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Death, But Softly

It was 1569, or maybe early 1570, when it happened: A young French gentleman was out for a ride with his workers, all of them on horseback, when suddenly, "like a thunderbolt," he felt something thick and fleshy slam him from behind. (It was an overzealous, galloping assistant who couldn't stop in time.) Michel de Montaigne's horse crumbled, he went flying up, then down, he crashed to the ground. Then things went black.

When he came to, a minute or so later, he says,

"There lay the horse bowled over and stunned, and I ten or twelve paces beyond, dead stretched on my back, my face all bruised and skinned ... having no more motion or feeling than a log."

His assistants tried to lift him up to carry him back to his chateau, but he was throwing up lumps of clotted blood, and his hands were tearing at his chest as if to claw his way to air. His family was rushing toward him, he could see his wife stumbling across an uneven path, and yet he was feeling no pain, no commotion. "[T]he fact is that I was not there at all," he wrote later.

Montaigne, says his biographer Sarah Bakewell, had "traveled far away." The things he saw, his writhing body, his screams, he called "idle thoughts, in the clouds, set in motion by the sensations of the eyes and ears; they did not come from within me."

He was looking down from a higher, tranquil place from which he could, painlessly, slip away.

"It seemed to me that my life was hanging only by the tip of my lips; I closed my eyes in order, it seemed to me, to help push [life] out, and took pleasure in growing languid and letting myself go."'

It was, he wrote, a "feeling that people have who let themselves slide into sleep."

Michel de Montaigne recovered from his accident and lived another 22 years, but, says Sarah Bakewell, he thought about that experience for the rest of his life. He knew he hadn't faced down death. He hadn't struggled, or resisted, or even really acknowledged at the time that he was about to die. Instead, he had floated up to it, or it to him, and at the moment when he was almost gone, he learned, he said, that "death could have a friendly face."

That's what he wrote later, that there is something in the grand scheme of things that will make the parting gentle. What looks like suffering from the outside may not be the deep experience of the dying one. And therefore, he advised,

"If you don't know how to die, don't worry; Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately. She will do this job perfectly for you; don't bother your head about it."

This idea, that the final moment is not a wrench, but a glide, is not just Montaigne's notion. In his masterpiece on dying, The Death of Ivan Ilych, Leo Tolstoy describes a well-known Moscovite lawyer at the moment of his passing, who feels the pains in his sore, riddled body slipping away, "all dropping away at once from two sides, from ten sides, and from all sides," leaving him suddenly free.

"And the pain, he asked himself. "What has become of it? Where are you, pain?" He turned his attention to it. "Yes, here it is. Well, what of it? Let the pain be."

One hopes this is what happens, but who is to say? This isn't a question we can test in a scientific way. There are people who have systematically analyzed "near-death experiences" (see below), but people who do die don't, can't report back, so all we've got is what we think we know when we witness their dying. That isn't hard knowledge, but it's something.

One modern case particularly haunts me. It comes from Mark Doty, the poet, who was with his friend Wally when he died of AIDS in 1993. Wally didn't have an easy time of it, and nothing I've said here should suggest that being mortally ill is kind, or gentle, or anything but a downward spiral of desolation, but when we approach the terminal point, then, says Montaigne, says Tolstoy, and now says Doty, then nature may cut us some slack. Doty has described Wally's death in several books. This is from Heaven's Coast:

"It still makes me draw a sharp breath, still almost stops my heart to think of that precise moment, when I could feel Wally going, not just each breath descending less deeply into his chest, but a kind of aura of transformation, a quality in the energy around him. After the last breath — no struggle, no grasping at life, the easiest of leave-takings — I swear I had the clearest image of Wally leaping free, as if he'd been so ready to go, as if some space had opened in the wall behind his head, and that he's simply lept out through that space."

Doty goes on to say that the moment of release,"what happened to Wally, whatever it was ... is kind." Doty is a poet. He chooses words carefully. The italics are his. "I shock myself writing that," he says. "I know that many deaths are anything but gentle. I know people suffer terribly." But over the years he has witnessed several deaths, of people and of animals he's loved, and he says, in another book:

"I have felt each time the dying man or animal was, in some essential but unexplainable way, all right — that is, there was some kindness built into the structure of things, which, in some fashion, took care of the dead. That's the best I can do, that rather awkward sentence, to say what I've seen ..."

You may struggle, you may try to hang on, but in a good death, at the end, you let yourself go. You are not in charge. Here's Montaigne's version, via Bakewell:

"You die in the same way that you fall asleep; by drifting away. If other people try to pull you back, you hear their voices on "the edges of the soul." Your existence is attached by a thread; it rests only on the tip of your lips, as he put it. Dying is not an action that can be prepared for. It is an aimless reverie."

Like Hamlet says, "to die, to sleep..." Then it's over.


You can find Sarah Bakewell's essay on Montaigne's brush with death in the second chapter of her remarkable collection of biographical sketches, How To Live or A Life of Montaigne. Mark Doty's two books, where he describes the death of Wally, are Heaven's Coast, A Memoir and Dog Years, (A Memoir). Oliver Sacks, in his new book Hallucinations, refers to Raymond Moody's 1975 book Life After Life, which investigated "near-death experiences" and found a consistent pattern: a quick cascade of memories, being propelled up a dark tunnel toward a "a brightness", a feeling of peace and joy, a rueful sense when being forced back into one's body. Sacks says one explanation for these experiences is religious; the other is neurological: that brains deprived of oxygen can produce end-of-life hallucinations, "since Near Death Experiences are especially associated with cardiac arrests and may also occur in faints, when blood pressure plunges, the face becomes ashen, and the head and brain are drained of blood." Each explanation explains. You takes yer choice.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Robert Krulwich works on radio, podcasts, video, the blogosphere. He has been called "the most inventive network reporter in television" by TV Guide.
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