The Sun Setting, 1963, oil
Carol died around two o’clock on the afternoon of April 3, 1991. She died in the sun room that she herself had designed in our house on Oakland Road.
She was lying on the hospital bed that her sister Milly and I had rented the day before. For several weeks previously she had lain on the pull-out couch-bed in that room, with kleenex, papers, and other things spread around her.
She had a view of sky and trees through the unbroken row of windows on the side of the room that faced her. There were a lot of flowers and plants on the bookcase below those windows, some of them there before she fell sick, others given by well-wishers who knew how much she loved flowers.
She slipped away so quietly that when Milly, who was sitting with her, called to me in the next room to come quickly, she had probably already gone during the few seconds that it took me to get there. But for two or three minutes neither of us was sure that she was no longer there.
She had not fought against death, though she had conscientiously tried to do the various sensible things that her doctors recommended—took the prescribed pills until some of them started to choke her or make her feel in some other way uncomfortable; tried to get down some of the foodstuff and liquids that I went out and bought at her request or in the hope of finding something that would appeal to her.
She did not display any embarrassment when she had to wear Depends, which she had requested. She did not express disgust at the thick white mucus that formed in her mouth and that she had to drag out with a kleenex, though previously mucus had been one of the very few things that disgusted her. She did not express, at least to me, regret at things that she had to leave undone.
She had been very much looking forward to her one-person show that spring—or fall if it would be more convenient for her—at the Nancy Poole Gallery in Toronto, and had hoped till a fairly late date that she might at least be able to put together a show of works already done, instead of starting, as she usually did, from scratch. At some point she stopped mentioning it—she had only referred to it two or three times—having presumably realized that her strength would never return.
She lost a lot of weight during the last few weeks, fifty or sixty pounds at least, and during the last week or two could not make her way unaided to the downstairs toilet.
As I said, she dutifully tried to do the things that were prescribed for her until doing so became too uncomfortable. But I am certain, though we never talked about it directly, that by February or even the latter part of January she must have been pretty certain that her condition was irreversible.
She was feeling uncomfortable in November, with heavy, exasperating, and exhausting night sweats. In December an X-ray disclosed that there was a substantial tumour between her larynx and trachea. She spent a miserable Christmas, the first one during which she admitted that she did not feel up to doing more than the most minimal celebrating.
In December a to my mind somewhat belated biopsy was performed by the kind of surgeon who kept his patients in the dark and reacted angrily when his authority was questioned. In February, after our old friend John Filbee in effect took over her case, she received a week or ten days of radiation treatment from a younger Asian doctor whom she liked very much. By that time, however, small tumours had started appearing on her scalp and shoulders.
Apparently after John and Dr. Karsen heard about them, they agreed immediately on the kind of treatment that should be given. When I went with her to see Dr. Karsen after the treatment, and asked what kind it had been, he said immediately that it had been palliative—which is to say, that there was no hope of eliminating the main tumour.
John told me after her death that the tumour had probably been there for at least a year, and that the weakness in the lungs may have begun years before when she was a heavy smoker, as so many of us were then.
He said that he was sure that she knew what her situation was—knew, at least, that she wasn’t going to recover—as much from the questions that she didn’t ask him as from those that she did.
I had made my own inferences earlier from a typically British exchange that I had with John when she and I visited him and Shirley around the start of the new year, probably after the biopsy.
Carol was in the kitchen with Shirley, and John drew on the back of an envelope a diagram showing where the lump was located. “That looks like a nasty thing,” I said in an understated way, but with my suspicions already pretty strong because he had just expressed the hope that I might come around and talk with him privately. “Yes, it is nasty,” he said. “Very nasty?” I asked. “Yes,” he said, “very nasty”
That was pretty much that so far as I was concerned. I did not go to have the private conversation with him that he had suggested, since I had no desire, being a very incompetent actor, to know things that Carol herself didn’t know.
After that she and I simply took things as they came, and did the next thing, and the next, and the next. The next step was always obvious—trying to find things that she could eat and drink, having a handrail put in downstairs, and so on. However, when on February 14 I gave her a particularly nice Valentine, the kind whose message doesn’t embarrass one, she came close to breaking us both down by saying something to the effect that this would be her last Valentine.
I think that her real fear, and perhaps for several years, was that she would not only die from cancer, like both her parents, but that she would die in great pain as her father had done.
