In the Darkest Place

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In the Darkest Place

In the Darkest Place

In the Darkest Place, by Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello, sung by Elvis Costello (1998), encountered 1998

Buy it here | Available on Spotify | See it here | Lyrics here | Sheet music here

The call interrupted a happy moment. On a Veterans’ Day evening, I had just come out of an enjoyable dinner meeting of the county bar association. My cellphone rang. I don’t even remember who  was on the other end – maybe Mother, maybe one of her friends. My stepfather had fallen and was in the hospital. This time he was in serious danger.

Dug In, Shut In

No great surprise there. He’d been in awful health for years, especially since a fall he’d had in 1977. He had the classic health threats of his generation, too, alcoholism and tobacco addiction. Still, he had beaten a lot in his 76 years, and even, recently, tolerated an amputated foot (lost to diabetes he didn’t acknowledge at the time but I’d suspected). He had remained grimly optimistic, notwithstanding. “I expect to die an old, old man,” he’d told me. “Never in good health, but old.”

I’d always been skeptical. When the foot had come off, his emphysema had been so bad, he couldn’t draw the air into his lungs necessary for the exertion of getting around on a prosthesis. He lived in a house with stairs to get into and out of, and stairs to get to the bedroom to the living room, so it was a catastrophe for his mobility. And it was a catastrophe in the delicate synergy by which he and my mother managed to stay independent. Her cognitive powers and hearing were fading, and even with his physical strength being none the best, he had still been able to do various things for the two of them. Now he was essentially an invalid, and had had to move downstairs to the study, putting additional strain on my mother, who really wasn’t up to bearing it; her friends had had to become far more involved, bless them. A man whose great love was world travel and who in his youth had been noted for his grace as a dancer was now basically a crippled shut-in.

I had done what the adult kids always do in such situations: begged them to move to a senior living facility where they would have support and company and no stairs, preferably somewhere near me, their only child. I had been stonewalled by both of them. It wasn’t a matter of money; they could have afforded it. I never received a satisfactory explanation, but I suspect the root cause was a realization by both of them that my mother lacked the mental and my stepdad the physical ability to pack and do the logistics of a move. But probably there was also just some codger cussedness at work.

That Vertiginous Feeling

In any case, coming off the call, I promised I’d make my way to Michigan the next day or possibly the day after (my calendar and my memory both fail me on this point).[1] And then I let myself feel it a little: that vertiginous “this is really happening” feeling that comes when you realize that things are going very badly, very badly in a life-changing way.

Whichever morning it was when Mary dropped me off at the airport, I was oppressed by that feeling. By now, as I’ve written elsewhere in these pages, I had had some experience in shooting life’s rapids, but that training wasn’t entirely helpful in maintaining my composure here. What I’d learned from experience was to tell myself things like nobody’s dying as I confronted whatever lesser crisis I encountered. The trouble was, on this occasion, I was pretty sure somebody I did not want to lose was dying.

First Aid

My instinctive mode of first aid for myself in these situations throughout life had been to get myself some kind of treat, to cut life’s bitter taste. I did that here; there were a few minutes before the flight, which I took advantage of to stop by the music store on the concourse and buy myself the CD – in those days one traveled with a tiny portable CD player – of Painted from Memory, the recent if unlikely album collaboration of Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello. (I’d seen the movie Grace of My Heart, a song from which, God Give Me Strength, was the germ of the album, and I’d loved it.) The album proved to be an excellent choice for what I was about to face, though not in the way I’d been expecting. Instead of making an effort to cheer, the songs almost unremittingly take you to a dark place where relationships end.

And that was indeed exactly where I was about to go in my life: where relationships end. Admittedly, this was to be an ending of a different sort from the kind Bacharach and Costello were making music about. Nobody had cheated on anybody, which seemed to be a frequent theme in these songs. My stepdad, Ernie Gohn, had been extraordinarily faithful to me, as best he could be with his addictions and other issues, in the forty-four years we had been family. It had not my choice to lose my much loved birth father’s last name, but I could never be ashamed of bearing my equally loved stepfather’s. When I used the word “Father” as a name in conversation, Ernest Gohn was the person I was referring to. I shall do so now.

