This is a picture of Tammy Faye Baker Messner. It looks a little bit like an outsider art portrait done by Francis Bacon or by Egon Schiele, doesnâ€™t it? Two days ago, in this video still, Tammy Faye weighed 65 pounds. She had cancer that went to her lungs. My reason for bringing her image here is not to discuss her life, but this act, her last public act, that she initiated, calling Larry King and asking to be on his show… to literally give an â€˜end timeâ€™ public view of what those of us who have worked in hospice long before it was ever called hospice, have seen often… but a view that is often shut away from the public… only those who have loved their loved ones to the end and past the end… see how the body even though diminished, can still carry enormous spirit.
Weâ€™re taught to look with the cultureâ€™s cynical eye at those who are dying; to shut them away from view. Or, the dying person themselves having learned shame from the culture, closes the drapes against their physical changes, wanting to be remembered as they once were in some time before. It is alright, to each their own. Truly, each personâ€™s choice.
And, at the same time, I think we ought no longer be afraid to look on the faces and bodies of those who are rowing toward a somewhere we can’t yet see, for if we look away, weâ€™ll miss the huge showers of sparks their spirits keep throwing off, even in their last days. There are other ways to, not look, but to see those so very close to dying…
…One can look with an artistâ€™s eye at those who are dying and see that they have a beauty all of their own. It is not magazine uni-beauty, that is true. It is a kind that is both daunting and beautiful, like desert mesas with no roads in or out in the dust of sunset are beautiful; like mountain escarpments are beautiful; like a gold mine nearly played out but with one last vein of glowing gold ore left, is beautiful, sometimes like a shattered jewel is beautiful, because every part still catches light, and some shards you thought lost suddenly sparkle from seeming nowhere…
For those of us who are only dying more slowly than those who are dying more quickly, I think it takes guts for us to look differently at those who are literally in their last days, to not follow the pop cultureâ€™s line, which is to unworthy the worthy. JP Squared, that is, Pope John Paul II, in his bent over Ichabod condition at the end, while insisting on blessing the crowds from his window, barely able to raise his head or hand, shaking to pieces like a jitney with too big an engine… is said to have admonished those who tried to keep him in his bed: Let them see me dying; let the people see.
What did JPII want us to see? I think, that there is dignity and ferocious love inside a person, no matter what many or few threads of their bodies are still left unbroken. And others who keep going, â€˜Too dumb to quit,â€™ as many people put it when they have been devastated. And it seems quite a proper attitude amongst the clearly dying… to act arch toward anyone who tries to talk them out of their commitment to live on as long and in the most heroic, funny, eccentric ways they can dream up.
I am not suggesting â€˜rose colored Death glasses,â€™ for in the work I do, Iâ€™ve seen so many different ways of leave-taking amongst the dying, including egregiously rough roads of dying caused by ignorance, and wrong medicines, or too much, or not enough of something timely, or families in the screeching blaming smack-downs of their lives right at the dying personâ€™s bedside while theyâ€™re trying to die. So itâ€™s not that.
Itâ€™s just to consider that thereâ€™s a greater self than the ego, for it is ego who is most easily charmed by pop culture’s shallow sight. It is the ego that is horrified at the faces and bodies of those close to dying. It is ego that turns away, pastes together its ridicule, squeezes out a bit of black humor. It is the little monkey-ego that speaks of disgust and nausea. In mythos, ego always plays a part like Barney Fifeâ€™s: big talker but hides when the chips are down, lovable, but not the strongest element in the psyche by far. There are several stronger and they have not just sight, but vision: Spirit, Soul, Heart, creative fire.
I know itâ€™s a little odd perhaps, to be speaking of Pope John Paul and Tammy Faye together… a highly unusual duo, not to mention throwing in Bacon who characterized beauty as ledges and crevices, and Schiele who purposely recorded all manner of physical beauty outside mainstream acceptance, as well. I add Lucien Freud, painter of extravagant bodies. I add too, Ivan Albright, painter of the spirit of those still rowing in the midst of the ruins… yet there is a little red thread that binds all these sheaves, no matter whatever we might think of all or each of these souls…
… What if they are all artists, Tammy Faye, Pope John Paul, Albright, Schiele, Bacon, Freud: performance art as it is meant to be: in depth, utterly ballsy, arresting, demanding. This brace of artists didnâ€™t just show the dramatically changed body to us in public ways –which was daring enough– but also, for those who have the eyes to see, they showed the rarest thing, despite all else: the naked life force still crackling and fully alive.
left top: Lucien Freud: Reflection
right top: Ivan Albright: Man Created God In His Image
left middle: Francis Bacon
right middle: Egon Schiele: Self-portrait
bottom center: Tammy Faye Messner/ CNN, aired July 20, 2007, her death announced July 22, 2007, 2 days after she died on