I can remember in my youth being so attracted to the title of the book, As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner, that I borrowed the book from the Norwich, Connecticut public library and tried to read it. Since at the time, my main reading fare consisted of either Archie comics or The Flash or The Hulk, I didn’t get very far into Faulkner’s masterpiece before giving up. I suppose that as a youngster, I wanted to read a tale more removed from one about poor people making poor choices. That scenario reminded me of the life I was living. I didn’t want to read about anyone having such pride in poverty that charity was denied its proper place. As far as I was concerned, there was nothing ennobling in poverty.
The romantic sounding title, As I Lay Dying, conjured up images in my mind different than a dirt-poor family in Mississippi trying to fulfill some ill-conceived last will that threw the entire family into turmoil, put them all at great risk and did nothing to improve their lot. What I’d wanted was involved descriptions of goings-on inside the cool, interior halls of the plantation’s tree-shaded mansion as Mama continued to lie in her bed, unable to rise for long if at all. She’d listen to conversations among her brood about how things would be after Mama was gone. She’d hear them planning who would become the Ma or the Pa, the ‘triarch’ of the family. Who would be in charge of things, and how things would change because of it, etc.
I imagined Mama and her thoughts as she somehow, practically without any pain what-so-ever, would lay there, listening, yet also watching as soft winds would stir the sheer curtains and she would feel the cooling air drift gently across her dewy glow, the moist patina of her skin. I imagined her having no energy left with which to object to things she’d overheard nor would she be able to form any resistance to plans made without her input. All that she would have energy to do was to hear, see, feel, smell the essences of life and she would appreciate them all the more as she knew that for her, life was fading. All sensation would soon be gone from her experience. Oh, the romantic pathos of it all!
Instead, I began reading Faulkner’s entirely too recognizable tale of poor thinking piled upon poor thinking, reinforcing itself at every turn, in a kind of nobility of ignorance, a commonly acknowledged maxim that success of any kind was bought with moral turpitude and degradation, hence success itself was to be avoided.
My milieu was not the Mississippi Valley of the early 1900s. My milieu was among the poor of a formerly rich, New England town that was winding down its woolen mills. Instead of feeding workers to the mills, it was sending people to the Electric Boat Division of General Dynamics in the commutable town of Groton, Connecticut. It was a place where nuclear submarines were made.
My dad was a milkman. He drove a truck, not a team of horses, but even in the seeming modernity of a truck, it became clear that the milk delivery business was doomed. For most of my childhood I can remember dad turning from one job to another, trying this business and failing, going back to milk delivery, then trying another business and failing, then delivering snack foods to stores instead of delivering milk to homes. That job he did well and it lasted him to retirement.
My young life was not the kind of desperately dusty, then flood-ravaged story written by Faulkner, but it was poor and it did seem to be riddled with poor decision-makers in charge of things they didn’t understand. Often enough, such poor decision-making led to taking routes in life’s journey that led to ever more entangling undergrowth rather than up onto the wide-open high road. My father, for example, tried making a go of running a battery business. The business failed and he should have gone into bankruptcy but stubborn pride arose within him as his finances flagged. He returned to delivering milk and instead of being relieved from debt, his family made do with less for a long time and his debts were eventually paid. Good for him, good for those whose loans were repaid, too bad for his wife and children.
Then he tried another business that required what was then a large commitment of capital. It couldn’t fail. But it did. Again, a return to delivery and all debts were repaid, with interest.
My parents ended up doing reasonably well in the long run, but when they looked back on their lives it must have seemed a very long run. They were two, uneducated, depression-era youngsters who got married in a fever, in a backdrop of a world at war. I do not judge them harshly. Telling things like they were is more compliment to their determination, grit and decency than it is condemnation of them for their lack of resources.
My mom, when she was a young woman, bore sons when she was 18, then again at 19, then again at 21 (me). People regularly remarked on the busy brood that followed her. As the boys grew, feeding us must have been a serious financial burden. I suspect that feeding three big-boned boys, all passing through adolescence at the same time, was probably financially akin to putting a child through college. The image of almost-mature robins still occupying the ever-tighter nest space, all with their mouths agape, as Mama and Papa robin fly desperate food missions in and out, suddenly springs to mind.
One thing that was remarkable about both my parents is something my mother warned me not to become attached to. Both my parents were stunningly beautiful. Dad was a he-man, well-proportioned, devastatingly handsome. Mom seemed as if she had stepped off the page of some Hollywood producer’s collection of best publicity stills. She was a stunning beauty. As a youngster, when I spoke of noticing this phenomenon, my mother sternly admonished me by saying, “Beauty is skin deep and temporary. It fades with age. It is better to be homely outside and beautiful inside. That way, you would always be truly beautiful.” I think her advice is largely true though I doubt that many who are homely would find much solace in it, regardless of how beautiful they might be inside. Still, she did convince me that letting inner beauty be one’s dominant feature was the wiser choice.
