At least in part because I spent so much of my life in the music world, where everyone is young even if they aren’t, many of my friends are as much as 10, 20, even 30 years younger than me. As such, they haven’t yet started dying off in large numbers. My mother had quite a different experience when she was my age.
“Once I hit my 60s and 70s,” she said, “it got to where I hated picking up the phone, because half the time it would be someone calling to tell me who had died. Eventually I outlived all my friends, so I had to either make new ones or spend the rest of my life on my own. And now…” – she was in her 90s when she told me this – “all the new ones are dying off too!”
She didn’t say this in a mournful way. A little wistful, perhaps, but also quite matter-of-fact. Her earliest memory, when she was still only two and a half years old, was of looking up at her grandfather (b. 1846 d. 1921) laid out on a board in the front room of her family’s farmhouse. She’d witnessed her own parents’ death, and both my father’s parents as well. She’d spent World War II not knowing if my father would come back in one piece, or at all.
Her experience was hardly unique for anyone who’d lived as long as she had, but she seemed a bit more sanguine about it. People died, that’s just how it was; no sense making a big fuss about it. It may have been from her that I inherited my own attitude, an attitude which at times has been a comfort, and at others has somewhat worried me.
As Mom neared the end of her life, we enjoyed quite a few laughs and good times while planning her funeral. Sounds morbid, but it wasn’t really. When we’d reach an impasse trying to decide which songs and prayers would be included, we’d often drift onto the topic of what heaven and/or the afterlife would be like. Although she was a staunch churchgoer and a faithful Bible reader, Mom didn’t always take that stuff literally. “Some of it sounds like a lot of hooey,” she said one evening, acknowledging that she wouldn’t dare venture that opinion in front of the other ladies in her scripture studies group.
“Why not?” I asked. “Wouldn’t it give them something to think about and discuss more deeply?”
“No, it would just hurt their feelings, and maybe even make them angry.” That reminded her of our cousin Barbara, who devoutly believed that all her family and friends, even her dogs, would be waiting to greet her when she made it to heaven. “She didn’t get along with half those people when they were alive,” Mom observed. “I don’t know why she thinks it would be different once they all moved upstairs.”
If Mom were still alive, she’d probably be cross with me for misquoting her, but I think my words carry the gist of what she had to say. She and I had a lot in common, but one big difference between us was that she would bend over backward to avoid hurting anyone’s feelings, whereas I (at least for the first three quarters of my life) would go out of my way to be as obnoxious as possible (though rationalizing it on the basis that I was “just telling the truth”).
I once knew a girl – woman, I should say; she must have been at least in her 30s or 40s, but she seemed very girl-like – who would sink into a near-histrionic depression for a few weeks each year as the anniversary of her father’s death approached. By that time, thankfully, I had learned not to share my opinion that she might be getting carried away with things; it was a great relief to me, and probably even more so to others, when I realized that I didn’t need to tell others what they should or should not be feeling.
But I still marvel at the difference in how I’m affected – or not, you might almost say – by my own mother’s death. By the time she peacefully and painlessly closed her eyes just shy of her 97th birthday, we’d spent so much time talking about life and death that the line between them had become blurred to the point where it no longer seemed to make much difference. If that sounds bizarre, let me tell you about a conversation I had with my friend Rié when I was visiting Japan for the first time.
Is it true, I asked, that the Japanese worship their ancestors? Yes, I know it sounds a little crude or rude, if not both, but it’s literally what I’d been taught as a child in Catholic school. Besides, we were wandering through an ancient graveyard at the time; what better time to assuage my curiosity?
Not exactly, she replied. It’s more like we continue to feel a connection to them, that even though they’re not physically with us anymore, that they haven’t totally left us, either. As the years pass, I’m coming to understand death in the same way. Time and again, I’ll have an adventure, or a funny thought, or discover a bit of family history that Mom might appreciate, only to remember just before reaching for the phone that I can’t contact her that way anymore.
But I can and do tell her the story; whether she hears me or I’m talking to myself doesn’t really matter. A few days after her death I found myself thinking, “You haven’t even said a prayer for your mom’s soul,” which was a rather startling throwback to my religious upbringing as a child. I laughed off the idea at first. Praying for someone after they’d already died was like studying for a final exam after you’d already passed it, I argued (with myself).
Then I remembered the time I’d asked Mom why she was such a faithful churchgoer and Bible reader even though harboured many doubts about it. “It doesn’t hurt to be on the safe side,” she’d said. That seemed like a good point, so I said a few words to the effect of “God, if you’re there, and if this makes any difference, please take care of my mom wherever she might be or might be going.”
I’m not generally the vision-seeing type, at least not since I gave up hallucinogenic drugs a long, long time ago, but instantly the room I was in disappeared and all I could see was outer space. And there was Mom, or more specifically the energy that had been Mom, streaming like a silver comet toward the centre of the universe, and as I watched dumbfoundedly, it lit up, expanded, and turned to gold.
I still don’t know for sure what that was all about, but I’m inclined to think it meant I didn’t need to worry about Mom anymore, that she’d be just fine. And by the same token, that she’d be around, somewhere, in some form, whenever I felt like having a chat. Which I’ve done regularly, and oddly enough, it feels as though we’ve grown closer in the years since she’s been gone.
