All Hallows Eve
I wanted to know the day I would die. It seemed a useful bit of information for handicapping insurance policies, timing regrets, tendering farewells to former lovers. I wanted some precision in the calculation – if not the day, then possibly the age at which I’d cease to be, at least so far as those around me were concerned.
The gene pool was unclear on this. The men in the family had all died of hearts: congested, infarcted, occluded, spent – all of their ends had proceeded from their chests, mostly in their sixties. My mother’s father, a great bingy man, died in my childhood, a narrow memory now of a bald man telling bear stories. He’d grown up in Michigan’s upper peninsula around the turn of the 20th century and came downstate for an education at Ann Arbor and married, as my grandmother told it, the first woman who’d have him. But Pat O’Hara, though he lived the civilised life in south-eastern lower Michigan ever after, would leave his bride, Marvel Grace, every autumn for a month and return to the UP where he’d drink and hunt and fish and make up the stories I remember him telling us, of being treed by bears and wolves and other wildlife we would never see. And though Pat died at age 62, Marvel, my grandmother, lived on after him for nearly thirty years until a stroke left her cognisant but bedfast for eight months of withering to death at age 90. I was 35 the year she died and beginning to think of myself as mortal.
My father’s father died, likewise, of a heart attack, when I was 16. I remember the call at the bowling alley where I worked. He was 64. He’d driven up to Frankenmuth with the missus, for dinner at Zehnders Famous Chicken Dinners – two-and-a-half hours north of Detroit. On the way home, the pain started shooting down his left arm. He thought it might be the gravy or the chicken livers. Back home, they called the doctor, the fire department, the priest and my father. All were at the bedside where he sat upright in his suspenders and undershirt while the doctor examined him and the priest nodded assurances to my grandmother and the firemen stood ready with oxygen tanks – an assemblage resembling a Rockwell print that might have been titled: ‘The Good Death’. My father, just turned 40, probably felt wary and helpless. I’m only guessing. Anyway, the doctor pressed the stethoscope in the usual places and after considerable silence pronounced his diagnosis: ‘Eddie, I can’t find a thing wrong with you.’ Whereupon Eddie, ever contentious, slumped to the floor, turned purple and died in an instant, proving for all in attendance, once and for all, the fallibility of modern medicine, and the changeability of life in general.
Because my father owned a funeral home, it fell to my brother Dan and me to dress Pop Lynch and casket him – the first of my people I ever tended to professionally. I can’t remember now if my father simply asked if we would or insisted or offered us the opportunity. But I remember feeling, immediately, relieved that I could do something, anything, to help.
Still, I subtracted my years from his years and began to think of the future as finite – the first among those facts of life that look like arithmetic.
Gramma Lynch, like Nana O’Hara, lived on till she was 90. The decades of their concurrent widowhoods became, for me, a series of Sundays and Christmases and Fourths of July when we’d find them on the patio or at the kitchen table tippling their Canadian whiskey and water, arguing politics and religion and correcting the English of their grandchildren. Gramma Lynch was Republican, practical, younger by ten years and Catholic only by conversion. A Methodist by rearing, she regarded the clergy as circuit riders and opportunists, passers-by in the life of faith. She mistrusted the celibacy and the celebrity of priests and ate meat on Fridays. She lived within her means, was slow to criticise and temperate but genuine when it came to praise. Nana was a Democrat, a member of the teachers’ union, Catholic in the devout and idolatrous style of the Irish, scrupulous, full of etiquette, eloquent and extravagant in praise and shaming. Their arguments were brilliant, better than any theatre. Where Nana used language as a weapon, Gramma used silence. If Nana spouted certainty, Gramma whispered reasonable doubt. Nana punctuated with the pointed finger, Gramma with the arched eyebrow. No one won. That they lived long lives and that I lived mine in earshot of their quarrels was, I can only say, a gift. They are buried now in different sections of the same cemetery, beside the men they outlived by years and years. I remember their obsequies: prim and proper and full of powerful talk – like them.