I hope I don’t die sitting upright in a chair. But what can I do to prevent that? I suppose it helps to look at how others have died.
My uncle died this way. My uncle, Roy, had eight fingers. He lost a thumb and part of his left index finger in a lathe accident, when he was a machinist putting together oil drilling equipment in Mexico City.
“Zzzzziiiip!” he said, making a slicing action with his right hand, like he was chopping down the sapling of his arm. He would then stick his tongue slightly between his two lips. I always felt this tongue grasping motion was a way to keep himself focused.
I do the same thing when I am writing or putting together a gas grill in the back patio, so I know this is what it is.
I have seen religious Jews in Jerusalem also do things to focus, like rock back and forth while they pray. And I know this is to help them focus because a Jewish guy told me this when I was at the Western Wall.
At the Western Wall, I thought about how I would die. I also thought, “What do I wish for most in the world, and what will G-d grant me in G-d’s infinite capacity for granting things to letches like myself?”
I wrote down these things I wanted most on a scrap of paper, put on the nylon yamakuh they hand to the tourists visiting the Western Wall, and I walked to the wall and began to pray for these things. Then, I stuck that slip of paper, folded over many times, and smudged with the dirt of my pencil-stained finger tips, and left it there.
Later, sitting at a bus stop, I sat with Eli, my tour guide, an older Jew who has lived all of his life in Israel. He began to tell me about marriage and what it meant. He said that marriage is a meeting of opposites and, in his words, “a negotiation of these opposites, yourself and your wife.”
He said, “It is very very hard, marriage. It really is. You live with someone your whole adult life and you do not always like this person, but you agree to love them.”
I thought about this while he kept talking. Do you have to agree to love them?
I suppose this is why I am thinking about death, and how I will die.
When my uncle, Roy, died, he was sitting very peacefully in the backyard of his house in St. Louis, where I was born, and where, incidentally, he and my aunt, Jean, helped raise me. Very early on in my life, my father worked a lot, and so did my mother, so my parents needed help.
Roy and Jean helped raise me and my two sisters, and we spent a lot of time in this backyard.
In this backyard, I first learned about how slugs die. I didn’t believe it at first.
Roy said, “Have you ever poured salt on a slug?”
I said, “No.” I was not sure why I would do that.
“Take the salt out of the cabinet, and then sprinkle it on the slugs,” Roy told us. Being the kids we were, this created no end of excitement and we did exactly as told, gathering salt, a flashlight and rain boots and we traipsed out in the damp wet of the summer night.
And there in the gleam of our flashlight were dozens of slow, oozing slugs. And we did as we were told, and, to our amazement, the slugs began to dissolve.
It was like they never existed. They blended under the mounds of white salt into puddles of water? Juice? Slug ooze?
And if you didn’t know that slugs lived there before, by the end of the evening, you would have never known, because they just disappeared, murdered by our salt sprinkling.
It felt very captivating to be so powerful in nature. To be able to end an animal’s life not with a stomp or a machete, but with a sprinkle of a life source, a food that we used on our green bean casserole.
Roy died peacefully, not murdered. Not caught up in a metal lathe. Not injured in anyway, or thing but time itself.
My aunt Jean walked out one afternoon just before sunset. The clouds were sprinkled red on their underbellies and the maple trees and magnolia trees were still. The dog — I don’t even remember this dog’s name, but it was a border collie — sitting right next to Roy’s lifeless, still warm body.
His entire soul was erased by time. The only bit of him to remain was his body.
She called the hospital and they sent an ambulance, and then they drove him in a black bag to the morgue.
“Oh, Roy,” Jean would often say many years later, many years in a row, whenever she would just suddenly remember him or his name or his memory would come up in a conversation.
And then one day, Jean fell into a coma. She suffered two strokes in a row, deep in her brain. The anuerysms were massive, the doctors told her daugher, Nancy, and it was a wonder that the first didn’t outright kill her.
This was in St. Louis.
It was probably about five years ago now.
Jean’s phone number is in my new phone. I had called her once, about a year before she died. I had told her about my job, my new life back in the US. I had been living in Hong Kong at the time, and here I was then in New York, living out my dream.
“Walking everywhere,” I told her. “In New York, you walk.”
She was proud of me.
I stood there next to my sister, Jeanette, who was named after her. A tube was stuck in the middle of the crown of her head.It was sucking out a yellow mucus and also blood. Jean’s brain was basically bleeding continually and the tube was reducing any pressure that might build up from such blood loss. It was seeping all over her brain.
I felt very sad.
I was also very scared. I wanted to touch her hand, and to comfort her. I asked her daughter, Nancy, “Can she hear me?”
Nancy nodded, eyes very red and ringed by hours of sleeplessness.
I wasn’t sure. But I took Jean’s hand anyway and I rubbed the top of it. It was cold. I didn’t expect that, because she was breathing on her own.
But then I thought, “Old people tend to be cold, so that’s not a bad sign.”
Wow, was I really lying to myself. I didn’t know any better. I have never been to any funerals in my life, except for Roy’s. And then here I was, watching my aunt Jean die.
“She’s dying,” I said to myself, but not aloud.
I watched her eyelids barely flicker. I listened to the horrible sound of the suction hose pull yellow pus and blood out of her brain.
I felt very bad for her. 92 years old. Felled by two massive strokes. And this was the most caring woman I had ever met in my life.
Later in the parking garage I shut the door to the passenger side of my sister’s car. She walked around the back and opened her door and climbed in. She sat down and shut the door, put the key in the ignition and dropped her hand on her lap.
“We won’t see her again,” I said. I started crying. I actually started heaving and crying and I couldn’t catch my breath. I hugged my sister.
She said, “She wants to go, she’s ready to go.”
We literally sobbed together for about five minutes. And then suddenly, all the sadness was gone. I felt paper thin and light.
I felt exactly what it was like to sit there in a car and acknowledge a loved one has passed forever out of my life.
It didn’t feel good. It didn’t feel bad. But still, I felt I had to reassure myself.
“It will all be okay,” I said. And my sister bit her lower lip and nodded, “Yes.”
One probably expects to learn something from a loved one’s death. But what is there to learn?
The confrontation with death is so starkly real that it is not quite an education, or a moment of learning.
It is a kind of awakening, I think. It brings one to peace.
In my office I have this pipe. The guy who sold it to me said that Lenny Kravitz’s manager used to own this, “So it has quite the provenance,” he said.
That means it comes from some kind of special place, endowing me, it’s new and rightful owner, with a kind of talismanic glow. It means that by possessing this object, I now have some power over it and how it is used.
I consider retelling the story of my uncle and aunt’s deaths to be something a bit like possessing something of them, and delivering to myself and to you, the reader, a tale endowed with a certain provenance.
Lately, I have taken to the belief that everyone alive is me born at different times in eternity. To me this means that whenever they are telling me something, it’s a version of me telling myself something I need to know.
And vice versa me with them; whenever I am telling them something I know, it is themselves reminding themselves of some other type of story from their past.
It’s meant to calm them.
To tell the story of a death is to create the narrative of one’s own death, and by telling you, and me, this story, I am offering something with which we all can find calmness.
It’s a bit of salt for being alive. A poultice that melts us, and revives the first, and most basic notions.