Please Go Gentle Into That Good Night
My father died in June 2016. I have felt guilty ever since, and this piece is not so much to assuage that guilt as to put it in some kind of context. Because working through personal feelings are best done in writing, right?
My mother died over a decade before, but had, five years before that (in 2000), been in intensive care for a significant period, and for a few days was not expected to survive. This coincided with my getting together with the woman who would eventually become Mrs Me, and mother of Number One Son. As Mum lay on the bed, machines doing all the work of keeping her alive, with basically nothing functioning, I found it comforting to recite to her the Dylan poem: “Do not go gentle into that good night”. I wanted her to burn and rage.
I don’t have the conceit to think it was anything to do with the poem – much more the fantastic care she got thanks to the NHS – but she did make a good recovery, enough to have five more happy years, to be at my wedding, and see the last of her grandchildren reach his first birthday. Those five years made a lot of difference.
When my father began deteriorating, he began speaking more about his childhood, and about how Mum had known she was nearing her end, but how he hadn’t wanted to see it. Understandable, of course – they had been married nearly fifty years when she died. He began telling me of how independent he had been as a child, allowed to roam across the grounds of the Madras Christian College for Boys, climb trees, onto the rooves of the buildings, and so on. On one conversation which had briefly ventured onto whether he would need permanent help at home, as he sat slumped in a chair he could barely pull himself up from, he turned to look at me and said: “I don’t want to live like this.” Those sad eyes pierced me.
He did make something of a recovery, and was still living a relatively independent life at home until his final hospital visit, albeit his world shrinking somewhat as time and his various illnesses continued.
As he lay there for what would be the last time, having had a variety of problems I don’t need to detail, the doctors made one thing clear to me, and to my two sisters. If Dad left the hospital room this time, it would no longer be to go home.
At that point none of us wanted that to be true. We wanted a third option, for him to leap out of bed and be the keen walker again, to be the insightful, if sometimes ponderous, brain he had always been. To be the passionate supporter of a variety of causes. To be the theorist who helped at least two others to Nobel prizes, and was somewhat relieved when he wasn’t troubled with one himself. To be the educator he had always been so proud of being.
But we all knew this wasn’t an option any more.
And at that point, and this is where the guilt kicks in, I remembered how he’d looked at me and said those words. Saying how independent he had always been. As I looked at his body, slowly failing him, a part of me wished that it would not be slow. Wished, in my heart, that it would be either the miracle that I knew, deep down, could not come, or a quick ending.
That night, as my sisters and I sat drinking wine, talking, crying, and occasionally forgetting for a moment and laughing, I recalled Dylan’s poem, and having no other target I raged against it, rewrote it, turning it until it sat more with how I felt in that moment.
As it turned out, my wish, if you call it that, was granted, with all the feelings of guilt that entailed. He died the next morning. He went gently into that good night.
Go Gentle Into That Good Night
Please go gentle into that good night
Old age is best when it can fade away
Or at least knows when it’s lost the fight
I see a man whose life was right
A man who said justice could have its day
He should be freed into that good night.
A wise man, the last wave by, can sight
His works, he knew, pushed ignorance away,
When it’s time, enter the good night.
A man, in youth, who fought to make the nation right
And learned, in time, through hard work to say
He believed the world was worth that fight.
A grave man, near death, who sees with blinding sight
The problems others now must face may
Take comfort from the dying of the light.
And you, my father, there in the pale light
You blessed me, but now be on your way.
Please go gentle into that good night.
Do not fight against the dying of the light.