Death is death. Death is also part of a larger story. I’m part of that story. I’m no longer hiding. No longer withholding. Since my father’s death, thousands of words. I’m living, yes, living with my father in the land of the dead.
My son and I have recently been enjoying the Opposites poems of Richard Wilbur.… These whimsical little verses came from a game Wilbur played with his family, where one person would choose a word and another person had to come up with that word’s opposite. I’m not sure what the rules were, exactly, but judging from the collection, extra points must have been awarded for unexpected opposites.
The way to paradise is through poetry: form. The way to infinity, through the finite: form. Perhaps possibility seems most out of reach when one has not committed oneself to attending to the demands and limits of form: temporal (say, meter or rhythm), spatial (say, a house or the physical universe). An ultimate temporal and spatial limit: life in a human body.
“What if you knew you’d be the last / to touch someone,” asks Ellen Bass in her poem “If You Knew.” Did my anticipation of my father’s death change the way I behaved with him while he was still alive? I don’t know. Might it change my attitude toward and treatment of others, including annoying others, if I remembered, in every encounter, that they’re going to die?
The hospice nurse spoke softly. It could be today or tomorrow. Was he the angel of death? The gentle angel of death? He was, after all, the one who met my father when he arrived at the in-patient hospice for his final two days in this world.
The gravedigger catches my eyes: his grizzled gray stubble and worn cap, the curly hank of yellow-gray hair riding his neck. Even in his mechanic’s fatigues, he looks like a monk I know— with the same hair and glasses, the same lean jaw. “I went from sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll to chastity, poverty, and obedience,” the monk likes to quip.
On the drive back from New Jersey to North Carolina two days after my father’s passing, I remember: Leon Wieseltier’s Kaddish. I’ve owned it for twenty years. It’s one of those books that, when I purchased it, I felt I needed to read. I was the director of a small Center for Jewish Studies. And I was a poet, a Jewish poet. I needed the knowledge.
If you’ve been anywhere near the media in recent weeks, you’ve likely seen the archival photographs, indistinct and muddy, depicting the broken and blasted-out blocks that were all that was left of the city’s affluent Greenwood district—the “Black Wall Street”—after the mob was done with it. A mob that, as the reports tell us, included the Tulsa police force and the National Guard.
I’m living. I’m dying. I’m coming to an end. As I do, my wish is this: I’d like to stay awake, I’d like to pay attention as I live through the days between now and my last day at the university, between now and my last day, my last hour, my last human breath.
I’m thinking about Lefty because I worry about the growing disappearance of death—and by extension, the remembrance of death—from physical space in America. It’s not new: “Have you heard about the revolution in the funeral industry?” my brother the financial manager declared to me, years ago now—the growing preference for cremation over physical burial.
The reference is, of course, to Auden’s famous poem September 1, 1939. That poem contains the well-known line “we must love one another or die.” I say a well-known line, but that doesn’t really capture it now, does it? The line is more than well-known—it verges into the realm of sacred writings of our time, a scrap of prophecy left to us from the 20th century.