Once upon a culture long ago or far away, mourning was a state both ritually displayed and visibly endured over protracted time. Widows might literally or effectively sacrifice their lives, though this was manifestation of something other than grief. Black or some other mourning color might be worn for life, maybe for a few years, certainly for one. People’s lives were changed; at least they were noticeably marked. The grieving were meant to accept that; others were intended to know it. Death became us.
What gloom this is for we who live in the secular culture of unfettered fulfillment and celebrated overcoming. In our culture, life’s possibilities are as great as our imaginations, our setbacks are temporary, and a loss only a plot point on the way to inspiring comeback. Life – life! – is looking forward. Death is looking back. Death is a downer.
Suffer a death, and most others, even good friends, will fairly quickly cease to speak of it. Reverse the roles and you will too. It is awful, so awful – what, beyond the first sincere expressions of sympathy, the early empathetic consolations, is there, finally, to say? We go on. We cannot linger. We cannot dwell. We cannot lose ourselves in self-pity and despair. It comes to us all, both the mourning and the death, but life is not life – life! – that is daily diagnosed with death. We must endure – only now, in our modern cultures, we must do it invisibly, without a ritual call for attention. To wear even a black armband for a year would be a curious and questionable display.
Suffer the death, however, of someone deeply loved, and what you soon enough learn, and long experience, is that a year is a moment, a headshake, really, only, as after a blow, in the effort to clear it. There may be going on, but there is no overcoming. There is no processing, no coming to terms, no “closure,” except as for scar tissue over a wound. Let life pick at you in misfortune for a while and discover then that a scar is not a healing, but a protection, not a recovery, but a covering. The wound remains, invisibly, as the world, and even we, will have it – to go on, in order to go on – but just like death, our wounds, the wound of death too, become us.
Yesterday was the anniversary of my brother’s death. One year ago, suddenly, within minutes, of a heart attack. I eulogized Jeff a few days afterwards. I memorialized him on his birthday a few weeks ago. He would have been 65. These have been the public expressions, the normalized utterances of grief, and continued mourning in a world without black to display them while the mourner keeps his peace. This has been my year with death, of grieving who was lost to it, bearing the transfiguration of it, living palpably in the immanence of it.
If one is lucky, and I was, the first profoundly affecting death will be of a parent, in its proper time. The first for me was my mother, almost nine year ago. It feels – may I be pardoned this cliché? – yesterday. That is the truth of it. And surely I began to feel the transformation then, the unveiling of a truth like a monument, one you knew was there all along behind the curtained parapet, bound to take dominion everywhere, and yet which, the curtain dropped, stuns nonetheless with its very monumentality. My father died a year and a half later, and soon the metamorphosis was complete. One is not the same person anymore.
My father died at 94. But he nearly died – the doctor’s said so – of a heart attack thirty years earlier, at 64, the age at which my brother did die. My mother’s only sibling, her brother, Al, died of a heart attack too, at 59. Two months ago, I turned 60. I feel much younger – only now, maybe, properly middle-aged, say 40. I’m pretty fit for my age too. And until the grey came in, I was always taken for much younger than I happened to be, occasionally still am. But I am not 40, and just a few weeks before Jeff died, he said to me over our drinks – a smoky, burnished single malt scotch washed over glittering rocks in a fine hotel bar – that you never know what is going on inside your body. Then, soon, he woke in the morning planning to love his wife, Anne, another day, hoping to enjoy their life together another thirty years, as our father got to do, and by that evening his heart had exploded in his chest on a tennis court and he was gone. He was up in the set five games to one when he got the chills – “Something’s not right,” he said – then began to perspire, his throat feeling tight, so he went to the bench to sit down, where his head jerked back and he fell to the floor.
There could be more.
My father was raised until the age of 12 or so by his grandparents, after his parents had abandoned him and sister to come to America. His grandmother died first, then his grandfather – my great grandfather Zakiah. That’s him below in his Sabbath best. Heckuva beard. I had one like it at 20. He’d have been proud.
By the time I began to press my father, late in his life, for all I could learn of the pre-Revolutionary Russian shtetl in which he was born – actually in Ukraine – he could not tell me how his grandparents had died. As I learned on my own, though the now well known Ukrainian Holodomor – the Soviet’s manmade famine of 1932-33 – claimed anywhere from 2.4 to 10 million lives in the Ukraine, the lesser known famine of 1921-23, in the aftermath of World War I and the Russian Civil War, was responsible for perhaps 1.5 to 2 million deaths. This was the period during which my father and his sister left Ukraine on their own as children, after Zakiah died. How likely is it that Zakiah, too, died of hunger?
What is the possibility he collapsed in the dirt of his stable – an old Jew dead on the ground, who knows from what – from a heart attack?
For a year, then, I have wondered, worried. Me, too? When? I have grieved my brother and grieved myself (“It is Margaret you mourn for”). For there is so much unfinished, so much more to do. Just let me accomplish what I was meant to do – what I meant to do.
Would I ever welcome it? Who knows, but not too soon, not cut short, not before I’m done.
