The experience of sitting at the bedside of a loved one as s/he comes to the end of life is utterly one-of-a-kind: unique to the people involved and the circumstances of those final days, hours, and seconds. But there are also so many common—if not universal—elements to it as well. Speaking with others who have also been given the difficult, priceless gift of witnessing the passing of a loved one is like being invited to join a secret club in which you instantly all speak the same language.
In the poem "I Kiss You" (Fall 2013 Intima), Tom Whayne captures a deeply intimate moment between two loved ones when one is very ill and the other is witness to the struggle. I especially love his sense and certainty that his loved one is smiling, even though this may not be visible to others. This belief that our loved ones are there with us, even when they don’t have words—or can’t communicate directly at all—is one of the common experiences many of us who have been in this place with a loved one share. "Last Dance" (Fall 2014 Intima) is a memoir about the last year I had with my mother before she died. That time with her, while marked by sometimes unbearable suffering, was priceless. I will forever be grateful to have had the opportunity to be with her in this way.
Both "Last Dance" and "I Kiss You" are elegiac love stories. Both endeavor to convey the intimacy, grief, and love so many of us experience during an otherwise unspeakably difficult moment. Whayne achieves this beautifully using just 49 words. He paints a vivid, poetic picture of the sharp hunger, intimacy, and grief we experience as we struggle to let someone go, and shows us the beauty of the essential human gesture of kissing the person we love in their final moments with us on earth. The mastery of his brevity takes my breath away. I needed more time and space to say it the way I needed to; the excerpt of "Last Dance" is a mere fraction of the 26,000 words that comprise the whole of it.
Despite the differences in our choice of genre and the length of our pieces, Tom Whayne and I have a lot in common. We share an experience that is both unique and somewhat universal. We use words to express our love, and to describe our loss. And we both ended up here, in a writer’s community that understands deeply the power and beauty of story in the context of illness. I hope to meet him in person one day.
Ellen LaPointe is a Maine native and current Californian who works in the health care sector. In addition to narrative nonfiction, she also writes short fiction and poetry. Her piece, "Last Dance" appears in the Fall 2014 Intima.
© 2015 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine