“Yet there is no day in her life on which I do not see her.” Joan Didion, Blue Nights
Nineteen years ago, today, I sat outside the room of a respiratory ICU, glass between me and the large group of people gathered around the bed of my dying brother. I was watching the nurse, who was watching me; we were waiting for his heart to stop, to put an end to the labored breathing, the slow suffocation, by which a cancer wrapped around his lungs was killing him. There were no more words. Earlier that day my sister and I had stood on either side of his bed, holding his hands, stroking his head, telling him, with no knowledge of whether he could hear us, that it was okay for him to go. We didn’t believe it; we didn’t want him to go; but when your brother’s last words are “help help,” what else can you do?
We sang snippets of songs.
I said, “Maybe you’ll see mom and dad.” My sister and I laughed. “Or maybe not.” I’d like to see my father again, to have him and my brother stand at the foot of my bed as I die, but I didn’t know what my brother wanted. My parents were complicated people.
My brother was not. My brother—this brother, one of my four brothers—was good in a way that few people I know are. The scene around his deathbed was operatic, one of those rare ones in which the nurses really do cry. Except the male night nurse, who was angry. Who said, “He isn’t going to die on my watch.” (He didn’t.) Who walked by me, purposively not looking, staring straight ahead refusing to see as I left the hospital with a crowd of mourners the next day. I wanted to speak to him. We had spent the last night of my brother’s life together, colluding to stave off the panic by which he was periodically—the calm between becoming increasingly shorter as the night wore on—overwhelmed. But I knew that the nurse could not tolerate this death and that it was not his job to comfort me. Once my brother died, the drama only heightened, but I lost track, having come into the room, fallen to my knees at the foot of his bed, uncontrollably sobbing. I felt a wide cool hand on the back of my neck. It was the most comforting feeling I could never have imagined. My brother’s girlfriend’s father, a man I did not know well, but who loved my brother and who saw me, or blindly reached toward me—I’ll never know which—in that moment.
All the muscles in my neck are hard as bone right now, after a year of this brutal pandemic which leaves people to die alone, unable to breath, whispering “help help” with no uncovered warm flesh to sooth them. I am safe, I am well, I am in a house perched on a spit of land reaching into the Atlantic Ocean. It is rainy, raw, and windy today. I can feel the faintest whisper of Lou’s hand, but he is dead now too and was lost to me long before that.
I picked up Clarissa today and without thinking, without intention, opened to the letters in which she says her final words, in her letters or as recorded in Belford’s letters to Lovelace. So many last words. “’Tis a choice comfort, Mr. Belford, at the winding-up of our short story, to be able to say I have rather suffered injuries myself, than offered them to others.’” (I have offered injuries to others. We have all offered injuries to others. Who is Clarissa to claim otherwise? Who am I to claim otherwise on behalf of my brother?)
“Our short story,” the work of a mere six months, but of so very many words. “The lady is still alive.” “The lady is in a slumber.” “The lady has been giving orders with great presence of mind about her body: directing her nurse and the maid of the house to put her into her coffin as soon as she was cold. Mr. Belford, she said, would know the rest by her will.”
I love the brevity of the letter in which Belford finally announces Clarissa’s death. “I have only to say at present—Thou wilt do well to take a tour to Paris; or wherever else they destiny shall lead thee!!!—JOHN BELFORD.” So short, so enigmatic, that Lovelace’s friends do not know if it might not be a ruse (“For, I suppose, Jack, it is no joke. She is certainly and bona fide dead; i’n’t she?”)
What seemed a joke to me was that Clarissa was dead and there were still another hundred and forty pages left in the novel. Clarissa continues to speak after her death; her story is not over.
But it is the death on which I want to keep my eyes trained. In a longer letter, Belford describes the scene. Her cousin on one side of the bed, a new friend, the “good widow” Mrs. Lovick on the other. Mrs. Smith, in whose house Clarissa lay, kneeling at the foot of the bed, her nurse kneeling by the window, “her face … swollen with weeping.” “The maid of the house, with her face upon her folded arms as she stood leaning against the wainscot, more audibly expressed her grief than any of the others.” (A marker of her class and its putative lack of self-control, or of the intensity of Clarissa’s goodness, which touched even those so far below her? Neither reading does anything to assuage the outrageous class politics of the novel.) And Belford himself, called on by Clarissa to comfort, not herself, but her cousin and her newly found friends. These faithful companions stand in stark contrast to Clarissa’s family, who has deserted her, and to those supposed friends by whom she is surrounded once she leaves her family’s home with Lovelace. Her fidelity to her virtue is rewarded with a good end, one surrounded by those who sincerely mourn her and who can wonder together at the equanimity with which she has given over earthly loves for the love of God.
“We thought she was then gone; and each gave way to a violent burst of grief.
But soon showing signs of returning life, our attention was again engaged; and I besought her, when a little recovered, to complete in my favour her half-pronounced blessing. She waved her hand to us both, and bowed her head six several times, as we have since recollected, as if distinguishing every person present; not forgetting the nurse and the maid-servant; the latter having approached the bed weeping, as if crowding in for the divine lady’s last blessing; and she spoke faltering and inwardly: Bless—bless—bless—you all—and now—and now (holding up her almost lifeless hands for the last time)—come—Oh come—blessed Lord—JESUS!”
Clarissa professes herself glad that her family did not forgive her, as it put her solely in the hands of God, with no love to stand between them. (The letters of forgiveness arrive the day after her death.) There is a reason that Christian theologians found much to love in Clarissa, for she is a secular saint, modeling the true way of Christian life and Christian death.
My brother, how many times would he have had to nod his head? The room was so full. He had nothing but his love with which to bless us. He did not want to die, although there was no way left for him to live. I knew then I was grateful for the crowd in the room, but it hits me again, almost every day of this long year, as I read of those dying alone across the country and around the world.
My father died alone. There were no words. Consciousness was, we were told, gone. But I don’t think that there is a day in my life, since I was twenty-three years old, that I don’t lament not just his death but its manner. A wife, seven children, grandchildren—but he died alone. Clarissa agrees to see her cousin and Belford, but refuses Mrs. Norton, refuses Anna Howe (refuses Lovelace). The most deeply loved are held at bay because they will make her dying harder. When I can bear the thought, I imagine my father could not have died with us in the room. He was too polite. Too private. Too burdened by love.
Yet there is no day in my life on which I do not wish to touch him, to be there as he dies, holding his hand.
Amy Hollywood teaches at Harvard University. Her publications include Acute Melancholia and Other Essays: Mysticism, History, and the Study of Religion (2016) and “Practices of Devotion,” a special issue of Representations, co-edited, with Eleanor Craig, Niklaus Largier, and Kris Trujillo (2021). Devotion: Three Inquiries on Religion, Literature, and Political Imagination, co-authored with Constance Furey and Sarah Hammerschlag will be out in the fall of 2021 from the University of Chicago Press.