The art of going on when life and death leave you no choice
We carried the precious cargo, ashes of another transcendental voyager, as we approached the gravesite up the hill. On our way, a great marble crypt loomed large, the perfect advertisement for the cemetery.
It was George Gershwin.
Imagine the evening entertainment when the gates closed. It seemed like karma to me, as I had been one of the creators of the Gershwin Prize, given by the Library of Congress for popular songwriting in the tradition of the Great American Songbook.
Our first honoree was Paul Simon. As we approached the open grave, all that Simonizing went roaring through my ears, drowning out my abiding tinnitus. “A winter’s day, in a deep and dark December …” The chill of the day whistled its own tune. I tossed a handful of dirt into the space where my old friend would spend eternity, or as much of it as we can imagine. It didn’t seem nearly enough, so I took up the gravedigger’s shovel and heaped mounds and mounds into the hole. They were like hugs from me one final time — the last thing I could give a pal.
The succession of deaths in a year’s span had become too much, a relentless wave. My mother led the pack, foiling the oddsmakers by short days who had put sure bets on her reaching her centennial. It was a blessing. The physical isolation of the pandemic had sundered her mobility, and the social desolation had sent her dementia into overdrive. Our last visit was the only one in our shared lifetime in which we couldn’t laugh. She had already fled.
I flew across the country in time to be with my uncle in his final hours, while his pulse got lighter and lighter, eventually flying away like a near-weightless sparrow. My cousins and I sat on his bed in silent communion. From the depths of his permeable unconsciousness, he had raised my hand to his lips, not once but twice, breaking my heart the first time, mending it the second. How would I survive without our weekly transcontinental laugh-fest? Every Sunday I still reach for the phone, and each time my hand pauses in midair, caught by a silent cry. What is the ringtone of nothingness? If I make a joke and there is nobody listening, is it still a joke, or a prayer?
Then my aunt, the subject of an earlier column for her experiences as a refugee in World War II, passed peacefully into another place and time. There, families are reunited and war is no more. My mother, my uncle, my aunt, one two three, one two three, one. This train, bound for glory, has left the station. Standing up the hill from Gershwin, flinging the dirt that one day covers us all, I realized I was quickly running out of the fingers to count the dead. I think of Samuel Beckett — “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”
Next week would have been my father’s 102nd birthday. A Capricorn, the last earth sign of the zodiac, he had its characteristics of patience, perseverance and dedication to his family. He served in the big one, training our flyboys, then carried on in peacetime. He began as a lawyer, even of temper, logical, analytical, not easily swayed, stoic to the last. I never forget the nightmare evening when he had kidney stones, yet we had to beg him to go to the hospital.
Here we are in a new year. The holidays have come and gone. On rare occasions, when the children are home, I feel part of a continuum. Most of the time we are dispersed across the country. I cling to my wife like a dock, holding my boat from drifting away. I never understand such pillars of the earth. I don’t have her strength. Every death destroys me. Perhaps it was my childhood asthma, the moments at which I felt the breathlessness of dying. Dread of mortality shadows me. I regret all the time that my container came marked “fragile.” It’s a lifelong pain.
You may read Joseph Campbell, Ernest Becker, Viktor Frankl, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, Testaments (New and Old), Edna St. Vincent Millay, Oscar Wilde, J. M. Barrie, Robert Frost, Allen Ginsberg. Take your pick. They all wrestle the demons of decline and death. With each year we turn the page and hope we have chapters yet to go. Inside our heads we are any age we feel we are. My mother was always a kid. My father was always a dad. I am one of the lost boys, amazed at the age I have come to be, wondering who knows where the time goes. I am endlessly searching. Charter member of the off-key singing club, I whistle by the grave. I attempt “Rhapsody in Blue.” By George, I do!