My mother’s relatives on Long Island still had a pianola or player piano in their house, and all the relatives and I were standing in front of it, in the living room, not far from the front door. A tube of paper and a metal cylinder sprouted tines that looked like small animal teeth. One of my mother’s cousins (don’t remember which one, it was a large family) started the player and it was pure magic, that rickety metallic sound and the older relatives immediately singing along! “A Bicycle Built for Two” and “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.” Despite the compromised tone of the player piano you heard the melody, the most needed element for a sing-along. Having come from the World’s Fair and with all the frenzied progress assaulting one’s senses, and all the high-rise projects going up all over the city, and spaceships, and everything made from plastic injection molds, hearing this player piano and the crooning of older simpler tunes was a pleasant and balmy nostalgia, a parasol stroll down the tree-flowered lane into the Past, like Rod Serling’s great and most personal teleplay and story, “Walking Distance.” For better or worse you sensed that, two-thirds of the way through the crazy 20th Century, a huge gulf yawned between the 1960s and the century’s early years when my grandma and her siblings were kids like me. “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” compared with the current number 1 chart topper, “I Can’t Get No (Satisfaction).” The player piano was pretty much the last vestige of familial solidarity. In the early days it had been the hearth fire with reading and conversation, and maybe later a piano. Then during the gaslight period, a piano in the parlor or drawing room, which in many cases was replaced by a Victrola and then a radio as the family gathered for news broadcasts or their favorite serialized shows. And finally there was television—one television with black and white images and then later color—which provided some of the largest collective experiences of our nation . . . no more.

*

During his time in the merchant marine my grandfather had made it a point to ride a roller coaster in every port he visited, if there was one to ride: the higher, wilder, and crazier the roller coaster the better. According to family lore, he would ride the coaster once, get off and drink a beer, and then ride again, get off and drink another beer and then ride again, and so on. If he really liked the roller coaster, he would ride it an absurd number of times. Supposedly his favorite one was in Boston, which one night he’d ridden a total of 17 times! And that would have also meant 16 or 17 beers! Most likely he’d stopped after 10 or 12 beers, bearing in mind that he was the ship’s captain . . . were the roller coasters as good in other countries? As safe? I don’t think it would have mattered to him.

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With all the Friday traffic, we didn’t arrive at the cemetery offices until five minutes till four when the office closed. I told the mortuary representative who greeted me that I was looking for my parents’ graves. It had been eight years since I’d been here, and I couldn’t remember exactly where the plot was located. The representative was a well-dressed woman in a gray business suit, pleasant but reserved and somewhat guarded. She may have been put out by my end-of-business request—the business of the dead. She stepped into another room to find the location of the family plot and print out a map. The office was about to close . . .  I waited . . . I read something hanging on the wall: a long paragraph about a man who’d lived centuries ago in the middle east, and was a carpenter, and hadn’t done much with his life until his death at the age of 33. I was so weary from driving all afternoon that it took maybe 15 seconds before I realized the Catholic homily was talking about Jesus, the message being how much God as the Son, the man who hadn’t done very much on the surface, had ultimately changed everything. The woman from the mortuary returned with the map, and drew a circle for me around the family plot, and explained how to find it (finding the plot would soon prove to be a great deal more difficult than her tidy explanation). I asked her if I could use a restroom, and she appeared amused by my request, though I found nothing amusing about it, maybe I had a look of desperation—my bladder certainly wasn’t amused! With a complicit smile, the woman directed me to use the one in the conference room.

The sky was dark as lead at 4:00 on an August afternoon; air charged with electricity, thunderstorm just minutes away, and M. and I were wandering among the graves, searching for my parents, to no avail. The problem was that the graves hadn’t been well maintained, the cemetery grounds crew could only do so much, and ongoing maintenance and care was the responsibility of the families and/or loved ones. I was reminded of the scene at the beginning of “Night of the Living Dead” when Barbra and Johnny are at their father’s gravesite and Johnny is trying to spook Barbra by playing a zombie (“They’re coming for you, Barbra.”) until a real zombie approaches from out of nowhere, kills Johnny, and begins eating him. We had the perfect setting for a horror flick, but there was no horror here, only frustration. And we were visiting in the exact same time of year, almost to the day where, a decade earlier, I stood on this hill looking at the grave of my father, and then looked down the hill at my mother leaning against the car, still very much alive but unable to climb the gradual hill because of her polio leg and slippery grass. A year later, again, almost to the day, we buried her in the place where I now stood.

M. finally found them. A miracle! I had thrown out a couple more family names and she had discovered a grave with the name “Edythe Manss” my great aunt Edie and that meant my parents were close by. We tore away the grass that had partially grown over their names. What struck me at the time, after this crazy searching in the cemetery, was the impersonal character of it all. I don’t know, maybe we were in a hurry, and it was extremely hot and humid and on the verge of a massive storm. I looked at the markers, at the names of my mother and father, just names and dates like the rest of the stones and plaques that crowded this earth, though it had been more than that, much more. The  “more” lives on in my memory.

They never visited me in my dreams, never guided me or offered a revelation from the hereafter, or even a simple “hello.” But I do think of them. I keep pictures.

We left the burial grounds and headed to a local Shop-Rite, which had a bathroom for washing the soil and grass stains from our hands, and also a liquor store. Rush hour on a Friday afternoon, oppressively humid August misery, scurrying crowds, growl of thunder. Waiting for M. to come out of the bathroom, I recalled that, on this same street my parents would take me for ice cream custard summer nights at a Dairy Queen type of place, and across the road there was a German-American restaurant where the extended family (three of whom were in that family plot besides my parents) would go for sauerbraten and ox-tail soup on New Year’s Day. On the spot where I now stood there’d once been a chalet with an ice skating pond, and nearly six decades later, I waited for M. with those late 1950s memories and the present moment light years apart.

