When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. . . . I Corinthians, 13:11
"It's D again," I whispered to my mother when she came up to my bedroom. Just "D" because I couldn't say the word, it scared me too much. Witches' heads were pouring out from the bottom of my bed and death was near. Like the young Tahitian girl lying on her stomach in Gauguin's beautiful and terrifying painting, "Spirit of the Dead Watching," I was rigid with fear. An only child, and often alone, I probably feared death as not-being, and not-being meant I wasn't part of my mother, who was my shelter. I was young enough to have recently emerged from the glue of symbiosis, still clinging to the host (her body) where I had incubated for 9 months to emerge as a creature unable to do anything but suck and cry, with a head still not completely formed.
A charming 5-year old of my acquaintance, also an only child, is very aware of death. His mother tells me he regularly checks up on her: "When are you going to die?" he asks, and says that when she does, he will too. I'm not sure he's made the kind of deal I tried to foist on the Almighty, but he might still do so. I put it to god that, if I refrained from saying "Jesus Christ" forever, he would let my mother and me (my father would automatically come along, I suppose: it was not specified) live for another 500 years. That would have made me 506.
But there was a problem (which had nothing to do with the fact that I was Jewish, something I hadn't yet learned, and which would mean little to me then beyond the ability to stay home on certain days in early autumn). It was that, since god knows everything, he would know if I ever thought the words "Jesus Christ," or just "Jesus" or "Christ" on their own. And that would invalidate the whole agreement. But how to stop thinking? The more I thought about it, the more those two words beat a tattoo in my mind, a constant presence. And so it turned out that my mother died at 70, my father at 88, and I am now close to it, and a long way from being 506 years old.
Death, to the very young, is something that happens inexplicably. It happens to people because they're old or because they live down the street or because they're on television. It means you're not there anymore, and not to be there is as terrifying a thing as can be imagined, as readers of A.A. Milne well know:
James James/MorrisonMorrison/Weatherby George Dupree/
Took great/Care of his mother/ Though he was only three.
James James said to his Mother: "Mother," he said, said he.
"Don't ever go down to the end of the town if you don't go down with me."
But of course she did. She went down to the end of the town all by herself. And she hasn't been heard of since. Death is absence. Solitude, abandonment (our latest psychological jargon), the fears of being alone or left alone, unable to cope.
After puberty, death becomes something palpable and near. Certain actions and situations, you learn, can lead to death. Daredevil stunts, poisonous mushrooms, snakes, tarantulas, mass murderers, aliens, war, bad grownups, gangs, or your own feelings that you are worth nothing, and can do nothing. Death becomes a choice, or at least a possibility.
When I was fifteen, we moved from Kew Gardens, Queens - where I was the oldest on the block and still friends with Dukey (a.k.a.The Duke), across the street, whom I'd met when she was 18 months and I two years older, at a time when she was curly haired and cherubic and had not yet decided to be a lady wrestler when she grew up - to a beautiful old house in Kings Point, New York (a part of Great Neck), built in 1638 by British pirates, its entrance facing the sea above our private beach. A more beautiful house I have not seen in this country, with its wine cellar below the trap door of the dining room, its artificial mound (to protect the house from other pirates) in which we found arrowheads; the old locust trees where a family of raccoons made their home, the unfaced wooden beams of the living room and the tilt of all the rooms; the fireplaces, the historic items scattered through the attic of a house that once served as the school for the surrounding area; the simplicity and authority of the oldest inhabited house on Long Island, with us being only the 4th owners in all that time. It was here that I felt more alone and forsaken than I could handle, knowing no one my age, hating the new, upscale school where all the girls, it seemed, wore cashmere sweater sets and pearls. I developed a fever every day when the school bus unloaded me at the high school, and my mother was called to the nurse's office to take me home. It was not far from that to wanting to be dead, and since the wish is father to the act, I was scary enough to myself as well as to my mother that I told her, "If you don't get me to analysis tomorrow, I don't know what I'll do." At which point, I put my hand through the glass window of the kitchen door and cut my wrist.
Fifteen and precocious, I'd read my Freud, I knew about libido and thanatos, and every day, after a session at home with a white-haired and kind-hearted retired teacher sent by the Board of Education because I was adjudged emotionally incapable of attending school, I made my way into Manhattan to the office of Larry Kaufman on Lexington Avenue, on whose couch I spoke aloud my dreams and whom I considered beneath contempt because he had a very bad reproduction of an awful Rouault print on his wall, hung askance.
Suicide is the main cause of death among teenagers. It is almost always an apology, an admission of failure - "I was not what you (my parents) thought I was;" or some variation of A.E. Housman's echoing lines: I, a stranger and afraid/In a world I never made. A few years later I read in Albert Camus' long essay "The Myth of Sisyphus": In a sense, and as in melodrama, killing yourself amounts to confessing. It is confessing that life is too much for you or that you do not understand it.
At seventeen I became a freshman in college, and my close friend in the room directly opposite mine killed herself. I found her, lying blue on her pillow, an overdose of sleeping pills. Her mother, a stage-mother type, had been taking her to auditions for Broadway plays and musicals over our Thanksgiving break; she was also a debutante, and much was expected of her. She was very pretty, wide-set blue eyes, a love of Botticelli and escargots.
Death changes as we near it. My mother died, and my world ended in many ways. My father died. My aunts and uncles, and then my friends. Michael, my husband of 50 years, died this year. My metastatic cancer continues its determined hold; I am now in the 24th year of its habitation. What I fear now is not death so much as disfiguration, and by that I don't just mean physically. I mean the suffering that flesh is heir to, the bones of the spine crumbling onto the nerves, as happened last year; the cancer in pancreas or liver making itself felt Suffering is of no possible use, in my opinion. It makes no one better or wiser or nobler; quite the contrary. The suffering of Jesus is a source of fascination to many, not only Christians. But it's not for me. I have decided that instead of letting "nature" (in this instance "cruel nature" might be allowable) take its course and transform me from who I am into a thing of pain, I want to be able to die as myself. This means suicide, of course. A chosen death instead of one imposed, which would inevitably include torture; just as, in the early war years, people killed themselves to avoid the boxcars taking them to Auschwitz-Birkenau. In the state of New York, doctor-assisted suicide is not legal. Other states offer it, but to residents only. I have little time. I am making plans to go to central Europe to a place that offers what I seek. It's tricky: I have to be well enough to get there - transatlantic flight and all - and to be fully conscious when I arrive. It's hard to choose the right moment. When I'm with friends, or even now, at my desk, writing, I feel the whole scheme is absurd. I love life, I want to go on living.
Razors pain you;/Rivers are damp;/Acids stain you;/And drugs case cramp.
Guns aren't lawful;/Nooses give;/Gas smells awful;/You might as well live.
- Dorothy Parker, "Resumé"
And then I remember some of the deaths of friends, and I do not want to descend into that chaos, the loss of clarity and humor and self that has been all I know of the world. I realize that each of us knows the universe only through his or her consciousness, and that each of us inhabits (creates?) a slightly different universe from anyone else's. It is a great pity that these universes must die. But to paraphrase Pascal, Man is nothing but a reed, the weakest thing in nature. But it is a thinking reed. . . and the advantage that man has over the entire universe is that he knows he will die, while the universe knows nothing. Or, in Saul Bellow's words: Death is the dark backing that a mirror needs if we are to see anything.
Death gives us life. Mortality is the source of time, and only in time do we live, love, create - or take our fate into our own hands.