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Elegy for Katherine Anne

ISSUE:  Summer 1999

September 18, 1980—It is not quite 5 p. m. , and Katherine Anne Porter is dead. She has expired in the true sense of the word, breathing out the last of her life imperceptibly. I am standing at her side holding her hand, looking at the notches on the ticking clock, the time moving on, even as Katherine Anne has moved beyond it. This visit has become the last of the many I have made to be with her during the last two years of her life. There have been no profound—or even simple—last words, no enigmatic questions posed nor secrets betrayed, just a quiet bowing out—a step, step, slide behind the final curtain and out the stage door.

Her last breath came and went quietly, but her death had not. It is no mistake to say Death was her familiar, as it must have been for most people born when dying typically occurred, not in the sterilized and remote world of a hospital, but in the next room. Her mother’s death in childbirth when Porter was barely a toddler may have been one of her first memories, and her own life was threatened by tuberculosis and the influenza epidemic of 1918 when she was still a young woman. Not surprisingly, her stories deal with death over and over again; it is death that gives the best of them their emotional edge.

In “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” and “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall,” Porter personifies and stares Death in the face. In “Pale Horse,” she records a captivating life-after-death vision a young woman is forced to relinquish as she waves the pale rider on, stoically taking up life again in spite of a near-fatal blow. In “Granny Weatherall,” Porter creates with remarkable insight the old woman’s passage to last breath. Weaving the reader in and out of the dying woman’s conscious reality and her unconscious reprise of the most painful and significant experiences of her life. Porter suspends time while demonstrating how one should meet death: with fear at bay and with stoic acceptance when the inevitable comes. Granny Weatherall, seeing the reality of her last moment, blows out the flickering breath of life herself.

At 88, then 89, then 90, Porter knew what was coming, and she didn’t take kindly to her decline. When I met her, she was already hobbled by stroke and bedridden, but her core personality seemed intact: she could be loving, funny, furious, intractable; on a good day, her mind probed and she held strong opinions, even if she couldn’t always clearly say what she wished. She was vain of her appearance— and quite beautiful—even in the final days when she had become too fragile and fatigued to be conscious of whether or not her hair was curled and combed. And always, there was charisma in her wit and charm that ensured the attention from others that she so roundly craved. I first met her as a student, critic, and admirer of her work. As a sometime companion to her during her purgatory, I came to love her as many people did, for her spirit and her courage, for the feisty way she had of heading back into the ring after a bloody bad day.

Over the two weighted years it took age and illness to kill her, Porter raged against and yearned for this last lover, refusing and denying Death many days, and keening after him on others. Her death was not simply an event of September 18, 1980.She let go of life and breath in imperceptible increments over hundreds of days. There were times when she repeated and repeated that she wanted to die; there were others when she told me calmly that she had lived a good life, and did not mind that it was ending. On September 18, her life finished, and with it, the final struggle this tough, sensitive woman had endured.

The blessing of long life unfortunately means outliving most of one’s friends; and Porter had also, in her stroke-induced paranoia, cut herself off from her much-loved niece and nephew and others like her attorney, E.Barrett Prettyman, and her secretary, Bill Wilson, who were closest to her before the stroke. The stroke’s first blow was the loss of the use of her writing hand; the second was the loss of language, her life’s blood, whether written or spoken. Sometimes she could be patient with it, saying, “Now wait a minute, Honey,” while she strove to give voice to a bit of information. At other times, it was bitter to her to be unable to retrieve and pronounce words her mind still knew. The easy contact, camaraderie, and comfort of friends so vital to her followed quickly on these thefts. Cut off from both work and love, she was also physically trapped, and it frustrated and enraged her.

She could be trying, and her fury venomous. The women who nursed her daily caught the brunt of her frustration and anger. But she was neither cold nor a mean-spirited person defined only by her prejudices. She was gifted. She was flawed. She had demons; but when they fired on her, she hauled herself up to face them. Her last struggle was no different. “Look at me,” she asked once. “I can’t speak. I can’t write. But no wrist-slitting—that’s too easy.”

