Who is he, really? Is he young? No. Old. How could death be young? Will he be intimate? Will I feel his eyes boring into my soul, probing for the vanishing point where eternity begins? Or will I be indifferently dispatched, one among billions, someone he does not know or wish to know, ever.
Perhaps death is what he appears to be, nothing, all the nothings he leaves behind: the stilled pulse, emptied stare, silenced voice. Or maybe he is everything, everything a frightened child could imagine, a juggernaut with a thousand faces created from indigestible bits of shock and awe.
When I was young, he had the large, half-human eyes of King Kong. I was 4 when my older brother made me watch the original movie on TV. I have a dim memory of my brother sitting on my chest to keep me in the room. My safe world vanished when that great ape’s eyes popped suddenly on the screen, dumb eyes, wild eyes, peering through a high-rise window, indecently curious and covetous of the tiny woman within.
The random actions of the beast-in-the-city horrified me. There you are, riding home on a commuter train from a hectic day at work, skimming the evening paper, wondering what’s for dinner, and suddenly, without warning or one word of explanation, for no reason other than the fact that you boarded at precisely the wrong time, a huge, leathery hand reaches down, picks up your train and hurls you into the abyss. Everyone screaming. Or singing. Which is what they did in Titanic, another movie I should not have seen, not then, not when I was desperate to think the world a safe and happy place.
After Titanic, the world became the deck of a sinking ship with its passengers trapped, horrifically aware of their mortality. They have run out of options, they are going down. A father has spurned his 10-year-old son, having learned the night before that the boy is not his biological child. But when the boy gives up his seat in Lifeboat Number 6 to make room for a woman, the father proudly announces that he is indeed his son and that he feels as tall as a mountain standing beside him. Reunited, they go down together, singing “Nearer, My God, To Thee.”
Is he the intruding eyes of the beast? Or the ache of souls waiting to be swallowed by the sea? They could see it coming, those noble gents, they would die aware, singing to a God that may or may not be.
Is he at least decent? Or is he as callous as the doctor whose nurse had called in sick that day, the pediatrician who told my mother that she could leave if she had things to do—so she said fine, I’ll go shopping and she left me alone with him—undressed. Is he as smooth, shameless, and narcissistic as the deviant who turned a routine physical exam into a buried memory and a child’s bare body into a toy?
“Mommy? What happens to people when they die?”
I asked because a friend of the family had just “died” and was being spoken of in subdued tones. I was five. I knew about King Kong and the Titanic and I knew I did not like doctors. I did not, however, understand the mechanics of death, such as where people went when the dying was done.
After some thought, my mother replied, “When people die, they go away and they never come back.”
I remember waiting for more. There had to be more. We were snapping green beans I had just picked from the garden, dropping the tips into a small paper bag with the edge rolled down and tossing the beans into a dented aluminum colander. I waited for more, but apparently my mother had finished.
To make sure, I asked, “They never come back?”
Again I waited. It was a golden summer evening in the country. My mother and I were engaged in the mid-twentieth-century rite of waiting for father to get home from work, with brother playing war in his room, making machine-gun noises inside his cheeks, sister quietly fussing in a playpen nearby, tapping a ring of oversized plastic keys between the wooden bars, snapped beans pinging when they hit the metal colander, and from outside, chickens clucking pensively in the coop, birdsong turning lazy with the approach of night and farm machinery grinding in the distance.
I asked again. “They go away and they never come back?”
“Never, never, never?”
That was it. End of discussion.
I never had trouble sleeping before my mother told me the truth about death. And it was the truth. People do go away and tend not to come back. But the truth overwhelmed me. Suddenly, horribly, death was the nothing that came from nothing, a falling out of the universe into emptiness, out of time into forever. Not even forever. The void.
There were nights when I woke suddenly, my brain stuck inside a sensation of traveling through nothing forever. But not forever, because forever assumes that time exists. I could not tolerate the cosmic ride for long. If I did not pull back, sit up and turn on the light, if I kept on hurtling through eternity, where space-time and self had vanished, I was sure I would go mad. As it was, I ended up in a silent tantrum, pounding my fists into the pillow in protest because this going-on-forever-that-wasn’t-even-forever was the worst thing I could think of. It was death and death was being Nothing without end. No, not even Nothing. Just nothing.