Initially he thought someone had left a sewing needle on the upstairs landing floor. The needle pierced a good half inch into the arch of his bare foot. It was around 1:00 AM and he was groggily padding back from the bathroom to his bed. The needle punctured his foot in the center of the arch and he screamed as a jolt of pain seized him, awareness of the damned pain and nothing else. He clutched his leg by the calf, just above the ankle, and began to hobble about, swearing and whimpering because of the burning pain. A night in September, the windows open, a cool and humidless breeze. His wife, Amaranta, switched on the light in the same moment he realized the impossibility of a sewing needle standing upright on a wooden floor. He continued to hobble and groan, with the pain of the stab somewhat abated, but a new swelling in the foot and a deep dull ache creeping up his leg.

“My God! What happened?” Amaranta nearly screamed.

“I don’t know! I don’t know!”

“Oh my God!” she said, pointing at the floor.

A bee. Not an ordinary honey or bumble bee or hornet. An unusual bee. Large. Maybe an inch-and-a-half in length, the thorax a black banded yellow like a hornet’s but the abdomen an amber color, almost brown, and shiny like a chestnut. The bee crept slowly and tentatively across the carpet, appearing drained of its vitality, its essence, twitching the diaphanous membranes of its wings. The shock of something incalculably heavier, a weight bearing down to crush it had triggered the defensive barb, perhaps maimed in the split-second effort and now spent of its life force. Amaranta, his wife (he reminded himself), leapt out of bed, and hefting a thick catalog finished off what remained of that life force.

“We couldn’t let it live,” she said, justifying her small murder. “Look what it did to you! And what species of bee is this?” she said peering at the smashed body cautiously. “I’ve never seen it. Do you think it’s a queen?”

“Probably not. I see these bees around the apple tree. A queen is rare. It might be a drone . . . Oww!”

“Hold on, I’ll get an ice pack.”

His wife’s footfalls faded down the stairs. He waited for her to return. The pain had moved as far up as his thigh, the entire shaft of his leg clamped in a throbbing leaden ache, his foot swollen and red and numb. He’d suffered bee stings before but nothing like this, nothing of this magnitude of pain. Normally he’d wind up with a slightly pink and swollen pox that didn’t spread much beyond the wound. He could not stand on two feet because of the bee sting. He was effectively crippled.

He applied the ice packs and that produced a minimal soothing of the inflammation. He laid one pack against the sole of his foot and another against his calf just above the ankle and Achilles’ tendon. He tossed and squirmed on the bed in darkness, and it felt easier in the dark to concentrate on the pain working through him, the toxin seeping through his veins and arteries and muscle tissue. In the dark he heard his wife’s soft but indifferent voice.

“Do you want to go to the hospital?”

“No, I’ll be alright,” he said.

“This is weird. Did you see the size of that bee? He must have shot his wad and injected you with a stream of poison.”

He said nothing in reply but lingered on the tone of her voice, deferential as a spouse perhaps, but detached, no genuine empathy, no cuddling or concern, as if he were a stranger to her or certainly someone of less significance than her husband. They hadn’t been in love for the past year or longer, and this minor injury, this silly unfortunate accident somehow pointed up the rote sterility of their feelings for one another, especially the coldness of his wife.

“You poor thing,” she offered, but there was no affection in her tone and she would not caress or even touch him.

“Should I get more ice?”

“No, thanks. Go to sleep.”

The pain kept him awake for another two hours.

A sting, like a cut, manages to strip away whatever hazy illusion or self-deception your mind was enslaved to in the moment and abruptly brings the world into sharper focus and makes you pay attention. Your senses are cleansed. You see the fragile impermanent stuff we’re all made of and react like a child to the bruise, the welt, the blood issuing from its shocked vessels and fanning across your skin. You rejoin Nature because in that vulnerable state, weakened and anguished, you are reminded that you’re linked to other creatures who meet similar assaults and meet those assaults a lot more frequently and that you share Life with them and with other people on this planet and you’re really not alone after all. The paradox is that often in damaging a part of the body the mind is momentarily healed.

He slept a few hours and in the morning headed off to work. The pain from the sting appeared gone and there was only minor inflammation. He’d not slept well. Apart from tossing and turning in pain, he’d been more acutely aware of the familiar emotional chasm that gaped wide between him and his wife. In a fog of confusion and isolation he somehow took solace in the plain fact he wasn’t hurting as bad—on both fronts.

But by mid-afternoon, ensconced in his office cubicle, he began feeling pain and pressure in the region of his ankle. He looked down and saw a grossly swollen ankle, lower leg and foot! He slipped off the moccasin and peeled away his sock: the entire foot and ankle had become so swollen and mottled with rash that it looked as if he’d succumbed to elephantiasis, like a photograph he’d once seen in National Geographic depicting tribesmen with similar grotesque appendages resulting perhaps from the bite of a tsetse fly. He attributed the sudden rash and swelling to a downward flow of blood into the extremity and immediately raised his leg to the level of his hip in hopes of reducing the pain and discomfort of the engorged foot. He had never experienced anything quite like it—after 12 or 13 hours his body somehow still carried bee toxin and it would take another evening and a goodnight’s rest before all traces of the sting had disappeared.