In the year before her final decline, most often I would find her reading, books open on her lap or stacked on her bedside table: The poems of Joan Malcolm Brinnan, and of Stevie Smith, Pauline de Rothschild’s memoir of her travels in Russia, Allen Tate’s essays, and her own. She would hunch forward over a book in her big hospital bed, thick glasses perched on her nose. Her immobilized right eye was covered with a patch; her good eye magnified and vivid blue. She would hold the book on her knee with her left hand and slowly wade through the words as if giving a public reading.

In April, she was still thinking about work, wanting me to write to Ned O’Gorman, who had requested an interview for his biography of Allen Tate. Porter thought it was too soon after Tate’s death, and spoke of some of her last conversation with Tate. When I showed her the letter of acceptance I had just gotten from a university press for a book on her work, she told me matter-of-factly, “They mean business. This is very good. I’ve seen dozens of these, and they mean it.”

Preparing to move to a nursing home arranged for her by her nephew and guardian, Paul, she said she was getting out of the place she had lived in and was taking “only one or two things” and her clothes. “I’m leaving all the rest of it,” she said, apparently unconcerned about the shelves and shelves of well-read books, the Victorian and Mexican furniture, the photos, the keepsakes. But of course, she had done this over and over all her life; it must have seemed like just one more move, to what she hoped would be a better situation.

Her move to a bright room at Carriage Hill Nursing Center was hardly the getaway I think she wished for. She adjusted as well as she was able, and on May 18 ended her 90th year. A few days later, she entered a real decline that showed itself in the journal I was keeping.

May 26. She is frail and more fatigued. My visits become a ritual and a tableau: I stand at her bedside so she can see me, she holding my hand tightly and then placing it in the hollow of her cheek, which seems to comfort her. “My darling, I’m so glad you’re here,” she says. I talk to her about “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” and her vision of a luminous fan of light behind all the people she had ever loved. I talk to her about the rich life she has had, that it is hard to let go of that, and hard for it to let her go. I begin to feel like an acolyte attending the mystery that is starting to unfold in earnest. I want to smooth her descent, and since I can’t ease her pain, I want to soothe fear and stroke the anxiety she can only express cloaked in anger.

The nurse tells me that Katherine Anne has given up; she is not eating, and I am afraid to ask how much longer she can go on in that state. She looks almost skeletal, the wonderful bones of her face honed to a fine essence, but there is still great strength in her hand squeezing mine as it rests against her face. I remember Theodore Roethke’s Elegy for Jane and feel myself, like the poet, standing by, “with no rights in the matter,” neither daughter nor lover. I pick up her linen winding sheet from the laundry, and for the first time, I pray that she will die. Take her home, Lord. Let go, Katherine Anne.

May 30. She is alert again, and complaining in her stroke-stifled speech that she can’t understand why her life has come to this. And why doesn’t somebody do something to help her? I tell her no one can do anything about it, but that the good Lord will take care of her. She takes a very firm face with me, as if she is not about to be hoodwinked or cajoled. To distract her, I re-read birthday cards from Isabel Bayley and a group of students who have been studying her stories. Both messages please and settle her. When I tell her I’m going down the hall briefly to speak to the nurse, she tells me “I’ll be here,” and laughs. I’m glad to see the humor in her and remind her that friends are coming the next day. “Can you fit that in your schedule?” I ask. She laughs again and says she isn’t going anywhere. Later, as she drifts into sleep, she murmurs, “Don’t leave me.”

Summer comes in. On a given day, she may sit up, wearing a deep blue shawl that sharpens the color of her eyes and the whiteness of her hair, a little color on her lips. If her body is awesomely fragile, she still has piercing eyes and lovely cheek bones. It is possible to see the skull beneath the skin, but there is also the ancient beauty of her face, now wrinkled out of youth and prosperity, but still classically beautiful. Another day she may seem confused and then surprise me with the clarity of her focus. On one such morning, I answer a phone call from Monroe Wheeler, and explain that she will be able to understand him, but that she isn’t speaking clearly. She takes the phone from me as I tell her who is calling, and she says to him in utterly clear tones, “Hello, my darling. I love you,” and arranges a Saturday visit with him.