I walk the dogs, late at night. The dark is electric, translucent, it vibrates. I vibrate with it. The tree limbs are painted against the sky. I feel my body, its vulnerable physical being as never before, the connection of bone to cartilage, tissue to organ, the great organ of my heart suspended in its cage, pressed against my chest. I feel – imagine I feel – its every skipped beat, its spike, its thump, its moment before. What is always theoretical, which is not to say not real, is now real and not theoretical. At any moment. From out of the sky, the new, the blue, the cars speeding by, the faces rising up, the now, the not, forever, anymore. Like that. Just like that.
We live as if made to be here. What illusion. Now, I feel the contingency of the physical world, and, so, me, like a house not of cards, but of numbers, Pythagorean metaphysics with one digit wrong: the numbers tumble from their scaffolding and all the universe disappears. Mine anyway. Or when I freaked out on acid at 17 and the worst of the many nightmares: the big bang reversed, the universe contracting on itself, wrapping back around and condensing until it is shrinking to nothingness again, folding in upon my regressing fetus, in dark, starless space, and the end of me.
I gaze dreadfully at the now unnatural reality that surrounds and threatens to swallow me, at any instant end me. I am Roquentin, and I am sick with the world. The world is changed, and I am changed.
We imagine – from whence do we imagine, what personal self-delusion, cultural sedative, civilizational lie – that if we are lucky enough not to die young, by accident or illness, not to lose our hearing, our sight, our legs or arms, that the course of our pleasure in being alive, however great or small, will proceed on a continuum of breadth and intensity, no matter what impediments may temporarily rise up.
How many decades of People Magazine covers are there?
“His Despair Behind Him, He’s Back in the Fast Lane.”
“Her Sorrows Over, She’s – Back, and Better Than Ever.”
Life interrupted (life!), but never off its course in the pleasure of it, never altered in its path to fulfillment. Not to live forever altered. Unalterably altered.
We love, great loves, we lose, great loves. What is the boy now, who has lost his ball? We think we shall never love again, have cause to love life again. An ultimate shaking grief.
But in death, the worst, the starkest, most despairing, most ungiving of words, you may cry forever, pound your fists and kick your feet – the epistemology of loss:
Soon part of me will explore the deep and dark
Floor of the harbour. .
Two months after my father’s death, I completed what had been an aborted journey before it, to that Ukrainian shtetl from which he came – Orinin. At the end of my visit, on a gentle slope that was the best I could figure from what he had told me of where his home had stood, I read aloud a simple story of Mac’s life, his flight, and the return of his youngest child nearly eighty-five years later. I buried in the soil on that spot a time capsule of his life, a copy of the story and images of the family life he got to have, long into the future and far removed from the early pain and the ultimate effort to deny it to him.
I sat down on the slope of the small hill, just above where I had buried the capsule. With the shovel in my hands, I faced the tree on which I had posted the story of Dad. I could see ahead of me, to the right, the high hill on which were buried, their headstones looted, somewhere, Zakiah, my great-grandmother, and who knew however many other long gone and distant ancestors. Straight ahead, passing behind the cemetery hill, was the second of the two roads Mac had remembered to me, the one that led to a lake and a waterfall.
Peripherally, I could see that Julia, down now by the car with our interpreter and our driver, was taking photos of me. They were waiting for me, waiting for me to be complete with what I was doing. I was trying to imagine. As I have all my life, I was trying to imagine what was gone and had come before me, in order to make it present and no longer gone. When would I be done? When would my conjuring be enough? When would I be satisfied?
– when my father, as an eight year old boy, perhaps, leading a pair of horses to drink after their long ride to Kamenets-Podolsk and back, was actually walking down the road below me?
How long could I make the others wait while I tried to perform this magic? They would wait. They would not begrudge me. I had come a third of the way around the world for this moment. They would wait. But how long could I sit there, staring out at the rear of Orinin in 2005 – looking not that different from Orinin in 1910 – but living in my head? When would be enough? Could there ever be enough?
What was it, in fact, now, that I wanted?
I stared out at the scene before me. What did I want, sitting on that hill? How long could I remain before the call of life, the next moment, the need to pick up and go on – because we need to pick up and go on – led me to rise and walk away, probably forever?
I wanted us all to be together again. I wanted to return to some original state, whatever, whenever that was. It would be Queens Village, the garden apartment, I suppose, for me, maybe for all of us, our father coming home each night to that outer borough oasis with the daily paper and tales of the city, our mother still mothering us but moving on, finally, to a career of her own, and the three children for the last time all living together, before my sister was married. Strange, in a way, that I might choose that time, when I was so unformed and unhappy, when I would not discover anything that might be called happiness, or the self I had always been, for decades. But how do we know it is happiness and our own selves we really long for? I wanted to go home to when we had all been together, no matter what each of us had been alone. I wanted to go home all the way to Orinin and my father’s childhood, to the great-grandparents I had never known and who had led lives that could barely have been more different from my own.
