A Very Easy Death (Simone de Beauvoir)

Posted: August 8, 2015 in nonfiction
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So, a little confession to make. It’s been so long since I read The Second Sex that I don’t remember much about the style it’s written in. But, I have read Sartre lately, and I have a general idea of the type of writing done by the French feminists, and this book wasn’t what I was expecting. It is a deeply personal, extremely intimate relation of de Beauvoir’s experience of her mother’s death. And it is beautiful.

Amazement. When my father died I did not cry at all. I had said to my sister, “It will be the same for Maman.” I had understood all my sorrows until that night: even when they flowed over my head I recognized myself in them. This time my despair escaped from my control: someone other than myself was weeping in me. I talked to Sartre about my mother’s mouth as I had seen it that morning and about everything I had interpreted in it – greediness refused, an almost servile humility, hope, distress, loneliness – the loneliness of her death and of her life – that did not want to admit its existence. And he told me that my own mouth was not obeying me any more. I had put Maman’s mouth on my own face and in spite of myself, I copied its movements. Her whole person, her whole being, was concentrated there, and compassion wrung my heart.

Mme de Beauvoir broke her leg, and when she went to the hospital they found a tumor. There was an operation, but she lived in the hospital for four weeks before dying. She loved life, quite passionately, and despite her devotion to religion she dreaded the idea of death. No one tells her that she had cancer; they focus on how her leg is healing. But when the ship of life drifts gradually into death’s harbor, the passengers aren’t fooled. She knows, and she relies on her daughters to protect her, but they can’t save her life.

The issues that de Beauvoir raises about the medical profession seem to me to continue to be in effect here in the United States, fifty years later. Doctors do whatever the hell they want, without any attention to the patient’s wishes. She doesn’t want to suffer? Well, we can keep her alive for a few more weeks, so we’re going to. They spend so much time in contact with other people’s sufferings that they don’t feel for them anymore. And if a patient is terminal and wants to just go ahead and die, they will hold the struggler in this life no matter what she wants. It reminds me a bit of the mother at the end of Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight,” the one who is deleted in some versions of the poem:

Like those, my babe! which ere tomorrow’s warmth

Have capp’d their sharp keen points with pendulous drops,

Will catch thine eye, and with their novelty

Suspend thy little soul; then make thee shout,

And stretch and flutter from thy mother’s arms

As thou wouldst fly for very eagerness.

Coleridge’s son wants to leap at the icicles and catch their lucent beauty, but his mother holds onto the child, protecting him from a fall but keeping him from flying. I’m not saying that six-month-olds can fly; I’m saying their mothers won’t let them try.

My infrequent contact with Western medicine leads me to believe that things haven’t changed much. The ex and I spent some good time talking through a birth plan with the midwife, who then ignored the whole thing when the birth happened, to the point that she used a lubricant that the ex was allergic to. There are some areas of the body where no one wants an allergic reaction, particularly when that part has just been stretched to expel a larger-than-average head. But doctors don’t care. I think that, instead of healing people, their mission is to avoid malpractice suits. They’re good at that, but it means that the healing can become less important than the procedures.

Mme de Beauvoir completely loses herself, clinging to life at the doctor’s behest. She defined herself by her religion, but she stopped praying and refused to see priests for her last rites. She was too modest to be comfortable with her daughter living in sin with a philosopher, but when the nurses turned her to prevent bedsores, she flashed her genitals at the entire room without a thought. She said that she’d rather die early than suffer long, but she was still in pain while on the maximum dose of morphine yet refusing to die. To give an indication of her suffering, her body was excreting urea through her pores because she had ceased to function properly, and it was getting into and infecting her bedsores. Her life became awful, her daughter saw her as a living corpse, but no one had the courage to defy the medical institution. We are trained to knuckle under to authority, so we do.

I worry about my mother sometimes. A while back she said that she felt that all she had left to do was make sure her children were taken care of, by which she meant married. At the time, only my youngest brother was single, so I was worried that she was ready to pop off at any time. Now my sister and I are both divorced, so I guess my mother will live until we remarry. I don’t imagine she’ll recognize any gay marriage, so if that’s her criteria, I can keep my mother alive forever. And I didn’t realize until I wrote that sentence how much I believe my mother’s life and happiness depend on me.

De Beauvoir had a troubled relationship with her mother. She inherited all her mother’s vitality, but she didn’t have the childhood that continually beat her down and made her dependent on others, so she became a famous writer, even though everyone knew that she was living in sin. Her mother was proud of her success and ashamed of the scandal that made it possible. My relationship with my mother is hardly straightforward (click on the word mom in the tag cloud on the left there to read more), and she also loves me and is proud of my professional success even though she can’t stomach my private life. And de Beauvoir and I both love our irritating mothers. We don’t want them to die, but we don’t want them to suffer either, and if I am ever faced with this decision, I will probably freeze up too. The difference is, I’m the fifth of seven children, so when it comes time to decide things, my opinion will hardly matter. I doubt it will be asked for or listened to.

I am tempted to send this book to my mother, but I fear it would be misunderstood. Would she hear that this is a book about filial regret? I’d like to have a closer relationship with my mother, but so much about her puts me off – her politics, her religion, her voracious consumption of her children’s love, her need to be needed by us, her way of making me feel like her cats are more important to her than I am – that it’s hard for me to reach out more than I do. I let her know when there are major changes in my life, such as moving to a new state or starting a new job, but otherwise, we talk once or twice a year, which is plenty enough for me. Few people enjoy bad news so much; her excitement in relating family tragedies gets me depressed. And yet, my mother loves her life in a way that she never did when I was young. It started when she quit teaching and worked as a hospital secretary instead, and now since her retirement, it’s only getting stronger. This were rough for a while, as she battled with feeling useless without her job, but now she spends so much time with her sister and her grandchildren that she’s happy most of the time. And if my cousins can produce another interracial illegitimate child, that’ll feed her sense of moral superiority and make everything just that little bit better. Besides, it looks like my baby brother may actually be getting married soon. A marriage for each of seven children is no small accomplishment (not that she did anything to produce these marriages, and a third of them have failed, but I won’t remind her of that).

I’m knitting my mother a winter hat, at her request, but I wish there were more ways that I could show her that I love her that don’t make me depressed. Maybe if I see her dying I’ll react as de Beauvoir does, I’ll discover a desire for closeness that overrides the personality issues that keep us apart. Maybe I don’t have to wait that long.

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