many people don’t have at the end of their lives.

With regard to Maman we were above all guilty, these last years, of carelessness, omission and abstention. We felt that we atoned for this by the days that we gave up to her, by the peace that our being there gave her, and by the victories gained over fear and pain. Without our obstinate watchfulness she would have suffered far more.

She and her sister were with her mother constantly during her illness, so de Beauvoir also describes the very painful reality a loved one faces in going through the agony of cancer.

…In this race between pain and death we most earnestly hoped that death would come first.

…Friday passed uneventfully. On Saturday Maman slept all the time. ‘That’s splendid,’ said Poupette to her. ‘You have rested.’ ‘Today I have not lived,’ sighed Maman.

…Nothing on earth could possibly justify these moments of pointless torment.

And she poignantly details the final aloneness of death.

…The misfortune is that although everyone must come to this, each experiences the adventure in solitude. We never left Maman during those last days which she confused with convalescence and yet we were profoundly separated from her.

All the way through this book, I thought of my own mother.  Simone de Beauvoir’s mother was 78 when she died, which seems so young to me from my vantage point now. I am incredibly fortunate to still have my mother who is 98 years old and still very much alive and well! But she and I are also very aware that time is getting short, which gives a special aura to every conversation, every visit, every moment we share. She and I talk about the end quite often, and our shared hope is that it is quick and painless. I live 800 miles away from my mother, so I know it is possible I won’t be with her when that time comes, to help ease her final journey, and that is hard for me.

Nothing prepares any of us for death. Even if fighting a terminal illness, Simone de Beauvoir said: “A hard task, dying, when one loves life so much.” Her mother clung tenaciously to life:

What touched our hearts that day was the way she noticed the slightest agreeable sensation: it was as though, at the age of seventy-eight, she were waking afresh to the miracle of living.

And on the finality of death itself, de Beauvoir said:

There is no such thing as a natural death: nothing that happens to a man is ever natural, since his presence calls the world into question. All men must die: but for every man his death is an accident and, even if he knows it and consents to it, an unjustifiable violation.

Simone de Beauvoir was a gifted author and influential existential philosopher. This was the first book I read by her, but I am very anxious now to read more of her work. I was so impressed with the beauty of her writing and with her deeply thoughtful honesty. With this book, she has touched my heart and mind like no other author has done in a long time.

Simone de Beauvoir with mother and sister…

This was a book that was on my list of 50 books to read for The Classics Club, and was also on my TBR Pile Challenge list.

That’s Evolution!

The kite-eating tree!

Last weekend, our son and grandson were flying their new drone when it got stuck in one of our 100-foot tall oak trees. No way we can reach it even with a ladder! No way we can even throw a rock high enough to dislodge it.  So we’ve watched it all week, hoping the wind will do its work, but the breezes haven’t blown it down yet. So this weekend, we sent up a “rescue” drone to try to knock it from its position in the branches. The second drone, after hitting it once, (we were so hopeful!) also got stuck in a second tall oak!

“That’s evolution!” my neighbor pronounced. “They used to be kite-eating trees [a la Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang], but now they have progressed to eating drones!”

Our drone in the tall oak tree…

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Grandson and Grandma Play Minecraft

In the last few weeks, we’ve spent quite a bit of time with our 11-year-old grandson. Those hours spent with him are precious times!  On the days that we have him all day long, we have a fun routine. We start the day at the breakfast table making a list of all the things we want to do during the day, including what we’ll have for lunch and dinner, errands and tasks. Time outdoors is included as well as the indoor games and activities. We revisit the list at the end of the day and mark off the things we’ve actually done. It’s a fun way to realize that there are endless things we can do and never get bored while spending the day (or days) with grandparents!

One thing that is always on the list is some time for one of his favorite computer games, Minecraft. Last year, he showed me how to start a game myself, and I was hooked! He showed great patience in helping me learn how to build things and navigate the environment. He showed me that I could choose a “peaceful” game without monsters attacking me and blowing up my buildings, and that I also had a choice of “survival” or “creative” modes. In survival mode, I have to find all my own supplies and materials. In creative mode, they are already there for me. I find this game fun and relaxing and play it quite often, building houses, villages, and cities, and exploring many different biomes.

