To be alive and human is to be shadowed by death. “They give birth astride of a grave,” says Becket’s Ponzo in Waiting for Godot, “the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.”
Says Nabokov in Speak, Memory, “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.”
So it is that some people, like parachutists buoyed among the clouds, are pleased to live by scanning the sky above with wonder. Others, though, feel compelled to stare at their feet along the sure descent, marking their progress toward the void. I began to look down at – what? – seven or eight?
I might think of death at any time of day. As ethical philosophers have tried to understand happiness as something greater than a heightened, transitory elation – as, instead, a kind of “feeling-tone” that subsists in a person like a psychological and emotional ground to life, a complex of satisfactions and fulfillments sufficient to produce a sense of well-being – so death has been a kind of ground for me, a barely audible tone humming its ultimate significance beneath every other sound of the world. I bend in the morning to tie my shoes, the day and its hoped for accomplishments set out before me in my mind, and staring almost idly at the floor, I thread the lace – and my life slips with it through the loop. I see in my blank, distracted gaze the totality of my life telescoped in an instant: what I’ve made of it and haven’t; what a lone, spinning orb populated by sentient, ratiocinating animals may amount to in the end; and the finiteness that brings it all, and me, regardless, to a close. All focused on the tongue of my shoe. All of my life, and it’s certain passing, in a moment’s vision, like – I’ve just finished reading Cather’s Lucy Gayheart, about the ephemeral life and passions of a young, small town woman who stepped as a child into a square of wet cement – “three light footprints, running away.”
More often, though, I think of death on waking or late at night. In the gray dawn of my unlit room, I greet the world again in recognition of the thousands of mornings that have preceded the one now beginning, the unbroken continuity over so many years – how I retain, remarkably, a sense of self-sameness, carry, even, the hurts of years ago, when I know I have changed, in some ways unrecognizably. At night, in the dim dark before sleep, I consider the concluded day and who I was within it. And the meaning in both those meditations is in the terminal nature of my dawns and the coming end of my going to sleep through the sleep that will never end.
There are people, I know, who hit the pillow at night and are out. Some open their eyes when they wake and bound into the day. But I am a lingerer. I lie in my bed sunk into my thoughts like the softest of pillows: not yet to sleep, no – let me think a little. Or I’ll rise in a moment (or two), but first I’ll reflect on the day to come. I’ll roll some current event or situation over and around obsessively, deliciously in my mind. I’ll work and rework on a mental screen a line of poetry or a sentence that troubles. But I will as often lie and stare into the surrounding murk of the unlit room and think about the life in which I am bathed – the sentience, the sensoriness, the quotidian wave that sweeps me along – and how one day soon (sooner than I am likely to want) the water will run out.
At some point in this mindfulness, my wakefulness, I will for the first time, and then many more, blink. The lids and those delicate lashes – even on a man – will quickly close and reopen and everything I fear to lose will have trembled in the instant, the airy flutter of lash.
The immemorial cliché about life and the passage of time is that one’s life seems to pass in the blink of an eye. It develped into a cliché, of course, because it’s true – in the seeming, anyway – but considerations of life as an individual experiences it are all about the seeming, as are considerations of time. The saying is a cliché, by definition, because it so worn an expression, though no cliché is cliché to someone hearing it for the first time, and for each of us the slipstream of time is a beginner’s experience.
Another cliché about eyes and blinking is that one can’t. Blink, that is. In the face of danger. A test of one’s courage, of one’s metal. Before the possibility, if one is to be brave, of death. We had this particular chestnut introduced into the most recent presidential campaign. The idea being that one’s testicular circumference is in formulaic relation to the degree of absence of the blink, along a radius that is the product of…. One suspects that what devotees of these nuts really mean is “falter,” as when Margaret Thatcher famously advised George Bush, in the aftermath of Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, that it was “no time get weak in the knees.” She hadn’t, over the Argentinean taking of the Falkland Islands, and thus are Iron Ladies made.
But not to blink?
It was one of the tropes of early science fiction that primitive-stage androids did not blink. The absence of the blink, amid other telltale signs, would be the definitive giveaway of the imitation human. And aside from the physiological causes and purposes of eye blinking, the cold, inhuman, even spooky quality of an unblinking gaze suggests that the blink has another quality for us. It isn’t simply a characteristic mechanical quality; it suggests a definitive human quality: a thoughtful vulnerability before the brute nature of reality – the universe that does not blink back – however we rise to meet it.
