Dying Is Ugly

Bang my shins, my temple on the gritty wall
Of Charlie’s deathbed
Where we do not wrest the truth
But beg him Let us change the (piss-stenched) sheets.
He will not go for tests, insists, denial overarching
Undimmed intellect,
This grapefruit lump’s a muscle tear,
And I a palli doc deprived of all my tools,
My contrapasso for those failings that I cannot recognize.

One night he could not rise
From toilet seat, we 911’ed the firemen.
Best friend for all these years, for forty-six,
From med school where the boy
A dorm room over, cook superb, who then became
Nephrologist renowned,
A teacher of such skill, such substance, style,
That they crossed a continent to honor his retiring;
Raconteur superb, and
We his steadfast visitors when no one else
Would make the long drive West.

So willful that he did not call
From hospital, but only when, no services arranged—
Perhaps his sabotage—as heading
Home from rehab, “Please come now.”
We scrambled, told him, “Don’t pull this again.”
He rallied several months
With us back home lest COVID ride on us to him,

Then called, “Move up the date.”
We found the tatterhouse,
A desiccated corpse of mouse in trap,
Car wouldn’t start, disused for all these months;
“I lack the strength to stand and cook.”
Expired food in hanging-open fridge
Where all was spoilt.
Cin and I restore, she cooks, cajoles, he eats.
He lets us cut the scraggle hair and shave his feral beard,
Sits in shower, then we watch old films.
We hope recovery if even partial, brief.
And then he cannot stand, grows furious despond,
And then the slide, four more weeks to dying by the painful inch.

So much he never said, not now,
Not all these years. Some first-time stories must be delirium,
Confabulation, must they not? This man I loved
The most in all the world.
Now I’m awake at night, obit and service of remembering
Completed properly, with dignity, inclusive:
Who were you and what were we to you?

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Henry Schneiderman is an internist, anatomic pathologist, palliative-care physician and geriatrician who continues to teach in the year since his retirement. He long ago self-published a book of poetry; other poems have appeared in Connecticut Medicine and elsewhere. Decades of teaching at bedside and publishing on physical diagnosis and medical humanities led to his being made a Master of the American College of Physicians in 2016.

About the Poem

“This poem erupted from the misery and irony of finding my dearest friend in such dire straits, and from then being with him on a last journey wherein almost everything that could have softened his suffering was too long rejected. Throughout this ordeal, my wife Cynthia, a seasoned and expert nurse, was of great help to Charlie (name changed) and me; her insightful and rigorous critique improved the poem.”


15 thoughts on “Dying Is Ugly”

  1. Paul & Martha Thompson

    We appreciate your writings so much. Martha delayed my writing earlier as I had planned. So good of you and Cynthia to provide assistance to a friend in need. It would be nice if people would ask for and be accepting of assistance when needed. But mental and physical deterioration can get in the way and make things messy. I still have some guilt from when my brother’s first wife got the early onset Alzheimer’s. I visited in earlier stages but when it seemed like her essence was no longer contained in her body, It felt too depressing to continue making visits.

  2. Thanks Henry for sharing this moving poem about “Charlie” whom you loved so dearly. So special that you were there with him till the very end. A clear testimony to your unparalleled kindness and humanity. May you and Cynthia continue to be blessed, and be a blessing to those you love. And, may “Charlie’s” soul rest in perfect peace.

  3. “Who were you and what were we to you?”
    Amazing, piercing poem and perfect ending. We cannot know another person but we work with the ties we have.

  4. Dr Schneiderman,
    Your poem is perhaps the most evocative and beautiful piece that I have ever read. Thank you for your generosity.

    1. Henry Schneiderman

      Cathleen Mahan,
      All nine persons who sent in comments in this forum, and friends who have written to me privately about the poem, have bolstered me and augmented my will to keep writing poems. I owe great thanks to each. Your comment is overwhelming because I don’t feel equal to it: workmanlike, a journeyman in this domain, nothing more. But it is also true that honesty is key to engaging a reader, and my hope is that this is what you are responding to.

  5. Defines devoted friendship. To know that you made the best of his last days on earth it’s truly priceless, as he could’ve so easily faded into the sunset on his own and alone. So honored that I can call Cynthia and Henry my friends!

  6. This sad, haunting, yet uplifting tribute to a dying friend can best be appreciated when read multiple times. By the third reading the initial depressing tenor moves the reader to recognize the love, respect, and cherished memories of his friends and colleagues, Henry and Cynthia.

  7. Henry, to honor a colleague in need, as you and your wife did, is the ultimate sign of respect and collegiality. And to do so repeatedly, knowing that gracious acknowledgement would not likely be forthcoming in the traditional sense: that is the essence of empathic professionalism, and your friend was blessed to have you both.

    Thanks for sharing this piece.

    1. Henry Schneiderman

      Lou, I have known you for your character and generosity since I met you at Glen Cove Community Hospital thirty years ago. Thank you!

  8. “ugly”? Maybe raw, possible denied, certainly rarely easy for those in it. Maybe its just the title I find challenging. As a Family doctor re-centering into my own “last quarter” I hope other words follow me….and of course appreciate the care, love and respect expressed by those left behind.

  9. Thank you, Henry and Cynthia, for this poem. Something about the poignancy of our own aging as we care for colleague friends. I appreciate your straightforward and honest writing. Bittersweet. And so necessary.

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