“For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow
Which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.”
– Khalil Gibran

This is how you check for a pulse . . . Place two fingers, preferably the middle and index finger, on the carotid artery. I’ve seen it done many times in movies and on television. Police detectives did it, and doctors, murderers, and loved ones. Now I did it. I placed two fingers on my mother’s carotid artery. Her death rattle had ceased, but the throes had taken so long it was hard to tell if her dying was truly over. I wait for some next thing and cannot quite come to terms with permanent cessation, with an ending. My mother’s face is frozen, the eyes fixed in a surprised gorgon’s glare. Check . . . two fingers . . . is there a pulse? Check again, to be certain . . . yes, there is no pulse . . . the energy, the life force, spirit or soul has dispersed, vacated, flown off somewhere, leaving a husk. The body is now much like an empty house and “the remains” takes on a double meaning. I am stunned with a vague but guilty relief of having nothing more to do. The pulse stopped beating only moments ago, belonged to the person who’d made my life possible 56 years ago. I would not be here if it hadn’t been for her, and now she’s not here, and I think of holding each of my children seconds after they were born, and there are no words that adequately limn these passages into and out of being—into here and gone. This is the mirrored other end.
*
Her limb was always cold, especially the calf but the thigh too, which as a boy I would not be able to place my hand there very often if at all, possibly those times when she was in a deep sleep. The entire leg was a chilled muscle-less tube of inert flesh and it needed to be borne along by the locomotion of the good leg and hip, as if it were some vagabond hitching a free ride . . . step forward, pull and drag, step forward, and so on . . . When sitting (and I observed this most when she was getting into the car) the dead leg was hoisted toward her with the hand beneath the crook of the knee, raised and then lowered into position parallel with the good leg. I may have written it about it before and wonder if writing about your mother’s dead limb is somehow relevant. Does a dead limb have relevance?
*
A ring of haze around the cemetery, like a weird telephoto shot, some movie cliché, a scrim overlaying the all too green grass hugging gravestones and the white of marble or pale gray of granite and distant black-clad figures — clergy, mortician, and mourners, their heads bowed, blots of color from the flowers that littered the coffin. Perhaps it was the lawn sprinklers or the summer heat and humidity that caused the haze. And why did they always die in summer? June, July, August; father in June; maternal grandmother in July; mother in August, as though Death wanted to make a more poignant statement, no cold and barren landscapes for The Reaper, he was all about equal opportunity regarding the seasons.

In August nearly one year before burying my mother, I had driven her to the cemetery. Because of her limp from polio, she did not want to climb part way up the hill to the family plot, so I walked up for her and for myself to check on the graves. It was a warm day but with a parched wind . . . I looked at the grave markers of my father, three of my grandparents, and a great aunt. There was only one unused grave left. I looked at the names on all the bronze plaques and then the one marker that was blank, and then I looked up and down the hill at my mother leaning against the car and felt an uneasy stirring over the certainty of her place in this ground. I thought my mother seemed years away from death, but one year later she would be in this family burial site with the rest of them. She didn’t want to stick around. She had waited 11 long years. She wanted to be with my father.

And my mother must have had the stirring herself, maybe in anticipation of the cancer that within a few months would begin to consume her. She said it had been a great day, and I agreed, and when we returned to her apartment, she brought out from her papers a ruled yellow sheet with instructions for her service and burial. She wanted no viewing, no embalming, no special casket obviously. The cost of other funerals, including my father’s, had turned her against the death business, it didn’t make sense to her, spending all that money. We would simply meet at the undertakers on the day of burial, my brother and I would give spiritual readings and people were free to pay their respects, and we would buy our own flowers, and afterwards the mourners, if they chose to, could join us for lunch and then head back to their lives. The plans were simple, the way she liked things.
*
Early evenings are usually her best time. After dinner she watches TV and I watch TV with her. It is June, already too warm and muggy, especially in the high-rise apartment that lacks any window except in the single bedroom. The main room has a sliding glass door with a screen but lately she wants the door closed because of the traffic noise outside. When the room becomes too claustrophobic and I need air, I step through the sliding door and stand on a small balcony. The building is on Prospect Avenue, one of the most elevated streets in Hackensack where the Piedmont fall line runs through, and the view up here at night is impressive, perhaps beautiful, with the plain of glittering lights and the illuminated bridges that feed into the wall of the Manhattan skyline. But there is also a touch of alienation in the anonymous lights, a sterile loneliness not unlike the made bed in her bedroom where I will sleep because my mother has to sleep in the living room on a hospital bed. I am less than 10 feet from her the whole time but she seems miles away, asleep mostly. The myriad lights of Hackensack, Teaneck, Leonia, Fort Lee pulse and sparkle. My mother calls my name. She needs me to lift her onto the portable toilet.

In the morning I wake her and lift her near weightless body into the wheelchair and move the chair as close to our breakfast table as possible. A TV morning news show might be on in the background, or maybe not. We drink cups of weak chock-full-o-nuts coffee with whole milk and glance at the newspaper headlines and talk. Less interested in the coffee, my mother drinks orange juice and takes some bites of toast. She inhales from a small purple disk labeled “Advair.” There are pill bottles and other medications arrayed along the table, caps and vials to mitigate pain and terminal illness. There is the wheelchair, the gurney, the linens and shiny bed pan. A patch of sun spills through the balcony French doors and makes a pale block on the taupe living room carpet . . . this is what the end of a life looks like . . . sometimes . . . much of the time. . . .
*
I land in a basement corridor. There are plastic trays sliding on metal racks, the clinking of dishes, plates and silverware, the voices of hospital kitchen workers who prepare the meals that are served in the cafeteria and who clean up the mess and empty the garbage. Their presence is somehow reassuring, Life going on. Double doors swing open—a sharp bump, oiled hinges, and then slamming shut, though quietly, nothing too abrupt. I linger here for some time, a cold dispassionate observer, before noticing the elevator. The light above the doors is stuck on the number four, the fourth floor, but as the doors open the light remains on number four. I step from the elevator onto the fourth floor and check for patient room numbers. I realize I was 12 years younger than I’d been a few minutes earlier, and in a different hospital, which doesn’t matter because all hospitals feel the same at their core: the same starched staff, the same flowers and Mylar balloons, the same gurneys and IVs and surgery wings, the same TV images flickering with a nagging false urgency and importance in patients’ rooms, the same convalescing, the same dying, the same boredom . . . In fact, why check for room numbers? I’ve been here many times before and know my way around reasonably well. The door is shut most of the way so I ease it open, unsure if I’ll find my father or mother lying there, but if I’m really 12 years younger, then it would have to be my father . . . or maybe it would be me. One can never be too sure.

