In the past week, a prominent member of my Parkinson’s support group died after a long struggle with both Parkinson’s and dementia. When I joined the group two years ago, he was pretty far down the road with his afflictions, yet he showed up for meetings more faithfully than any of us, insisting that his caregivers bring him each week. We all sensed that inside his slumped-over figure was a mind struggling to follow the conversations, anxious to break through the fog and contribute. When he did attempt to speak, everyone became silent and focused on every word he said. We all felt a great loss when he finally stopped coming to meetings; we knew he was being moved into a nursing home to prepare for the end.
Zinsser was a German Scientist who lived in America. In 1938, he was diagnosed with leukemia, then incurable. The diagnosis prompted him to write an autobiography, written in the third person. In it, he showed an honest courage and — like the friend I’d just visited — a continued zest for life as death drew nearer. Zinsser finished the book and was able to see it published. The Book of the Month Club picked it as a featured title, and it became a surprise bestseller.
Now is death merciful. He calls me hence
Gently, with friendly soothing of my fears
Of ugly age and feeble impotence
And cruel disintegration of slow years.Nor does he leap upon me unaware
Like some wild beast that hungers for its prey,
But gives me kindly warning to prepare:
Before I go, to kiss your tears away.
How sweet the summer! And the autumn shone
Late warmth within our hearts as in the sky,
Ripening rich harvests that our love has sown.
How good that ere the winter comes, I die!
Then, ageless, in your heart I’ll come to rest
Serene and proud, as when you loved me best.
A week ago, as she was preparing to leave her apartment home of 20-plus years to go to the hospice, my friend Charlotte wrote this poem: