Death Rattle: The Body’s Betrayals

Since my father’s death, I dream about descents and falls. How, without warning, gravity has you in its grip.

Ellen-Wayland Smith | Longreads | March 2018 | 15 minutes (4,127 words)

One morning about a year ago I was sleeping on the sofa in my parents’ apartment when I was woken by the sound of my father dying in the next room.

At first I couldn’t tell what the noise was, or even locate where it was coming from. It was a ragged, scraping sound, like metal being pulled through tightly-packed glass. Then it shifted: like someone breathing in a viscous liquid in greedy gulps, aspirating yogurt. When I realized the noises were coming from my father’s throat, I froze.

According to the hospice manual I had scanned the night before, “death rattle” refers to the sound produced by “the pooling of secretions” in the throat after the body loses its ability to cough them up. “The air passing through the mucus causes this sound,” the booklet instructed me matter-of-factly. This symptom is listed under the rubric “When Death is Near.” Family members of the dying person frequently find this noise upsetting, according to the medical literature. Hospice workers recommend an anti-secretion medicine to dry up the mucous: one syringe-full against the gum.

We had had almost no time to prepare. A mere ten days earlier, my father had gone in to his doctor’s office to pick up the results of a routine scan, which turned out not to be routine at all: stage four pancreatic cancer. His physician, an old family friend, almost teared up when he delivered the news. “It is very difficult for me to say this to you,” he’d begun, gingerly. “Not as difficult as it is for me to hear it,” my father responded. He was 81 but looked much younger: six-foot-two, straight as a poker, salt-and-pepper hair and beard. After a bout with polio when he was 14, he’d never been sick a day in his life. We thought he was invincible.

My father’s fall into death was precipitous. Only three days after his diagnosis, he began to act funny: disoriented, forgetting where he was. He had trouble buttoning his shirt; tried to eat a bowl of soup by dipping the handle-end of the spoon into it. We attributed these behavioral quirks to anxiety. They turned out to be the result, instead, of small strokes — blood clots thrown off by the tumor. By day five he was in bed, with an IV, a catheter, and a morphine pump. He slipped in and out of consciousness. The last time I saw him awake, I asked if he’d like me to read him some Jorge Luis Borges, his favorite writer. “That would be nice,” he smiled. “I love you so much.” I squeezed his hand and went to get the book. By the time I came back with it, he was asleep again.

In death, you discover the body is baroque in its unintended flows and suppurations. It contorts and contracts until, finally, it returns to the clay from which it was pulled. It betrays our most earnest attempts to contain it, tame it, make it presentable. The body oozes: thick urine, yellow shading into crimson along the foggy licorice-rope of a catheter. Tar-like excrement. Sputum, blood, and saliva mixed, brought up from the lungs like sea foam, spotting my father’s beard, his chest, the morphine pump with frothy patches the color of lettuce. His eyes secrete tears and mucus in his sleep, an opaque glue that stretches and gaps like tiny spider webs across his pupils when he flutters his eyelids. I wipe his eye sockets with a wet cloth, dissolving the threads, but they come back. His arms have bleeds beneath the skin where needles poked, deep branching blues and purples, the shade of concord grapes.

The morning I woke to the sound of my father’s ragged last breaths, I stumbled down the hallway and into his room. My mother, sleeping on a cot by his side, was so drunk with grief she hadn’t even woken up. I stared at his laboring chest in disbelief. But by this point, I was used to the dying body’s betrayals, its refusals to be decent as it made the harrowing passage from being to thing. The death rattle held no surprises for me.

* * *

Since then I dream about descents and falls. Tumbles, gaffes, face-plants, sprawls. Once when I was sprinting nimbly up the three steps of my office building to get the door a colleague was kindly propping open for me, my foot slipped and I landed on my knees in front of him, scalding coffee streaming down my arms. I gazed up at him from this posture of abject genuflection and felt sorrier for him than for myself at our mutual discomfiture. I started giggling, and I am sure he had to bite his lip to keep from doing the same.

Charles Baudelaire analyzed the peculiar mirth humans feel in the face of a fellow creature falling, tracing the phenomenon of laughter back to Adam and Eve’s fall. “[Laughter] is one of the clearest marks of Satan in man, one of the innumerable seeds contained in the original symbolic apple,” he suggests . This is because laughter is a response to the pretense of human superiority, and its unmasking. The spectacle of a person falling embodies, with the perfection of an allegorical statue, the Folly of Pride. First you have a grip on your body; then, without warning, gravity has you in its grip. This reversal from being to thing, agent to patient, provokes mirth (when it doesn’t provoke its opposite, despair). Laughter erupts whenever we catch someone in this state of imposture: “So you thought you could remain upright forever, did you? Keep your head toward the heavens? Not so fast!”

I was used to the dying body’s betrayals, its refusals to be decent as it made the harrowing passage from being to thing.

Like Adam and Eve, Lucifer also took a spectacular tumble, from the light-spangled dome of Heaven to the brimstone rubble of Hell. “How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning/…For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend to heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God” (Isaiah 14:12-13). God sends Lucifer reeling for his act of prideful rebellion. Readers complained of John Milton’s Paradise Lost that he made the character of Satan too sympathetic. But what else would Satan be? Part of being a creature means that, from the get-go, you throw every ounce of freedom you have toward resisting your createdness — that permanent wound to one’s pride. “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven,” the rebel angel consoles himself (Paradise Lost 1.263). Sympathy for the devil is the most natural of human reflexes.

Falling is practice for death, when the essential imposture of self-sufficiency and containment that we struggle to maintain throughout life is unveiled once and for all. The Jewish tradition of the kippah or yarmulke acknowledges this truth in its own way. “Kippah” in Hebrew means “dome”; “yarmulke” in Aramaic, “in awe of the King.” Don’t ever forget who reigns in the light-filled dome above your head. You don’t belong to yourself; you belong to God. Remember.


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* * *

One of the last times I saw my father, we were at our summer cottage on Lake Ontario. It was in August, three months before we would even know about the cancer eating away at his body. The sky was a brilliant, glassy blue; we were all healthy, and happy, warmed inside and out by the late summer sun.

Usually the lake is a flat expanse of green, but on certain windy days the water whips up into Atlantic-style waves, cresting white, perfect for body surfing. It was one of those days, and my daughters and nephew were splashing in the water when my 5-year-old niece asked if I could take her in. The beach down to the lake is rock-strewn and, although the stones are rounded by erosion, walking over them involves equal parts balance and tolerance for pain, if one doesn’t have beach shoes (which we never did). The feat gets even trickier once you reach the water’s edge: the rocks are wet and skimmed with algae, a perilous five-foot stretch before you get to the soft sand bar, and one misplaced foot can send you sprawling. The kids were calling for Grandpa to get in, too, so I hoisted my niece up onto my hip and my father and I headed out to join them. We were shin-deep in water when a large wave came washing in, and we both went down.

My hands were occupied securing my niece upright beside me against the oncoming waves: one big wave and her small frame would be dashed against the rocks. Every time I tried to rock myself to standing, I was smacked back flat on my spine. My father, too, seemed unable to get a purchase on the slippery ground — couldn’t flip to crawling position in order, then, to right himself.

What I learned in labor: to be obedient to the mystery of something that surpasses not only the limits of your physical capacity to suffer, but of your capacity to know.

There was something humorous about the picture — the two of us scrabbling around helplessly on our backs in the water, like pinned insects, like babies on a changing table, like overturned turtles — but it was unsettling at the same time. How would we ever get up? Something in the scene struck me as elemental: it was a parable, an allegory, maybe a riddle, though for what, I wasn’t sure. “What has four legs in the morning, two in the afternoon, and three in the evening?” the Sphinx asks Oedipus. Except we offered the picture in reverse: one standing baby and two sprawled adults.

We eventually managed to get upright (one of the swimmers waded in to our aid). Released from my prone clutches and set safely up on the shore, the 5-year-old toddled off in her tangerine bathing suit. My father’s white t-shirt, soaked now, clung to his chest, to his brown arms, like a baptismal robe. Or a shroud.