Another wise choice that both my parents had to work hard to get me to accept, was that I should attend school beyond high school. Dad worked as hard on this issue as Mom did. By grade eleven, in my adolescent fervour and rebelliousness, I was so fed up with high school that I wanted nothing more to do with the whole “phoney” educational enterprise. My plan, at age 16, was to buy a motorcycle with money I had saved from working summer and part-time jobs at gas stations. After high school graduation, I was going to jump on my bike and tour the USA until I was drafted into the army. Then maybe, I’d go to OCS after basic training, become an officer and make a career in the military. I thought my parents would have been proud of me for making such a level-headed, patriotic plan as that. I was surprised that both of them strongly opposed the decision!
Number one, neither of them wanted me to get a motorcycle regardless of what else might happen. We argued for days about this, but finally they did convince me that despite how safely I might drive the thing, even if I was standing still at a stop light, someone’s ramming into me with a car would be crippling if not fatal.
Number two, they felt that I had to try to go to college. More school! In grade eleven, I’d been a bad boy in school. Not the kind who gets turfed out of school for serious misbehaviours, but the kind who sits sullenly, contributes nothing to any academic discussion, and eyes all the girls with unbridled lust. I was a simmering cauldron of lust. Shakespeare be damned. German be damned. Still, from my earliest years, my parents knew I had something on the ball, as it was said in our neighbourhood beside the Troy Laundry, and Rogers Fine Carpentry shop, across the street from Lamperelli Motors. “That boy’s got something on the ball!”
It was true, and I knew it was true. I confess now to never having once read a single book that any of my highschool teachers assigned. Neither text book nor novel did I read. I just listened in class and absorbed like a sponge then engaged most tests and exams as if I’d seen all the questions coming, often scoring A’s only because I had idly listened while doodling on my notepaper and remembered the teacher’s comments without taking a single note.
But by grade eleven my grades had begun to slip into or near failing territory and I put forth to my parents that it was too late for me, that even if I did well in grade twelve, no college would accept me because of my already established record of poor academic performance. My parents didn’t buy it for a minute. “You must try,” they said.
We struck a deal. I would “try” to get into college. I would put up the $400 I had saved to buy a used motorcycle (1965 prices) and my folks would top up the money so that I could instead, get into a used English sports car for $600. My parents must have trusted me because we went right out and bought a 1959 Triumph TR-3 and I began tooling around town in automotive delight. What a great feeling it was and a complete change from my childhood of scrabbling in the dust of a tenement parking lot, or listening to the rats as they scrabbled through my bedroom walls. Cruising around in my TR-3, I felt like I was on top of the world. I was becoming a person worth knowing.
I was trustworthy as far as my part of the deal went with my folks. I never really studied as such, in grade twelve. I didn’t have to. But I did scan chapters in text books, looked at pictures, diagrams, read captions and subject headings. I did whatever homework I needed to do to make convincing evidence of having availed myself of the learning material, and I aced almost everything! I was accepted at Southern Connecticut State College. I even won the high school’s special award for the “Most Improved Student” at graduation. I met my part of the bargain.
Thereafter, my relationship with education wildly improved. I loved college-level education! I loved studying things at a depth that went beyond surface-level exposure and began to probe ever closer to the frontiers of knowledge, to the places where knowledge was made. Wow! That was for me! I owe all of this to the wisdom and forbearance of my parents, a milkman and a diner waitress/bank teller, who had lived through the depression, world war, cold war and financial hardships the likes of which I have never faced as an adult. Thank you mom and dad! Say, “Hi” to Mrs. Calabash from me and Jimmy Durante.
Now I am old.
I am certified as old. My government says so. I am in regular receipt of money called “Old Age Security,” so I know I am old.
People who are older than I am can pretend that I am but a puppy compared to them, but that won’t change the fact that I am old. I sometimes wear a black tee shirt that bears the slogan, “Pushing 70 is exercise enough!” But of course, it isn’t really. It just feels that way.
Altogether, for an old age pensioner, as I am, I’m probably pretty fit, but I am dying. Everyone alive is on the dying route, but the older one gets, the more certain that route becomes. When trying to fathom the years until death it is no more certain than ever, but the arithmetic gets simpler as time passes and friends pass too. Years left may still be double digit numbers, but the time is fast approaching when the arithmetic of single digits will prevail. Fatalist? Fatal list? No one gets out alive, so why should I pretend otherwise?
I am dying. I won’t list my ailments minor and major. I am dying. Take my word for it.