My father is sleeping after one of the hospital’s many surgeries—futile intrusions upon a dying body to keep the machinery of modern medicine working and profitable. Father’s on a morphine drip and unaware of my presence, the IV tree at his bedside like a sterile harbinger alongside a food tray with some uneaten applesauce (why is there always applesauce?). Racing cars circle endlessly on the television above him, a loud and modulated drone, like a swarm of bees with little change in motion, the same few cars in front moving up and then falling slightly behind. Around and around they go with their incessant hum, with their constant looping speed and drone. There’s something Zen-like in the televised drag race, and perhaps the monotony helps to keep my father asleep which is where he needs to be at the moment. I can’t speak with him. The cars spin endlessly around the track until I switch off the television set and leave the hospital. A line of mourners gathers across the street, so I thread my way through the crush of bodies to the head of the line where the pall bearers are loading the casket into the hearse. The undertaker mentions something about my following him, about being in the lead car with the immediate family. There are 20 or more other cars in the procession, displaying those orange signs with the word “Funeral” in bold black letters. Am I attending my burial? (I could be in the casket, the casket is closed). And which parent is this? A barber pole incongruously stands on the sidewalk near the hearse, a phallic glass twisting of red, white and blue. I had gotten my hair cut before both funerals. The routine made sense because at the time I’d wanted to look presentable and well-groomed for the viewing and burial of both my parents, and I was certain they would have wanted me to look my best. The man who’d cut my hair when my father died was an 80-year-old barber who’d been cutting hair for the past six decades—old school of course—attentive, talkative but not overly so, the clipping and snipping so ingrained in him by now that he could cut hair in his sleep, his thumb and forefinger squeezing shears of air while he dreams . . . I remember the barber was in his 80’s and my father was already gone by his early 60’s. Obviously, I bore no resentment toward him but sitting in the pleather chair and making small talk I had been trying to sort out some fundamental unfairness in the cosmic scheme of things . . . when my mother died my haircutter was young and inexperienced and she gave me a pretty bad haircut . . . I genuflect at the base of the barber pole on the sidewalk and make the sign of the Greek Orthodox cross. I then hear “Adagio for Strings” as I climb into the back of the hearse and hoist my body up until it is sprawled prone across the casket . . . .
*
When they are leaving you there isn’t much you can do except be there with them, a presence in their presence. They are often heavily drugged and asleep, and if not asleep and not eating, then possibly incoherent and far away. They may be aware of you but their speech is often desultory and fragmented, sometimes surreal and humorous. You help with whatever meager skill you can marshal under the circumstances—possibly feed them or give them drink, re-position their body on the bed, procure more ice chips, find the TV remote and either turn the TV off or change the channel. You may stroke or kiss their brow, hold and squeeze their hands hoping for a reciprocal tension, some response, but you honestly don’t need a response, you shouldn’t have any expectation of them acknowledging you or thanking you for your care, and don’t take it personally, it is not about you at all. They are simply leaving, their bodies slipping from your confused grasp. And it’s the idea of total release that seems hardest to wrap one’s mind around. I try to imagine total release from the body—the energy, the soul that has animated the body and quickened the flesh for decades—being cataclysmically dispersed and scattered into the larger or exterior world, or space for that matter. Space then takes on a double meaning. We have the “space” of “outer space,” the cosmos, but then there’s the space immediately surrounding us, the air beyond the tips of our fingers, the crown of our head and the pores of our skin. The two really are not that different when you stop and think about it. Space is space. We are released into nothing. I try to conceive of nothing. I get a mental handle on merging with space and nothing, no separateness, no personal wrapper of energy we call “self” but simply rejoining the universe or space from whence we came. There is no longer harm or hurt to the volatile ego, or pain or shock to the flesh, nothing remotely threatening or horrifying; so why is it then that I’m still occasionally scared shitless by the thought of Death? I believe these memories and musings, random and disjointed as they may appear, will serve as a personal check list of eschatology the way my mother’s notepad once did.
*
God, the way they decorate these rooms. The placement of flower vases, of overstuffed armchairs and settees and Ottomans, all so artificial and bland, neutral, characterless, a staged representation of Life. They are called homes, but they’re not homes, homes are for living people, these places are theater sets for the Dead. The living people, when they do gather here, are only gathered for the purpose of paying their final respects to the deceased, and the rooms and furniture are so many props on a stage set. The bereaved and their guests greet one another and talk. “I’m so sorry for your loss.” “It’s been a long time, hasn’t it? How are you and how is so-and-so.” The guests’ talk is predictably hushed, though a little hurried and tense too, a conversation to establish a secure wave of presence above the undertow of certain mortality. (“Hey, we’re still here, you and me. Have you heard the one about the duck who walks into a bar?”) Sometimes the gathering is large, a room full of people holding finger pastries and coffee and engaged in roughly the same level of sibilant chatter and laughter as at a staid gala reception turned down a decibel or two.
*
The day of the surgery to remove half his lung, I drive my father to the University of Pennsylvania Hospital. It’s Thursday and Thursdays are heavily scheduled for lung surgeries, a kind of lung surgery factory—albeit in a highly reputable university hospital. As I am leaving the hospital that morning, the nursing staff informs me that I’ll be contacted when my father is out of surgery, probably around dinner time. But I don’t receive a phone call telling me he’s out of surgery until around until around 9:00 PM (late dinner time). It is mid-June and still light outside, or twilight, as I drive back to the hospital and step into a scene of human wreckage called the post-op area where patients have undergone major surgery to possibly extend their lives. I see good being done here, lives being saved, but at what cost? Movable beds and gurney, IVs’, chrome and stainless steel, lines, but I’m affected most by the smell and especially the sounds: groans and pleas and anger and shock and fear and talk thick with morphine and the big hum and bleeps of monitors and saline solution drips. (He’s not coming back. I’m not coming back. None of us will ever come back).