So in the blink of an eye (no, not metaphorically – literally) I see my life and my death. Staring into the murky morning light from my pillow, slipping into the pitch of midnight, threading my shoe lace through a loop, I grasp my life whole, an intuition in an instant, from my childhood to my coming end, all I sought, lost, and gained – with all the incalculable range of my desires now required to consider the shoe. Something moves in me: an immeasurable fall in the chest, a mental sigh.
And I blink.
Yes, friend, I see you. I’ll rise and go into the day now.
Julian Barnes stares at his feet a lot, too. Last year in his memoir of death fixation, Nothing to Be Frightened Of, he explored not only his own compulsive consideration of his end, but that of other writers and artists. It helps, it seems (though not much, to be sure) to compare – share, in a sense – his worries with others of similar nature, alive or already…dead. So there’s that knowledge: he, too, one day, will be cold comfort for someone, for whom Barnes’s death, having come to pass, will be mere concept, a theoretical challenge to a reader’s solipsism – the inability to experience another’s subjectivity, subjectively, as real and existentially threatened. Yes, if we know and care for the person, we can fear and feel the loss from our own lives, even sympathetically assume those feelings from the loved one facing death, but we cannot undergo the individual’s own separation from himself – the loss of “an entire world,” as the Talmud puts it, which we fear in ourselves. Instead, in most instances, we separate from it. We consider the news of others’ deaths like word of the plague – epidemic consequence that has passed us by. What a shame. We can’t believe it. It breaks our hearts. The loss. Leery we are to linger on the knowledge that soon, or later, the darkness will descend on us too – not just the first, but every-born child – and there are no Israelites in this matter. There will be no Exodus.
And there are billions now dead. They are not even numbers. But for those few who have mattered in our own lives and those of historical consequence, large or small, they are nameless and forgotten.
Barnes tells us that following his sixtieth birthday, he left England for a book tour in America.
The arrival into New York – the transit from airport to city – involves passing one of the vastest cemeteries I have ever seen. I always half-enjoy this ritual memento mori, probably because I have never come to love New York.
(Really? Julian. And London? Shall I speak of London?)
In the past, I have merely noted the extent of the graveyards and the arithmetic of mortality….Now, for the first time, something else strikes me: that there is no one in them….if there is anything more melancholy than a graveyard, it is an unvisited graveyard.
Stay, passenger, indeed. When I first read this passage, my mind executed a confusion of geography and memory, and I mistook the cemetery to which Barnes refers. I thought it St. John’s cemetery, in Queens, which has a long boundary along Woodhaven Boulevard.
When I was in my early twenties, living in Manhattan without a car, I would travel to visit my parents in Rockaway, by the beach, by taking the subway to Woodhaven Boulevard. From there I caught the bus to Rockaway. My trip home after dark reversed the route. And on those nighttime rides, I would be seeped in all the melancholy of revisiting the home it had long been my adolescent impetus to leave. Looking ahead toward the youthful drama of my life in wondrous Manhattan, amid all the confusions of identity and early heartbreak, and pressed to bursting with the yearning to break free of them, I would stare out the window as the bus passed St. John’s. My head to the pane, I would gaze over the long boulevard border of the graveyard. The graves would go by – the headstones in the shadows of dark night – by the tens, the scores, the hundreds. Strangers to me, all of them – dead for years, decades, more. They were nameless to all those who passed them on that bus and on the street, and perhaps unvisited. But I knew, young man, still, that I was, that they too had yearned and loved and been disappointed, been broken or survived, even triumphed, and finally died. All those lives. Like mine. What had been their stories? What had they been, now so dead, when they were fully alive and they could not imagine, not really, being one day nothing in the gloom? And a vision would come to me, every time, of each of them when he, she, had been most ecstatically alive, clasped in the arms of a lover, given to a fervor, of unnamable desire. Beneath the surface of the earth, below the headstones and among the tree roots, ignorant of the confines of coffin and lid, they would all hang suspended, in my mind, and writhing in a great congress of passion, alive once more, so alive, and not dead. Not dead.
Maybe some had never made love.
