Mortality


"Living Will" by Holly Posner

1. Does the “doctor” conversation differ from conversations about very old age and death that any serious older adults might have?
2. “‘First do no harm’ circles its wagons.” Who is threatened? What is the threat? Who is on the inside and who on the outside, of this circle, at this dinner table?
3. If you were the poet’s husband, would you help load her pockets when it’s time? Write your own response from the husband’s point of view.
4. The title of the poem is “Living Will.” What is a living will? Is the phrase an oxymoron? Do you or any of your loved ones have a living will? What is the difference between a living will and the assistance in dying that the poet refers to by alluding to Virginia Woolf, who famously loaded her pockets with stones in order to drown?
5. This is a narrative poem. It tells a story. There’s a conflict, a turning point, a resolution. What does the narrator do that is unusual for her, in this circle?

Keywords: Body vs. Mind, Choice, Death, Marriage, Relationships, Suicide, Time


"Studies in the Subjunctive" by Ruthann Robson

1. What is the relation between the narrator and Anne Sexton? Does the narrator identify with her? Or does she reflect upon Anne Sexton in relation to other people in her life?
2. How does time, the narrator’s memories, her projections into past, present and future, operate in this piece, especially in relation to the theme of grammar?
3. What is the role of grammar in this piece? Does it stand for anything beyond itself? Is it a marker for a discussion of something else? If so, what?
4. The narrator refers to the dictionary throughout the piece. What role does the dictionary play?
5. There are various instances throughout of different people in different situations confronting suicide. How do they relate to each other? What do they mean for the narrator? How are they positioned in relation to other forms of death or ways of meeting death?
6. Is this piece meant to take the form of a letter? To whom is it addressed?
7. What role did the World Trade Center attack play in her thinking?
8. Is this “overintellectualized”?

Keywords: Cancer, Choice, Coping, Depression, Literature, Suicide, Therapy


"To a Child Contemplating Suicide" by Helen Klein Ross

1. What purposes does the comparison to the grandfather’s outlined tools serve in the poem?
2. This poem is spare. How does that contribute to the poem’s impact? To your sense of the poet?
3. The poem consists of two sentences, arranged on the page in couplets. In what ways does this visual lay-out contribute to its effect? Try rearranging it.
4. What phrases or words leap out at you? Choose one, and write for ten-twenty minutes without thinking or stopping, letting your pen take you where it goes.
5. Respond in writing, as if you were the child contemplating suicide, to the poet’s appeal.
6. How are images of absence and presence, permanence and transience, represented in the poem and juxtaposed against each other? What kind of message does it impart to the addressee of the poem?
7. What connection does the poem make between hardware tools and a human body, a human life?
8. Consider the image of “Ghosts” in the poem. What does it suggest about death and the effect of a death on the living?

Keywords: Loss, Love, Memory, Suicide


"Art" by Eric Nelson

1. What is the difference between the mother’s drawing and the son’s? What do they reveal about the attitudes of each toward the son’s terminal illness?
2. Using crayons, draw this boy and this mother. Illustrate any part of the poem you choose, or illustrate the “story” of the poem, the changes that occur from beginning to end, using a comic-book or film-making storyboard technique of consecutive frames.
3. Adults tend to think they should shield children from unpleasant truths. Comment on this.
4. Based on what the poem evokes, describe a time when you were a child. Also describe an incident in which you were an adult interacting with a child.
5. Nowhere in this poem is the child’s diagnosis revealed. It is in present tense, and time is referred to without using the word “time.” How do these factors contribute to the impact of the poem?
6. What line in this poem is the most moving to you? Why?
7. Colors are particularly vivid in this poem. What are the various colors used and what kind of feelings do they each impart?
8. Discuss the italicized lines of the poem, the dialogue between mother and child.

Keywords: Birth, Childhood, Family, Grief, Illness, Loss, Love


"A Roomful of Christmas" by Scott Temple

1. How does the “room full of Christmas” help Bobbie?
2. Was the psychologist encouraging denial?
3. Does Bobbie help the narrator? How?
4. What role do the hospital politics and struggles play in the story, in Bobbie’s life and death? How do they affect the narrator and his view of the situation?

