El Duende

Posted on February 18, 2012 by


It was not unusual, when I worked with a nurse on the palliative response crisis team, to be called to see a patient at home in the middle of the night. We would spot the house a block away by the light glowing from one of the bedrooms; most often there was an oxygen sign on the door with a red line through it to indicate no smoking. Blood of the lamb, only this time signifying the house had not been passed over. Because we arrived at a time of crisis, all formalities dropped away; we were, in those hours, the closest people on earth to the family. Time slowed, the way it does in crisis, the neighbourhood slept on. Death was a presence that shared the night with us; not the grim reaper or the black angel, not the rider on his pale horse or Allah’s Azra’il. It was something quieter than that. It was in the rocking branches and in the voice serenading; it entered us from the soles of our feet.

In some strange way we needed death’s presence on our visits to the dying. There are no words in English to explain this; the closest, in Spanish, is el duende. “There are,” wrote Lorca, “neither maps nor exercises to help us find the duende.” It is the closest we come to raw emotion – the difference between the trained singer and the one who sings with a scorched throat. “The duende loves the rim of the wound,” wrote the poet. It is, he said, “a power, not a work. A struggle, not a thought.” To be with the dying is not a question of ability or training; it is a work made up of “dark notes.”

We visited homes all over the city. People were dying in apartments with intricate intercom systems we had to buzz to get in and in leaking condos covered with massive sheets of blue tarp that quivered like sails and filled with wind as if the whole building was setting out to sea. In a one bedroom apartment on Dallas Road, overlooking the ocean, we met a Japanese woman who told us that souls come in with the high tide and leave on the low tide. The greatest high and low tides are the spring tides where the earth, moon and sun are in line. The moon tries to pull at anything on earth to bring it closer. The earth holds on to everything but water and the rising souls. The woman we met was dying in the fall; she would not be going out on the great low tide, she would have to settle instead for the neap tide at the third quarter of the moon.

The sights and sounds shook me. There were nights, after a difficult shift, when I would take my clothes off and drop them outside the bedroom door. Nights I didn’t want to touch my children. Once, after a visit where the smell of death was too strong, the nurse I was with stopped the car, got out and buried her face in a lilac bush.