A Sense of Life Ending

A long, slow end can be a treasure.

Jane Miller August 21, 2014

The author's husband, Karl Miller, founded the London Review of Books in 1979. (Photo courtesy of the Miller family)

Karl, my wit­ty, beau­ti­ful hus­band of near­ly 60 years, has been ill for a long time. Diag­nosed with one kind of can­cer in 2006 and anoth­er (uncon­nect­ed) in 2009, our local spe­cial­ist hos­pi­tal gave up on him this March and sent him home to what is called pal­lia­tive care in the com­mu­ni­ty,” which in this case means me and our chil­dren. So, no chemother­a­py and no more radio­ther­a­py or surgery; just lots of free mor­phine. He sleeps a good deal, has vivid dreams where he and assort­ed friends swap poems and songs, which he writes down and edits for us when he wakes up. He describes his lat­est as def­i­nite­ly the worst poem ever writ­ten.” Thread­ed through both his sleep­ing and wak­ing dreams is a con­stant anx­i­ety about a lost book or arti­cle he’s failed to write or to fin­ish or to deliv­er on time.

In principle Karl has been sent home to die, but he doesn’t seem interested in doing so at the moment and is even a little better than he was.

While I walk to swim­ming in the morn­ing, one son draws him curled up on his bed like a snail with thin, pale, ele­gant legs emerg­ing from its shell. When he wakes up, the oth­er son makes cof­fee and reads poems with him. They’re cur­rent­ly choos­ing poems by Samuel John­son and Thom Gunn from a recent anthol­o­gy of poet­ry about Lon­don. And Karl recites bits of Tam o’ Shanter” and To a Mouse” by Robert Burns. Some­times he sings. Our daugh­ter arrives with a deli­cious lunch or sup­per, talks to him and is a com­fort to us both.

In prin­ci­ple Karl has been sent home to die, but he doesn’t seem inter­est­ed in doing so at the moment and is even a lit­tle bet­ter than he was. He quite often comes down­stairs for meals these days, and he eats well. We’ve hired a wheel­chair for out­ings, and he gives each of us marks out of 10 for smooth steer­ing and avoid­ing bumps on the pavement. 

All this is com­ing to seem like nor­mal­i­ty. I try to remem­ber a time when he had two full-time jobs and got home at 8 in the evening, and then lat­er when he retired from work before I did and read and wrote in his study and had lunch with friends in restau­rants and went to the Lon­don Library to col­lect six books with their labels like shields on the front. But those times are blot­ted out for me now by this new life. The floor round his bed is silt­ed up with books and mag­a­zines he finds dif­fi­cult, even painful, to read. We bought a TV set so that he could watch the World Cup on his bed with a grandson.

And there are vis­i­tors: old flames, old poets, old review­ers, old col­leagues, old friends, young friends and rela­tions. Karl is pleased to see them, though he wor­ries that he’s no longer like­ly to amuse them. Many of them keep on com­ing, so I think he does. On the whole I pre­fer the men, who have no desire to rival or improve my nurs­ing skills, offer tempt­ing recipes or crit­i­cise arrange­ments. One woman wor­ried that Karl was not get­ting enough in the way of intel­lec­tu­al stim­u­la­tion, and thought it for­tu­nate that he had sons and plen­ty of male friends.

He and I don’t talk about dying or death, per­haps because I don’t want him to tell me that he’d rather be dead, as he has told some of his friends. I don’t always tell him what doc­tors have told me, and I may not show him this account of our cur­rent lives. That is prob­a­bly dis­hon­est and cow­ard­ly of me, but he’s not all that inter­est­ed in the progress of his ill­ness and is usu­al­ly hap­py to down a clutch of pills or a spoon­ful of mor­phine with­out ask­ing what he’s con­sum­ing or why. Can­cer often trav­els mys­te­ri­ous­ly and invis­i­bly, and Karl has always been more exer­cised by his crip­pling arthrit­ic pains, which are now pret­ty well mor­phine-assuaged. I some­times feel that his deaf­ness has affect­ed our lives togeth­er more than all his oth­er trou­bles. I deal cross­ly with demands to speak up” and then don’t shout” and respond rather wood­en­ly to Karl’s end­less­ly inven­tive mis­hear­ings of what I actu­al­ly say to him.

I think we are all trea­sur­ing this long, strange end of a life and our part in it, and we cheer up when there are small improve­ments, minia­ture plea­sures, mem­o­rably fun­ny moments. We’ve all slipped into new roles and had time to adapt to them. I sus­pect we’re much luck­i­er than peo­ple whom death takes by sur­prise. But I won­der whether all this isn’t an indul­gence for us, but unbear­able for Karl. If it is, he’s even more sto­ical than he seems.

Jane Miller lives in Lon­don, and is the author, most recent­ly, of In My Own Time: Thoughts and After­thoughts (2016), a col­lec­tion of her In These Times columns and interviews.
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