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.
When we are forced to accept death — not just the idea of death, but the act of death — we wish for, at least, an easy death. Buck had a hard life before he met Betty; he earned a good death. To die at the craps table, with a winning horse ticket in your back pocket and the woman you love at your side, beats by far the long, slow death by disease, or the slip and fall, the broken hip, the faces leaning over the bed, the piecemeal relinquishing of your very essence.
Later in life, perhaps at the end of my 30s, I put on a skin-diving mask and went underwater in the Children’s Pool in La Jolla. It was disturbingly beautiful, a siren call. The silence underwater was as deep as the silence in the mountains at night, intense enough to heighten the senses. The water was a liquid magnifying glass, poorly adjusted. It caused the light to be dispersed in generous ways; there were no hard edges. Movement was soft as well, the slow sway of the seaweed, the schools of tiny black fish that undulated as if in a single body, the splash of red-gold as the garibaldis’ curiosity got the better of them. This underwater experience altered the way I saw the earth’s surface. I remember thinking as I walked around on terra firma again, But there is this whole other world. More and more I am cognizant of death being like the ocean, a parallel dimension, a geographical place for which we are bound.
Then there’s Glory. My dear friend, the woman whom I try to model myself after; the person who has more joie de vivre per cell than any other living creature. She’s only in her 60s, but this year she had a bad bout with vertigo. For months on end she couldn’t leave her house because everything was spinning. Her stomach rebelled; she clung to the toilet. She’s extremely independent and always active, involved with the whole world in a hundred different ways. I can’t even imagine how terrible those months were for her. During that time she also watched her aging aunt decline, wander, lose her memory, her appetite, need constant care. These two incidents made Glory vow to get hold of some Seconal in case she found herself in the big decline and didn’t want to wait it out. Out of love for her and out of the arrogance of someone who had not endured the pain, I couldn’t bear to hear her talk that way. I delude myself that the will to live is a shield. I feared that if she let down her guard, death would surely enter. I feared losing Glory. I wanted to force her to concur with what Charles Lamb wrote in his essay “New Year’s Eve”: “I am in love with this green earth; the face of town and country; the unspeakable rural solitudes, and the sweet security of streets. I would set up my tabernacle here. I am content to stand still at the age to which I am arrived; I, and my friends: to be no younger; no richer, no handsomer. I do not want to be weaned by age; or drop, like mellow fruit, as they say, into the grave…. My household-gods plant a terrible fixed foot and are not rooted up without blood. They do not willingly seek Lavinian shores. A new state of being staggers me.”
For the time being death has taken a back burner. Surgery restored Glory to her usual buoyant self. But I know Glory’s friend Mary has joined the Hemlock Society, a society that claims the right to choose your own death if need be. And I know the personal freedom and independence that Glory and Mary insist on in their lives continues into their future. Only days ago Glory reminded me that respect for life extends into not wanting to prolong it past usefulness. Both Glory and Mary embraced this world by always trying new things: theologies, philosophies, artistic expressions, medicines, traveling to Alaska on the Green Turtle bus — too many things to name. Currently, they are testing out a new herbalist and are experiencing renewed energy. This encourages me to hope that they are returning to their old vital way — trailblazing deeper and deeper into life.
This year an esteemed colleague, Don, a seemingly healthy colleague, retired. He had planned this summer to stay in a rented villa outside of Florence and to visit old seminary friends in Turin. He died within days after retiring; he never collected a single retirement check. Another colleague, Pamela, a woman who could wrestle me with her intelligence and pin me to the table every time, died at the age of 39; her tremendous intelligence and wit — and all of the ways she planned to use those assets — are buried now as well. And my dear and generous neighbor, June, died of colon cancer (or maybe chemotherapy) after a valiant two-year struggle. John Donne says, “Every death diminishes me,” but the truth is the world is diminished by all these deaths.
When I rejected God, I rejected the idea of the soul. Lately, I have allowed myself to talk to the dead without taking up the question of religion. Or God. And the idea of soul is only implied in my conversations with the dead. But what the right hand holds at bay the left hand fondles. That is to say, God slides in under the guise of karma or luck or a wish that utters itself like a prayer. I suspect this is a natural occurrence; spirituality shows up as a traveler on the road as the road darkens, just as Young Goodman Brown encountered the devil/man with the serpentine cane in the deepening gloom.
Sometimes I have imagined that rituals could help, could act like a bridge to a sacred territory. But we are a society that has divested itself of rituals. You can wear shorts to a wedding or an orange low-cut organdy dress to a funeral. On E Street in Chula Vista, a funeral parlor transformed itself into a travel agency; the shutters were taken down, the building was painted pink and plum, and palm leaves waved from the welcome mat.
In his book On Human Nature, Edward O. Wilson discusses the many similarities of chimpanzees and human beings. He recounts experiments done by David Premack with chimpanzees. In the process of teaching the chimps over 200 words and some basic syntax, he contemplated informing them about their own personal death. (Perhaps they have their own knowledge?) He refrained because “the desired objective would be not only to communicate the knowledge of death, but, more important, to find a way of making sure the apes’ response would not be that of dread, which in the human case has led to the invention of ritual, myth, and religion.” Premack puts a great deal of faith in these inventions, but have they really relieved us of dread? Maybe ritual can’t save us. In our very American way, we have stripped ourselves down to bravado; we meet death naked.
At the end of the book Evening Star, which approximates the end of Colette’s life, she goes on a bit about the tapestry work she has taken up. After which she says, “I don’t know when I shall succeed in not writing; the obsession, the compulsion dates back half a century…. Within me a tired mind continues with its gourmet’s search, looks for a better word, and better than better.” But the sadness of the piece, the sadness to which I succumb but never Colette, is that even one’s talent, one’s ability-cum-identity finally must be given up with grace or forcibly taken. The book and the essay end: “On a resonant road the trotting of two horses harnessed as a pair harmonizes, then falls out of rhythm to harmonize anew. Guided by the same hand, pen and needle, the habit of work and the common-sense desire to bring an end become friends…from here I can see the end of the road.”
Many times around a table littered with mussel shells, or olive pits, empty glasses and crusts of bread, my friends and I have played — If you were stranded on a deserted island and you could only choose five foods, what would they be? The point was, of course, to establish the superiority of garlic, pasta, and tomatoes. Wine, I always assumed, would already be on the island. Idly, I bargain with eternity. Just let me have one tree that turns gold, then orange, then statuesque; give me that springtime burst of green on the island of death. Or one bird. Or a single clove of garlic. Or let me return to this earth just one day out of the year, as in the cultural tradition of the Day of the Dead. The irony of life is that if you are lucky — if life has offered pleasure, and beauty, and love, as well as pain — then you can only love the world more, grovel in your dialogue with mortality for a little more time, another round of seasons, great-grandchildren as well as grandchildren, a handful of something you can smuggle to the other side.
Last night my husband and I sat out on the patio. The tall trees obscured the freeway, and the light was long as the earth was leaning toward summer. Two pincer bugs slid down the inside of one wine glass to swill a little white wine, and before we noticed, they died in an elevated state. As always, the sunset rouged the bougainvillea a deeper magenta, and the grass began to take the color of the sky, blue blades among the green. Our neighbor used to keep llamas, and we miss watching them. Every night at dusk they would dance, fling themselves into the air like ballerinas, arch their bodies and their elegant swan necks, jeté across the corral and kick up their two-toed heels — rejoice and rebel at the setting of the sun. ■
— Susan Luzzaro