I’VE COURTED DEATH ever since I was six. I was an asthmatic child. With each labored breath, each wheeze, came a toy whistle obbligato. At my bedside, my eldest brother, to comfort me, would whistle back “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles,” in cadence with my breathing. It was funny, and pleasing, but not much help.
That plus a couple of bouts with mastoiditis, head swathed in bandages, made my awakening the next morning a matter of touch and go. What troubled me was not that I wouldn’t make it, but that I would no longer enjoy the whimsical care of my father and two brothers. My mother was another matter; her hypertense attention more often than not added to my discomfort.
Death itself was too abstract an idea for me then, though I had, in a cursory fashion, become acquainted with the fact of death. For a week or so, there had been a warning sign on the door of the adjacent house: SCARLET FEVER. CONTAGIOUS. It was taken down the day after the girl inside died. She was my contemporary. Still, near as she was, I felt somewhat detached, only vaguely saddened. My ailments, though serious, were not of epidemic proportions. Nor did the unfortunate girl have two brothers and a gentle father who brought forth phlegmy laughter.
Of course, I had some difficulty, a fear really, of falling asleep. The idea of counting sheep might have worked had I been the child of a Basque shepard in Idaho. I really knew nothing about sheep, not that I had anything against them. I was living in Chicago, where a fair south wind blowing in from the stockyards wafted the aroma of slaughtered cattle toward our rooming house on Flournoy Street. No, there was really nothing soporific in counting cows.
My brother, an assiduous newspaper bug, suggested counting celebrated names, names that made headlines. Charlie Chaplin. Caruso. The Bambino. Clara Bow, the “It” Girl. Peggy Hopkins Joyce. In an inspired moment, he dropped the names of the celebrated lovers Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray, who had just been executed for bopping her husband on the head with a heavy, leaden window sash. Nah. It did nothing for my sleeplessness.
Astonishingly, it was my first awareness of baseball that turned the trick; at least, for a year or two. The Cleveland Indians had beaten the Brooklyn Dodgers in the World Series of 1920. Each night, the names of these new celebrities rolled from my tongue as I signed off. Stanley Coveleski, the Indians’ pitcher, who had won three games. Stan-ley Cov-el-es-ki. Six salubrious syllables. The peerless Tris Speaker, who covered center field like a comfortable quilt. (A sports writer’s apt phrase, my brother informed me.) Bill Wambsganns, the second baseman, who pulled off the unassisted triple play. Wambsganns. The name’s slow pronunciation had the pleasant, slumberous effect of a Dutch hot chocolate. Some thirty years later, when a television program with which I was involved, Studs Place, went off the air, I received a scrawled, handwritten letter from Cleveland. I remember a passage: “I am sorry. I enjoyed your program because it gave me a feeling of heimweh, an old Dutch word for homesickness. I was once a baseball player. They called me Wamby.” It was signed Bill Wambsganns. I replied, though I neglected to tell him how he had helped me through my insomnia.
After a few years, when I had recovered from my childhood ailments, the effects of this nocturnal ritual wore off. Once again, I was in the thrall of sleeplessness. Now, a touch of fear that I might indeed die in my sleep distinctly possessed me. It brought forth a habit that still obsesses me. Whenever I’m about to doze off, I deliberately unclasp my hands and remove them from my breast. Every night. Even now.
Was it that photograph I saw on the front page of the morning Hearst newspaper seventy-eight years ago? The late Pope Benedict XV lay in state. On the catafalque, the pontiff’s hands were clasped across his breast. It was the first image I remember of a dead person in a casket. From time to time, my young Catholic friends suggested a prayer. “If I should die before I wake…” No soap. I didn’t want any Lord my soul to take because I obstinately insisted on waking up the next morning.
Fortunately, at the age of thirteen, I had a young English teacher in my freshman class at McKinley High School. With his scraggly mustache and tubercular mien, he bore a remarkable resemblance to Robert Louis Stevenson. He had assigned us Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” And–bingo!–there was a five-line stanza that did the trick.
Oh sleep, thou art a gentle thing
Beloved from pole to pole!
To Mary Queen, the praise be given,
She sent the gentle sleep from Heaven,
That slid into my soul.
For years, I mumbled those lines before sacking out. And it worked–after a fashion. (Ironically, my young Catholic friends had scored a point. They knew who Mary Queen was; I didn’t.)
Now, at eighty-eight, after a quintuple bypass among other medical adventures, those words have lost their charm. Too many of my old friends, contemporaries, have died. Fortunately, I’ve discovered a new way of popping off to sleep. I count down the names of those departed buddies. Unfortunately, the list has grown exponentially during these last few years. Amend that: every month, every week, I spot more familiar names in the obituary columns.
