Thanatopsis

“All that live / Will share thy destiny.”[i]

*

I guess…I guess it’s because it doesn’t look that much like her. Because, and beyond the surgery, I mean, everyone is saying she looks great. And maybe it’s because I haven’t seen her in a few weeks, but she looks kind of like hell. I can’t imagine what she looked like 72 hours ago, back when she was still alive.

I guess that’s why it hasn’t really hit me yet. I guess that’s why, as I’m kneeling here before her sessile body, garbed in the same navy blue dress she wore to her daughter’s wedding 22 months ago and which is now about a size and half too big, that I’m having trouble fully conceptualizing that this is Aunt Pat, and that she is dead.

I usually close my eyes here, or look down at my hands, or look straight ahead at the underside of the open casket. I don’t like looking at the body, usually. But this time, I can, and it doesn’t seem to be a problem. Except that its not being a problem is kind of a problem, because I’m wondering why exactly I’m not having the same kind of response I usually do in this situation, which is to cry at least a little, regardless of who that person is. I’ve teared up when it was a great aunt I had never met before, and that was six months ago.

So why not now?

*

Whatever became of the moment when one first knew about death? There must have been one, a moment, in childhood when it first occurred to you that you don’t go on for ever. It must have been shattering—stamped into one’s memory. And yet I can’t remember it. It never occurred to me at all. What does one make of that? We must be born with an intuition of mortality. Before we know the words for it, before we know that there are words, out we come, bloodied and squalling with the knowledge that for all the compasses in the world, there’s only one direction, and time is its only measure.”[ii]

*

“Okay, class, we’ve got construction paper here, and we’re going to make Get Well cards for Timmy’s uncle.”

“What’s wrong with your uncle?”

“He’s in the hospital.”

“Why?”

“He’s sick.”

“Is he gonna get better?”

“That’s why we’re making the cards.”

Seventeen years after Uncle Stu died, I wonder for the first time if he ever received all those construction-paper Get Wells from his nephew’s first-grade class, and what he possibly could have thought of them.

*

We are always dying, all the time. That’s what living is; living is dying, little by little. It’s a sequenced collection of individualized deaths.[iii]

*

“So that’s it, Mom?”

“That’s it, Timmy.”

“And Uncle Stu’s in heaven now?”

“Yes. Uncle Stu’s in heaven.”

“Even though he didn’t go to Church?”

“He went to Church. He just went to a different Church than us. That’s no problem.”

“And now what?”

“What do you mean now what?”

“Am I gonna get a new uncle?”

“I wouldn’t count on it. It’s going to take a while for Aunt Betty to get over this. She was with your uncle for a very long time.”

“Yeah. It’s sad.”

*

Can you say anything is, when in fact it is all transient?[iv]

*

In the sentence “She’s no longer suffering,” to what, to whom does “she” refer? What does that present tense mean?[v]

*

I hadn’t even known Dad was going to do the eulogy. This being my first funeral and all—I went to James’ house for Uncle Stu’s and we played Ken Griffey Jr. Baseball on his Super Nintendo for a little while—I guess I knew about eulogies and what they meant going in, but I didn’t think to ask who was going to do it for Pop. Maybe I assumed Uncle Bob, since he was the oldest? But that didn’t make much sense. Quiet as he was, Dad was probably the most articulate of his siblings.

He seemed calm during the whole week leading up to it, way more calm than I could ever imagine being when he died. He kept saying how it was time, how he was happy Pop was now resting in peace, in heaven. I hadn’t seen him cry yet.

Then he got up there, and he was still so calm, until, right toward the end, his pace slowed a bit, and his sentences got shorter while his breaths became deeper, and it seemed like he may have even cut a sentence off altogether—I can’t remember—and he just looked up to everyone and then to the casket in the middle of the main aisle, just shy of the altar, and addressed it briefly:

“I love you, Dad.”