He recognizes me and I’m not sure if anyone in my life has ever been so glad to see me in that moment, and he’s my father, and it’s good to see him in post-op recovery, but he is also wiped out, exhausted, and drained in a way that’s unsettling. As fraught with relief and a guarded optimism that the moment has to offer I realize his death in the same moment. He’d been careless with his body, indulging a tobacco habit that would ultimately kill him, aided by the toxic environment of paper mills where he’d worked since his late teens up until a few years ago. Forty years in paper mills and smoking for close to half a century. He is 61, and seeing him here now—groggy, disoriented, bantering with the black nurse and trying to make light of having just lost half a lung (his pact for two or three extra years)—will be the official start of him dying. And I need to be here for it . . . I need to witness and understand. . . .
*
They had deposited him so carelessly following a different surgery, nearly two years later. It was as if they’d already given up on him, a near lifeless shape on the bed, his frail limbs uncovered. I was reminded of the way a marionette is suddenly collapsed when the puppeteer releases the strings and lets it fall in a tangled heap. Yes, if I hadn’t gotten some official message to the contrary, I would have assumed him gone that time.
*
And I had a dream a week after he died. In the dream he was driving a black hearse and pulled along the curb on the side of our house, and ushered me in. I was ordered to sit in the back seat directly behind him, staring at the back of his head the entire time we drove. I never once saw his face. I looked at the rear view mirror where I knew his face should be, but it was empty, no reflection. I felt shame and foreboding staring at the back of his head. The dream imagery was reminiscent (or influenced by?) a scene out of Cocteau’s Orphee’ where the limousine driver, Hertebeuse, ferries Orpheus and the others into Hades, and once in Hades the black-and-white film of the landscape becomes a negative and the car radio emits messages of gibberish that Orpheus interprets as profound poetry, a new type of Muse.
*
There’s an announcement when you arrive and an announcement when you depart, a life’s experience compressed into a brief understandable narrative. From one moment in time to another moment in time. The Nazi philosopher Heidegger defined ‘living’ or ‘existence’ as “presencing in Time.” Mark Twain was born and died in two passes or one cycle of Halley’s Comet—76 years. Twain’s life was illustrious and adventurous but also one of remarkable success and senseless tragedy neatly enclosed by the parentheses of a recurring celestial event. Maybe the passage of Time is all we ever really do and the rest we make up, as difficult as that may be for some of us to accept.

After growing to adulthood, the body is always in the process of breaking down, but there comes a point at which you are “painfully” aware of it. You feel the body’s small failures: you have aches and pains; you grow tired more easily; you look in a full length mirror (or maybe not if you dread what you may find there). You have always been both tenant and caretaker of the dwelling known as your body, but over time the caretaker role becomes more prominent and busy so the dweller can continue to dwell. You avoid falls; you monitor your blood pressure and get annual flu shots; you eschew the mainstream vices altogether or cut down; you see doctors more often . . . these are all good things. When the dwelling is on the verge of abandonment, you may even try taking it back to church or accept the visitation and prayers of a clergyman at your hospital bedside, or finger a rosary or, foregoing Christian ritual altogether, read aloud from the Bhagavad-Gita. I’ve decided I will read from the Gita and finger the rosary, and read the Bible and the Quran, Jain texts and other sundry scripture, and allow a dozen holy men and women, mystics, and sages to occupy my bed before that terminal moment as a hedge on the afterlife. I need all the professional shamans I can get to bless and shepherd my spirit to the other side, and I’ll take whatever they’re offering: wine and wafer, holy water, incense, lotus flowers, ashes, last rites, anything . . . it’s as if you are climbing the first hill of an incredibly steep roller coaster and you kind of know but don’t know what’s coming so you hold on real tight to the bar, and once you have crested that hill the descent can be terrifying but by then you know everything will be alright for all eternity, so you loosen your grip a little on that bar and eventually you’re done with the ride altogether and no longer need to hold on.
*
A huge problem is the logistics of dealing with: “Where are you?” We may muse and wonder about an afterlife, heaven, etc., but frankly it’s the unequivocal vacancy left by the departed that is the hardest thing to grasp. Screw that “he/she is in a better place” stuff. No, I’m afraid the better place would have been here with you—after all, it’s what we know. And it isn’t only the physical presence of the departed that’s missing; there are letters and bills addressed to them and the realization when you habitually pick up the phone to call. You often sense their spirit in nature, or in individual objects, or a pet you may have acquired. It is more about animism than reincarnation (though it might all boil down to the same thing). The animistic impulse is strong.
*
Five days after my father died a small palm tree was delivered to my apartment, a sympathy gift from co-workers. The palm tree stood three-and-a-half-feet high and was already too large for the pot it had been delivered in from the florist. As emotionally and mentally drained as I was from the details of burial, I right away sensed this palm carried the soul or spirit of my father. After I’d moved back home with my wife and kids I kept re-potting the palm into larger pots so its roots would crawl and suck and cling deeper into the soil. I moved the growing palm outdoors every May and left it to thrive in warmth and sunshine until late October, and it grew to a height of nearly ten feet, grew so tall and massive (not unlike my father) that when I moved the tree back indoors its crown would bend mashed against the nine-foot ceiling, fronds fanning out and splayed along the plaster. My wife and kids jokingly named the palm tree after my father because I’d told them the story, and once I’d perceived that palm tree as being my father, then I never lost the perception or self-imposed myth that the palm tree really was him but in different form. I had the tree for a number of years but eventually needed to sell it during a period of financial stress. At the time I felt that I was selling a part of my body and maybe in some strange, hidden, cellular way, that’s true, as it is in the Tibetan Book of the Dead or any arcane text of metempsychosis.
*