Sometimes I forced myself to stay awake late into the night. Somebody had to be watching in case the house caught fire.
Is he the menace that made me wary when I should have been asleep?
Is he the incessant wail of emergency sirens in the city? Having been moved from farmland in Western New York to a dead end street on Staten Island, at night I took to piling pillows over my head in an effort to block out the shrill reminder that somebody somewhere was always in trouble, sick or hurt, and terrified.
The banshee wail of sirens? Or those uneasy feelings stirred up at the 50-cent Saturday matinee, my horror when the astronaut’s tether to the ship disconnected and sent him floating off into space—into nothing forever —with a paralyzed look on his face or my revulsion when the scientist fed blood to the severed arm of the Thing From Another World in an effort to keep it alive.
Now I was 8. Had he—the fear of him—become the compulsion to steal? And to overeat?
“Tell the world. Tell this to everyone, wherever they are,” said the reporter at the end of The Thing from Another World. “Watch the skies everywhere. Keep looking. Keep watching the skies.”
Which is precisely what we were doing. One Sunday afternoon, the city’s air raid sirens went off and stayed on longer than they should have, far too long for a test. After about twenty minutes, fathers started coming out of their houses to scan the skies. Mass death would come from above. My grandfather was building a bomb shelter in his backyard. The number of Duck and Cover drills at school seemed to be increasing. People looked queasy at the mention of another world war.
I should have known better, but one day I said to my mother, “I don’t understand. What’s the big deal? Grandpa went to WWI and WWII and he came back. Daddy went to WWII and he came back. Why is everybody so worried about World War Three?”
My mother looked thoughtful and dismal and answered, “Because that will be the war that ends the world. Nobody will be coming back from that one.”
On the subject of death, it had not occurred to her to follow up with the odds of heaven or reincarnation. On this occasion, she neglected to mention the United Nations. Or the hope of treaties or détente. It did not occur to me to ask. What I did was look tearfully at my youngest brother (there were five of us by now) and cry, “But Matthew is so little!”
Death was bad enough. The death of me was worse. But nothing could be badder
than the molten destruction of every living thing on the planet and the forgetting of all history, the reduction of man to a state of being as though he had never been. The strain of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when we came eyeball to eyeball with the other fellow and thought the unthinkable thought of all-out nuclear war, remains with me to this day.
I remember dressing for school one October morning in 1962, probably not aware that our military forces had gone to DEFCON 2 (defense readiness condition), but aware enough to feel alarmed by my mother’s absence from our morning routine. I found her in the driveway tossing blankets, canned goods, and jugs of water into the back of the station wagon.
“Mom, what are you doing?”
“Getting ready, just in case.”
“Getting ready for what?”
“World War Three. Marty? If you hear sirens, get your coat, find your brother and sister and go outside to the front of the school. I’ll have Paul and Matt with me, so just wait, and we’ll come pick you up.”
“But where are we going?”
“We’ll drive up to the Catskill Mountains, we should be safe there.”
We had moved again, from Staten Island to Tuxedo Park, which was 40 miles north of Manhattan. My father worked in Manhattan.
“But what about Dad?” I asked.
“Oh no, we won’t be able to wait for him.”
“He’s in New York, that’s the first place they’ll hit.”
Death again, of my body, of the world and all the souls that ever lived. Was there hope, were there peacekeepers on the planet, was there God? And Dad—how could we just leave him? How could we be safe without him? And how were we going to escape nuclear annihilation by driving to the Catskills?
Is death the wasting loneliness I felt twenty years later when my mother called and mentioned in passing that my sister had tried to kill herself again? I burst into tears. My mother scolded, “Oh for heaven’s sake, Martha, this has been going on since 1971, you should be used to it by now.”
What happens to people when they die?
They go away and they never come back.
I never got used to the fear of losing my brilliant, prophetic, super-sensitive sister. I never knew when she was going to spin out of control, or if she did, what the consequences would be, hysterical laughter or rage, both of which could be terrifying, but even so, my worst fear remained losing her forever
I never conformed to the prospect of death—any death—my sister’s, my own, my cat’s, death in general, the stark-raving idea of death, the absolute wrongness of it, the cruel joke of it, the waste and mortal wound of it. Throughout my teenage years, the only nightmares I remember concerned the ending of the world. It ended in one of three ways: nuclear war, alien invasion or the collision of planets.