Keywords: Coping, Depression, Doctor/Patient Relationships, Empathy, Imagination


"'Silence = Death'" by Rafael Campo

1. Do you remember seeing this slogan, Silence=Death? What did it mean? Why was this slogan used? Is it relevant now?
2. Investigate the word “count,” including its variations. List the number of times it is used. Take a look at who counts.
3. Similarly, check out the usage of words about speaking and language, and also words about silence.
4. “…one left me this stupid T-shirt when he died,” the patient says. The poet himself wonders, at the poem’s beginning, why the T-shirt still threatens him. Why does it?

Keywords: Control, Coping, Death, Family, Fear, Friendship, Helplessness, HIV/AIDS, Language, Loss, Medication, Silence


"The Raft" by Toni Mirosevich

1. Do you believe that aging is characterized by progressive jettisoning of friends and family from “the raft”?
2. Are we all ultimately alone on “the raft”? Is there another way?
3. Are there ways in which you have shared this “shedding”?
4. Unpack the meaning(s) of the extended metaphor of the raft. What does it mean to be pushed off the raft? What does it mean to stay on? What does it mean to have the raft collapse beneath you?
5. How is “being adrift” reflected in the content and the setting of the conceit? Is it successful or not?
6. What philosophical life questions does this narration set out to answer? What do we know about the narrator’s actual state of “being”?
7. What effect does the writer’s use of the second person have on the reader’s conception of the subject matter?
8. What are the successive stages of this trip on the raft? What are the criteria by which people are pushed off?
9. What perspective does this trip on the raft grant to aspects of life that are traditionally considered normal and absolute, such as hierarchy, responsibility (“carrying” and “being carried,”) love, and pain?
10. In the course of this journey on the raft, do “you” change? How?
11. How does time operate in this piece? How is it represented?

Keywords: Aging, Childhood, Control, Education, Family, Friendship, Isolation, Loss, Love, Relationships, Time


"A Widow at 93" by Andrew Merton

1. A shiv, according to the dictionary, is “a knife or razor, especially used as a weapon.” Pronounce the word “survive” with a soft ‘v’ sound; now pronounce it like a shiv.
2. What is a transitive verb?
3. Imagine this poet is at the dinner table along with the doctor’s wife in the poem “Living Will.” Imagine what he might contribute to the conversation. Write pieces of his dialogue to fit into that poem.
4. The widow has lost more than her husband. At 93, she has also lost a brother, and a son. Anyone living into very old age will suffer such losses. What is the toll of such loss? Are there other ways to survive that toll besides “dying slowly”? Does this differ from people surviving loss of loved ones in war or catastrophe?
5. What are the different meanings of “survive” presented in the poem?
6. The word “survive” is almost lent physical form in the poem, the “v”s becoming knives. What other archetype of death might such an image of a “shiv” allude to? Is there violence inherent in this image? Or a dispassionate destruction?

Keywords: Change, Coping, Death, Family, Fear, Isolation, Loss, Survival, Time


"Morning at Fifty" by Alan L. Steinberg

1. The opening paragraphs outline the stages Ebstein goes through when he drives to visit his father. Less clearly delineated, there are also three stages he goes through whenever he first sees his father. What do these stages have in common?
2. Ebstein describes several residents who live in the nursing home. What do his descriptions have in common?
3. At those times when Ebstein’s father doesn’t recognize him, Ebstein feels “insubstantial, as if he were without weight and substance.” Recall a time when someone you care about acted as if you weren’t there, didn’t acknowledge your existence. How did you feel?
4. Imagine Ebstein’s father could speak. What might he say to Ebstein’s desire for him to be the father he once knew?
5. Sam’s sentences repeat like a refrain. Ebstein calls them “nonsensical” but although inarticulate and in the background, they clearly make sense. Write them as one continuing sentence. Examine the author’s pacing of them.
6. How does the title resonate to you?

Keywords: Aging, Death, Family, Memory, Mortality, Time, Waiting