Dead Woman Walking

Maybe you know the 1909 poem by Thomas Hardy, “The Dead Man Walking” or the 1993 book by anti-death penalty activist Sr. Helen Prejean , Dead Man Walking, or the 1995 film that was based on the book.  Hardy’s poem is about a life of disappointment and rejection, about depression. The book and film are about men condemned to death but not yet executed.

It’s an apt phrase to describe me, I think. My executioner is in my body, in my bones. Please don’t tell me that everyone is going to die, that none of us know when, that all of us are under a death sentence. That is a specious comment, a comment that I’m sure no one would make if they really thought about it. It is not the same thing. I am much more like a condemned prisoner whose execution date has not yet been set than a healthy person walking around.

At times I am like the man in the last stanza of Hardy’s poem:

Yet is it that, though whiling

The time somehow

In walking, talking, smiling,

I live not now. 

My life has become small, limited. I am usually not depressed, but the way I live might look like depression because of the fatigue, the side effects of pain medication and the very limited scope of my activities. My life today is so far from the active life I once led. Barely recognizable, in fact.

The experience of living with this disease is strange and it is individual. You have only to read a few blogs or visit an on-line Stage IV forum or attend a support group to see the differences. We have much in common, but we retain our own identities up to the end and, as trite as it may sound,, we each seem to be dying the way we live.

My favorite line from the Dead Man Walking movie is when Sr. Helen (played by Susan Sarandon) tells Matthew Poncelet (played by Sean Penn), “I want to help you die with dignity.” We usually think of death with dignity in medical terms, but lately I’ve been thinking about it as the act of dying with dignity.

When does dying begin? (Again, please don’t glibly say that it begins at birth.) I suppose it depends on how you define it. If “dying” means the progressive shutting down of bodily functions until it all stops, I suppose dying begins in the last days or  hours before death. Here is a table from Medscape, a site for physicians and other health professionals.

But what if instead of looking backwards from death to define dying, we count forward from life? I have the image of a wide beam of light slowly becoming tighter and tighter and until it is an exquisitely sharp point of collimated light. (Illustration.) All the intensity of the original light source is there, but it is concentrated, focused.

My life force is not being attenuated; it is being collimated. As I become less and less involved in peripheral things, my challenge now is to remain focused on the essential without dissipation of my energy, to live life fully as a dead woman walking.

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55 Responses

  1. Agnes P. says:

    Is this what is called serenity, after all?

  2. Jennie says:

    I love your image of the beam of light. Thank you for your generosity in sharing this as you stare down your body’s own limitations.

    • Knot Telling says:

      Thank you very much, Jennie. The image came into my mind while I was reading “rage, rage against the dying of the light” and feeling uncomfortable with both the rage and the image of light dimming.

  3. Excellent, as always.
    Please write more.

  4. Melissa Ross says:

    Very interesting viewpoint. I am not nearly as limited by this disease yet as you describe, but it has brought changes to my life, or changes I have brought because of it, that are starting to limit the circle of activities around me. Like most things in life, some of it is good, and some of it is not, but the description of the focusing of light really struck a chord with me.

    What amuses me is as this focus becomes smaller, I feel my view of the world has broadened, that I see a bigger picture than most. I feel sometimes this focus has lifted a veil, allowed me to realize this larger viewpoint by removing many distractions that took my focus previously. But, as you say, we each live this our own way.

    As always, your writing does such a wonderful job of bringing your truth to us with such imagery and eloquence.

  5. Knot Telling says:

    Thank you so much, Melissa. I love the way you describe the lifting of the veil.

  6. Kathi says:

    Collimated. What a beautifully transformative image. And a new word for me. It’s all about perspective, isn’t it?

    I always learn from you, dear one. xoxo

  7. Paula Sanders says:

    Well said as always Knot. Your writing always makes me stop and think and today I’m thinking about how grateful I should be for all HIS blessings on me. Thank you for sharing your journey with me. You’re in my thoughts and prayers.

  8. Powerful words. Powerful images. Thank you. xxxx

  9. Knot, I wish I knew who you are. Perhaps I do. This is a fantastically straight, moving post.
    Thank you, Elaine

    • Knot Telling says:

      Thank you for your kind words, Elaine. I’m glad you liked it.
      You may remember that when we exchanged a couple of e-mails I explained the reasons for the pseudo.

  10. Susan Zager says:

    You write so beautifully KT. I think there is something comforting about the image of the beam of light. becoming focused. Yet I also understand the limits you express as a result of your physical changes. All of this must be weighing on your mind and body as you focus on the essential. Thank you for sharing your truth. xoxo – Susan

  11. Tim says:

    Beautiful post. Your analogy of collimated light (thank you for teaching me a new word today!) made me think of some of the other properties of light. The way that it is dual in the sense that it is individual photons and, at the same time, a wave makes me think of how many aspects of life are dual in nature necessary to build the whole.

    I don’t know if you know much about quantum physics but light gets even weirder at that level, where things as small as photons can and do exist solely in a state of probability and can do things such as pass through separate holes simultaneously and wink in and out of existence. A whole mystifying other reality that we can’t directly observe at our level and don’t claim to understand.

    • Knot Telling says:

      Thank you, Tim.
      I don’t know anything about quantum physics, reallly. (Just a few words from crossword puzzles.) Your comment makes me want to explore more. Can you recommend some sort of “quantum physics for poets” sort of book?

