6.21.2011

The Death of Emily Dickinson

When Emily Dickinson fell into her final illness (Bright's Disease and its complicatons, most scholars think), she spent it in her tiny bed, in her tiny room, a few feet from the desk where she'd say and copied her poems, and pinned them into fascicles and stuffed the drawers with them. There isn't even, really, a day when you can see her illness began. Practical science,  in its current form, has an aversion to the boundless or the gradual. It wishes disease to fit into lab reports. Disease is not always like that - it can bea slow melting towards where death is in its most natural form, more like falling slowly to sleep than being knocked unconscious. There is the period of settling, the period of pondering, going over the day's events, then that strange dreamy half-state where you are half tethered to consciousness, and the tide of it pulls gently, gently, outward into sleep.

Emily had been to a few doctors, over the years. Her eyesight had been failing for a long time, and in fact, she'd been at some risk of going blind earlier in her life, and had had to make an uncomfortable, unsettling trip to the city to stay at a relative's while being treated by an oculist. But, by now, medicine had had its day. She was nursed by her sister, Lavinia. She wrote letter to friends. She slept a great deal. She felt awful. She almost certainly cried, though the record of this sort of thing is understandably scanty, kidney diseases aren't pleasant. She messed her sheets, she sweat a lot, suffered through fevers. And then, one day, in the Spring, she died.

It was in May. Emily loved the springtime, and in Massachussets, May is the crown of spring (though, to be fair, Emily's poetry shows a playful, familiar affection for March). It was warm enough, by then, that the windows would have been opened off and on, probably even more than normal to air the sick room. She would have smelled the dusty florals of the hawthorn hedge at the edge of her property, she would have smelled the rich balsam-pine smells of the trees next door, where her life-long best friend and sister-in-law lived, no doubt anxious to hear the news of her. Its a wet month, there, she may have smelled the rain. She probably, by then, was not seeing a great deal at all. Perhaps the robins came for her, as she'd written about before.

She was dressed in her own bedroom, and a white coffin was brought in to lie her in, set likely on sawhorses downstairs, in the hall. The Dickinson's gardeners, Irish I believe, would likely have been the ones to come and nail it shut.  They took it to the library, where they had a short funeral. Her long-time correspondent, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, read a poem by a different Emily: Emily Bronte. Of all those in the room, it is ironically possible that he knew her the least. Her sister-in-law wrote an obituary, that mentioned her legendary skills as a gardener.

She specifically asked that the servants, with whom she had a close, personal relationship, carry her out the back door. They crossed a meadow. The grass in it would have been high by then, flecked with wildflowers, particularly buttercups. She lay in the box, her eyes set shut, her hands gently cradling flowers she had carefully requested before her death: heliotrope, lady's slipper, wild wood violets. The scent of the heliotrope, thick and vanilla probably slipped out the interstices of the wood. The grass would have swished against the walls, the buttercups tumbled pollen onto the wood. When they arrive at her plot, the pallbearers would have had the late leftovers, perhaps, of damp about their boots and trousers.

And that was that, they lowered her down, they dropped sod into the hole, and Emily's tiny limbs and white dress would, slowly, slowly begin to dissolve into the earth. I like to believe that someone sang over her. Perhaps it was just the birds.

5 comments:

Trapunto said...

All the Heliotrope I saw when I growing up in the desert was stunted, tired, and scorched. It doesn't thrive in that climate. Last year, in the middle of summer, I bought a large nursery flat of dying heliotrope for a few dollars and and planted it up the bank in front of my house. For some reason the plants immediately grew huge and bloomed profusely. I remember the day I first noticed that amazing smell in the front yard. It pretty much bowled me over, and I started stalking it--at first everywhere but the bank, because until then I had not even known heliotrope had a scent.

Emily Dickinson must have liked intense purple.

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Trapunto - "We like March, his shoes are purple,
He is new and high;
Makes he mud for dog and peddler,
Makes he forest dry;
Knows the adder's tongue his coming,
And begets her spot.
Stands the sun so close and mighty
That our minds are hot.
News is he of all the others;
Bold it were to die
With the blue-birds buccaneering
On his British sky."

Vishy said...

Beautiful post! Made me cry.

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Vishy - Thank you, its kind of you to say so! Thanks for dropping by :).

Richard S. Davis said...

Ah, master poet! Sweet lady! How much my heart longs to have met her! Being a poet myself I think that Emily and I would have had much to talk about and hopefully we would have become close friends. Thanks for a beautifully poignant account of Emily's departure from this life.