Once it was reasonably clear that this wouldn’t happen—though I don’t suppose the fear ever entirely went away—and that John Filbee’s attitude towards controlling pain was a very enlightened one (I later discovered from a Cancer Society pamphlet that he was by no means unique in this), she was able to relax more.
Dying in itself did not bother her. She had watched people die in the University of Minnesota hospital where she had worked as a nurse’s aid. She had seen her mother die in the Swedish Lutheran Hospital in Minneapolis. She had been at home when her father died. And beyond all that she was intelligent enough and philosophical enough to know that dying was simply part of the human condition, part of the organic processes of life.
At times, and more and more frequently, she drifted away into a world in which one couldn’t follow her, and from which she would emerge to ask questions like, “When are we going home?” or, pointing hesitantly to a glass of water in my hand (in the other there was a glass of soy milk) “Is that milk?”
She also made it clear for awhile that she didn’t want visitors, because they tired her too much. But near the end I suggested to several old friends, a couple going back to the Minneapolis years, that they might drop in on her or phone her. When they did, to judge from things they told me afterwards, something would click in her mind and she would be her old self for a bit.
One friend, who saw her two or three days before she died, reported later to another that she said something to the effect that it was probably time for her to drop off the tree. Another friend told me that Carol had said to her, slowly, “It’s---very---interesting,” referring to what was happening to her. Her last words to me, after I said “Good-night, sweetie” the night before she died, was a simple “Good night,” She may have felt that more than our human night was involved.
I have no idea whether she died a Christian, with a belief in better things to come for all of us, I am inclined to say not, but that would be very presumptuous of me, since I honestly don’t know. Nothing that she had said for years had given me a clue as to her thinking about such things.
But it seemed, and seems to me, absolutely clear that she had died what used to be called a good Christian death, without fear, or gnawing regret, or a desire to keep clinging to the tree, and I think that all who saw her or spoke to her during those last days felt this.
I am not a Christian myself, and for a short while I had toyed with the idea of an ad hoc service at the funeral parlour. But with the help of Joan Dawson who put us in touch with exactly the right minister, and whose husband Bob did some rapid and characteristically elegant printing for us, Milly and I were able to agree very rapidly on what we wanted in the memorial service at St. Andrews Church a few blocks from Oakland Road. We agreed that she should be cremated, which she herself had said from time to time that she wanted.
None of us went out to the crematorium, in Dartmouth, nor had there been a viewing of her wasted, but to my eyes still beautiful, body at the funeral home. Milly and I had also agreed that we did not want her embalmed, and that the cheapest casket on display at the funeral home looked perfectly all right, and that she would lie in it in a simple shift at the service. So I, at least felt during the service that she was in there sleeping peacefully.
I had decided some time before that I wanted three things in the service, I wanted the 23rd Psalm read in the King James Version, I wanted the hymn “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” sung, and I wanted our friend Jim Clark, our oldest Halifax friend, to give the eulogy. The night before she died, I had also jotted down the names of six of her women friends whom I wanted to be honorary pallbearers— Joan Dawson, Marjorie Whitelaw, Helga Knop, Ineke Graham, and two others whose names escape me at the moment.
Milly picked a hymn that she herself particularly liked, and we agreed on another that we both particularly liked. We agreed also on the magnificent passage in Corinthians containing the words “in a glass darkly,” and decided on the pieces by Bach that we wanted to open and close the service.
We found the minister, the head of the Atlantic School of Theology, an intelligent man who agreed with all that we requested and was pleased that we had brought two catalogues of C.’s for him to read in. He gave an admirable homily. Jim Clark gave a brief but very moving eulogy.
The morning of the service was bright and sunny. A hundred and seventy-five people signed the attendance book, and the service went without a hitch. Joan Dawson’s reading of the passage from Corinthians was especially beautiful.
Afterwards friends came over to our house where some of them had already brought food and drink, and we had a large party, in which people were able to wander out and talk on the lawn, or move around in the rooms where Carol’s works hung. One friend afterwards referred to the party as “more than merely secular.”
Milly had said to me that the memorial service should be a celebration of Carol’s life, to which I instantly agreed. That was what we got, and that is what went on at that “more than merely secular occasion.” I think that Carol herself would have approved of what went on that day. Perhaps she was there watching it?
[And All the Trumpets Sounded], 1990, w.c.