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.
In the early Eighties, ten years into a marriage that would not last, I was trying to become a feminist. I was trying to understand the changes my first wife was going through. I read Betty Friedan, Simone de Beauvoir, Mary Daly. Of course, the failure of that marriage had less to do with gender issues than with sexual etiquette. It was not the changing role of women but her sleeping with her Uncle Fred’s arty friend Ben that raised, among other things, my consciousness of my own outrage. Cuckoldry, though it put me in the company of Bloom and Garp and other modern greats, was painful. Still, the reading did me a world of good. And I called myself a feminist, earnestly instructing my sons on the dishwasher and my daughter on taking out the trash, until, in later years, the MacKinnons and Dworkins disqualified me on grounds of genitalia and sexual preference.
An unrepentant heterosexual, with a history of occupying and colonising ‘spaces’, a capitalist and free-speecher, and, after the divorce, the custodial parent of sons and a daughter, I am not offered a seat at the table of the anti-porn, rape-crisis, anti-phallus, victim-chic feminism common to the end of this century and the last one. Nor could my mother, or my grandmothers, sit there. The women in my life were ‘equalists’, ‘goose and ganderists’. They refused to define themselves as victims of something men had done to them. My grandmothers were powerful women, each in her own way. Neither ever suffered any problem she could not give a name to. There was no mention of silence in need of breaking.
A division of labour typical of their generation, did not require an abdication of power. If they earned 63 cents to their husbands’ dollar, they got to live another decade or two or three on their dead man’s pension or social security. If their husbands had political and financial and large muscle advantage, the women had the emotional and spiritual and demographic upper hand. The realisation that God could be female required the consideration that the devil could be, also. My grandmothers were inclined to leave well enough alone. For most women, of course, things were just not that well enough.
My mother and I shared that portion of the century that saw this gender gap begin to close. Women gave up homemaking in favour of house payments, lobbied for political and fiscal parity and began to die of the heart attacks, car wrecks and gastro-intestinals their menfolk had always died of, younger and better insured than their mothers before them. Even their suicides, formerly dainty, ladylike endeavours involving pills and gas stoves and other hushed methods, became more assertive and noisome – pistols first, then shotguns. The silence was broken. In some odd quarters, this was counted as progress.
A traditionalist in most matters of life, my mother was, nonetheless, ahead of her time when it came to death, dying three years before my father when she was 65.
So neither gender nor gene pool was much of a predictor. I began to look elsewhere for some answers.
I had this theory. It was based loosely on the unremarkable observation that the old are always looking back with longing while the young, with the same longing, look ahead. One man remembers what the other imagines. I think the theory holds for women, too. The vision of pleasure in the arms of the beloved, or of triumph after great effort, of safety snatched from the hold of peril, or of comfort after long struggle – whether produced by memory or expectation, age or youth, the ache is the same, and so is the vision.
My theory held that we could calculate the precise mid-point of life by an application of these none too ponderous truths. And knowing the precise mid-point would, of course, give me the Thing Most Unknown: the day I would die. Knowing the middle, the end could be known. It was algebra: xs and equal signs, as plus bs.
If the past is a province the aged revisit and the future is one that the child dreams, birth and death are the oceans that bound them. And midlife is the moment between them, that frontier when it seems as if we could go either way, when our view is as good on either side. We are filled less with longing than with wonder. We fear less and worry more. These are only a few of the symptoms. The old write memoirs, the young do résumés. In mid-life we keep a kind of diary that always begins with a discussion of the weather. The present is where we live, equidistant from our birth and death. We find our current spouse as compelling as the memory of our first lover or our fantasies about the tight asses and flat bellies in the magazine ads for undergarments.
There is, about mid-life, a kind of balance, equilibrium – neither pushed by youth nor shoved by age: we float, momentarily released from the gravity of time. We see our history and future clearly. We sleep well, dream in all tenses, wake ready and able.
Think of it, I would say to anyone who’d listen in my drinking days, think of it as America. You emerge from the broken water of the womb like your forebears on Ellis Island. The language is unknown to you. You don’t understand the food, the customs. You’re willing but unable to work. You need someone to show you the ropes. In the best of cases your parents will do this. You head west, dreaming of gold and glamour and your future. Somewhere in the Poconos you meet a girl. You pick up some savvy and street smarts in Ohio. Maybe you detour to the quick comforts of Memphis or New Orleans, or northwards to fish the salmon run in Michigan, but you never stray far or very long from the urgent westward intention of youth. California is where gold and memorable sex are, California is Hollywood and a City of Angels. It is where, when you get there, you will belong.