He came back to our pew, grabbed a trusty handkerchief and dabbed at his eyes, and Mom put her arm around his shoulder and pulled him close.

*

“You will die, and when you die, you will know a profound lack of [dignity]. It’s never dignified, always brutal. What’s dignified about dying? It’s never dignified. And in obscurity? Offensive. Dignity is an affectation, cute but eccentric, like learning French or collecting scarves. And it’s fleeting and incredibly mercurial. And subjective. So fuck it.”[vi]

*

As we pass the house it starts to drizzle. It’s so cliché. It’s always raining, isn’t it? It was sunny last time if I remember. Sunny for Pop’s funeral? It was sunny the day he died. The day the Knicks lost. Maybe it rained at the cemetery. I don’t remember that one too well. It’s been seven years.

We drive past the house, the grass still a deep green in late September—it’s rained this month, and it’s maintained better now by the Mexicans he refused to hire—with the bushes he planted that one summer too close together dying on the edges because they’re too close together.

We get to the cemetery and we drive circuitously to what I imagine is a kind of mausoleum at the highest point of the place. The zenith of Staten Island. It’s raining a little harder as we get out of the car. I didn’t bring an umbrella. Most people have their umbrellas out. Jimmy is wearing this workcoat—puffy and blue and seemingly inappropriate for the occasion. Ned has on an old navy rainjacket that I’ve never seen him wear before; it also doesn’t seem appropriate. I guess they don’t make workcoats or rainjackets that are. I’m still relying on my suit. It’s the first time I’ve worn it outside of the suit store. I hope the rain doesn’t ruin it. Does rain ruin suits?

The rain starts to lighten. I’m a little disappointed. You see, it had downpoured that time at the beach. It was downpouring, and the streets were flooding, and we were bored, and he was going home the next day, so we went to the beach to play football. It was me and Jimmy, Ned and Dad, and Uncle Eddie. Someone else must have been there because it was even teams. Maybe automatic Q. But I made a diving catch in the corner of the end zone for the winning touchdown. And I was 10. And he gave me a big high-five after I had gotten up, a big smile on my face as I lamely taunted Ned. And as we walked down the dunes separating the beach from the boulevard, we were all smiling, even as Uncle Eddie fruitlessly wiped his water-dotted glasses on his water-soaked shirt, his hat dripping from the edges. We waited to cross the four lanes of the main street, and we could see the people in their cars looking at us…askance I guess is the word. Confusion at first and then a kind of disapproval. Except this one guy. He drove by in a rust-colored pickup truck, the kind you never saw in New Jersey—at least not in the good part—and you could see him chuckle.

Now it’s barely drizzling, but everyone keeps their umbrellas up. And Jimmy keeps the workcoat on, even though now he has to be hot, and Ned keeps the rainjacket on. The confluence of umbrellas makes it difficult to crowd around the burial spot. I stand in the second row of the semi-circle, right behind Mom and Dad. I lean in to look at the casket. It doesn’t have any distinguishing characteristics. It’s big and brown—mahogany maybe?—and it has that nice shape to it, not too boxy. But it’s a casket. Ready to go in the ground. The priest says something, flowers are passed around. I don’t listen because I’m wondering when we put the flowers down. I haven’t done this before. Is there an order? Does it go from emotional proximity? Like the acquaintances first, working down to the family? Do we have to intuit this order? Or is it predetermined by how we lined up around the casket? ’Cuz then the family would go first, and that would be anticlimactic. By the time these thoughts make their way through, the flower-dropping had begun. I don’t recognize these people. Good, they’re coming from the back, placing the flower or tossing it onto the casket and backing away. And soon it’s my turn.