On the days when the process of giving up life seems painfully slow, she refuses to be comforted, refuses to accept what is happening to her, and lets me know she thinks I am nave to believe that people are doing their best for her. She can screw up her face with all the old fury her scrappy personality is capable of and tell me I am crazy and heartless, and how can I stand there looking like a nice person and say something like that to her? And so it goes.

July 14. She wants to know why she has to be where she is and why nobody will do anything about it. It is impossible to distract or console her. I tell her I have to go and that I’ll be back in a few days. “Here?” she asks, incredulous. Yes, I say. She is angry and I am traitorous.

September 16. The doctor checks her regularly and finds her still strong, vital signs OK.But her face seems cadaverous, and she looks as if she could snap like a twig. Her breath rattles her fragile body. On the bedside table a record of her fluid intake is taped: 8 a.m., 8 cc orange juice, 6 cc cereal; 10 a.m., 8 cc cranberry juice; 12 p.m., 10 cc coffee. Beside the record sheet are three opened containers with the liquids still in them.

Huddled in a nest of pillows, she takes my hand and holds on, drifting in and out. Once she murmurs, “Isn’t it strange?” I tell her I love her, and how her friend Bill and I have talked two nights before about how she has always inspired such ardent affection in people. She smiles into her pillow and says distinctly, “That’s true,” with perfect acceptance. She opens her eyes, but looks past me, at something else. I remember what my mother always said when new babies smiled—that they were seeing angels. I wonder if Katherine Anne is doing the same. I am rooted in the concrete, conscious of clothes on my body, hair hanging around my face, my solid weight. I feel stuck to the chair I lean from. Katherine Anne floats. Her hand holding mine, perhaps more lightly than usual, is the only tether between us.

An aide appears and announces firmly that she must turn Kather ine Anne and I must leave the room. I stand outside the door and listen to Katherine Anne crying out and imagine the woman’s hands pulling the sheets, structuring pillows, and hauling the thin body back into this rude world. When I return, bed sores have been prevented, but Katherine Anne no longer nestles. She lies stiffly propped against double pillows plumped and put in their proper place. She is upset, and nothing consoles her. I wish I had left earlier, when she was still content.

September 18: I go to see her at noon. She is alert, in pain, but unable to say what is wrong. The nurse and I try to get her to take some soup, eat a little ice cream, but nothing helps. I stay until 1:30. A little after three the director of the nursing home calls to say Katherine Anne has had “an episode,” and that her pulse is very weak.

I run the two blocks to Carriage Hill and arrive to find her awake—eyes wide but out of touch. She is getting oxygen to keep her comfortable, but she consumes it like a crude commodity she no longer needs, in short, raspy breaths, slowly, slowly giving it up. Before leaving the room, the nurse tells me Katherine Anne can hear me, though she gives no sign of understanding. I take her hand and tell her she is not alone. I tell her I am with her, standing on one side holding her hand, and that the good Lord is on the other, with arms held out to her. All she has to do is reach. No sign of recognition.

I get up and set the bedside clock ticking—notches of sound to ground me during my last time with her. I sing what I can: “Pale horse, pale rider, done taken my love from me . . .” and tell her she will finally be with Alex, the lover she lost in 1918; that her mother, her sisters, Gay and Mary Alice, her grandmother and her father will all be there to welcome her with shining eyes. I tell her that she is leaving herself with us in her wonderful stories, that those stories have given her immortality and it is all right for her to go. She holds my hand lightly. Gradually, softly, finally, she lets the light die. Her color leaves her. Her lips begin to look mottled and her fingers blue. Her hand gets colder under mine, and once in a while she misses a breath, making my heart stop until she draws another. Finally, her eyelids drowse, and the lazy breath simply doesn’t return. It is not quite 5 p.m., and Katherine Anne Porter is gone.

“You know what I will miss?” she had asked one afternoon. “I will miss the sound of the wind when I am dead.” As I still miss the sound of her voice.


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