APPROACHING DEATH

Old age, alarm’d, uncertain,
I am sitting here alone, fearfully weak yet,
My brain more and more palpably neglects or refuses even slight tasks.
Of course I know that death has struck me, and it is only a matter of time;
I may linger along yet some time—maybe quite a time yet—but may fall back,
I shall rally or partially rally—only every time lets me down a peg, the pegs coming gradually out,
Shadows of nightfall deepening, soon to be lost for aye in the darkness.

Shadowy death dogs my steps,
Draws sometimes close to me, as face to face;
Surely, slowly ebbing, my strength can’t stand the pull forever, and must sooner or later give out.
My disease is now call’d progressive paralysis, with a more or less rapid tendency (or eligibility) to the heart—
Formidable isn’t it? The worst is there may be something in it,
The doctors put four chances out of five against me—gave me quite up more than once—
Perhaps soon some day or night while I am singing my voice will suddenly cease.

There has come to me a notion, amounting to a certainty, that I am dying! Friends to whom I have mentioned this fear, endeavor to chase it away by saying that it is the result of my brooding thoughts; and that such vagaries often come into the minds of people under a great dread. I do not answer them, but I feel none the less the certainty of my death. Nor is it painful to me.
I myself for long, O death, have breath’d my every breath,
Amid the nearness and the silent thought of thee—
I do not fear thee.

Deadly weak, my sufferings much of the time are fearful,
But the spark seems to glimmer yet,
Fairly buoyant spirits— better spirits and comfort than I deserve—
It is all right whichever way.

Our time, our term has come,
The pomp and hurried contest-glare and rush are done,
Nor yield we mournfully, we who have grandly fill’d our time;
We welcome what we wrought for through the past,
And leave the field for them, they too to grandly fill their time,
For them we abdicate, to be in them absorb’d, assimilated.

Now for my last—ineffable grace of dying days,
Old age flowing free with the delicious near-by freedom of death,
Only desirous of quietly waiting the final change,
Exit, nightfall, and soon the heart-thud stopping,
The soothing sanity and blitheness of completion. 

O Death! O you striding there! O I cannot yet! a battle-contest yet!
Our joys of strife and derring-do to the last!

Something to eke out a minute additional,
A poem expressing the thoughts, pictures, aspirations fit to be perused during the days of the approach of death,
The most triumphant, jubilant poem.
This ought to express the sentiment of great jubilant glee, of athletic sort—for great deaths, devoirs, works—in battle, in martyrdom—for great renunciations—for love, for friendship —especially for the close of life (the close of a great true life,)
I have prepared myself for that purpose.

Let me look back a moment,
An old man gathering youthful memories and blooms that youth itself cannot,
I and my book, casting backward glances over our travel’d road, 
How sweet the silent backward tracings!
The wanderings as in dreams—the meditation of old times resumed—their loves, joys, persons, voyages,
Precious ever-lingering memories, (of you, my father—what is yours is mine—of you my mother dear—you, father—you, brothers, sisters, friends,)
How the soul loves to float amid such reminiscences!

Thanks in old age—thanks ere I go,
For beings, groups, love, deeds, words, books—or colors, forms,
For shelter, wine and meat—for sweet appreciation,
For health, the midday sun, the impalpable air—for life, mere life,
For all my days—not those of peace alone—the days of war the same,
(A special laurel ere I go, to life’s war’s chosen ones,
The cannoneers of song and thought.)
As soldier from an ended war return’d,
As traveler out of myriads, to the long procession retrospective,
Thanks—joyful thanks!

What is there more, that I lag and pause,
E’en at the exit-door turning, crouch extended with unshut mouth,
As a friend from friends his final withdrawal prolonging,
Loth, O so loth to depart!
(So hard for his hand to release those hands—no more will they meet,
No more for communion of sorrow and joy, of old and young,
A far-stretching journey awaits him, to return no more.)

An old man’s garrulous lips among the rest,
Dull, parrot-like and old, with crack’d voice harping, screeching chirps—lingering-dying ones,
Shunning, postponing severance—seeking to ward off the last word ever so little,
Garrulous to the very last,
Good-bye and good-bye with emotional lips repeating—
Is there a single final farewell?
Behind a good-bye there lurks much of the salutation of another beginning.

NEXT: DEATH