As I lean in for this last in a 30-month series of farewells to him—the Game 7 of goodbyes—I remember the moment I felt closest to him. It wasn’t beach football, and it wasn’t the day I gave him the Duke T-shirt I had bought for him when I visited the school he always unsubtly pushed me to attend. That had been two days before the surgery, the simple knee replacement that didn’t go right. The memory that comes to mind is two years after that and six months before today, in the nursing home, the last time I would see him alive. He was fussing in his wheelchair as Karen shaved him, and I walked in behind him and nodded to Karen. Look who’s here, Dad, she said. Hey, Uncle Eddie, I said from the door, a bit of a tremble in my voice, but not as big as the one I had expected. And what sticks out isn’t that, for the first time in two years he recognized me—and only from my voice at that—but that when he did say “Timmy,” he shouted it. Shouted it with an enthusiasm I’d never heard in his voice, like a 1950s five-year-old greeting his father after a long day of work. He shouted the more juvenile nickname he hadn’t called me since I was like 12 with love—a love that transcended airs or convention, because he was incapable of them at that time. It’s a love primal within him, a love that told me, at 20, that I meant something.

With “Timmy!” echoing in my mind, I let the flower fly with a short underhand toss, and it lands right where I want it to. And I step back, never turn away, and the first cemetery tear makes its way down my cheek. I pull out the same tissue I dabbed my eyes with at the mass. I pat my eyes a few times, but the tears are still coming, the back of my throat getting tighter and tighter. I’m not alone. Ned’s crying too. Jimmy. That makes me feel better. Mom asks if I’m okay. Yeah. She had just dropped her flower, and she isn’t in much better shape than me. And then Aunt Pat, she’s last like I had hoped, and she’s still so composed. I don’t know how. They had had a complicated relationship, Mom had said, and it’s a weird time for her. She takes two steps back and then turns and it all hits her. That wall. Mom’s right there, and Aunt Pat falls into her arms bawling. She says something, but it’s, it’s tough to hear. Mom pats her on the back, and she looks around at all of us with tears in her eyes. You will be here, too, those eyes say. This is what family is.

*

“Cowards die many times before their deaths,

The valiant never taste of death but once.

Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,

It seems to me most strange that men should fear,

Seeing that death, a necessary end,

Will come when it will come.”[vii]

*

“Man fears death because he loves life—that’s how I understand it.”[viii]

*

Mom and Dad agonized over whether to still go on that vacation—the three-week trek to Ireland and back across the Atlantic that they had booked a few days before things got a lot worse. “I’m not going to die without you,” Aunt Pat told Mom, and Mom believed her.

When they got home on July 1, their first stop was her house in Staten Island. She was still there alright, but she looked even worse.

“I waited for you.”

She died on July 2.

*

On July 5, all anyone old enough to remember can think about now is their wedding. I’ve heard and overheard about it several times already, including from multiple people whom I do not know and who decided against introduction. “Hottest day of the year,” they say. “Any year,” they chime in. “Never been hotter.”

June 28, 1969 it was. Twenty-two days before the moon landing.

It was 100 in the shade, they say, for Aunt Pat and Uncle Eddie’s wedding. And there wasn’t no shade, they add with a nudge, not at Snug Harbor.

It could not have been hotter then, though, than it is right now. The clock down at the closest bank just read 103 degrees, and the last time I saw a reading that high, I was three years younger and 1,000 miles south. Humid, too, today. Thick. The kind of humidity that makes New Yorkers think they know what being hot means. As far as I’m concerned, though, we’re right this time. It has never been this hot in Staten Island.

The heat only exacerbates what is an inherent problem of wakes: They are always hot. It doesn’t much matter what the weather is like outside. Jackets + ties + crowds = heat. And still, while most everyone else except her brother and my father eschew the jacket and/or tie, I stick with both. A kind of sacrifice, I think, for her. It’s nebulous, I know, but aren’t all postmortem tributes? What doesn’t seem nebulous when someone you love is lying in a casket three arm’s lengths away?