As someone who is dying, I feel that I have the right to offer reflection upon life, death and frankly, upon whatever it strikes my fancy upon which to opine.
I admit that I do sometimes lay in my big, comfy bed for minutes after I have awakened, thinking that today, even this hour, even this minute could be my last. Even so, I don’t rush downstairs to pop open the champagne as some sort of desperate last act. I am not totally averse to drinking champagne in the morning, but I don’t do it regularly, and I certainly don’t do it on days when I think I might try to accomplish something. I pretty much save that for Christmas morning or river cruising in Europe.
What I do, as I lay dying for those few minutes, is to lie quietly, feel the enveloping warmth or coolness, as the case may be. I sense the air sweetly filling my lungs. I smile at how it refreshes me and replenishes my strength. From my supine position on the bed, I hold my arms up and circle my wrists, feeling my joints move. I marvel at the miracle of their dexterity. Ditto for fingers, ankles, toes, etc. I listen for sounds from the outside – traffic, trains, birds. My waking time is much too early to hear children, but in winter I often hear plows at work, clearing the parking lot of the townhouse complex down the hill from me.
I think to myself, “If I died right now, nothing would change beyond my ceasing to strive for breath. The air would not change, the sounds of outside would not change, only my sensation would change. That’s all.” It feels good to me to have so little impact upon my world.
My sudden living absence would sadden a few people. I hope that those so affected might also realize that all change represents opportunity if only we have the courage and the open-mindedness to part the veil of sadness and to see whatever is before us. To do that, of course, one must neglect the due diligence of grieving and that should not be forced. But grieving can become addictive in its own way and care must be taken not to allow the sadness of grief to become part of one’s demeanor. Perpetually sad people are no fun to be around.
The New Orleans tradition of a slow dirge to the cemetery followed by a rollicking jazz celebration on the return trip sounds just about right to me. It says, “We are sad. We are sad beyond sad. We are so very, very, very sad for now. Now he’s gone, body and soul. He strives no more. We now live on without him. We live! We are happy! We are carrying on, we are living life to its fullest, enjoying being happy, smiling, laughing, dancing, moving our bodies to the music. Hallelujah! It’s good to be alive!”
I have these thoughts as I lay dying.
I hear the birds. Their songs sound cheery to me, but for all I know they could be sounds of desperation. They could be proclaiming their hunger, their loneliness, their mating frustrations or availability and inclination. They could be searching for a family member lost or arguing with a family member about who’s supposed to do what and when. It’s all just birdsong to me, so much high-pitched chatter, or warbling. I enjoy hearing it, though I confess that it sometimes becomes noisy enough that I semi-shout at them in jest to “Shut up!”
A train across the valley roars by in a rush. Another one, pulling up the long grade out of town, gets slowly started, its diesel engines roaring with energy as it strains to tug more than 100 loaded boxcars, muscling them into motion, heading west.
Traffic hisses in the distance, sometimes it honks or screeches. The wind can sigh or whistle or roar. My fan or heater rush air in my direction. I study patterns of light in my room. I notice slight differences in the hue of light on uniformly white surfaces and wonder what causes them. Patterns emerge from the random distribution of visual elements within the popcorn pattern of my ceiling that suggest faces and forms, and I make a world of unlikely, cartoon co-conspirators in my mind.
My nose works. My eyes work. My ears work. My heart and lungs work. My brain works. I wonder if my mouth works. Can I speak?
Is this the day that I will forget how to speak? I mumble a few words out loud even though I am not attempting to communicate with anyone but myself. Sure enough, I can speak. Sing a little? Da-da-da-dummmmm. The declarative opening four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony are easy. Dead easy. Ha-ha.
Then I imagine the bold but slightly more dissonant four notes of full orchestra and blaring brass that open Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto Number One in B-Flat Minor, the angry sounds of the piano as the pianist attacks his single instrument in an attempt to match the scale and energy of the full orchestra. On it goes, in my head, full orchestration with piano response and interplay. Dying never felt so good.
But then, in the early morning, I rise and prove to myself that, as was aptly said in a Monty Python skit, “I’m not dead yet!” I get up and partake in my comfortable morning routine of feeding my cat, making my coffee, bringing in the newspaper from the porch and getting my day started. Living brings its share of joys and complications some of which I would not choose of my own volition. But seeing a smile of greeting on a loved one’s face, hearing the sound of children’s laughter as they play, enjoying company, taking in a ball game or a movie, eating, drinking, laughing together all make life worthwhile and highly valued. I feel that it behoves me to enjoy the sweetness and fruits of life while I may, even as each morning and evening I spend some time contemplating the wonders of life, as I lay dying, as I lay living.