* * *

For most of my life I basically ignored my body. My pragmatic philosophy was: deal with your own body as discreetly as possible when you can and when you can’t, hand it over for as short a time as possible to the experts. I was not — god forbid — “in touch with” my body. So the prospect of natural childbirth held no charms for me. For my first labor, I chose the epidural. That was my birthing plan, and for my first child, it worked. With my legs hanging like limp spaghetti in the stirrups, and with the doctor’s struggles at my nether regions discreetly blocked from view by a clean white sheet spread across my knees, I gave a few half-hearted pushes and ended up with a plump, rosy-cheeked baby on my chest a few minutes later. The sequence was disconcerting: the outcome of the process (a baby) so absurdly disproportionate to the blandness of the effort expended.

But with my second baby, the best-laid plans went awry. It was a sticky end-of-summer day in Philadelphia, and I and my shiny belly, swollen with child, were taking a rest in the cool of a darkened bedroom. My husband and 3-year-old daughter had just gone out for a walk. He had forgotten his phone. I was lying on the bed, trying to block out the noisy struggles of the window air conditioning unit, when I heard my water break: an absurdly audible squelch-squeak-pop like the bursting of a water balloon. Labor kicked in, and my mind flooded with lurid stories, real and imagined, of how quickly second labors often progressed: babies suddenly popping out in bathrooms, on sidewalks, in taxicabs. Panicked, I hauled up from the bed and drove myself to the hospital.

I careened into the semi-circular Emergency Room driveway, stagger-sloshed out of the car, and made my way dripping in an earth-toned H&M peasant skirt into labor and delivery. But the resident botched my epidural. By the time they realized it hadn’t worked, it was too late to try again — time to start pushing, the doctor said.

The thing about labor pain is, it is so big it leaves you speechless. Not like — I can’t talk, I’m in too much pain, but like: This is a mystery; I never knew something this big existed. It is so big it doesn’t even feel like it is happening inside my body. It exceeds words, imagination, skin. There is nothing that can contain it.

Of course “big” is a very poor descriptor for what labor pain is. But that is the first word that comes to mind, weak as it is. Words don’t work to describe pain because they attempt to give form to something that is essentially formless, whose defining characteristic is its irreducibility to containment.

Somehow I knew instinctively that if I tried to fight it — flapped or fluttered or kicked like an animal caught in a snare, which is one’s first instinct — I was a goner. I don’t know how I knew this, having never taken a Lamaze or a Bradley or any kind of birthing class whatsoever, but I did. You couldn’t run away from this pain; you had to join it, sink deeper into it, acquiesce to this sundering of your person. The term “labor” is far too active a word. It implies volition, and effort. This is true up to a point, but at bottom, as Maggie Nelson rightly points out, the labor of childbirth isn’t something you do; instead, labor does you.

What I learned in labor: to be obedient to the mystery of something that surpasses not only the limits of your physical capacity to suffer, but of your capacity to know. This is basically a theological discovery. Man (woman) is not the measure of all things. There is the measureless, and when you encounter it, you get the vanity knocked clean out of you. Some people like to think that the measureless is God.

* * *

The experience of the measureless can be many things — it can be excruciatingly painful, ecstatic, terrifying, joyful, humbling, crushing. But it cannot be comfortable. Emily Dickinson’s poems record her brushes with the measureless, what she called a “Wilderness of Size” that flooded her brain at the graveside, for instance, or once, one agonizing winter, when she felt she was losing a grip on her sanity. “I’ve had a terror since September,” she confessed in a letter to her friend and sometime-literary mentor Thomas Wentworth Higginson, “about which I could tell no one.” Later, she composed “I Felt a Funeral in my Brain” that (scholars surmise) relates the experience of feeling her reason totter on its throne: “And then a Plank in Reason, broke/And I dropped down, and down — /And hit a World, at every plunge/And finished knowing — then — ”.

The feeling of the measureless strikes when all of the usual markers by which we orient ourselves — up and down, inside and outside, big and small, sight and blindness — suddenly lose their comparative value. We are cast into a free fall, with no way of gauging how far we have left to go before we hit solid ground. Labor pain was like this: how much deeper will this pain go? Is it bottomless? Will I come out the other end? Or will I simply disappear?

