I am not dying of any particular disease; I am dying, like all of us, a day at a time. Yet, the dialogue with death that I severed when I was an adolescent has begun again. It must have been around the age of 12 that I began lying awake in bed at night and letting the darkness whisper to me about extinction: my own, my parents’, my grandparents’. Many children have these imaginings. What I remember about them is they were all terrestrial — they involved being totally, existentially alone, or sealed undead in a coffin, or becoming an onlooker at my own funeral. They had a dramatic quality that no longer interests me, that no longer attracts me. Then I put death away and got on with the business of being a teenager, put all my money on the red, lived as if I were immortal.
For years the dialogue lay dormant. Death had little to tell me personally — it spoke more clearly and abruptly through the deaths around me. When I thought of death or spoke of it in reference to myself, it was abstractly, as if death were a philosopher, could instruct. I often say that you have to live life from the angle of death; I already know that when I die I won’t wish for another dollar, what I’ll wish for is more free time, more picnics. Good advice, but hard to follow. More often than not, like everyone else, the present day instructs me, hustles me along in the whirlwind of getting gas, getting dressed for work, getting work done, getting groceries, getting sleep.
Though the dialogue quiets in the mind, it goes on articulating itself in the body. Look at the way little kids get up at the crack of dawn. Every day a new offering. As the years go by they sleep in later and later. By the time they are teenagers, nothing can rouse them on weekend mornings. Nowadays, my body ticks loudly if I lie in bed too long, especially on Saturday and Sunday. The machine of the body also breaks down, hints at our ending. Palpitations in the engine. Nails in the tires. Pablo Neruda called calluses on aging feet “little volcanoes of death, a coarsening hard to accept.”
Two things draw me into this dialogue now. My own sense of mortality. The idea that I can count my remaining years on fingers and toes, if I’m lucky. And the fact that death is stalking my friends, my neighborhood, my place of work. John Berger calls writers “secretaries of death,” which is both a wonderful and a terrible appellation. It’s wonderful because you get to trace the faces of the ones you’ve loved and lost on paper, use words like formaldehyde. It’s terrible because writing is supposed to be an act of concentration, an act of discovery, a means of knowing — but in the end what can be known about death? We run into it like a speckless sliding-glass door.
One Monday evening in October my husband and I hurried to Buck and Betty’s house in Imperial Beach. We went there because Betty had just returned from Las Vegas without Buck. He had died the day before at the age of 76. Buck and Betty had been retired for 23 years, gone everywhere, done everything together. When they planned their four-day trip to Las Vegas, they were betting on living. As Betty tells the story, there was a chili cookoff in town. Tables representing various states lined the streets. On Saturday they had breakfast with Buck’s brother who lives in Las Vegas. Then Buck and his brother went down to bet on the horses. Buck’s passion was horses; at the age of 70 he became computer literate, internet savvy, to facilitate his hobby. For the last 20 years Buck had crossed the border every morning to bet on the horses. Betty says they were watching The Lawrence Welk Show in their hotel room when she told Buck they should get up and go down to the street to watch the show. They were lucky and found two empty folding chairs to sit in. After they watched the show, they decided to do some gambling. Buck said, “Let’s go bet $100 at the craps table.” Betty replied, “Are you crazy? I’m going to walk around.” She circled the place once then went and stood by Buck. She usually didn’t watch him gamble because she didn’t want to make him feel guilty if he happened to be losing money. But this time she stood beside him, remembers feeling his arm touching hers. Then Buck turned to her and said, “Betty, I think I’m losing” and dropped slowly, gracefully to the ground. Cardiac arrest. Though he was attended to within moments by paramedics, he died almost immediately.
Buck had no history of heart problems. Had just had a physical at Kaiser where his greatest worry was the return of his colon cancer. He beat that. While it’s fine to wax philosophical about death, Buck and Betty were pragmatic. They had joined the Telophase society years before. How else can you prepare for the unknown — pack a warm sweater and a good book? Betty’s daughter, Janet, flew out and helped Betty return from Las Vegas; Buck’s ashes followed. When we raised our glasses to him in their living room in Imperial Beach, Betty said it was the first time Buck had missed his “quitting time” drink. Wherever they were, she told us, at 3:00 p.m. Buck declared it quitting time — time to go home for a drink.
Betty retired at 52 and Buck was already retired. So they had 23 years of free time to spend — traveling, raising grandchildren, gardening, fixing up the house, bargain-hunting — not to mention drinking, dancing, and gambling. How many nights did Betty put on one of her old records and get a crowd of family and friends dancing in her small living room? I know I’ve danced more in that living room in Imperial Beach than anywhere else in my life. Betty would usually start dancing first but often convinced Buck to jitterbug with her, and the rest of us could only envy the way their bodies knew each other.