      • Tim says:

        Hmmm, I’ll give it some thought but quantum physics has been known to make grown adults cry (i.e. me), I’m not sure I’ve come across a pop-sci book on it. The basic thrust is that the dependable concrete world we see about us is a veneer on a much stranger – but equally real – existence that is made up of probabilities. For example, it has been proven in lab experiments that energy can spontaneously form in a perfect vacuum.

  12. maria ratliff says:

    Thank you for not just sharing your thoughts & experiences, but for baring your soul to your readers. You are helping so many through your words. Through your suffering. Through your pain. And your reference to Light is most comforting. God bless you dear!

  13. Maxine D says:

    I so appreciate your posts TK, knowing once again what an effort it must be, not only the physical writing, but also the gathering and coalescing of your thoughts into posts that inform and challenge me.
    Love the analogy that you have used with the light – and the new word!
    Keep living with dignity and intention – you are a blessing!
    {{{{Hugs}}}} and prayers

  14. Diane says:

    Keep writing my dear. Your spirit is alive and well, allow it to glow through your fingers and assist in providing you an outlet. Many aren’t gifted enough to write so fluently about their thoughts, this is a gift you share with all of us. ~D

    • Knot Telling says:

      Your friendship is a precious gift, Diane. Thank you for that, and for your kind words.

  15. Beth Gainer says:

    Wow. So powerful. Thank you for writing this. Hugs.

  16. I think dying begins when you damn well decide it does.

    For some it is the exact moment they are told by a doctor that they have a life limiting disease; whether it be cancer or diabetes.

    Some, their last day or breath.

    My grandmother was dying from her 40th birthday. She had a bag packed at the door waiting for when she had a heartattack. She took an asprin every day ‘just in case’. She moved into a retirement village in her 60’s, dragging my poor grandfather with her. Eventually he left her to start living.

    She died at 96. She spent more of her life dying than living.

    So, to me, dying begins when you decide it does. Just like living does. It may not be the way you would choose, but you do with it what you will.


    • Knot Telling says:

      Kelley, that is exactly what I would expect from such a strong, determined woman as you! These words, “It may not be the way you would choose, but you do with it what you will,” are pure gold.
      Thank you, sweets.

  17. Your writing is exquisite, full of vitality, agility and raw insight. To me it speaks so much of the contradiction within each of us with a cancer diagnosis, particularly with Stage IV. That contradiction which we feel as our bodies fail us, with the ravages of the disease and the extremes of the treatments, yet our minds are sharp and lively.

    Leaning over and giving you a gentle hug.

    • Knot Telling says:

      That is a high compliment coming from you, Philippa! Thank you. Yes, it is exactly that contradiction that I am learning to live with and trying to articulate in my blog.

  18. dear KT, I marvel at the way you have been able to find your own way through living within the confines of pain, to focus on what is essential to you. the concept of collimated light is brilliant, and I know it must lend you it’s own very special comfort. (I looked at the illustration – beautiful!). and the last sentence in Tim’s comment, that in lab experiments, energy can spontaneously form in a perfect vacuum. perhaps when we rid ourselves of all the peripheral concerns and worries, and focus on what’s most important to us, we end up having more energy than we thought possible. I hope you keep writing, KT, your words are alive with such power and truth, and I learn so much from you.
    xoxoxo, karen

    • Knot Telling says:

      Karen, thank you so much. Your support is very important to me.
      I just sort of happened on the metaphor – it just popped into my mind – but it felt so right!

  19. Beautiful and provocative. While I don’t think I’m yet as limited as you are in day to day life, starting my third-line therapy has me thinking along these lines as well. I don’t feel I’m at death’s doorstep, but I do believe now is the time to plan for how I wish to die. Added to the challenges and emotions of these decisions is the denial of those are me and their need for me to help perpetuate that. Just an interesting part of the journey…

    • Knot Telling says:

      This is a very important statement, Lori: “Added to the challenges and emotions of these decisions is the denial of those are me and their need for me to help perpetuate that.” I think we all face the same challenge of trying to support our loved ones while finding our own way.

  20. Gabriele says:

    Thank you for your words. I can relate to them very well. I often feel like a Zombie walking around the living.
    And always everybody is telling me that you could die any time, favoured Phrase is “Run over by a Bus”. But it is not the same. As you said, we have the death sentence already hanging over us. But nobody who isn’t in the same Situation will understand. How could they? I didn’t understand it myself before. Thank you again, it helps to read words from people who understand. And sorry for my bad english.

    • Knot Telling says:

      I really, really, really dislike that “could be run over by a bus” phrase. The title of Sue Hendler’s book, Dying in Public, is another of expressing the idea. You’re right. For us it’s different.

  21. Elizabeth J. says:

    Beautiful writing. Beautiful analogy of the light focusing to a point. May God bless you as you have been a blessing to so many of us. You are in my prayers.

  22. maesprose says:

    Beautifully written. I love the idea of the light and can imagine your frustration. I have no wise nor comforting words. I admire your perspective and take note of how I am spending my own daily life.

    • Knot Telling says:

      Thank you very much. Taking note of our daily life, examining it, being mindful of it is one of the best ways I know to focus on the essential.

  23. I have never before heard this put so poignantly or accurately. Thank you for this. It deserves widest distribution. So few understand our disease and how difficult it is to live with a diagnosis of metastatic cancer. If others can be moved by anything, it will be by your words.

  24. You are such a blessing …. this was beautiful! Thoughts and prayers being sent your way.
    xoxo Nicole

  1. 2 March, 2014

    […] of Stage IV breast cancer, then read on. I found it difficult to read Jan’s latest blog or Knot Telling without crying. Both share the stark truth of this disease which is robbing them  of vitality and […]

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