Thursday, August 4, 2011
--I’M CONSISTENTLY INCONSISTENT
…The Rusty Truck called it quits yesterday. I’ve had four or five poems published there. It was a good journal, particularly respectful of veterans (I’m not one, but my brothers are.)
It’s always sad when a literary magazine closes up shop.
This time it’s TRT. The Truck is dead. Lit rigor mortis has set in. “Another one bites the dust, hey hey!”
Scot’s note brought to mind divorce, how couples in a matter-of-fact way say, “We just great apart.” There was a satisfied weariness to his tone. “I haven’t been able to come up something new for a while now.”
…I thought about death today. This morning already.
It’s one of a handful of things that are inevitable for all people.
I have been thinking about death a lot lately probably because I’ve been watching, “Six Feet Under.”
In the show (which ran for four seasons on HBO) we follow the quirky Fisher family who run a mortuary. Mortality and death are the show’s two themes, and they explore them a brilliant balance of moodiness and humor.
Do you ever think about death?
What’s that like for you?
I used to be terrified of funerals. I attended my first one when I was living in Washington, D.C.
I was 34.
The woman who’d died was my wife’s administration assistant.
Her name was Hala. She was beautiful, Palestinian, an angel on earth really, with a ready smile, always eager to do good, help others.
The night of her death, she was driving her jeep in through a snow storm when the vehicle crashed. Hala was flung all the way through the windshield (she hadn’t been wearing her seatbelt) and into the road ahead of her.
In the back of the jeep, stuffed high to the ceiling, were presents Hala was taking to an orphanage that night.
Flash back to a few months earlier: Hala was working on applying to law school. In order to get accepted, she had to write a paper about why she wanted to be a lawyer. When she was through, she asked my advice.
I told her the truth. I said that her piece was raw, honest, provocative, evocative and thoroughly wonderful.
I still remember that perfect first line: “I was born a child of war.”
I was to read the piece at her funeral. I think this was her husband’s request (they had been married just a few months prior to the accident.)
I started rehearsing a week before-hand. I practiced in my office with the door closed, the blinds drawn. I practiced once or twice a day. Or I should say, I tried to practice.
Most times I couldn’t get through the first paragraph without breaking down. Every sentence made me sob, Hala’s words caught in my throat.
On my desk sat a picture of my wife and two year old daughter next to Hala in her wedding gown minutes following the ceremony. Hala looked like an angel and for many, many years, my daughter believed that Hala was in fact her own personal angel.
At the funeral service, attendants burned incense from tarry black canisters. The air was thick with acrid smoke. It resembled a setting that had just been bombed by the enemy. Loud wailing and screeching echoed off the high ceilings and cavernous belly of the building.
When it came time for me to go to the front and read, my legs felt like jelly, my stomach rumbling like an old dryer.
I read the words.
I did not think of Hala as I read. I did not allow her image to form in my mind.
They were just words on paper that someone had written.
I read the piece in less than five minutes, straight through.
I did it without a single blunder.
Driving home that night, I at first felt a sense of accomplished duty—I had finished the task without blubbering. I had read Hala’s piece, shared her thoughts, without sobbing and making a mess of things.
Afterward, however, the more I thought of it, the more my reading seemed as if it had just been a performance. I was acting, dehumanized, having become a stone version of me.
It felt as if I’d betrayed Hala, if not also myself. Tears—authentic ones—would have been fine. They would have made sense.
Death is fraught with emotion. Mourning is real. It is a piece of us being ripped out and flung for others to hear or not hear.
We even have this: “And Jesus wept.”
I’ve been to many other funerals since then. Some have had hundreds of people in the audience. Others have been smaller affairs. But all have been—to an extent—celebrations with tears aplenty, and laughter, too, later on when people tell anecdotes or in the anteroom where friends join.
And that’s how it should be.
We live, we die. No one knows why, or when. We just do.
It’s nothing we should fear, nor is it anything we should take joy in.