** This is a work in progress. I’m beginning with the quotes that shape my experience, and will expand them with personal associations as time permits, before it has its stop.
Death and I were immediate strangers throughout my early life; I only became personally acquainted with death later in my adult life.
My first encounter with death was earth-shattering, literally. On November 22, 1963, not only did President Kennedy get assassinated, but Aldous Huxley AND C.S. Lewis also died that same day. When they say that deaths come in threes, I think this is the kind of event they’re referring to. This was one of those moments when the world shifted; it may have been an American experience, primarily, but I was an American schoolchild at the time, and this was the frame of reference from which we were being taught to view the world – for good or ill.
I will admit that we had a much wider-ranging education experience than most middle- and working-class American children received. Early, in the 3rd and 4th grades, we were taught speed-reading, and by the 5th grade, my teacher would fill the blackboards with information, we would write it down, and by the time he got back to the first board, everyone had to be at least as far as the 2nd, and so forth. Our 6th grade teacher continued the practice. I saved all my notebooks from grade school until my sister threw them out of my parents’ home to make room for her stuff. Oh, well. In the 5th grade, the social studies report was about a state, and we chose or were given a specific state to research and report on; in the 6th grade, the social studies report was about a country; I was Yugoslavia, which came in handy after the death of Marshall Tito and the Iron Lady, his successor, and all the troubles that followed the dissolution of Yugoslavia.
So, we were largely aware of the world, and world events, but the assassination of President Kennedy brought world events home in an immediate and direct way that awoke a political consciousness in me, that changed the way that I viewed the world. Before the assassination, everything we learned about “current events” had been part of history. I didn’t directly experience the Bay of Pigs, or the Cuban Missile Crisis, I was busy experiencing 4th and 5th grade; I was reading the newspaper, but I was also reading comic books. I was a ‘tween immersed in superheroes, science fiction and monsters – I was reading the symptoms, not the disease, as it were. After the death of President Kennedy, it wasn’t remote or removed any longer; it wasn’t history, it was happening in my world, and I was just curious enough to want to follow it. I still followed the prime time TV schedule religiously, I prowled the corner drugstore for new and unseen comics, but the transition out of grade school that next Spring, signaled to me an entrance into a wider world – not just a bigger school with older kids, and a new classroom system to adjust to, but the wider world was part of me now, in a way it hadn’t been just a year prior.
I wasn’t preoccupied with death, I wasn’t to become some major pre-Goth or anything, but the topic of death intrigued me. I wrote one article featured in the school newspaper in junior high. I’d started noticing – and that was the significant change I couldn’t write about because I didn’t see it for decades, the fact that I was noticing – the deaths of many of the early featured performers in film and television in the news. I’d become aware of death in the public sphere, and I was already fascinated with actors and acting, so in retrospect, it was natural to blend the two preoccupations. It seemed to me that .. well, that deaths tended to cluster, but not to follow the “Rule of Three” in general; there would be two deaths related peripherally, but never, to my naive eye, in significant (repeating or specific) numbers to contain any meaning, but one always feels the meaning of death beneath the contemplation of death, and in the rest of the 60s, I had plenty of opportunities to contemplate death. As research for the article, I went around and asked different teachers about what they noticed, and since I didn’t know the question to ask, I didn’t get much of an answer, but it was featured in the paper anyway. I was so dissatisfied with the final piece I never tried again. But I would still read the obits regularly; never found my name in them.
“But thought’s the slave of life,
and life’s time’s fool,
and time, that takes survey of all the world,
must have a stop.” — Wm. Shakespeare
My great-grandfather passed away at 99; we shared a birthday, and I turned 18 on what would have been his 100th birthday. Newsday would have loved us; four generations, two Long Islanders, one born in Italy around the time of Garibaldi, the other born in Brazil, around the turn of the century, and the first two grandchildren born right at the mid-century mark – Joanne in 1949, and myself in 1952. Ah, it was never to be.
But that was my big regret, and my main memory of my grandfather’s funeral. Like Sebastian Barnack at a similar age, everything was conceived around how it effected me. Francesco Rugino missed being featured in the newspaper, but in the larger picture – he’d died. That was kind of final in a way a picture in the newspaper wouldn’t be immortal. I remember the limousine ride to the funeral, but nothing of the funeral itself.
TIME MUST HAVE A STOP
Sebastian shut his eyes, the better to recall that little house at Vence, which he had taken for the dying man. Furnished at decorated with an unfailing bad taste. But Bruno’s bedroom had windows on all three sides, and there was a wide veranda, windless and warm with spring sunshine, from which one could look out over the terraced fields of young wheat, the groves of orange trees and the olive orchards, down to the Mediterranean.
“Il tremolar della marina,” Bruno would whisper when the reflected sunlight lay in a huge splendor across the sea. And sometimes it was Leopardi that he liked to quote:
Silenzi, e profondissima quiete.”
And then, again and again, voicelessly, so that it was only by the movements of the lips that Sebastian had been able to divine the words:
“E il naufrager m’è dolce in questo mare.”
Little old Mme. Louise had done the cooking and the housework; but except for the last few days, when Dr. Borély insisted on a professional nurse, the care of the sick man had been exclusively Sebastian’s business. Those fifteen weeks between the meeting on the Promenade des Angais and that almost comically unimpressive funeral (which Bruno had made him promise was not to cost more than twenty pounds) had been the most memorable period of his life. The most memorable and, in a certain sense, the happiest. There had been sadness, of course, and the pain of having to watch the endurance of a suffering which he was powerless to alleviate. And along with that pain and sadness had gone the gnawing snese of guilt, the dread and and the anticipation of an irreparable loss. But there had also been the spectacle of Bruno’s joyful serenity, and even, at one remove, a kind of participation in the knowledge, of which that joy was the natural and inevitable expression – the knowledge of a timeless and infinite presence; the intuition, direct and infallible, that apart from the desire to be separate there was no separation, but an essential identity.
