The enemy war dead or rediscovered war dead, in higher figures.Appalling and dulling totals not just from this year’s war but from the ones before that, and the ones way back that some of us still around may have also attended.After days spent groaning on the floor, I received a blessed epidural, ending the ordeal. On the other hand, I’ve not yet forgotten Keats or Dick Cheney or what’s waiting for me at the dry cleaner’s today. Anyone over sixty knows this; my list is only longer.
He was seventy-five at the time, and contemporary social scientists might prefer Casey’s line delivered at eighty-five now, for accuracy, but the point remains. My elder old-maid cousin Jean Webster and her unexpected, late-arriving Brit husband, Capel Hanbury. Chloë Sevigny in “Trees Lounge.” Gail Collins on a good day.
We geezers carry about a bulging directory of dead husbands or wives, children, parents, lovers, brothers and sisters, dentists and shrinks, office sidekicks, summer neighbors, classmates, and bosses, all once entirely familiar to us and seen as part of the safe landscape of the day. The surprise, for me, is that the accruing weight of these departures doesn’t bury us, and that even the pain of an almost unbearable loss gives way quite quickly to something more distant but still stubbornly gleaming. Family ice-skating up near Harlem in the nineteen-eighties, with the Park employees, high on youth or weed, looping past us backward to show their smiles.
I like to think of mine as fellow-voyagers crowded aboard the Île de France (the idea is swiped from “Outward Bound”). We elders—what kind of a handle is this, anyway, halfway between a tree and an eel?
Here’s my father, still handsome in his tuxedo, lighting a Lucky Strike. —we elders have learned a thing or two, including invisibility. Have I experienced what neurologists call a TIA—a transient ischemic attack?
There’s Ted Smith, about to name-drop his Gloucester home town again. Here’s Esther Mae Counts, from fourth grade: hi, Esther Mae. Here I am in a conversation with some trusty friends—old friends but actually not all that old: they’re in their sixties—and we’re finishing the wine and in serious converse about global warming in Nyack or Virginia Woolf the cross-dresser. I didn’t expect to take over the chat but did await a word or two of response. (Women I know say that this began to happen to them when they passed fifty.) When I mention the phenomenon to anyone around my age, I get back nods and smiles. Honored, respected, even loved, but not quite worth listening to anymore. I’ve been asking myself why I don’t think about my approaching visitor, death.
There’s Gardner—with Cecille Shawn, for some reason. There’s a pause, and I chime in with a couple of sentences. He was often on my mind thirty or forty years ago, I believe, though more of a stranger.
The others look at me politely, then resume the talk exactly at the point where they’ve just left it. Death terrified me then, because I had so many engagements.
The enforced opposite—no dinner dates or coming attractions, no urgent business, no fun, no calls, no errands, no returned words or touches—left a blank that I could not light or furnish: a condition I recognized from childhood bad dreams and sudden awakenings. Death will get it on with me eventually, and stay much too long, and though I’m in no hurry about the meeting, I feel I know him almost too well by now.
All the dead from wars and natural events and school shootings and street crimes and domestic crimes that each of us has once again escaped and felt terrible about and plans to go and leave wreaths or paper flowers at the site of.