Mordant though it may sound, it’s not an unpleasant way of sacking out. I recall funny stories, jokes, and even imagined amours, especially after a few drinks, say, at Riccardo’s, a favorite watering hole in Chicago, but now transmogrified into an “in” place for Generation X. I have a good number of young friends, who are delightful company, generous-hearted, witty, and all that. Yet, there is that slight ache–heimweh, as Bill Wambsganns put it.
My fellow octogenarian Charlie Andrews explains: “Have you heard the one about the old sport who married a much younger woman? It worked for a couple of years. One day, a mutual friend encounters him. The old boy informs him that they’ve split up. ‘She didn’t know the songs.’” My young friends do my heart good every time I see them, but they don’t know the songs.
Naturally, when I pick up a newspaper these days, the first place I turn to isn’t sports, or arts, or the business of business, or the op-eds. I immediately turn to the obituaries. The old doggerel with which many mature readers may be acquainted has replaced Coleridge as my mantra.
I wake up each morning and gather my wits,
I pick up the paper and read the obits.
If my name is not in it, I know I’m not dead,
So I eat a good breakfast and go back to bed.
* * *
This is the one book I never thought I’d write. It was too big for me; too abstract. It was more in the domain of the metaphysician or the minister. Yet the idea was put forth some thirty years ago.
Was it 1970? ’71? Gore Vidal, at the Ambassador East Hotel bar in Chicago, suggested death as the subject for a book. I stared into my drink. No bells rang. My works had been concerned with life and its uncertainties rather than death and its indubitable certainty.
In all my books, my informants–mostly the uncelebrated, heroes of the “ordinary”–had recounted, in their own words, the lives they had lived, the epochs they had survived. How did it feel to be a certain person in a certain circumstance at a certain time in our country’s twentieth century? During the Great American Depression, what was it like to be that twelve-year-old boy seeing his father trudge home at eleven in the morning with his toolchest over his shoulder only to become an idler for the next ten years? During World War II, what was it like to be a mama’s boy sitting tight in that landing craft crossing the English Channel, heading for Normandy? What was daily worklife like for the schoolteacher, the waitress, the spotwelder or the storekeeper? What did the blacks in our society really think of whites or the other way around? How did the elders feel as they grew even more so in a society where their power ebbed as their span increased?
These were challenges I could handle, for better or worse–something I could put my hands on. In recalling actual experiences, my colleagues, the true authors of these works, found their own eloquence and poetry. Words from the seemingly inarticulate flowed like wine. At times they were as astonished as I was.
Consider the young mother in the public project. It was an integrated complex of the poor. I can’t recall whether she was white or black. The conversation took place in the sixties. The tape recorder had not yet become the household tool it is today. Her three little kids were hopping around, demanding to hear Mama’s voice on tape. I played it back. As she caught her words, she gasped. Hand touching mouth, she murmured: “I never knew I felt that way…” Bingo! A score for me as well as for her. An experience recounted, a revelation to oneself.
But what about the one experience none of us has had, yet all of us will have: death? Now in my late eighties, Gore Vidal’s challenge of some thirty years ago had come back to haunt me. What is there to remember of a time and place at which none of us has yet arrived? Boy–what a challenge! I no longer stared at my drink. I downed the martini and the bells began to ring.
In what follows, you may be astonished as I was, while scrounging around, to discover that we reflect on death like crazy much of our lives. The storytellers here, once started on the subject, can’t stop. They want to talk about it; whether it be grief or guilt or a fusing of both on the part of the survivors; or thoughts about the hereafter–is it is or is it ain’t? You’ll hear voices offering all sorts of opinions: some are believers, others put forth the challenge, “show me.”
For so many there’s a recurring refrain, “I’m not religious, I’m spiritual,” as though they sought separation from the institution, yet, as individuals, truly believed.
Invariably, those who have a faith, whether it is called religious or spiritual, have an easier time with loss. They find solace in believing there is a something after–that they will in some way, in some form, again meet or even merge with the departed one. Nonbelievers have no such comfort. They go with Gertrude Stein’s observation in another context: “There is no there there.” Nada.
All of the doctors I have come to know and respect, including my cardiologist, my surgeon, and my internist, Quentin Young has been our family doctor for the last forty years. I’m certain that his ebullience, his spirit of bonhomie, and his skills have been key factors in my living beyond my traditionally allotted span. have urged me to undertake this project. We, as a matter of course, reflect on death, voice hope and fear, only when a dear one is near death, or out of it. Why not speak of it while we’re in the flower of good health? How can we envision our life, the one we now experience, unless we recognize that it is finite?
It is sweet a irony that my first book of the twenty-first century (possibly my last) is about death. Yet these testimonies are also about life and its pricelessness, offering visions, inchoate though they be, of a better one down here–and, possibly, up there.