The Guardian story on Hugo Chavez’s last words give us a glimpse of him at this most vulnerable. His last utterance was “I don’t want to die. Please don’t let me die”. This extremely human reaction recalls Shakespeare:
Dar’st thou die?
The sense of death is most in apprehension;
And the poor beetle that we tread upon,
In corporal sufferance feels a pang as great
As when a giant dies.
The Venezuelan dictator, Commander of the nation, the New Bolivar as he further styled himself, was not any more immune to this sense of dread than a beetle. For despite everything the one thing he could not command was the Grim Reaper.
The death of powerful men has a special poignance. A pauper’s death is but a passage from obscurity into the tomb. But the death of kings! What a fall. Shakespeare remarked on the second king on every throne.
Within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king,
Keeps Death his court; and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp.
It is the fall from the height that provides the dramatic impact; and that is true of every level of power, right down to Little Caesar.
But the apprehension, as Shakespeare terms it, may be inversely proportional to the degree to which one clings to the Hollow Crown; to the trappings of state power. We are told that a grand mausoleum is to be built for Chavez, like Lenin’s or Mao’s or Kim’s. In that way Chavez will be remembered if only because you can’t avoid seeing his tomb.
Not everyone takes this path. Chavez’s death brought to mind another funeral, of someone else who had also been President, and who also succumbed to cancer. We also have a record of her final words. When Corazon Aquino passed away in 2009 she wanted to be buried beside her husband in ordinary cemetery. I wrote on the day:
That procession in the rain was Cory’s last duty of state; the final act in the public drama. It was also, to those who understood it, the concluding chapter in a love story. At the end of the cortege was a relatively modest grave, no grander than that which a successful small businessman might have, dug beside the spot where Ninoy lay. It was where she wanted to go. When she first learned she had colon cancer more than a year ago, Aquino told her family she would refuse aggressive treatment. Her time, she said, had come. Her daughter Kris related how, when the end was near, she was called back into the room by a nurse from the corridor, where she had stepped out to drink some coffee. Cory bade her daughter bend and said, “I can see him now. Your father is holding out his hand to me.” Dylan Thomas wrote of grave men “near death, who see with blinding sight”; of those on their deathbeds who, perhaps from the effects of medication, delirium or that blinding sight see before them those to whom they would come. Underneath the story of the People Power revolution was also a story of a woman who avenged her husband and reached out to him across the gulf of death with the frail hand of love.
In some way the revenge was perfect, so excellent that it no longer assumed the character of vengeance. Ferdinand Marcos murdered her husband. And she responded by leading a nation to take from him the only thing he loved: power. And with herself in possession of it, she set about limiting it and cast it away when her term ended as if it were the lightest thing in the world. That final gesture: to yield vast power when she could have kept it unquestioned was something only the Great could do.
Their graves are nothing special. Walk a little too fast and you’ll go right by.