We do our best to move through life by doubling ourselves over, sealing up the flap of being whose rough and bloody edges remind us of our creatureliness. We improvise a posture of containment.

 

In another poem describing one of these harrowing nights of the soul, Dickinson records a state of mental paralysis as a metaphorical “Midnight” in which “everything that ticked — has stopped.” Time’s disappearance ushers in the terrifying reign of the “stopless”:

But, most, like Chaos — Stopless — cool —
Without a Chance, or Spar —
Or even a Report of Land —
To justify — Despair.

Despair, bleak as it is, has the virtue of being a stopping point. As such, it is a kind of luxury (“even”).

Dickinson’s poems traffic in the small and the domestic, the quaint and the cute. Her poems are stuffed with robins, bobolinks, squirrels, bees, daffodils, butterflies, dandelions, frost, and roses. But they pivot just as quickly to the cold reaches of outer space, to hurtling planets and the leaden accumulation of time, years in “piled Thousands.” Many of Dickinson’s poems juxtapose the infinitely large and the infinitesimally small in ways that make your head spin. For the dead, “safe in their alabaster chambers,” the stretches of space and time by which we, the living, measure the progress of our “Dial Life” don’t even register as a blip. “Grand go the years in the Crescent above them/ Worlds scoop their arcs and Firmaments Row/ Diadems Drop and Doges surrender/ Silent as drops on a Disk of Snow.”

Emily Dickinson was by all accounts a small person, who purposely made herself smaller as her life went on — first refusing to venture beyond the yard of her paternal home, then beyond its front door, and finally, confining herself to the four walls of her bedroom. There, she wrote poetry, curled over a table no bigger than a child’s school desk. Perhaps she hoped, by restricting the circumference of her physical person, to stave off the specter of the infinite that dogged her. When she died, her sister Lavinia discovered thousands of poems in her drawers, “dormouse” scratches (a critic once compared her to a dormouse, an image I can never quite get out of my mind) on slim slips of paper sewn into booklets, the universe etched into a grain of rice. I imagine the poems tumbling out of her drawers like clowns out of the proverbial clown car. It was as though the words proliferated, wild, stopless, in inverse proportion to the contraction of her social person. She knew that, of all things, man is decidedly not the measure.

* * *

One day, when I was a graduate student in Paris, I took the train to the Saint Denis basilica on the northern edge of the city. It is a gothic abbey built on the site where the 3rd-century martyr Saint Denis was buried. It was for centuries the burial place of France’s kings and queens, from the 7th century Dagobert through the posthumous statues erected in honor of the unfortunate Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. But most stunning are the funeral monuments of Louis XII and Queen Anne of Bretagne.

They partake of a style of funerary sculpture popular in the late Middle Ages called the “cadaver” tomb, or “transi,” portraying the body in its transition through death and decay. These are often double decker tombs. On top is a statue of the deceased as he or she was in life, kneeling in prayer: composed, beautiful, the very picture of decorous containment. Below, in contrast, is figured the naked body in its death throes. Queen Anne’s head is thrown back, her chest thrust up from the pallet, body contorted as though she is struggling to draw breath. Her hair is matted, wild, sticking to the skull with sweat. Louis beside her appears already a death’s head, the skin on his face retracting to reveal a grimace of teeth. The soft flesh of his eyes is sinking, sucked toward the knobby bone of the sockets.

I had never seen so unsparing a portrait of death. The intimacy of the suffering made me wince, like I had caught a glimpse of something that should have remained hidden. Not so the medieval believer who liked, occasionally, to be reminded that she was dust, and to dust she would return (or if she didn’t exactly like it, at least acknowledged its salutary effect). What the transi tomb whispers to its visitor: whether pauper or prince, from the moment we are born until the moment we die we are splayed open: flayed flesh, raw skin, pain in abeyance.

Today, almost everything coaxes Americans to forget this. We do our best to move through life by doubling ourselves over, sealing up the flap of being whose rough and bloody edges remind us of our creatureliness. We improvise a posture of containment.

Early critics of anesthesia worried that, by taking away the Biblical curse of pain in childbirth, ether would lead to atheism.