Fragment from Family Memoir

December 27, 2014

The following draft was first started at the end of 2009, and there is a lot more writing connected to it but I’m posting this fragment for the time of year.
–SL

It was on Christmas night when I first saw my dead parents. In keeping with my Yuletide ritual of getting quietly drunk, I began to feel expansive with holiday mirth and ventured outside to walk my dog. It had snowed briefly the night before and a mantle of white lay on the houses and cars and streetlamps, on the trees and bushes lit up with Christmas lights. But tonight was clear and brilliant. Orion tilted above me, the stars Almitak, Almilan and Mintaka — the Hunter’s belt stars — evenly spaced apart. The air had a bite when you drew it deeply into your lungs, frosting the nose hairs. My dog and I were the only souls on the street. I wanted to reach out and touch the heavens. I thought of other galaxies. I thought of other stars.

But when I re-entered my house I was immediately consumed by the smell of boiling tongue. A big cow’s tongue boiling in one large iron pot and skinned potatoes boiling in another; a pale gray scum frothing on the surface of both pots like a head on cheap beer. As a boy, on cold winter evenings, I had nearly always entered the house at Wayward Avenue through the back door which faced Larchmont Avenue and which led into our kitchen, coming in maybe after a snowball fight or skating in the woods or delivering the evening newspaper, coming into warmth and into a cloud of steam that smelled of salty meat and starchy potatoes, the cloud moving against a thicker, more tar-toxic one of cigarette smoke, as if the clouds were colliding fronts roiling in their fused and respective densities. And my parents emerged like apparitions from this acrid pall of vapors swathed in nicotine; my parents were there suddenly, seated or moving about in the cramped kitchen. They were real and this was the heart of the home.

Welcome . . . .

The rancid odors were so solid, so literally in your face and earthy (we were all Taurus’s in my family), that some of my friends would become nauseous upon entering the house and we’d then have to leave and head back into frigid January darkness to resuscitate our sinuses. I barely noticed the odors back then, though I now recoil in horror from this scene a half century later. I could tolerate the smell, and was maybe a little queasy at the sight of tongue, but I could not stand the taste of tongue and boiled potatoes. I lathered the tongue with copious amounts of Gulden’s brown mustard and attempted to melt frozen chips of butter on the grayish white boiled potatoes. Even then I would often gag and commence a filibuster in hopes of having my plate removed. With my knife I had to trim the rind of taste buds from the tongue meat.

I was momentarily pulled back into 2009. The time was 8:41. 8:41 appeared on the stove clock and the Cable TV receiver. I saw 8:41 on my alarm clock and my cell phone, on my PC and microwave oven, any appliance that haunted you with digital time in bright red, amber or yellow-green numbers. The street address of the house I grew up in — the house of the boiling tongue and boiling potatoes — was 841 Wayward Avenue. And somehow the minute became eternal.

Welcome to Our World. . . .

An early morning in January. My parents are in the pitch dark kitchen with no breakfast cooking at first, just the bitter smell of coffee and cigarettes. Their cigarette ends are glowing coals, signals from opposite shores, one if by land, two if by sea . . . coffee . . . burning tobacco . . . eventually the smell of a toasted English muffin slightly charred along its rim. My father ate the muffin with a liberal topping of margarine and honey (Golden Blossom) — two amber pools with clots of wan yellow in the slight concavity of its warmed halves. As I tried to wake up, I’d often stare at the honey pools because the muffin had often been saved until the main part of breakfast had been consumed—eggs sunny-side up with bacon, ham, or even a flank steak. The honey would often run and drip as my father bit into the muffin, and he liked to keep a portion of it to sop up the smear of egg yolk on his plate. He would then light a Marlboro and have another cup of coffee, ladling and stirring spoonfuls of white sugar into his porcelain cup (and at a later time, Sweet-and-Lo). He seemed to crave a lot of sugar.

There was also a sleepy minimal conversation among the glowing coals, only those few words needed for daily survival: “one more cigarette and coffee.” “do you have your keys?” “call you later.” And in the large interstices of conversation, the small tinny radio: crooner songs, big band nostalgia, pop hits, chatter, and numerous spots like:

Welcome to Our World. Welcome to the World of TWA!

The kitchen had been a tight space for five people and sometimes a couple more on Sundays and Thursday nights when my other grandmother and great aunt joined us. The kitchen. . . Linoleum floor. Half paneled walls even more dulled by stains of nicotine. Formica counter tops. A tarnished plastic laminate dining table with black metal legs. A cat clock on the wall. Several plastic ashtrays holding crude pyramids of butts. A plastic napkin holder sculpted in the shape of a phallic looking mushroom. Yellowing white cabinets with black metal handles. A working waffle iron and toaster that my grandmother had won at a Catholic church bingo game in 1929, the year of the Big Crash, a sturdy iron relic of a happy prosperous decade when supposedly everything was still right in the world just before everything collapsed.

