Contents - This Great Society - Issue 5, Mythology - December 2009/January 2010
Thoughts and Analysis
Leah Albertson
Ode to a Black Butterfly
Illustration by Leah Albertson

Fall is cold in Portland, cold in a sorrowful, penetrating way. And my decision to spend three days in the close company of a dying woman is made to seem all the bleaker what with the powdery gun metal gray of midmorning downtown. I am standing naked in my brightly painted and meticulously organized apartment, indecisively staring into the gaping mouth of my open closet. How does one dress to meet with death? Commencing with the dispassionate announcement of my morning alarm, I contemplate one question: why did I agree to do this?
           Marco’s mother is dying. And as a friend of both Marco and his waning parent, I am obliged to assist her in a sort of last wish: transcribe her handwritten book into type.
           I leave my home with little more than my journal and a blank expression. I feel in all ways unremarkable. This service to Marco’s mother will give me a temporary sense of purpose, I hear my own voice trudging through my mind with pallid encouragements. Driving out of the city, I do not turn on the stereo. I cannot be interrupted. I am pondering.
           Pondering car accidents, knifings, floods, poisonings, and suffocation at 35,000 feet. I do not want any of those things to happen to me. I seize a bit at the thought of bearing some sort of hurting until I finally passed away, and of what that change would be like. Perhaps all of the discomfort would just stop abruptly and I would be left floating without a body in the middle of inky, intangible blackness.
           I arrive at Marco’s mother’s apartment several miles outside of downtown. Her name is Megan. She is dying. Megan is dying. From cancer. It’s so typical. So anticipated. The common nature of the ailment almost makes it harder not to fear. It seems so well-known and yet indomitable.
           I lightly knock on the door. Megan’s home caretaker lets me in, ushering me to her bedside. I say hello in a staid, almost silent manner, like an actor waiting for direction.
           I have never contemplated just how I might feel when I get close enough to touch someone who’s dying. Will they be cold? Will they be angry? Will I get some kind of infection? The truth, I realize more and more every day, is that as much as I live in a time that pretends to know death, I really only ever hear or discuss the events that lead to and/or cause death: not the morbid concept of a body losing life, becoming exanimate. Like toothpaste being squeezed from all sides at once, or a sponge being wrung out.
           Megan is calm, meditative and determined; she speaks softly and makes no effort at disguising her weakness. She still wears her dentures, though. I feel permeable sitting next to her frailty. The awareness of my own life’s imminent expiration fills me.

It’s the second day. Megan seems to be quite empty. But it appears as if all she’s really lost is some of the water that makes up her physical body. Her ruminations and intimations seem to come out of her mouth like majestic lions and cunning tigers slinking out of a dark cave. Her cold, unresponsive exterior belies the strength and radiance in her words. Her eyes are all stone and lassitude. And yet she’s not miserable. She’s irreversibly moving towards death and she is the essence of peace. I glance at her from my vantage point at the desk, next to her pillow-garnished hospital bed. She looks so tiny amidst the plush mounds of cotton and down. But she feels so large, so complete. Her handwritten pages lay in front of me on the desktop. This, her final work, is a collection of learning, teaching, and inspiration: her legend, her immortality. As I type page after page of tidy scrawl, I am again pondering.
           Pondering where Megan’s consciousness will go after she dies, whether or not there will be consciousness after death, and why I am so terrified of not knowing.

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