But now there is a computer version in the house that can be hooked to the TV and is controlled by a joystick. Although I do well on the touchscreen version of the game on my iPad, this old grandma has a great deal of trouble with using a joystick to navigate the computer version! Grandson has once again shown great patience in trying to help me learn how to use it because he would dearly love to play a two-person version of the game. If I could just manage to work that joystick really well, we could build things together in one game! But the manual dexterity skills that seem to come so naturally to young people these days are very difficult for me to manage, so I mostly end up watching him create his Minecraft worlds. I’m practicing my joystick skills, but it’s slow learning for me.

This sweet Grandboy hasn’t given up on me. He enjoys visiting my current game on my iPad, and likes to add his own touches to what I have been building. And he continues to educate me about the endless possibilities of this amazing game. He’s a wonderful teacher! This week, he loaned me three books to read on the subject (knowing I love to learn by reading). I know I am loved when he loans me his hardback Minecraft books!

Wise Words from Harry Truman

…photo from The Truman Library.

Wise words from Harry Truman as reported by biographer, David McCullough:

Harry Truman was a reader. He was a lifelong reader. I asked Margaret one day, “What would be your father’s idea of heaven?” She said, “Oh, that’s easy. It would be a good comfortable armchair and a good reading lamp and a stack of new history and biography that he wanted to read.” He once said that all readers can’t be leaders, but all leaders must be readers.

This seems particularly important and relevant today!

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Simone de Beauvoir

Today is Simone de Beauvoir‘s birthday. She is an author I have long been interested in but have not read any of her work, although I have two of her books on my shelf — The Second Sex, her great feminist manifesto, and A Very Easy Death, the story of her mother’s death. Both books have traveled with me through a number of moves because I really do want to read them.

When I signed up for Adam’s (@roofbeamreader.com) Official 2018 TBR Pile Challenge, I put A Very Easy Death on my list. I intend to start it soon. Today, on her birthday, would be perfect!

Donny’s Desk

During my teaching years, I kept a folder for special cards and notes that were given to me. I also wrote down some of the stories that I felt needed to be saved and tucked them into that folder, too. Since reading the little book, The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, I’ve started going through drawers, files, boxes. This afternoon, for the first time in years, I looked through my special teaching folder. I found this little story, a real treasure, that I wrote from my first year of teaching 6th grade. As I read it, I can still see these two boys in my memory. I am reminded once again that the truth of teaching is not about testing, and only somewhat about curriculum. It’s about LIFE.

I loved my days and years spent with young people! I learned so much from them about love and friendship, strength and resilience, courage and growth…and about how to appreciate each day for the many gifts of love one receives from others, young or old.

DONNY’S DESK

Donny and Nick were inseparable. They’d been friends since kindergarten, and they moved alike, talked alike, and thought alike. Like two young playful puppies, they were constantly jostling and wrestling each other. They couldn’t stand in a line together without a little shoving or shoulder bumping or tousling of the other’s hair.

Once, when Nick went on a family trip for a week, Donny walked around the classroom with a totally lost look on his face. “What are you going to do without your best buddy this week?” I asked him. “I dunno,” he replied with a shrug and a look on his face that showed the loneliness inside.

Yesterday, Donny didn’t come to school. Today I got a message over the intercom from the office saying simply, “Donny moved this weekend. He’ll be in to pick up his things today.”  I looked at Nick in surprise and asked him if he knew anything about this. He didn’t.

Donny came in and cleared out his desk just before lunch. His mother told us quietly where he was moving. “We’ve moved in with friends,” she said with tears in her eyes. Donny said his quiet goodbyes to Nick, and the class. Then he was gone.

The class worked somberly, silently, asking no questions. A little while later Nick quietly came up to my desk and said, “Mrs. Rice, can I move into Donny’s desk?”

Birth Year Reading: The Important Book

Robin in 1949…

I’ve noticed that around the blogosphere there are a number of challenges for reading books published in your birth year. Since I’ve already taken on a number of reading challenges for this year, I’m not going to join any of the official birth year challenges, even though I’m very interested in them. Instead, I’ll review each book I read in a special “birth year post.”  I love the idea of reading more books published in 1949, since that year was the beginning of my lifelong love of books and reading!

