Commentary

Disciples


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Saturday, March 26, 1892

     This morning about eleven Warrie said to W., "I guess I'll wash you now." But W. said, "No." Warrie still insisting, "The Doctors will order it and I ought as well do it." W. offered no more resistance. Warrie then downstairs. "Mom," he said, "I think we'd better put off changing his clothes till he rallies a little. He is so weak I can't bear to press it." Ate no breakfast, had nothing but the punches. "I can't eat anything—let me alone." Ate no supper last night.

     Mrs. Davis upstairs from one o'clock. Not so much turning but more lifting up in bed. She lifted till his head touched the headboard and yet he wanted to be higher in the bed. No talk at all, only just what he wanted done. Rang to the last, yet a little after four called "Mary" twice and quite loudly. At 4:25 rang but could say no more than "Mary"—totally exhausted. Wished again to be lifted. She gave him toddy and he urged to have it stronger. Prepared it himself, practically. About 20 minutes after that he asked to have both pillows changed and motioned to have his foot put out of bed—and wished again to be lifted higher. And again he asked to be put over a little in the bed. Mrs. Davis remarked, "Mr. Whitman, you're sweating." "Yes, dreadfully—all over—wipe my face, please," adding the "please" after she had commenced. After she had wiped his face, he said, "That's good," his voice very choked and feeble. Again she said, "Mr. Whitman your hands are cold." And his voice was so weak: he only whispered, "No." Immediately after he took his thumb and motioned to the left, and she said, "What does thee want, Mr. Whitman—to be turned over a little more to the left?" And he answered, "I don't know." This and his appearance together alarmed her. Warrie was out. Mrs. Davis put her hand back of his neck and found there such a profuse perspiration—handkerchief and collar so wet—that she inquired, "Won't you let me put a clean dry silk handkerchief on your neck? I won't worry you—I'll do it carefully." He replying

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simply "yes"—she then acting accordingly. "Feels good" was his brief comment. She retired, and still again he rang for her—again wishing to be moved over a little, not wishing to go to the right side at all.

     About three o'clock there came in the mail a book and letter from Elizabeth Porter Gould, the former a volume of poems which Mrs. Davis took in and showed to W. She read the inscription and then remarked, "Ain't it a beautiful-colored cover," and he responded faintly "yes" and motioned her to put it on the stand at the head of his bed.

     About five o'clock Mrs. D. had sent Mrs. Williams, a friend, for McAlister and Mr. Harned, and both were now here. McAlister at once said, "This is the last—he is dying." Mrs. Davis put a hot water bag at his feet, which were cold. From that time on he said nothing, except once to call Warrie and say "shift" and "change." He had recognized the Doctor on his entrance, and when the Doctor asked if there was anything he could do for him he said, "No." Eyes closed, breathing faster and weaker. Once he moved as if reflexly to grasp the bell rope, wishing something—but the hands fell back useless. Again, folding and clasping his hands, Mrs. Davis detected him feeling his own pulse, as if deliberately and cooly. The last word heard from him was "shift."

     It was after this I came in, at 6:07. Hearing the front door open, Harned came from W.'s room and met me in the hallway. "Walt is dying," he said, "it is nearly over." It struck my heart, yet it was the hourly fear at last fulfilled. I hastened into the room and up to the bed. His face was looking towards the windows and his eyes were closed. Dr. McAlister sat at the head of the bed—Warrie and Mrs. Davis were on the other side—Tom strolled in at the foot. McAlister accosted me in quite positive tones, which seemed for an instant to arrest W., whose eyes fluttered open as he struggled to get his right hand out from under the bedclothing, as if to grasp my own (as so often in days gone)—but the effort died of its own weight and the eyes closed wearily. Once he moaned. McAlister remarked, "This will not

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last long, unless he rallies—and he can hardly do that."
I took W.'s right hand and from this moment to the end held it, as if it was my last touch of his life. (I write this now, 10:30, in the back room, after another look at him as he lay front there, stretched out and still. Over my head the little bell. No more its pull—no more the summons—for another summoner hath summoned him!) He breathed on, more lightly, more quickly—the mouth open, now and then twitching—his color all gone and death's white upon him. Again the Doctor said, "See, it grows fainter." And Warrie leaning forward, ears and eyes intent (as ours, too), exclaimed, "Did you see—he skipped a breath or two," as indeed was the case. This phenomenon growing more marked and the breath very irregular—the mouth working again and several times the brows contracting as if from the difficulty of breathing. "What we expected in December is happening now?" "Yes." I asked, "And still there's no hope?" "None—he will go." "And rapidly?" "Very soon." At 6:25 he emitted a marked "Oh!" and seemed to stop breathing. Harned exclaiming, "It is all over." McAlister announced, "No, his heart still beats." After a struggle again there was a flutter of life. At 6:28 came a long gasp—we all took it to be the last. The Doctor cried, "A candle—let me have a candle." And by its light peered at W. For a minute breath was suspended. At 6:29 another slight heave of the chest, a twist of the mouth and a labored breath. Here his eyes opened but gave no sign of recognitions and languorously closed again. These were the final flickerings of life—a breath again at 6:30, 6:31 (three here overlapping each other), at 6:32 and at 6:34—and this was the last. Harned turned his head away—I heard a choked sob from Mrs. Davis—and nearby was Warrie, still eagerly observant, but with a mixed sigh and cry in his throat. "Is he gone?" I looked at McAlister, who had his head low over W.'s breast. "The heart still beats." But there seemed no pulse. "Put your fingers here," he counselled; and I did so, and caught the feathery beat, as a gentle breeze on silk. (When I first took W.'s hand the palm was warm and its back cold—and I touched his head, which was cold.) And so Warrie felt—and so Harned—and

