I live in a house of many rooms. Each room is different; and someone I like or love lives there. But, now and then, I can’t go into a room of my house any more. The door isn’t just locked; it’s gone. The wall where it was is smooth and cold.
I was washing our red 2003 Corolla in the driveway one sunny afternoon, when a lady paused in her walk and gazed anxiously at me. She was wearing a long black wool coat and a little pillbox hat. “Do you know the lady who lives across the street?” she asked.
I glanced over at the squarish little workman’s house across the way. A narrow cement walk bisected its minuscule front lawn on its way to an awkward little porch. Inside, I knew, a side-hall kept two tiny bedrooms out of sight. At the far side of the living room, a door led into the kitchen, the origin of many popcorn balls and Rice Krispy treats in my daughters’ trick-or-treat bags.
“You mean Victoria?” I answered. “She’s not there any more. She died.”
The woman began to sob. Why hadn’t I said “Passed away” like a gentleman? I left my rag and hose and walked over to her. “I’m sorry. Was she a friend of yours?”
“We were friends once,” she said. “But there was an argument. And after that I never spoke to her again. I’ve been walking past her house these past few weeks, trying to work up the nerve to tell her I’m sorry. And now I never can!”
The improv comedy group called on the audience for skit ideas. My father had just passed away. His death was the first that struck close to me, and it was suffocating me. “Death,” I said.
The players looked at each other. “I don’t know …” one of them muttered.
“Sure, we can do it!” another urged.
One put his hands in front of him, and crept up to them as if he were using a walker.
“Grandpa!” exclaimed the other in a high voice.
“What is it, Jimmy?” muttered the “old man.”
“It’s my puppy! He’s not moving. Do you think …?” he sobbed. The material was tragic, but the delivery was hilarious. The audience roared. Including me.
I was snowshoeing in the Central Cascades one day. The snow was a bit dingy, and too crusty from rain for skiing. The sky was an opaque ceiling, a vague gray-white mass, close. I made a little lunch-camp, putting on a fleece, sitting on my blue foam square and looking up at a nearby peak. It jutted into the fog, its top obscured. I couldn’t see the top, but I had a pretty good idea what the top was like. Logically, it had to be a continuation of the visible sides of the peak. There wasn’t a MacDonald’s up there; just more snow and trees. There might be a few crags, a bit of meadow or an avalanche chute, but no fantasy palace. What we don’t know has to be an extension of what we know — not radically different.
C: … I wish to complain about this parrot what I purchased not half an hour ago from this very boutique.
O: Oh yes, the, uh, the Norwegian Blue…What’s,uh…What’s wrong with it?
C: I’ll tell you what’s wrong with it, my lad. ‘E’s dead, that’s what’s wrong with it!
O: No, no, ‘e’s uh,…he’s resting.
Monty Python, “Dead Parrot Sketch”
Now and then when I visited my mother in her nursing home, I would see that she’d lost something, and I grieved for it. Then I’d walk around a decaying light-industrial neighborhood that was nearby, and photograph it; somehow this made me feel better.
She lost the ability to turn her radio on and off, because it was too complicated. I put a green sticker on the knob so she would know which one it was; but it didn’t help. Then she lost the ability to push the red nursie button on the cord clipped to her pillow. Instead, when she wanted something she beat on the wall.
While I was wheeling her to the beauty shop one day, a friend of mine drove up in his electric wheelchair. “Mom, this is my friend David,” I said. Mom nodded at him with an odd, ironic look on her face. I wondered if she would ever speak again. She didn’t.
A day or two later, a nurse came up to me and reported that my mother wasn’t eating. I sat down at her table and talked to her, and offered her a little spoonful of food. She willingly took it in; so I offered her another. I was just starting to feel pleased with myself when the food spilled out of her mouth onto her blouse. She’d lost the ability to swallow, or perhaps the interest.
My brother came over from Hood Canal; and my daughters flew in. We took turns sitting by Mom’s bed in her darkened room, talking to her now and then, holding her hand and offering her a wet sponge to suck. On one of my shifts, she was breathing like a steam engine on a steep incline — deep, rapid gasps. I talked to her quietly, and tried the sponge. I’d arranged two straight-backed chairs facing each other next to her bed. I put my feet up and watched her. After a while I dozed off. I was startled awake. Something had changed. It was quiet. She’s just resting, I told myself.
I went out and brought back a nurse to check her. “She’s passed,” he told me, and left.
“We’re all here waiting to die,” another nursing-home friend told me. “It’s the last stop, the big Waiting Room. Now and then, someone’s name gets called. They go in the boss’ door, and they never come out.”
Passing means you’re moving faster than whoever you’re moving past. It’s meant to be a comforting, soulful metaphor; that we’re all going somewhere, some further ahead, some behind but with uncertain speed. All of us passing, at last, out of sight.
When a candle burns down, the flame doesn’t go anywhere. It just isn’t. When a computer breaks, its software doesn’t go anywhere; it just isn’t. There’s no comfort in this soulless metaphor. Not to exist is a disturbing concept.
What am I to make of this passing, dying business? I think that what you see is what you get. When I get to the top of the mountain, there won’t be anything special there. So I have to think about what matters to me in life, and concentrate on maximizing what matters. I believe that what matters most is love.
Hey, everybody, let’s have some fun
You only live but once
And when you’re dead you’re done
B.B. King – Let The Good Times Roll