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Play Acting

I don’t think I’m as morbid as Emily Dickinson with her rafters of satin, roofs of stone, her way of talking about her own death as though it were already in the past: Death kindly stopped for me. I heard a fly buzz when I died. I once assigned a complete explication de texte, down to the phonemes, on this poem to a class of high school sophomores. What was I thinking? In fact, they did a surprisingly good job. I’m tempted to look for passages from their papers which I may still have stored in the laundry room. Yes, definitely a morbid streak. I like to go under, to be put out. Of my misery? A death wish perhaps? Not what I would call it, but I do look forward to the drowsy numbness that will fill my veins before surgery. Not to waking up in pain, even to good news. Or bad.

The habit of playacting death and dying took hold of me as a child in Haiti where we took a siesta every afternoon. For my parents, these naps were usually brief; my father had to get back to the office, my mother to some household duty, a canasta or bridge game, but I could stay in bed as long as I wanted, sometimes until almost dinner time. Darkness in Haiti doesn’t fall suddenly, and I liked to lie there, watchful and aware, registering one shade at a time, until I became the dying Beth in Little Women, her needle growing heavy in my hands. This was an exercise in pure sensation, entirely private, not a bid for attention, as in you’ll be sorry when I’m dead. I am attracted to the fin de siècle, to the Jacobean stage littered with skulls, to the thought of Donne’s rehearsing his own death by preaching in a shroud. I much admired the critic and professor, Austin Warren, at the University of Michigan in the early 60s, who wrapped himself in a sheet to read Death’s Duel to his classes in metaphysical poetry on Good Friday afternoon, attendance required, though spring break had already begun. I am drawn to Keats, parched, burning, half in love with easeful death, to Sylvia Plath, who writes: I do it so it feels like hell. I do it so it feels real.

Practice makes perfect. So a friend described her sex life, and we laughed. But orgasm, le petit mort, is death in little, a microcosm, a form of practice. Artists, writers especially, help us to prepare, to feel our way forward to what is finally unbearable, unimaginable. I think of those five months when Ernst was dying. First he was impotent, and then he was dying. Impotent and bedrid, two impossible things and, perhaps because of this, we did not confront them except in the deep and separate recesses of our minds. We lived instead as though the answer to Ernst’s question, how long have I got, was not six months. He grew old in an instant. He was 58. You’re a young man, the doctor said, and immediately I hated that doctor and continued to hate him, from procedure to hopeless procedure, until he prescribed the morphine.

What a crazy time. I nursed my anger, turned away a social worker assigned to me at UCLA after an initial surgery revealed that the cancer had spread too far to make the Whipple operation feasible, taught my classes with an ear cocked toward the phone in my office, graded papers in the emergency room, made pot upon pot of a fowl smelling Chinese herbal concoction, refused to go to a shrink, attended a performance of Angels in America, Part I, ignored a pamphlet which would have revealed to me that the cancer was already stage 4 at the time of diagnosis. I even went to a Union School reunion in Port-au-Prince, saying nothing to anyone there about what was going on at home. On his side, Ernst wouldn’t let David come down from UC Santa Cruz to spend time with him. I don’t want a death watch, he said. As one by one doctors gave up on him, Ernst, who took pride in logical thinking - I was the irrational one - drank the magic Chinese potion along with Una de Gato (Cat’s Claw), a Peruvian tea, ingested shark cartilage, read Spontaneous Healing, and allowed a Chinese practitioner, who advertised with a picture of himself sporting weights tied to his testicles, to pummel him viciously, all the while claiming that the tumor was shrinking, that he was getting better. I let him pound me too, developed sciatic pain, crawled screaming on the kitchen floor where I hoped Ernst couldn’t hear me. In the powerful grip of illusion, we staggered together to Mexico City, San Miguel de Allende, and San Francisco.

How is he? I asked the young man who came twice a week to take Ernst’s vital signs and give him a sponge bath. Moribund, he answered. I looked it up to be sure: at the point of death, about to die. Of course I knew this already, wished for it sometimes. In the midst of life we are in death. The priest intoning over the open grave, the black clad mourners and hot house flowers, the lowering of the casket, the first shovelful of earth… how often in movies is it raining? No matter. No matter how much we have practiced, we do not learn our parts. No matter that this is the oft proclaimed human condition, brute fact of existence, that we have been walking this line nearly all our lives, knowing and refusing to know that no one escapes. One day or another, soon or late, all who live must die.

So what’s the upside? Leonard pipes up, always ready with a smart remark. Calls me the Grim Reaper, makes me laugh. For me, it’s like Hamlet and Horatio. Doomed and dying, Hamlet begs Horatio not to kill himself, but to stay alive to tell Hamlet’s story. Horatio is a good choice, indeed the only choice, because everyone else but Fortinbras is dead, and warmonger Fortinbras, though he has done well to remind us of Hamlet’s royal and soldierly aspects, will never get off his horse long enough to take this on. Unfortunately, however, Horatio is also the man whose philosophy is neither wide nor deep enough to accommodate a ghost. He’s a great guy, Horatio, he’s Hamlet’s true friend and confidant, but next to Hamlet, Horatio is a dolt. He will never be able to tell Hamlet’s story. Only Hamlet can tell it.

This is my letter to the world.

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