Dignity for the Aging, the Sick, the Dead

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My wife and I are of such an age where we are rapidly losing friends and family members who grew up in the generation before us. Likewise, we spend much time visiting members of this generation in declining health, some in assisted living, some in nursing homes, some in hospitals.

It is a sad truth of life that proud and private people have no choice but to surrender their pride and their privacy once they are in some way debilitated and in need of full-time medical attention. Sometimes the professional help is just that–professional, caring, wonderful. And other times, sadly, it’s just a job.

As my last send-off post to Zbigniew Herbert, whose Collected Poems 1956-1998 (translator Alissa Valles) I finished today, I’ll share a tender poem he wrote on just that subject. It is called “Shame,” and in it, Herbert links his love for the ancient Greeks (Antigone) with the basic humanity and respect for the body she symbolizes:

 

Shame

When I was very ill shame abandoned me
willingly I bared for alien hands surrendered to alien eyes
the poor mystery of my body

They invaded me brutally increasing the humiliation

My professor of forensic medicine the old Mancewicz
fishing a suicide’s remains from a pool of formaldehyde
bent over him as if he wished to ask him for his pardon
then with a deft movement he opened the proud thorax
the basilica of the breath fell silent

delicately almost tenderly

So–faithful to the dead respectful of ash–I understand
the wrath of the Greek princess her stubborn resistance
she was right–a brother deserved a dignified burial

a shroud of earth carefully drawn
over the eyes

 

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