Deathbed . . .
old friend’s imitation
July second, 1826, in a custom-made bed (extra long), in an alcove
between office and bedchamber, in a house he designed, the third
President of The United States fell into a coma. Very ill for five
days from an intestinal malady, probably cancer, Thomas Jefferson
was attended by his physician, daughter, family, and friends. The
house slaves listened from adjoining rooms and from the basement
through the dumbwaiter. For the next two days, Jefferson regained
consciousness several times and clearly asked what was the date.
Told it was the second of the month, then the third, he fell back
insensate each time. When his question was answered that it was
the fourth of July, he sighed, and was dead at age eighty-three.
He lived until the fiftieth anniversary of the formal signing of
The Declaration of Independence he had authored.
vincent tripi’s haiku brought to mind this story still told
by the docents at Monticello in Virginia. More personally, I was
also transported to memories of several deathbeds of my own loved
The one-word setting, “deathbed,” is an extremely powerful
beginning for this poem. It evokes images surrounded by ritual.
The solemnity and import of the process of dying is quite universal
across cultures. With the first line set apart from the rest by
an ellipsis, a reader pauses to ponder the natures of death and
living. Using a second concise image, tripi tells of friendship.
The relationship between the two people, one dying, one surviving,
has been a long one and a reader may infer that neither principal
is young. The poet himself is indeed central to the poem. He shares
this experiencing of death with his friend. The poem’s third
part is the concept of “firefly.” In the dark, a firefly
is bright then gone again, flying on in blackness. Its reappearance
is a flash in a different place. Haiku as a genre can contain such
a figurative image. tripi employs it so lightly that its resonance
brings me back to the intensity of the opening image. Rather than
just mentioning the insect for the setting, perhaps as a line unto
itself, he shows the metaphor directly. The technique is masterful,
much more subtle and effective. The poet states that what he sees
is an imitation. The haiku succeeds because of this gentleness of
touch; it avoids an obviousness that would ruin the sharing of deep
How powerful is this simple evocation of experience so basic to
humans. Light and dark . . . consciousness here and gone . . . life
and death. How rich was this friendship, this love.