When people ask, “Why get so worked up over something you can’t control?” I want to scream, “But that is precisely the point!”
Perhaps death is the cold steel that years later pierced all my defenses when the doctor in the emergency room at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital held up a graph that had just come back from the lab.
“Do you see this line?” He pointed. “This line right here?” I could have sworn he was smirking. “This line indicates that you’ve had a heart attack.”
I stared for a moment at some empty, infinite space between the results of my blood test and the plans I had made for that day. “That’s ridiculous,” I said. “I feel fine. I want to go home.”
But they did not send me home. I lay confined to a gurney by the embarrassingly inadequate coverage of a hospital gown, tethered to a heart monitor and caught in a tangle of oxygen tubing, sticky electrodes, an IV, and a blood pressure cuff that clamped my arm like a boa constrictor at regular intervals. They had brought my heart rate down with a traumatizing injection of adenosine, and except for the shock of the drug, which had lasted a matter of seconds, I really did feel fine.
I had come to the ER to be told that I was having an anxiety attack, that’s all. A heart attack? Impossible. I felt torn between two responses: calling everyone stupid-ass fools, ripping off the IV tubing, electrodes and wires, leaping up and storming out of the ER to get on with my day; or collapsing into somebody’s arms and screaming, “Oh my God, am I dying?” I was trying to decide if the doctor really was smirking or if he just had a perpetually pleased-with-himself expression.
There was some talk about sending me upstairs for the night. For observation. I replied, “Oh no. No no no no no.” I hated hospitals. I had managed to avoid them for 54 years, except for the last 4 hours of my father’s life, which had not made me any fonder of them. I never got sick. I almost never went to the doctor. As for drugs, even aspirin disconcerted me.
Somehow, and for reasons not fully explained, it was decided that I should go to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, the shiny, state-of-the-art hospital outside Hanover, New Hampshire, an hour away. They were turning me over to the experts. I got pretty quiet after that. I asked how I was going to get there. They said in an ambulance. I asked them to call my priest. The handsome nurse named David, who had been watching over me since my arrival at the ER, offered to ride up with me. It seemed uncommonly kind.
But really, this was nonsense. I was healthy. I ate nutritious, unprocessed food. I worked out. I never got sick. I had no idea what it meant to have a fever, cold or flu. But the doctors at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital had looked at my 54 years and 324 pounds, my untreated diabetes, and my smoking habit, and thrown me into an ambulance and sent me off to the specialized care of Dartmouth-Hitchcock’s genius physicians.
Weeks later, a friend who is a nurse told me that sometimes when doctors find a patient who can be still be “saved,” they make a point of putting the fear of God into him or her. If that was the game plan behind my abduction, to scare me into making critical lifestyle changes even at the risk of raising a demon or two, I would have to say they overdid it. They had no idea what they were unleashing.
I sat in the back of the Rescue truck on that cold, sunny January afternoon, still hooked up to an IV and a heart monitor, with a blanket draped over my shoulders, making small talk with the uncommonly kind David and an EMT named Hannah, who happened to be the young daughter of my primary care physician. I kept the conversation going, as though obligated to keep them entertained, while alternating between feeling super real and wildly unreal. This stood so far beyond my routine and the scope of my life experience that my ability to grasp what was happening flickered unreliably like the flutter of white sunlight at the truck’s dusty back window.
At one point, I asked, “Am I in trouble?”
David said, “No, I don’t think so.” His tone was warm, gentle and reassuring. “I think this is your wake-up call.”
I had been kidnapped. Well-meaning people who did not understand my immense capacity for fear had whisked me away to a lonely place where cigarettes were not an option. All I had with me was my purse. I did not even have my glasses or the cleaning solution for my contact lenses, no comb, no toothbrush or floss, lipstick, ChapStickRor Tums, no music machine, nothing to write on, nothing to read. I did not own a cell phone, I had no way of contacting anyone, I had no family nearby. (I am told my priest arrived at the ER 3 minutes after we left.)
I was traveling in the wrong direction, north, miles away from my friends, my belongings, my books, and my home, all that was familiar and consoling to me.
They go away and they never come back.
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