But I had been mistaken. I soon realized that the cemetery of which Barnes writes would, of course, be along the expressways, the Van Wyck and the Long Island, that take one from JFK Airport into Manhattan. The cemetery of which he wrote, filled with the anonymous and the unvisited, would be Mt. Hebron Cemetery, which is at the junction of the two expressways. It is very near Shea Stadium and the new Citifield. It is diagonally across, on the other side of the intersecting point of the freeways, from the Unisphere, preserved from the World’s Fair of 1964-65, and which was the meeting point, on our first date, for me and my college love. And this is the cemetery in which my paternal grandmother lies.
My father’s mother, Minnie, was buried there in 1972. She died July 27, 1972, and she was 84, according to her headstone. She had abandoned my father after his birth, as had his father, and both emigrated from Ukraine to the United States, having divorced, to start new lives and families. My father, Meyer (or Mac), and his sister, two years older, were left to be raised by their grandparents. When my father finally arrived in the U.S. himself, at 17, he established relationships with both of his parents. His father, Yoina, provided Mac with entrée into the garment business as a furrier, and died eleven years before I was born.
Selfish, untrusting and ungiving, Minnie was no better mother to my father in America than she had been in Ukraine, and no better grandmother than mother. Mac and I, then twenty, along with a half-uncle and cousin, were the only family members at an otherwise unattended funeral. In a section of Mt. Hebron sponsored by the Kaments-Podolier Ladies, a society of immigrants from Kaments-Podolsk, the medieval fortress city near the shtetl of Orinin where my father was born, we listened to the rabbi who had not known her extol Minnie’s virtues. I registered the sight of the junction of the Long Island and Van Wyck Expressways as one exits the cemetery.
I did not visit the grave again for thirty-four years, after my father’s death, and it is not certain at all that there had been any visits, by anyone, in between. I had had to search my memory – expressway overpasses – and internet records in order to find the cemetery. I paid the visit to perform an act of service to my father and fulfill a need in myself, both of which emanated from nothing either my father or I had ever believed. I found the grave crowded in among many others, as it had not been quite in 1972, but – as Julian Barnes had generally noted by sight – there have been over two hundred thousand interments at Mt. Hebron Cemetery since 1909.
According to Barnes the book tour he writes of occurred after his sixtieth birthday, which was in January 2006. Exactly how soon after, he does not say. I paid this visit to my grandmother’s grave, from Los Angeles, nine months after my father’s death, in April 2006. It is not out of the question – I have experienced such coincidences – that Barnes’s tour and my visit coincided. He was riding in the rear of a car taking him from JFK Airport to Manhattan and his hotel. Passing on the Van Wyck Expressway, as he neared the transition to the Long Island Expressway – and as I used to do at St. John’s – he gazed from the window with morbid fascination at Mt. Hebron Cemetery on his right. Barnes says of the graveyards that there was “no one in them.” But Barnes is a writer of fiction, and fiction writers, writing fiction or not, feel no obligation to scientific precision or a journalist’s accounting. As it happened, I saw almost no one during my hour at Mt. Hebron. Few writers are going to fuss, in their stories or in their sentences, about a stick figure or two in the distance when there is purer theme to be pursued.
So it may be that as Barnes contemplated the “melancholy” of “an unvisited graveyard,” I was, in fact, visiting Minnie’s little patch of earth and headstone. And it may be that Barnes saw me. But not “me.” Just some “other.” We have all looked down from airliner windows at the automobiles crisscrossing like ants in lines far below, or solo on a country road. If we suffer from anything less than clinical narcissism, we are likely to have considered that in each of those cars is another person, another human life, as vivid, close, and real in its possessor’s mind, as adverse to death, as are we in ourselves. Another world. But those are mostly passing thoughts, and if we have something more preoccupying on our minds, as we usually do, the knowledge is not even that. So maybe it is in that way that Barnes saw me. And that I saw him, looking up in wistful, abstracted concentration from Minnie’s grave. A black town car, one of a thousand autos whizzing by on the expressway. A lone brushstroke of a person standing amid the rows, some dull light glancing off his pate. Each of us, for his momentary opposite, just one more “other” among the cast of accidental people who populate the backdrop of our days. Each of us just one more person who at many a dawn and through so many midnights contemplates the end of his world with fear and trembling, who for so many others is just one more amid the crowded rows of the anonymous dead.
Coming, Part V: In TimeFollow Me