The Important Book, by Margaret Wise Brown, was published in my birth year of 1949. Her book, Goodnight Moon, is one of our family favorites. The Important Book, with its illustrations by Leonard Weisgard, is a book that I used more in the classroom during my teaching years.  It’s a simple idea, each page starts with “The important thing about…” and identifies an object and then lists numerous characteristics of that object. It always ends with the most defining characteristic, saying “But the important thing about ___ is that____.”   The repetition and the simple, daily objects that are focused on, capture children’s interest and expands their way of looking at things and expands their vocabulary as well.

I used this book as a teaching tool in my poetry unit when I taught  6th grade and later when I taught 2nd grade. The format of the book really is a form of poetry. The students always seemed to enjoy the book, the ideas, and the challenge of describing interesting objects by their characteristics and then nailing the most important characteristic of all. Each student then would write and “publish” their own “Important Book.”

The Important Book is an idea book, and although it’s not warm and fuzzy like Goodnight Moon, I know that children enjoy it and I think it’s an important book to share with them.

The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning

When my grandmother died, we found that she had prepared well for the distribution of her belongings. On the bottom or on the back of her most important items, we found a small strip of masking tape with a family member’s name on it. We’ve remembered that over the years with humor and affection, and appreciation. Many years after her death, I turned over one of two kitchen chairs she had given me, and felt a rush of warmth and remembering when I saw the slightly curled piece of masking tape with my name on it.

Much like the planning ahead my grandmother did at the end of her life, The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, by Margareta Magnusson, is a book chock full of ideas on getting rid of the clutter in our lives. It is a book that would be helpful to read at any age! Her ideas are very practical and encouraging, and she addresses many of the roadblocks we run into when we are trying find the courage to let things go that we have spent a lifetime collecting.

“Sometimes you just have to give cherished things away with the hope that they end up with someone who will create new memories of their own.”

I will be putting many of her suggestions into gear immediately because I’m already in the purging mode this January. When I spend more time indoors, out of the cold weather, I realize how much stuff we have that we really don’t need anymore. And we are getting on in years, as well, and I definitely don’t want my children to have to deal with all our stuff.  It’s really an act of kindness and love to go through the process of letting go of the clutter now instead of leaving it for them to deal with after we are gone.

My Mom, who is 98 years old, is also reading this book and we are talking about the ideas and the process from both our perspectives. It’s a wonderful ongoing conversation right now, and an important one.

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The Rainbow and the Rose

As many of you know from my past blog posts, I love the stories of Nevil Shute. He describes things beautifully and doesn’t hurry through the telling. He takes care to build very human characters in interesting and believable situations that reveal their best qualities. His male characters are decent, kind and hardworking. His female characters are intelligent and hardworking, as well. I enjoyed reading The Rainbow and the Rose for exactly those reasons.

Nevil Shute was an aeronautical engineer, and his passion for planes and flying is in many of his books, including The Rainbow and the Rose. This story is about a pilot and a younger man he taught to fly some 30 years earlier…

That year we had a terrible July. I was sitting there one evening half asleep, listening to the radio and the wind outside and the rain beating on the window. The seven o’clock news was just coming on, and I stayed to listen to that before going in to tea. I sat dozing through all the stuff about Egypt and the Middle East, and all the stuff about the floods along the Murray. Then there came a bit that jerked me suddenly awake. The announcer said something like this:

‘It is reported from Tasmania that a pilot flying a small aeroplane upon an errand of mercy crashed this afternoon on a small airstrip on the west coast. The pilot, Captain John Pascoe, was attempting to land to bring a child into hospital, Betty Hoskins, aged seven, who is suffering from appendicitis. There is no practicable land route to the Lewis River and all communications normally take place by sea, but no vessel has been able to enter the river for the last ten days owing to the continuing westerly gales. Captain Pascoe is reported to have sustained a fractured skull.’

I was a bit upset when I heard this news. We all knew Johnnie Pascoe because for a time Sydney had been one of his terminals and he still passed through now and then. The world of aviation is a small one in Australia. But I knew him better than anyone, of course, because I had known him off and on for thirty years, ever since he taught me to fly in England at the Leacaster Flying Club.

That begins an intriguing story of how the main character attempts to rescue both the sick little girl and his seriously wounded pilot friend/mentor. This is an unusual story because the main character identifies so closely with his friend, and under the stress of repeated rescue attempts,  the two characters merge. It’s really quite intriguing how NS wrote this story. I liked it very much.

I chose to read this book as one of my 50-books-in-5-years for The Classics Club.