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Donna McElroy And Jason Isbell And Dignity

Donna McElroy on the extreme right at the 2013 #LightTheNight 5K to build awareness & research $$$ for blood cancers



























When rock nyc LLC partner and my friend Donna McElroy died of cancer on January 23rd at the age of 48, the period of assimilation to a new reality began. Obviously, not the way it is for her husband Joseph, but still: the move from present to past tense, to thinking about my friend, more closely studying my feelings for her.

And around the same time I was prepping for the Jason Isbel’s concert at Lincoln Center which sent me back to his Southeastern album and its signature song, “Elephant”. Here is the lyric to “Elephant”:

She said Andy you’re better than your past,
winked at me and drained her glass,
cross-legged on the barstool, like nobody sits anymore.
She said Andy you’re taking me home,
but I knew she planned to sleep alone.
I’d carry her to bed and sweep up the hair from the floor

If I had fucked her before she got sick
I’d never hear the end of it
she don’t have the spirit for that now

We drink these drinks and laugh out loud,
bitch about the weekend crowd,
and try to ignore the elephant somehow

She said Andy you crack me up,
Seagrams in a coffee cup,
sharecropper eyes and her hair almost all gone.
When she was drunk she made cancer jokes,
she made up her own doctor’s notes,
surrounded by her family, I saw that she was dying alone.

I’d sing her classic country songs
and she’d get high and sing along.
She don’t have much voice to sing with now

We’d burn these joints in effegy,
cry about what we used to be,
and try to ignore the elephant somehow.

I buried her a thousand times,
giving up my place in line,
but I don’t give a damn about that now

There’s one thing that’s real clear to me,
no one dies with dignity.
We just try to ignore the elephant somehow.
We just try to ignore the elephant somehow.
We just try to ignore the elephant somehow.

I know, because Joseph told me, that behind closed doors there was a lot of crying going on as Donna dealt with cancer but what we saw was how Donna maintained her life as her disease was ending it: what we saw was a way to deal with imminent death through maintaining your equilibrium, your life, your work habits and yourself when it would be much easier to hang it up and slip away.

Tired, nauseous, depressed and scared? We saw none of this, her public face was that of someone who broke her foot and was just waiting for it to heal and, this is something I’ve never ever seen, Donna’s illness gave her a luminous glow of life. The struggle to live, through extreme chemo, through hope and remission, didn’t dull her to the world. Meanwhile, she and Joseph hunkered down and turned to each other. The sight of Joseph by her bed day by day was haunting but a world size truth; it was the essence of what dignity. Dignity that isn’t under fire isn’t dignity it is attitude.

Maybe Isbell is too young, or maybe he is guessing, but there is nothing undignified in dying: it is a phase of life  often completely beyond: we die because we die, and we decay because we decay and it isn’t an undignified process whatever the result or the manner. Certainly, you can’t be undignified when you die from cancer because you have no choice but to die; there is nothing undignified about it.

What Donna instinctively knew and what Isbell couldn’t even guess is that you die for other people, you die well to give them hope when there is no hope and the hope you give them is that in the leaving of life you can be as decent and brave, even braver, than in the living of it. Isbell is wrong, you can die with dignity.

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