Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

‘Only His Hands, Quiet On The Sheet’

The blessing of dying at home

Three Elegiac Poems

By Wendell Berry


Let him escape hospital and doctor,
the manners and odors of strange places,
the dispassionate skills of experts.

Let him go free of tubes and needles,
public corridors, the surgical white
of life dwindled to poor pain.

Foreseeing the possibility of life without
possibility of joy, let him give it up.

Let him die in one of the old rooms
of his living, no stranger near him.

Let him go in peace out of the bodies
of his life –
flesh and marriage and household.

From the wide vision of his own windows
let him go out of sight; and the final

time and light of his life’s place be
last seen before his eyes’ slow
opening in the earth.

Let him go like one familiar with the way
into the wooded and tracked and
furrowed hill, his body.


I stand at the cistern in front of the old barn
in the darkness, in the dead of winter,
the night strangely warm, the wind blowing,
rattling an unlatched door.
I draw the cold water up out of the ground, and drink.

At the house the light is still waiting.
An old man I’ve loved all my life is dying
in his bed there. He is going
slowly down from himself.
In final obedience to his life, he follows
his body out of our knowing.
Only his hands, quiet on the sheet, keep
a painful resemblance to what they no longer are.


He goes free of the earth.
The sun of his last day sets
clear in the sweetness of his liberty.

The earth recovers from his dying,
the hallow of his life remaining
in all his death leaves.

Radiances know him. Grown lighter
than breath, he is set free
in our remembering. Grown brighter

than vision, he goes dark
into the life of the hill
that holds his peace.

He’s hidden among all that is,
and cannot be lost.

Reader BMJ sent that poem today. It has been a late night. Denise, the hospice nurse, made an unscheduled late-night call when my dad’s chest began to rattle, and other signs presented. She drove all the way from south Baton Rouge to care for him. She got him medicated, which drove off his coughing, and eased him off to  sleep. It’s coming up on midnight, an Nurse Denise has a 45-min. drive home. We would be a mess without her. So devoted. Because of home hospice care, Dadd is going to die in is own home, indeed in his own bedroom. Hospice nurses are golden.

The photo that illustrates this blog entry was one I took in low light of the nurse holding my father’s hand, to calm and reassure him.

I cannot say enough about the greatness of hospice care.