For William Todd

Not Waving But Drowning

picture of English poet, Stevie Smith

by Stevie Smith

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.
Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.
Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
 And not waving but drowning.
Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.
*

William Todd, partner to my dear friend Diane died, five years ago today.  When Diane phoned to say William, for whom she administrated end-of-life care for months in their tiny apartment, had died in the night, Manny and I weren’t surprised. We had visited the night before. The end hovered in the room.

I had always been very fond of William, who was among the most knowledgeable, literate, artistic men I have ever known, as eager to learn as to teach.

I remember Diane, who had been heroically devoted and conscientious for months, telling us, after we had been away, that William had lost most of his body weight. I wasn’t afraid of that. What I feared more was that I would annoy him. Inadvertently, I would add to his discomfort when he had been suffering so awfully for so long. For instance: after saying hello, I asked, “Are you scared?”

His face lit up. For once, my inappropriate curiosity was appropriate! Too weak to talk much, he said, “I’m petrified.”

Diane had set up a table near the hospital bed brought in by Visiting Nurse Service of New York. On the table was a photograph of William and his sister in Liverpool, ages perhaps seven to ten. I saw that same handsome, nonchalant little boy in the photograph lying in the hospital bed. He shook his head.

I said, no, you’re the same.

Another photograph was of a man in flight gear. Unlike me, William rarely talked about himself. And at the end, talking was difficult for him. Manny asked if the photograph was his father. He indicated yes. His father had fought in WWII as a bombardier. The last word I heard William Todd say was, “bombardier.”

Sitting with William as he died, I witnessed moments when he broke through the terrible pain and became more than lucid–pure. His death convinced me that a person’s death involves triumph, not an earthly triumph, but something larger than sorrow, and everlasting.

The poem above by Stevie Smith was familiar to me but when I spotted it on a blog William was designing years ago, it suddenly became ingrained in my memory.

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