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What is the Best Way to Die?

A dying father and two famous poems

Close up of red coals and orange flames of indoor wood fire.
On the last evening of his life I thought my father had no more to give. Wood fire at Evergreen.

It’s winter where I live and the last burning log in the fireplace reminds me of my father dying, and a poem by Dylan Thomas — you know the one — ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’.

Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

The burnt log that has been warming my house is now merely dark, fibrous chunks held together only by the spirit of wood. If I knock it with the fire poker it will disintegrate and collapse onto a bed of ashes, its purpose spent, its giving done.

For most of his life my father didn’t believe he’d die because Christ would return in his lifetime. He and Mum and his three daughters (if we remained faithful — we didn’t) would be whisked up into the sky to join Him on His victorious return to a subdued, bomb-pocked planet Earth.

But that didn’t happen in his lifetime because Christ delayed his coming for some unexplained reason. So, aged seventy-five, my father lay in hospital, barely breathing, a plastic bag of his dark body fluids dangling by the bed, and no Christ in sight. He still wagged a gentle finger as he admonished me and my sisters to keep up with world news, so we’d know the day of Christ’s coming. Then we watched his last sunset together and he jokingly ordered the breakfast he knew he’d never eat, from the menu left on his bedside table by a young, optimistic nurse: cornflakes, toast, and tea.

I wouldn’t call this raging against the dying of the light. He didn’t live up to the stirring lines of the Dylan Thomas poem. Instead, his next few words reminded me of another poem — ‘The Windhover’, by Gerard Manley Hopkins:

. . . and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear, Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

On the last evening of his life, I thought my father had nothing more to give. But then I heard him say: ‘My three lovely girls,’ as he looked at each of us in order of birth. Although we’d given him his three bitterest disappointments by leaving the fold of the church he preached in, he still enclosed us in his heart. His words gashed gold-vermillion in the clinical hospital air — always to be lived up to, never to be forgotten.

Bringing myself back to the present, I kneel by the fireplace and poke what I think is a dead log. I spring back in surprise as sparks fly from it, and tiny flames lick along its length. Then the log falls and galls itself in fiery flashes of gold-vermillion and finally goes out, just like my father did after his communion with his daughters. Like this log, he’d had one more thing to give.

If I live another seven years, I’ll be the age he was when he died. His way of negotiating the major life event he thought he’d escape is the template I’ll use when I approach the doorway to that good night. If I have time to know I’m there, I’ll go with gold-vermillion grace like him, my purpose spent, my giving done, as I give my best last breath.

With love, Marlane

First published at

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