8. Apply the concept of ‘witnessing' to the healer's role reflect on the difference between engagement and detachment.

Section 2 Exersice 4 Donald Hall's “Last Days.”

Read Donald Hall's "Last Days." Discussion questions are below. After you have discussed the poem and/or answered the discussion questions, your instructor may allow you to review the Annotation.

Last Days
by Donald Hall

"It was reasonable
to expect.” So he wrote. The next day,
in a consultation room,
Jane's hematologist Letha Mills sat down,
stiff, her assistant
standing with her back to the door.
"I have terrible news,"
Letha told them. “The leukemia is back.
There's nothing to do.”
The four of them wept. He asked how long,
why did it happen now?
Jane asked only: “Can I die at home?”

Home that afternoon,
they threw her medicines into the trash.
Jane vomited. He wailed
while she remained dry-eyed – silent,
trying to let go. At night
he picked up the telephone to make
calls that brought
a child or a friend into the horror.

The next morning,
they worked choosing among her poems
for Otherwise, picked
hymns for her funeral, and supplied each
other words as they wrote
and revised her obituary. The day after,
with more work to do
on her book, he saw how weak she felt,
and said maybe not now; maybe
later. Jane shook her head: “Now,” she said.
“We have to finish it now.”
Later, as she slid exhausted into sleep,
she said, “Wasn't that fun?
To work together? Wasn't that fun?”

He asked her, “What clothes
should we dress you in, when we bury you?”
“I hadn't thought,” she said.
“I wondered about the white salwar
kameez,” he said –
her favorite Indian silk they bought
in Pondicherry a year
and a half before, which she wore for best
or prettiest afterward.
She smiled. “Yes. Excellent,” she said.
He didn't tell her
that a year earlier, dreaming awake,
he had seen her
in the coffin in her white salwar kameez.

Still, he couldn't stop
planning. That night he broke out with,
“When Gus dies I'll
have him cremated and scatter his ashes
on your grave!” She laughed
and her big eyes quickened and she nodded:
“It will be good
for the daffodils.” She lay pallid back
on the flowered pillow:
“Perkins, how do you think of these things?”

They talked about their
adventures – driving through England
when they first married,
and excursions to China and India.
Also they remembered
ordinary days – pond summers, working
on poems together,
walking the dog, reading Chekhov
aloud. When he praised
thousands of afternoon assignations
that carried them into
bliss and repose on this painted bed,
Jane burst into tears
and cried, “No more fucking. No more fucking!”

Incontinent three nights
before she died, Jane needed lifting
onto the commode.
He wiped her and helped her back into bed.
At five he fed the dog
and returned to find her across the room,
sitting in a straight chair.
When she couldn't stand, how could she walk?
He feared she would fall
and called for an ambulance to the hospital,
but when he told Jane,
her mouth twisted down and tears started.
“Do we have to?” He canceled.
Jane said, “Perkins, be with me when I die.”

“Dying is simple,” she said.
“What's worst is… the separation.”
When she no longer spoke,
they lay along together, touching,
and she fixed on him
her beautiful enormous round brown eyes,
shining, unblinking,
and passionate with love and dread.

One by one they came,
the oldest and dearest, to say goodbye
to this friend of the heart.
At first she said their names, wept, and touched;
then she smiled; then
turned one mouth-corner up. On the last day
she stared silent goodbyes
with her hands curled and her eye stuck open.

Leaving his place beside her,
where her eyes stared, he told her,
“I'll put these letters
in the box.” She had not spoken
for three hours, and now Jane said
her last words: “O.K.”

At eight that night,
her eyes open as they stayed
until she died, brain-stem breathing
started, he bent to kiss
her pale cool lips again, and felt them
one last time gather
and purse and peck to kiss him back.

In the last hours, she kept
her forearms raised with pale fingers clenched
at cheek level, like
the goddess figurine over the bathroom sink.
Sometimes her right fist flicked
or spasmed toward her face. For twelve hours
until she died, he kept
scratching Jane Kenyon's big bony nose.
A sharp, almost sweet
smell began to rise from her open mouth.
He watched her chest go still.
With his thumb he closed her round brown eyes.

From Inventions of Farewell, Ed Sandra Gilbert. WW Norton & Co. New York

Copyright permission requested/pending

Discussion Questions

Comment: Donald Hall was married to Jane Kenyon for many years. Jane Kenyon, like Hall, was an accomplished poet. Two years before her 50th birthday, she was diagnosed with leukemia. She died after a brief remission.

  1. How is Hall's poem an example of witnessing?
  2. How does it differ from the witnessing of the photographer in the previous part of this exercise?
  3. What can the health care professional learn from the husband's presence as it is represented in this poem?

You will encounter this poem again in Unit 7, Death and Dying.