Maybe, when you cross the river in St Louis, the girl you first took up with in Pennsylvania begins to seem a little backward for such a trendy fellow as yourself. Or maybe she dumps you for a guy from the old neighbourhood or some slicktalker from the Rockies with money. Good riddance is the thing you say and travel lightly, never looking back. In Vegas you get a little crazy, sleep around, buy a convertible, take your losses, drive out in the desert, where it occurs to you you’re your own worst enemy. You think of the gang from the old neighbourhood. Your elders are dying now or are dead. You keep remembering the flesh of your first lover. You make a lot of long-distance calls. For the first time in your life, you slow your pace, taking your time through the Grand Canyon, beginning a lot of sentences with ‘when I was your age’ and ‘twenty or thirty years back now’. There are days so beautiful you regret you will die.
When the desert or the mountains or the wilderness doesn’t kill you, you find yourself in California. Nothing seems as important as it once did. You mention to anyone who will listen that it was never the destination, after all. It was where you came from and the going there. Someone, meaning to be helpful, says: ‘You can never go home again.’ If all goes well at this point, you will take your leave easily, falling off the long dock in Santa Barbara, remembered by your children and their children, who grieve you all across the continent of age.
Of course the middle of your life was back in Kansas where the horizon seemed endless on either side. You can see for miles, the stars come out, you are balanced between your infancy and decrepitude, your Bronx and Santa Barbara, your beginning and your end; balanced by your equal vision of what’s behind you and before you, the done deals and possibilities. Upright, at ease in your skin: Kansas. It only lasts a moment. When you recognise the terrain, you are in the middle. Double your age for the day you will die. If it happens when you’re 20, figure on forty. If you’re 40 when it happens, count your blessings, save more, pick names for great-grandchildren. It’s a simple theory, really. Algebra, history, geography, nothing fancy.
I was 18 when this theory came to me. I was considering options for my future. I was a college student, not so much dodging the draft as trying to ignore it. Emblematic of the age was that one’s prospects for Vietnam – as synonymous with death as cancer was, and is – were determined by a lottery, the brainchild of the Nixon Administration. The days of the year were pulled from a hat – the order in which they were pulled would be the order in which new soldiers were called to serve. The issue of your mortality was linked to the day of your birth. I was playing hearts in the student union when they drew the numbers. Mine turned out to be 254. It was widely figured they’d never draft past number 150. I was to be spared. I had a future. I wanted to be a poet. I had discovered Yeats. I wanted to be Simon and Garfunkel. I could play the guitar. I considered teaching, briefly. I thought getting my licence as a funeral director would be no bad thing, in case I didn’t get a record contract or a Pulitzer. I was utterly preoccupied with the first person singular.
About the only thing I knew for sure about my future was that I wanted to spend a good portion of it in the embrace of Johanna Berti, or someone like her. She had recently disabused me of years of blissless ignorance the nuns and Christian Brothers had laboured to maintain. For these, the only good body was a dead body: Christ’s, St Stephen’s, St Sebastian, the poor bastard, St Dorothy, virgin and martyr, patroness of gardeners. In parochial school of the Fifties and Sixties, love and death were inexorably connected. Passion meant a slow death for a good cause. Our school-rooms and psyches were galleries of crucifixions, martyrdoms, agonies in the garden, ecstasies of unspecified origins, all for the sake of love. Johanna, herself a good Catholic and Italian who bore more than a passing resemblance to St Catherine De Ricci, the correspondent of St Philip Neri, fixed all of that in the ordinary way – by extending the available welcomes of one body to another. My future seemed abundant and shapeless.