Yet… who knew what surprises there might be? Did Zakiah – after my father watered the horses and they were stabled, after dinner was done, and Aikah, my father’s aunt, and Golda, his sister, and he were asleep – did Zakiah sit down by the fire for some last, quiet waking minutes and… write? Did he argue with some Jews on the streets of Kamenets-Podolsk, after dropping off a fare, that there would be no Messiah because there was no God, because even if there had been a God, he had been murdered in the shtetls of the Pale a thousand times – a hundred thousand times – the Bal Shem Tov be damned, and maybe that’s why our father never went to school, because there were only the Jewish schools and to hell with them, they taught two thousand years of nonsense, put a horse’s reins in your hands and you’ll live. Maybe I wanted to go home before Orinin, to Germany, from where those Adlers must have come, or to the town of that Tatar who probably raped some ancestor of mine during a pogrom I have the eyes I do. Or I wanted to go back to that first gene that was my own – no, that first gene – and look it in the face and see the mirror of the world.
What did I want?
I wanted that my father had not died.
I wanted that all my powers of imagination and all my talents – all those years of thinking and dreaming and inward turning, to see into the essence of things – would bring him back and make him undead (I didn’t care about “longevity” or the natural course of anything) so that the journey, as I had put it after our mother died, would go on forever.
I wanted that the first and last, the only natural barrier between me and my own coming end had not been removed.
I wanted that I would not die.
I wanted that our family would all be together again, in those essential moments of who we were to each other, early and late, trying and failing, learning, always becoming and never ending.
How long could I sit there and make it so?
Our dinner just ended, my phone had rung now five times, an unknown caller leaving no messages. How it annoyed me. And then the sound of a message this time. I listened. It was Anne, my brother’s wife. Could I call her on Jeff’s cell phone, she asked in an even voice.
I had barely ended the call and begun to form the thought something must be wrong before my sister’s number showed up on the screen, and I knew something was.
A heart attack?
“Have you spoken to Anne?”
“I just listened to a voice mail asking me to call.”
I had stood from the sofa, was making my way for some reason to my desk.
“Are you sitting down?” Sharyn asked.
I had sat down.
“What?” I said urgently. “What?”
My head sunk toward the desk as the howl of protest rose up in me along with my fist, the fear that I had kept buried, sometimes withdrew to hold and worry like a bead, then quickly stuffed away again, all the fears, the worries, the anxieties that rise up in a mind, in a life, that never come to pass, surely this was meant to be one too –
No! No! No! My fist pounded the desk with every growling, aching howl of agony.
Fist pounding, right first, up, down with every scream, No! No! No!
Julia ran to me, threw her arms around me in tears.
“What is it? What’s wrong?”
We sobbed, we shook, we lamented. Jeffrey, dear Jeffrey.
We gathered ourselves. I told Sharyn we would go the emergency room, where Anne awaited us. I stood near the door before we left, as Julia collected some last items we might need, my body wracked inside the way it had been the night in Paris I nearly choked to death and Julia saved my life with the Heimlich, the way I had felt in the emergency room at UCLA, after my car was totaled by the woman who ran the light, before Jeff came to get me, when I thought I was about to go into shock, though I did not.
I thought I would have a heart attack myself.
I asked Julia to drive. I called my department chair from the car and asked her to cancel my classes for me. I turned to the window.
From Marina del Rey to West Hills in the San Fernando Valley, thirty to forty minutes at that time of night, to think, to sit stunned in the well of the passenger seat and watch the black, bleak profiles of the Santa Monica Mountains pass on either side, eternal witnesses to the long procession of the dead and grieving.
We turned into a parking lot we had visited many times. All the illnesses of my parents’ declining years, taking my mother home to die in her bed, standing around his hospital bed with Sharyn, Jeff, and Anne to watch my father die, his eyes staring up at us in his final silent glowing moments, shining with unaccountable beauty.
As we walked from the car to the emergency room entrance, Julia held my arm to brace me. These were the last moments of its being only hypothetical, a tale told of the end that comes to all of us, even those we love, even us, the myth of creation and destruction we worship and deny. But now, once we walked through that door and down the corridor…
I pulled aside the curtain. Jeff lay on his right side, a tube still in his throat. So still. Behind him, to his right, sat his oldest friend and his wife. In a chair by his head, Anne sat. I stared. Just as with my mother and my father, one feels in an instant – faster than an instant, it is in the tissue of life – the difference between sleep and death, the cold absence. The life is of the body, but the person is not the body, however we may adore and worship it.
Anne called me to her chair. You sit with him, she said.
I took her place. I reached out with my right hand and caressed my brother’s cheek and hair as I would never have done in life. I leaned in close, repeating my love in whispers to his vacant gaze. For what I had observed from above, I could now see clearly and directly. Jeff’s left eye had remained half open, and it was staring now right at me.
4 thoughts on “A Year with Death”
Thanks for posting this and sharing your thoughts and feelings so movingly – it’s consoling to know that there are other people who aren’t so good at taking the often-repeated (and, of course, in a way true) “death is part of life” as all that helpful
One of your most beautiful, most moving pieces of writing, Jay.
May 5 marked three years since my brother’s death. Not a day goes by without my thinking of him. I’m as incredulous now as then, that he left us so soon after turning 59. I’ll never forget how the cancer made him look so much older. Nor when that call came.
Only those who have lost a sibling know it’s a loss like no other.