I was extraordinarily fortunate that one of the friends who had rallied around my parents so kindly during my parents’ last years together was Kathleen, a nurse. I knew I could not count on Mother to give me a useful accounting of Father’s medical status. But when I got to Ann Arbor, I met not only with Mother but with Kathleen. Briefly, what had happened was that, while trying to shift himself from his bed to his wheelchair, Father had fallen and was unconscious on the floor. As near as anyone could tell, the fall was the result of his unconsciousness, not its cause. Apparently his brain had largely shut down. He had awoken briefly in the hospital to which he had been taken, to observe to my mother: “They do things very well.” (Probably meaning the staff at the hospital; if so, as a veteran of so many medical interventions there, he could speak with authority.) Then he lapsed into unconsciousness again.

Kathleen warned me that Father was being kept alive by machines and artificially fed. I was going to have to help Mother make a decision. And I knew immediately what kind of decision I was going to have to help her make.

Seeing for Myself

Shortly thereafter, I drove Mother to the hospital to see for myself. When they ushered me into Father’s room, I found him lying in bed with ugly tubes covering his face, looking fatigued even through his unconsciousness. Monitors were relaying information about respiration and heartbeat. I believe Mother said something about our needing to pray really hard, and my immediate reaction was that we were well beyond prayer already. I also had a visceral reaction against the tubes covering his face. Although I thought it extremely unlikely that he was sentient enough to mind them at all, I minded them. They struck me as an affront to his dignity; I know it makes no sense, but that’s what I felt.

My recollection is also a bit hazy about whether we met with the doctor that day or the next day or even the day after that, but if I had to bet I’d say it was that day. Whenever it happened, the meeting with the doctor was one of the things that stands out most vividly. He was wearing a brown suit and a bowtie, and was tall enough so that he loomed over Mother and me. He was struggling to describe Father’s situation in layman’s terms. Cirrhosis, kidney failure, diabetes, emphysema, and brain damage were the principal things I grasped. Father was not going to emerge from his coma.

Mother, who could be thick, if pardonably so on this occasion, and who also very literally believed in miracles, seemed not to be taking in what the doctor was obviously telling us. At last she blurted out: “Is there no hope?”

“No hope at all,” the doctor said, with maybe a hint of irritation in his voice. Mother had been making it hard for him to get the message across, and he may have been taking the slightest bit of pleasure in twisting the knife in the wound.

That silenced Mother. I asked what our options were. As I figured, they were to keep Father going in a vegetative state or to pull the plug. And having taken that in, we left, agreeing that we would talk it over and come back on the morrow.


I remember going back to the house and cleaning up the blood from where Father fell in the study-turned-bedroom. Unfortunately, this was not my first task of this nature connected with the care of Father. I’d been back on another occasion (before he’d been stuck on the ground floor) when something in his gut had ruptured, and on that occasion there had been blood all over the upstairs bathroom. My mother, in her not-quite-there way, had not been able to undertake the cleanup, and it had fallen to me. But now I was thinking this was enough.

Was I thinking about myself? Partly, of course. I didn’t want this repulsive work anymore. But mostly I was thinking of Father. Even if it could have been possible to bring him back, this was no life for a world traveler and great dancer. Whether it was God or oblivion that awaited him, either alternative beat what he could expect here.

The one for whom Father’s death would be an unmitigated disaster would be Mother. Their relationship was a peculiar one in many ways, but no one could doubt her devotion to Father, or his to her. What she would lose when she lost him would be profound and incalculable.

Again, there are holes in my memory, but I’m sure that when I left Mother that night to return to my hotel, I left a woman who was heartbroken but holding that heartbreak at arm’s length for one more night. We agreed, I recall, that we would put off any decisions until the next day.

I left for a hotel rather than staying at the house for two reasons. First, unless I wanted to bunk down with Mother or in the alternative sleep in Father’s bed, there was no bed for me. Second, I had for some years avoided sleeping there when I visited. Mother’s degeneration had left her hostessing skills in tatters. She could not reliably provide sheets and towels, and breakfast preparation would predictably take an hour. Nor was this a matter of me lazily demanding service when I could do it myself. Where all the sheets and towels had gone was a mystery I could never solve, and Mother would not hear of me going into the kitchen to fix breakfast. In pity for my children and Mary – and myself – I had decided everyone’s sanity would be served by my staying at a hotel I liked. And that always had continued to seem like a wise choice.

Nor Did He

I know I played the Bacharach and Costello disc later that night in my hotel room. The mournfulness of the music felt like a relief. I might pray as my mother was praying, but I knew what I had to do the next day, and I knew that God was not going to spare me from doing it.

Nor did He.

The next day, back at the hospital, I found myself in a conference room with Mother and others whom I cannot recall. Even with the doctor’s advice, Mother couldn’t wrap her mind around the dilemma facing us, the dilemma that really wasn’t a dilemma, since there was no hope of reviving him.

I can’t think of many things more wretched than to tell someone that yes, they really do have to pull the plug on the person they love best. And tell them and tell them, because they are mentally challenged, in denial, possessed of religious beliefs that question worldly science and logic in such matters, and desperately frightened. But sometimes you have to keep at it, even so. Was I persisting because I needed my own relief from this dilemma-that-wasn’t? Oh, yes, I know I was. But I trust Mother’s welfare was uppermost in my mind. And Father’s too. He needed to get on with the business of dying; I knew he did, though he could neither feel nor know that need. It was time for his poor tired body to shut down.

I cannot tell you the words any of us used. But Mother eventually relented. I think she asked for one more night, but the fight had gone out of her.

Saying Goodbye

I believe it was the following day we came back, just Mother and I and Kathleen, to finish it. I think they’d already taken the feeding tube out, and we could see Father’s face properly. Then Mother, sitting across the bed from me, launched into one of the most amazing goodbyes I have ever heard. Talking directly to Father, in the conviction he could still in some fashion hear and understand, she told him all the things about their marriage that had been wonderful to her. I would give a great deal to have had a recording of that speech. I remember her mentioning the parties they had given and the trips they had taken together, and the friends they had shared. It went on for a long time, a very detailed list, unique to Mother’s and Father’s experiences, almost a history of their lives together. At the end, it was evident that in saying goodbye to all of that, Mother was saying goodbye to her own life in most ways. With her dementia, she wasn’t that clear about much, but she obviously grasped that nothing much good was ever going to happen to her again, and she would never have anyone to share it with as she had had with Father.

Then the nurse undid some other connection, and very soon the monitors made it clear Father was sinking. I think it went on for about an hour and a half. Eventually he flatlined.

I burst out in tears, embraced Kathleen and my mother, and went out into the hall to call Mary. I know I spent some time crying on the phone to her.

Yet even then, to be honest, I was holding some realization away from myself, using my misery to hold off even greater misery. I had had to do that, to begin with, in arguing with Mother that we had to let Father go. And I had to go on doing it now, in all sorts of ways. The Bacharach and Costello CD was a lifesaver in that regard. The music beguiled the ears: spectacularly lush, vintage Bacharach orchestration with lots of the signature staccato flugelhorn licks. Costello’s voice and lyrics perfectly combined to chart various courses of romantic misery. I could focus on them, suck out the pleasure, and feel subtly, not overwhelmingly miserable.

Fighting Misery With Misery

In the Darkest Place was an excellent example:

In the darkest place

I’m lost

I have abandoned every hope

Maybe you’ll understand

I must

Shut out the light

Your eyes adjust

They’ll never be the same

You know I love you so

Let’s start again

I was starting to see that I would never be the same, but that I could never start again, having been exposed here to some kind of loss I was not going to recover from entirely, although there was still a large part of my mind that was youthful enough to reject the notion of my own vulnerability. And paradoxically, this music, by embracing misery but not too much, helped on both sides of the dialectic.

I got through the next two weeks that way: the arranging a mausoleum-site, putting together a funeral mass service, helping to hold Mother together. I could not have done it without my family, without my parents’ friends and my own, and without this music.[2]


[1] I think that by coincidence I had already purchased a ticket to visit the next weekend but one, for his 76th birthday. However, I believe that the tickets I purchased to get to Michigan at this juncture were separate. I think I used the birthday tickets to get back there for the funeral.

[2] This is not the place to write a tribute to my stepfather. I have written about him in pieces I hope to post on this site after my Theme Songs are covered.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for cover art

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