*

“The human species was given dominion over the earth and took the opportunity to exterminate other species and warm the atmosphere and generally ruin things in its own image, but it paid this price for its privileges: that the finite and specific animal body of this species contained a brain capable of conceiving the infinite and wishing to be infinite itself.”[ix]

*

I get up from the kneeler, and I turn around to see a television scrolling through a photo montage of her life. I know enough not to spend too much time watching this. Sitting on the seats, well-behaved, are Emma and Ryan, my young cousins and her grandchildren, ages six and four. Moments later, Sean and Bridget, my other young cousins, ages seven and five, arrive and as is customary immediately saunter over to their contemporaries. Emma and Ryan politely get up to greet the others. At this point, Ryan, whose head was already bowed, steals a glance at the casket and can no longer hold back his tears. Bridget, due to age, blood, and classroom geography Ryan’s best friend, takes two steps toward him and wraps her arm around his shoulder. She pulls him in for a hug, tears filling her own eyes. She is the image of my own mother comforting her now-deceased sister, some 21 months earlier.

As I watch this, I begin to cry myself. Hard. Harder than them. Harder than I can remember—harder than when Kenny Rogers walked Andruw Jones, harder than when Dad taped over the Winnie-the-Pooh Christmas special by accident, harder even than when, for 24 agonizing hours when I was six, my precious teddy bear could not be located. Stu, who has recently reached that inflection point where he has lived more of his life without his father than with him and who looks just like his namesake, puts his arm around my shoulder. It’s a little embarrassing for me—unmanly. He says it’s okay, that it was her time, that she’s in a better place now.

But I’m not crying for her. I’m crying for those kids in the corner because of what this means to them: not just the death of a grandmother, but the realization that grandmothers die. The Alzheimer’s of youth protecting them from Uncle Eddie’s death, this becomes the first death, the first intimation of death, the first understanding that there is a back door to this world, as well.

And so as I struggle to stop for the longest time, I grasp that this might just be the saddest moment of my life.

*

“[It] was exactly one of those things that drove me wild, that ability of human beings to adapt to anything, instantly.”[x]

*

The house needs to be cleaned and sold. The car. Where do you put all that stuff?

It’s easy enough for me to move on, for the most part. I hadn’t been seeing her too often the last few years. But it’s different. There are times when…when you don’t want to be able to say that it was easy enough for you to move on.

Just before Thanksgiving dinner, we offer our customary grace, led reluctantly and reticently by Bridget. Afterward, a toast from Mom: “To family.” We all know what, who we’re really toasting: not the family present, but the family past. This is how the acknowledgement of her death works for the time being. Tacit. Implicit. Reluctant and reticent. To be read between the lines or in the fine print.

So, for now, To Family.

*

I didn’t want to die. Damn death. Long live life![xi]


[i] Bryant, “Thanatopsis.”

[ii] Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

[iii] Klosterman, Killing Yourself to Live.

[iv] Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther.

[v] Barthes, Notes on Mourning.

[vi] Eggers, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.

[vii] Shakespeare, Julius Caesar.

[viii] Dostoevsky, Devils.

[ix] Franzen, The Corrections.

[x] Bolaño, The Savage Detectives.

[xi] Joyce, Ulysses.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Remarkably well written and extremely thought provoking. Thanks for sharing.

    Reply

  2. Posted by Susan Keag on September 10, 2011 at 10:48 AM

    Timmy, I had heard you had written this, but hadn’t been able to get myself to read it. I knew it would be a tough read for me (not because of the writing, that–I knew would be good :)….it was the material that I knew would be tough to handle. I’m glad I did read it though. Sometimes, when you’re so involved in a situation, you lose perspective of how others feel and what others see. It made me feel good (I hope that doesn’t sound strange) that others were feeling what we were feeling. Your piece gave me the chance to reflect on different happy, sad and bittersweet moments in our family’s lives. Thank you for that. Please know that my parents were both among your biggest fans–and would truly appreciate what you thought of them and the fond memories you have. We are all lucky to have each other 🙂
    ~ Sue

    Reply

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