Our rejection of suffering means that we try to make death disappear. Already in 1885, in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain could write about the peculiar slickness of the undertaker, whose job is to handle death with kid gloves, to usher its object out of the midst of the living as quietly and discreetly as possible. Huck attends the funeral of Colonel Grangerford, where the undertaker sets up the coffin in the middle of the parlor with chairs fanned out around it. Once the parlor is filled with people, the undertaker “slid around in his black gloves with his softy soothering ways, putting on the last touches, and getting people and things all shipshape and comfortable, without making no more sound than a cat.” In absolute silence, the undertaker orchestrates the viewing: moving people softly this way and that, making room for the late-comers, opening up passageways to ease the mourners’ approach to the coffin. He was “the softest, glidingest, stealthiest man I ever see,” Huck observes with an admiring whistle.

When my father died, the men from the funeral home down the street had already been alerted we would require their services sometime soon. My uncle called them and within an hour, the funeral parlor director and his son appeared in my father’s bedroom. They, too, were smothery and gliding, responsible primarily for making sure we — the living — were all “shipshape and comfortable.” Stealth was key. Hands clasped respectfully in front of them, heads bowed and studiously avoiding eye contact, they wheeled in a gurney with a burgundy tarp-like wrap opened up on top to receive the body. I thought: burgundy is about right. Not the outright black of Emily Dickinson and the Victorians, who wore their inky mourning in the most theatrical fashion possible. Rather, today the dead are ushered into eternity with a neutral tone, an inoffensive tone — like the embarrassed blank that we have made of death itself. The undertaker and his son waited for my family and me to leave the room before they zippered up my father in the tarp and wheeled him out.

* * *

In our therapeutic culture we have trouble imagining happiness, or any state of being worth desiring, for that matter, that is not in some way anchored in comfort. Comfort is by definition small, contained, human-sized. We worry about “wellness” and about having “healthy” relationships. We seek “personal fulfillment” and “self-realization,” strategize to achieve “work-life balance.” We want to “heal” and be “whole.” Pain is our enemy, an unspeakable affront to our dignity.

Early critics of anesthesia worried that, by taking away the Biblical curse of pain in childbirth, ether would lead to atheism. “Pain is a natural and the intended curse of primal sin,” the Puritan Zurich city fathers pronounced when banning the use of anesthesia in the 19th century. “Any attempt to do away with it must be wrong.” While the sexism of the claim rankles, theologically they had a point: pain is a reminder of finitude, a claim on our obedience to something outside the self. It makes us an offer we can’t refuse. As such, pain is an idol-breaker. It takes us, quite literally, outside of ourselves and the small forms we must inhabit in order to live.

When my maternal grandmother died in 1995, a rainbow appeared in the sky as we followed her coffin out of the chapel to the cemetery. “Look, it’s your mother!” my mom’s cousin shouted to our family across the parking lot, pointing up at the sky, and I remember thinking (even then): well, that’s some sentimental nonsense. I don’t believe my father is “at peace,” or “in a better place.” He suffered, and the suffering was terrible, and also terribly ordinary, and now he is gone. To turn him into a rainbow is to treat his suffering as a bargaining chip (tit for tat) or a step on a path to something better, a way of making it bearable by assigning it a place and a meaning in a chain of events. But that betrays the lived reality of suffering: the unbearable that we nonetheless must bear.

This is the point in the narrative (we’re getting towards the end) where, as readers, we habitually look for the redemptive gesture. Flannery O’Connor wrote of this narrative instinct toward repair. “There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored,” she writes. O’Connor is hardly known for her uplifting story endings. Her characters — serial killers, one-legged atheists, sanctimonious grandmothers — usually end badly. What this sentimental impulse forgets, she warns, is “the price of restoration.”

My father. Tonight when I close my eyes, I will see your face in death, again. (I do most nights.) I will remember how the hospice worker neatly combed your death-wild hair, in one last futile gesture of composure, and I will abide with fallenness.

* * *

Ellen Wayland-Smith is an Assistant Professor of Writing at the University of Southern California. She is the author of Oneida: From Free Love Utopia to the Well-Set Table (Picador 2016).

Editor: Dana Snitzky