Black Friday and the Cider Press

In the fall of 2004, recently divorced, trying to house three teenagers, and close to personal bankruptcy, I took a second job selling color printers as a store rep. at Best Buys. The job had been referred to me through a friend at my day job. I was less than thrilled about spending my weekends working as a retail sales person, but I desperately needed to earn more money, to keep the wolf from the door so to speak. It seemed like the right move at the time.

I was required to work at least one weekend shift of 5-7 hours until Thanksgiving, and then two weekend shifts of 5-7 hours between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and a Thursday or Friday night when possible. But the biggest day—the long, grueling, brutish, dazzling, loathsome and maniacal day—would be Black Friday. Black Friday . . . The time of year when merchandise (and especially electronic, digital merchandise) was seized, pillaged and trundled from stores with a speed and frenzy only seen in violent action movies. The ultimate gift: Technology. Gadgets and appliances that would soon become worthless, and ultimately wind up on the tables of every yard sale and flea market in 7 to 10 years. I sold photo printers.

My work largely consisted of standing in the aisle near the printers I was hawking and performing demos and answering consumers’ questions to the best of my knowledge. It was straight hourly pay, there were no commissions based on the number of printers or ink tanks you sold. I printed many color photos for display. I loaded inks and photo paper. I occasionally talked to or bantered with store reps of rival printer manufacturers (names withheld) who were competing with me for sales. About once an hour I would abandon my station and either stroll around the store, eyeing the latest merchandise, or take a short rest in the break room. And the whole time I was trying not to think too much about how my life had come to this, driving a junk car to Best Buys every Saturday and Sunday to sell photo printers because I was trying to save my house and mortgage and teenage kids because my ex- had moved to Montana, and that I was exhausted with no prospect of financial solvency, no less finding love (as if I needed that), or even a bit of peace and relaxation on the horizon. I was trying not to think too much about anything. I was trying to survive.

But then I remembered something . . . I remembered the cider press . . . the sound of the apples tumbling into the hopper, their spectra of color, the juice oozing from the press as a rich russet(?) intoxicating drink. Yes, it had been 10 years and then 8 years, but a long time since I was standing on this mountain ridge in the Catskill Mountains of New York, standing next to a blazing campfire. It was a crisp, cold Friday after Thanksgiving and I was splitting wood for the fire and drinking Irish Whiskey between falls of the axe. My family was spending Thanksgiving weekend, from Friday through Sunday, with my friend’s family at their country house. The sky was a brilliant blue but would soon darken quickly this time of year and make a reddish dying light in the winter woods. My friend and I took turns splitting logs, and the exertion of swinging a wedge maul while drinking whiskey spread a welcome heat throughout my body.

By late afternoon the air turned colder and the kids tossed a football and dashed through the edge of the forest shouting in the mutable shadows of the firelight. My friend joined them, horsing around, saying “I feel like Joe Kennedy!” Our wives were inside the house heating up abundant Thanksgiving leftovers, but it was too early to care about food, so I stayed outside and stoked the fire, smoking a pipe or cigar and drinking fresh hot cider laced with rum. When ice formed along the gutter and drain, and the metallic polar wind became more piercing, then it was time to head inside. The day was pretty much over by that point anyway, and I felt pleasantly warm and lethargic. The kids had already eaten dinner and they would stay up and play games and watch movies for a while, and the adults might have coffee and talk around the table, but it was all anti-climactic. Everything in the mountains revolved around being outdoors, and possibly later, if I hadn’t fallen asleep and the night was clear, I’d step out on the deck for a smoke and meditate on the 10 million stars scattered and fused upon the night sky. Here was a Thanksgiving weekend that was pitch perfect. Two years later we reprised the same weekend, more or less.

But Thanksgiving in 2004 was unseasonably warm. My kids, who’d spent those Thanksgivings in the mountains ten years earlier, were now in high school, and my younger son, aged 14, was flying to Montana to visit his mother for the holiday. I had dropped him off in South Philadelphia at his aunt’s house (with whom he was traveling) a few hours before the flight. My youngest son’s twin sister and my oldest son, who was a high school senior, would be staying with me. It would only be the three of us for Thanksgiving—the smallest number I could recall in my life. No relatives or friends as in past years, no large settings for 20 people, or happily when it was just the five of us. We were pretty much a broken family by now, but not badly broken.

I ended up making way too large a turkey for the three of us, but there would be plenty of leftovers. While the turkey roasted, my oldest son, daughter and I headed up to the high school to watch the football game. It was a quiet day compared with Thanksgivings past, no involvement with extended families or any real stress to speak of. Dinner was enjoyable, but once it was over my son and daughter both separately left the house to visit friends, and then it was just me and the dog. I ate pie, drank wine and read, maybe watched a bit of TV before bedtime. And during this solitary period, which normally would have been fine and dandy if I could have sunk further into wine inebriation, I was dreading the morning and putting off going to sleep early because of it. When I finally did turn in, I set the alarm clock for 3:30.

What followed a few hours later had all the trappings of a waking dream or nightmare. I slept fitfully for approximately five hours and awoke with a creeping alertness. I downed some coffee and left the house. The highways were already abnormally busy with traffic for this hour. I reached Best Buys at around ten minutes to 4:00, only to be greeted with a horrifying sight beyond my expectations, the line elongating around the building like some enormous Chinese dragon, its tail poking into the adjacent parking lot. Hundreds of people! I parked far in the back of the store and followed the snaking line around to the front entrance where a crush of bodies pressed and shoved against the locked glass doors as if they were storming The Winter Palace or The Bastille.