I was living in my father’s funeral home at the time. Not the one I own and operate now, but an earlier version. I took death calls at night and went on removals. One night a woman called to say her son had ‘taken his own life’ and was now at the county medical examiners, where they would be doing an autopsy in the morning and would we go then and pick him up. When I got him back to the funeral home and unwrapped him, I was amazed at the carnage. The T-shaped incision in his chest was no surprise – the standard thoracic autopsy. But unwrapping his head from the plastic bag the morgue-men had wrapped it in, I found a face unimaginably reconfigured. There were entire parts of his cranium simply missing. He’d gotten a little liquored up and gone to the home of his ex-girlfriend. Rumour was she had broken up with him a week or two earlier and he had moped around the edges of her life in a way we would nowadays call ‘stalking’. He drank too much. He went to her house, where he pleaded with her to take him back. Of course, she wouldn’t, couldn’t, wanted to be ‘just friends’ etc ... and so he broke in, ran up to her parents’ bedroom, where he took the deer rifle from her father’s closet, lay on the bed with the muzzle in his mouth and pulled the trigger with his big toe. It was, according to the ex-girlfriend, ‘a remarkable gesture’.
As I considered the gesture on the table before me, it struck me he looked ridiculous. His face had been split in two by the force of the blast, just above the bridge of his nose. He looked like a melon dropped from the cart, a pumpkin vandalised by neighbour boys. The back of his head simply wasn’t. Here was a young man who had killed himself, remarkably, to deliver a message to a woman he wanted her to remember. No doubt she does. I certainly do. But the message itself seemed inconsequential, purposefully vague. Did he want to be dead for ever or only absent from the pain? ‘I wanted to die’ is all it seemed to say clearly. ‘Oh’ is what the rest of us say.
But fixed in my remembrance is the way one eye looked eastwards and one eye west; a perspective accomplished by the division of his face by force of arms. It seemed that this vantage would give a balanced vision: an eye on the future and an eye on the past. A circumspection by which where he’d been and where he was going melded into balance. But in the case before me, it was clear, vision was impossible. He was dead. So a sub-theory of the first I began to develop was that balance and vision could not be forced. Violence was not the way to vision. Guns wouldn’t work for this. It had to be grown into, inhabited the way the wood does trees. The fellow before me on the porcelain table had achieved perspective at the expense of vision, vantage at the expense of life itself. He looked a little ridiculous and terribly damaged. And ever since, though I have felt helpless, and hopeless, and murderous and grieved, I have never had, that I can remember, a suicidal moment in my life.
Walking upright between the past and future, a tightrope walk across our times, became, for me, a way of living: trying to maintain a balance between the competing gravities of birth and death, hope and regret, sex and mortality, love and grief, all those opposites or nearly opposites, that become after a while, the rocks and hard places, synonymous forces between which we navigate, like salmon balanced in the current, damned sometimes if we do or don’t.
It happened for me one night some years ago. Is it needless to say we had just made love? She lay smoking a cigarette beside me. I was propped on my elbows looking out of the window. The night was Tuesday and moonlit, the end of October, All Hallows Eve. We had buried my mother that morning. We’d stood in the gray midmorning at Holy Sepulchre watching the casket go into its vault, a company broken-hearted at the death of a good woman, dead of cancer; her body buried under the din of priests and leaf fall and the sad drone of pipers. It had been a long day. I was trying to remember my mother’s voice. The tumour had taken it from her in doses. I was beginning to panic because I’d never hear her voice again, the soft contralto, full of wisdom and the acoustics of safety.
And there, for a moment, I could see it all that night. Between the dead body of the woman who had given me life and the lithe body of the woman who made me feel alive, I had a glimpse of my history back to my birth and a glimpse of the future that would end in my death.
And the life on either side of that moment was nothing but heartache and affection, romance and hurt, laughter and weeping, wakes and leavetakings, lovemaking and joy – the horizontal mysteries among a landscape that looked like Kansas. I was overwhelmed with grief and desire. Grief for the mother that birthed me, desire for the woman beside me unto death. In such a moment the past loses its pull, the future its fear.
I was 41 that October. And there are times, still, I’m tempted to reckon the maths of it, or the geography, or the algebra or biology – to coax life’s facts into some paradigm that suits, to say it’s just like this or it’s just like that. But since that night, afloat between the known affections of women who’ve loved me, I have lost my taste for numbers and easy models. Life’s sciences have more to teach me still.
Revision and prediction seem like wastes of time. As much as I’d like to have a handle on the past and future, the moment I live in is the one I have. Here is how the moment instructs me: clouds float in front of the moon’s face, lights flicker in the carved heads of pumpkins, leaves rise in the wind at random, saints go nameless, love comforts, souls sing beyond the reach of bodies.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.