My dissertation advisor recommended that I read Simone de Beauvoir’s A Very Easy Death when I was writing my dissertation on ambivalence. Apparently de Beauvoir was ambivalent towards her mother. But when I read that book, I wasn’t struck by quotations on ambivalence, but by these. They speak for themselves and are absolutely moving, haunting, and manage to so accurately capture so much about human experience—especially the experience of witnessing others’ deaths, hospitalizations, and suffering.
When picking out her mother’s funeral clothes: “Before, I went through all this without seeing it. Now I know that it will form part of my life for ever.” (48).
“Her illness had broken the shell of her prejudices and her pretensions: perhaps because she no longer needed these defenses.” (60).
“I did not particularly want to see Maman again before her death; but I could not bear the idea that she should not see me again. Why attribute such importance to a moment since there would be no memory? There would not be any atonement either. For myself I understood, to the innermost fibre of my being, that the absolute could be enclosed within the last moments of a dying person.” (62).
“Often a red light stopped me in front of Cardin’s: I saw ridiculously elegant hats, waistcoats, scarves, slippers, shoes. Farther on there were beautiful downy dressing-gowns, softly coloured….Scents, furs, lingerie, jewels: the sumptuous arrogance of a world in which death had no place: but it was there, lurking behind this façade, in the grey secrecy of nursing-homes, hospitals, sick rooms. And for me that was now the only truth.” (78).
“Then suddenly she cried out, a burning pain in her left buttock. It was not at all surprising. Her flayed body was bathing in the uric acid that oozed from her skin….All tense on the edge of shrieking, she moaned, ‘It burns, it’s awful; I can’t stand it. I can’t bear it any longer.’ And half sobbing, ‘I’m so utterly miserable,’ in that child’s vice that pierced me to the heart. How completely alone she was! I touched her, I talked to her; but it was impossible to enter into her suffering….Nothing on earth could possibly justify these moments of pointless torment.” (81).
“She suddenly cried, ‘I can’t breathe!’ Her mouth opened, her eyes stared wide, huge in that wasted, ravaged face: with a spasm she entered into a coma….’But, Madame,’ replied the nurse, ‘I assure you it was a very easy death.’” (88). “For indeed, comparatively speaking, her death was an easy one….I thought of all those who have no one to make that appeal to: what agony it must be to feel oneself a defenceless thing, utterly at the mercy of indifferent doctors and over-worked nurses. No hand on the forehead when terror seizes them; no sedative as soon as pain begins to tear them….She had a very easy death; an upper-class death.” (94-95).
On justifying not telling her mother of her cancer or obliging her to take last sacraments: “Maman did not want these intimate conversations. What she wanted to see round her bed was young smiling faces.” (90).
“As we looked a her straw bag, filled with balls of wool and an unfinished piece of knitting, and at her blotting-pad, her scissors, her thimble, emotion rose up and drowned us. Everyone knows the power of things: life is solidified in them, more immediately present than in any one of its instants.” (98).
“The priest spoke again, briefly. And emotion seized both of us by the throat when he said, ‘Francoise de Beauvoir’; the words brought her to life; they summed up her history, from birth to marriage, to widowhood, to the grave; Francoise de Beauvoir—that retiring woman, so rarely named—became an important person.” (100).
“So our former relationship lived on in me in its double aspect—a subjection that I loved and hated. It revived with all its strength when Maman’s accident, her illness and her death shattered the routine that governed our contacts…I thought I had made up my mind about our failure and accepted it; but its sadness come back to my heart.” (103).
“The changes in Maman during her illness made my sorrow all the greater….She got rid of the ready-made notions that hid her sincere and loveable side. It was then that I felt the warmth of an affection that had often been distorted by jealousy and that she expressed so badly. In her papers I have found evidence of it. She had put aside two letters…they both assured her that one day I should come back to God.” (104).
“There is no such thing as a natural death: nothing that happens to a man is ever natural, since his presence calls the world into question.” (106).