I managed to reach the front entrance of the store a minute before the doors were opened, and once opened the scene was reminiscent of the Running of the Bulls at Pamplona. I had wrongfully thought that I would still be able to help people with answering questions about printers, but not this morning. My primary task in the belly of the beast named Black Friday was to stand at the head of the printer aisle and make sure the mob only headed down my aisle in one direction, guiding them, keeping everyone moving—not unlike herding cattle—toward the gleaming altar of cash registers. The herded shoppers could not turn against the current for risk of being knocked down and trampled. And looming above the murmur and writhing river of bodies, was that giant, impossible-to-be-ignored, poster (a few of them, in fact, strategically placed throughout the store): “Seinfeld: The First Four Seasons on DVD” Jerry, George, Elaine, Kramer—the Beatles of Sitcom TV. A treasure indeed. Why, the entire Black Friday scene would have made a great Seinfeld episode.

I also helped fetch printers and photo paper when those items were out of reach, loading them into some thankless shopper’s cart (any politeness, civility, or decorum had been cast to the winds). In this capacity I was really working for the store and not my brand. I realized that, out of six or seven regular store reps who sold printers, there was only one other rep who’d shown up with me, and all of the reps had warned me not to bother coming in at 4:00am because you wouldn’t really be able to do your job. Nonetheless, my district manager had insisted I be there, merely a smiling presence, so we could gain a slight advantage over our competitors whose printers were basically selling without any human intervention at all.

It ended around 7:00. Three hyper and adrenalin-fueled hours. I left the store and drove home for a long break, but I would be returning some time late morning and then another shift in late afternoon. At home I made a large breakfast and drank several cups of coffee. I walked the dog, my senses felt somewhat cleansed but I was spiritually drained in the way you feel after a night of tripping on acid or mescaline. And there was something oddly triumphant about having gotten through the past four hours. For people who make a career in retail sales this was certainly no big deal, but for me it had been, because for whatever strange reason I had needed to experience a cultural and social ritual that I found largely repellent. It was the role of desperate worker who needed money that had brought me out at 4:00 in the morning, and it was only in that role I had been able to understand and appreciate the mob at Best Buys. Consumers had chosen to be there, to get the sale on a high-ticket item, especially a popular one that everyone coveted. I would have still been in bed, sleeping off my Thanksgiving excess. I had never come out early on Black Friday to shop.

I was transported back to the Catskill Mountains, taking walks on the mountain road in the morning and early afternoon. Deer season had started and you could hear random gunshots all along the ridge. By early afternoon my friend and I would begin splitting more wood and commence building a new fire, sometimes from a few hot coals at the bottom of the ash heap in the huge stone ring. We talked about a range of subjects in a kind of stream-of-consciousness dialogue—the best kind—and Thanksgiving weekend in the early winter forest, chopping wood and pressing cider, was the perfect time and place for talking. When the first kindling caught and crackled, and it was only around noon, I knew I would have several more hours of the country, the fire, and apple cider with rum, Irish whiskey, and turkey leftovers and pie with tea or coffee. Was there really anything better than to be with your children and wife and friends, and everyone is in good spirits and having a wonderful time? How is it that Thanksgiving can be so vastly different across the years? I guess Christmas is capable of such differences too, but I never felt quite the extremes as I did here, and while New Year’s has hit some exhilarating highs and miasma lows, you somewhat expect that from New Year’s, not Thanksgiving.

I worked many hours over Black Friday weekend, around 10 hours on Friday, and then another six on Saturday. As I was driving home following my second shift on Friday afternoon, my cell phone rang and I pulled over. It was my 14-year-old son calling from Montana. It felt great to hear his voice. He had just taken a chair lift to the top of a mountain somewhere near Glacier Park where the view was spectacular. The weather was bitter cold and windy of course, and my son was enjoying a cup of tea with his mother and aunt, and having a great time overall. I had spent time in Montana and could picture the scene as he narrated for me. I was happy for him; I had thought it would be a worthwhile experience at his age, something he wouldn’t forget or dismiss later in life. But at that moment he sounded so far away—not just in physical miles, but in the reality of his Thanksgiving and mine. His Thanksgiving was closer to those of the fire and cider press, and this time in the Rockies instead of the Appalachians, but definitely closer in spirit to where I presently was—suburban shopping malls in South Jersey.

The rest of the holiday season was pretty much a blur as far as selling printers, but it was okay. I worked up until Christmas, and I had also spent a very long day at the hospital with my oldest son when he had undergone knee surgery for a torn ACL. And I still had my day job with no time off. Toward the end of the month the home computer died, and we didn’t have another, so on top of everything else, I shopped for a new one, which I finally purchased at Best Buys. The irony was not lost on me that almost all the money I had made selling printers during Christmas season was now being used to buy a new computer—at Best Buys, no less! So I never really got ahead, but without the extra part-time work I guess I would not have been able to buy the computer.

The computer had a desktop image of my son in Montana on that Thanksgiving weekend in 2004, a decade ago to the day. He is standing in front of a glacier lake edged on one shore by Lodge pole pine. The sky is dark gray but with a pearly sheen, threatening snow fall, and the mountains in back of the lake are mostly covered with snow. My son is wearing a warm jacket and he’s smiling. The date on the photo is 11/26/2004, and looking at it I was often reminded of that year of divorce and Black Friday, and how that year pointed the way back to the cider press, and to an earlier but not necessarily happier time.