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still the life seemed to stay. "He is dead!" said McAlister, "practically dead—see," and he lifted the fallen eyelid and touched the ball of the eye, which was fixed and showed no sense of impact. But at 6:43 came the last. The heart was still! No contortion, no struggle, no physical regret—and the eyes closed of themselves and the body made none of the usual motions towards stiffening out—towards rigidity. By and by McAlister and I together laid him decently and reverently straight. I laid his hand quietly down—something in my heart seemed to snap and that moment commenced my new life—a luminous conviction lifting me with him into the eternal. Harned murmured, "It is done," and I could not but exclaim, "It is triumph and escape." The life had gone out at sunset—the light of day not yet utterly gone—the last rays floating with timid salutation into the gloom. The Doctor had said to me, "He's likely to stretch out," but there was no effort—not the first trace. One time when the breath got slow there came a sigh and almost sob, perhaps only the reflex pressure of the air—all was peaceful, beautiful, calm, fitting. The day clouded—a light drip of rain now descending. I leaned down and kissed him, hand and head—and then I went out, shadowed, into the penetrating night.

     I did not get home till after eight. Harned walked part way with me. Rain hard—everything had different color and intent for me. I spoke the dark word in at the window at the Post Office and they sorrowed of it and spoke of "the grand old man." And I found my mother and father and Tillie still at supper and they were shocked at my news, yet could not but say, "It is well for him—he is succored at last." And now the walk in the night towards the river, north, and home—and the entrance there (new sensations, of loss and emptiness, upon me). In the parlor the Gilberts. "You are pale!" they cried, seeing me as I entered. I could but say, "The end is come—the old man is dead!" I felt the rising tide—for so long stemmed—and hastened back into the kitchen. (Mrs. Gilbert calling after me, "How strange—Annie said nothing else would have so detained you!"). And now to face her, working over the fire, turning a

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startled face towards me, crying before I had time to utter a word, "He is dead!" And her sweet and yearning kiss and the flooding tears at last!

     10:20 P.M. Again at W.'s. W. lay stretched on a stretcher. I went into the room, uncovered and kissed him. The body was clean. The face already assumes a repose and majesty. The emaciation very evident but not painful and growing less so. The body was already getting rigid. Eyes beautifully sweet and lips closed. Hand not nearly so fallen away as other members. He lay there in the light, his splendid head seen at its noblest and all the history of his tumultuous years wiped away by the touch of peace. The strange quiet smote me. I leaned over and kissed his forehead (oh! that kiss! and the afternoon's kiss, the life just gone!). It was only rest—the turnings and shiftings all over—the messengers all home at last. Even the livid face was alluring—and it lay there like some grand old god pictured to the soul or memoried out of our loving and immortal friendship—no more—no more! I laid the cover softly back upon the darling head and turned the light down and left the room, working again at Warrie's desk for an hour—all seeming so changed, and so much of the heart seeming severed from this world.

     Notes after W.'s death:

     We had telegraphed Mrs. Whitman as W. grew worse and followed that telegram by another announcing his death. Simmons, undertaker, was summoned, and quickly came, taking in the situation and having our instructions.

     McAlister and Harned and I composed a bulletin, which McA. wrote in his own hand on a big sheet of the yellow paper and signed:
Camden, N.J. March 26, 1892

Whitman began sinking at 4:30 P.M. He continued to grow worse and died at 6:43 P.M. The end came peacefully. He was conscious until the last. There were present at the bedside when he died Mrs. Davis, Warren Fritzinger, Thomas B. Harned, Horace L. Traubel and myself.

Alex. McAlister, M.D.




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No effort had been made to call Longaker. I did not ask nor did they tell me why. The two doctors had had a consultation this noon and had arranged to meet at the University Club in the evening, Longaker saying, "I would not be surprised but it should be announced before morning." But it was L.'s idea that Walt would live into next week.

     Harned was to telegraph Eakins as to the cast. We had immediately telegraphed Bucke the final word. Warrie and Mrs. Davis asked the privilege of washing Walt, Mrs. Davis the face, Warrie the body. They almost begged it and of course there was no objection. Mrs. D. wandered disconsolately about the house.

     I asked McAlister, "This is the death you expected in December—the same forces operating?" "Yes, the same. He was drowned in his own secretion."

     Wired Ingersoll: "After life's fitful fever he sleeps well. The end came peacefully at 6:43. Will you write?"

     And to Bolton: "Triumph. Evening. 6:43."

     To Burroughs: "Walt died peacefully this evening at 6:43."

     To Mrs. O'Connor: "Walt is at peace. Died 6:43 this evening."

     The bulletin at door effective. I escape reporters entirely. The end so uneventful—so simple, quiet—so without dressings and puerilities—a simple few words will tell it all.

     Yesterday Warrie read W. letters from Ingersoll, Wallace and Johnston, and while reading them Mrs. Davis entered with a second letter from the last. But he was past the expression of the interest he must have felt.


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