“To everything there is a season,” went the song, as well as the Bible verse it’s cribbed from, and at my age, I know I’ve entered the season where death is an ever-looming presence. I can’t say I’m wildly enthusiastic about this, but it’s not that different from being a child nearing the end of summer vacation. Well, maybe it’s not exactly like that – after all, even if I had to put up with nine months of school, summer would come again – but in any event, moaning and groaning about it wouldn’t make the summer any longer, and would make what was left of it a lot less enjoyable.
I’m of two minds: on one hand, I can see Woody Allen’s point when he said “I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” However, I lean more in the direction of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, who got to witness their own funeral (without having to actually die, which is even better). If there’s one thing that annoys me about dying, it’s the prospect of not being able to attend my funeral.
My mom’s was quite a rocking affair, which is not something you can always say about a 97-year-old lady’s sendoff. My brother brought his guitar up to the altar and sang “Will The Circle Be Unbroken,” which as many of you will know, is literally about someone’s mom being carried off to the graveyard. The whole congregation joined in on the choruses; it was if we’d been transported to a hallelujah-shouting Bible Belt church instead of a staid middle-class Catholic one. When the priest returned to his podium to administer the final blessings, he said wryly, “That’s going to be a tough act to follow.”
My mom had had a long life, and at times a tough one – her family made homeless in the midwinter Detroit streets of the Great Depression when she was 12 years old, an eldest son (that would be me) who couldn’t stop failing, getting in trouble, and otherwise disgracing the family name – but it ended in a celebration, and if she was able to observe it any way, I’m pretty sure she would have been pleased.
But what if, I ask myself, I’m sitting on a cloud or in a hotbox or wherever they put me after death, watching my own funeral, and nobody shows up? Or they do, but they all sit around badmouthing me and sharing their elation that I’m finally gone? Or they’re all (at least the attractive ones) going on about how they were always in love with me, but I never seemed to notice? The possibilities are endless, and only a few of them appeal.
Since I had the epiphany of realizing I could still communicate with my mom after her death, I’ve tried to be more careful when I say – or even think – anything about someone who’s died. I’m especially conscious about it when it comes to my dad, who unfortunately died before I could reach the kind of reconciliation and understanding I did with my mom. Whenever I catch myself mentioning one of his shortcomings or – let’s not mince words – petty cruelties, I want to bite my tongue and take it back, just in case he can still hear me. It must be horribly painful, I think, to hear someone enumerating your faults when you’re no longer able to correct them, and in any event, given what I put that poor man through, I’m in no position to complain about his sometimes less than sterling comportment.
This essay has taken a different turn than I intended. I originally meant to explore my feelings about other people’s deaths – not just family and friends, but also the various celebrities my age and younger who seem to be slipping away on a daily basis. Or more specifically, my relative lack of feelings. “You seem to have arrived at a real state of acceptance,” some people tell me, which may be true, but at other times, I wonder if I’m just a heartless so-and-so incapable of weeping and wailing along with everyone else.
I prefer the former interpretation, whether we’re talking about other people’s death or my own, but who’s to say? Probably the people who may or may not show up to gossip about me at my funeral. Given my relatively good health and genes, it’s not unreasonable to believe I might be around for another 25 years or more, but the actuarial tables and the law of averages tell me I wouldn’t be wise to count on that.
At some point most people seem to give up on life and just sit – or lie – around waiting for death. I saw that happen with my father: one by one, his interests – travel, music, walking, arguing, painting, politics – dwindled away until there was nothing left to talk about, and eventually he lost the ability to talk at all. My mother was the opposite; when I asked, half-jokingly, half seriously, whether we should start making plans for her 100th birthday party, she said, “Maybe. I might decide to stick around that long. I’d like to see what happens next.”
Like my father, many of my own past interests have faded away; like my mother, I’m still possessed by – and blessed with, I’d say – an abiding curiosity and eagerness to learn, and a passionate desire to do anything I can to enhance the quality of this existence not just for myself, but for those I share it with and those who will come after me. Those of you know my back story will be aware that I spent much of my life as a wastrel and a parasite, but that I finally – with a lot of help, admittedly – got it together to do a few worthwhile, maybe even memorable things.
I wouldn’t mind doing a few more in the remaining years or decades allotted to me, but what exact form they might take, I have no way of knowing. “It is only in the twilight,” said Hegel, “that the owl of wisdom begins its flight” (it sounds better in the original German). The I Ching observes “In the light of the setting sun, men either beat the drum and sing, or loudly bewail the approach of old age.”
I remember once, long ago, on a beach in San Francisco, watching the sun sink into the Pacific with such a mind-boggling display of colours and shapes that I was reduced to great, sobbing tears at how swiftly it vanished, yet how it was only its fleeting-ness, its ephemerality, its evanescence that made it so precious and beautiful. In an ideal world I would have understood then and there that it was time to make my whole life shine like that, but it would take another 50 years or so before the lesson began to sink in. Ah well, one way or the other, we all get there in the end.