With the progress of the cancer in his throat, speech, for the sick man, became more and more difficult. but those long silences on the veranda, or in the bedroom, were eloquent precisely about the things which words were unfitted to convey – affirmed realities which a vocabulary invented to describe appearances in time could only indirectly indicate by means of negations. “Not this, not this” was all that speech could have made clear. But Bruno’s silence had become what it knew and could cry, “This!” triumphantly and joyfully, “this, this, this.”
Then, later, Sebastian is with his father, whose late brother Eustace was cousin-by-marriage to Bruno, and they start talking.
“I remember him as a young man,” his father went on over the top of his teacup.
“Old Rotini’s son, Bruno – wasn’t that his name?”
“That was it,” said Sebastian.
“He didn’t make much of an impression on me then. And yet, I suppose he must have been remarkable in some way,” John Barnack went on. “After all, you thought so.”
Sebastian was touched. It was the first time that his father had paid him the compliment of admitting that perhaps he wasn’t an absolute fool.
“I knew him so much better than you did,” he said.
He turned to Sebastian, “What was it you found in him?” he asked.
“What was it?” Sebastian repeated slowly. He hesitated, uncertain what to answer. There were so many things one could mention. That candor, for example, that extraordinary truthfulness. Or his simplicity, the absence in him of all pretensions. Or that tenderness of his, so intense and yet so completely unsentimental and even impersonal. Or else there was the fact that, at the end, Bruno had been no more than a kind of thin transparent shell, enclosing something incommensurably other than himself – an unearthly beauty of peace and power and knowledge. But that, Sebastian said to himself, was something his father wouldn’t even wish to understand. He looked up at last. “One of the things that struck me the most,” he said, “was that Bruno could somehow convince you that it all made sense. Not by talking, of course; by just being.”
Instead of laughing again, as Sebastian had expected him to do, John Barnack stood there, silently rubbing his chin.
“If one’s wise,” he said at last, “one doesn’t ask whether it makes any sense. One does one’s work and leaves the problem of evil to one’s metabolism. That makes sense, all right.”
“And what’s to be done about it?
Sebastian smiled and, standing up, ran a fingernail across the grill of the loudspeaker.
“One can either go on listening to the news – and of course the news is always bad, even when it sounds good. Or alternatively, one can make up one’s mind to listen to something else.”
Affectionately, he took his father’s arm. “What about going to see if everything’s all right in the spare room?”
Aldous Huxley, 1944, TIME MUST HAVE A STOP
Grow Old Along With Me/The Best Is Yet To Be
Hannah Arendt tells us, in LIFE OF THE MIND, in the chapter, “The Roman Answer”:
Herodotus tells us of Solon, who, after having framed the laws of Athens, set out upon ten years of travel, partly for political reasons, but also for “sight-seeing”, “theorin”. He arrived at Sardis, where Croesus was at the height of his power. And Croesus, having shown Solon all his riches, address him:
“Stranger, great word has come to us about you, your wisdom, and your wandering about; namely, that you have gone visiting many lands of the Earth, philosophizing with respect to the spectacles you saw. Therefore, it occurred to me to ask you if you saw one whom you considered the happiest of all.”
(Croesus, expecting to be named the happiest man on Earth, is told that no man, no matter how lucky his is, can be called happy before his death.)
Croesus addresses Solon, not because he has seen so may lands, but because he is famous for philosophizing, reflecting upon what he sees; and Solon’s answer, though based on experience, is clearly beyond experience. For the question, “Who is happiest of all?” he has substituted the question, “What is happiness to mortals?”
And his answer to this question was a reflection on human life, and on the length of human life, in which not one day is “like the other”, so that “man is wholly chance”. Under such conditions, it is wise to “wait and mark the end”, for man’s life is a story, and only the end of the story, when everything is completed, can tell you what it was all about.
Human life, because it is marked by a beginning and an end, becomes whole, an entity in itself that can be subjected to judgment, only when it has ended in death; death not merely adds to life, it also bestows upon it a silent completeness, snatched from the hazardous flux to which all things human are subject.
I used this quote to create a thank-you card to my friends and family for their expressions of grief at my own mother’s passing, in 1986.
EVERYTHING I NEED TO KNOW I LEARNED FROM STAR TREK
“He’s not really dead, Jim, as long as we remember him” – Bones (Dr. Leonard McCoy) to Captain James Tiberius Kirk
How much of our reaction to the death of Spock, in STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN came from the energies generated from our collective reaction to the equally unexpected and unfathomable death of John Lennon just 2 short years earlier?
“How we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life.”
Then, later, in the same conversation, “They’re just words,” Kirk’s son tells him.
Kirk responds, “But they’re good words.”
Tasha Yar’s holographic memorial message to the crew of the starship Enterprise, under the leadership of Captain Luc Picard, as chronicled in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, THE SKIN OF EVIL, first broadcast on May 1st, 1988.
“I loved my life, and those who shared it with me. I have been blessed with your friendship and love. you took my hand and taught me to see things differently.
“Death is that state in which one lives on only in others’ memories. That’s why there is no end. There Are no goodbyes, only good memories.
“Hailing frequency closed.”
Death, of the Endless
THE X-MEN TAUGHT ME A LITTLE BIT, TOO
Grief is like coming back from the moon – you never expect to go there, you are forever changed by the experience, and once you are back, only someone else who’s been back from the moon can understand what you’re experiencing. No one experiences the trip to the moon and back the same way, but only someone who’s gone through it can truly understand your own, distinct, experience. J.K. Rowling created the perfect embodiment of this principle with the thestrels, which can only be seen by someone who has seen death.