Now I am 85, sensibly aware that I will die one of these days. I will not pass away. Every day millions of people pass away—in obituaries, death notices, cards of consolation, e-mails to the corpse’s friends—but people don’t die. Sometimes they rest in peace, quit this world, go the way of all flesh, depart, give up the ghost, breathe a last breath, join their dear ones in heaven, meet their maker, ascend to a better place, succumb surrounded by family, return to the Lord, go home, cross over, leave this world. Whatever the fatuous phrase, death usually happens peacefully (asleep) or after a courageous struggle (cancer). Sometimes women lose their husbands. (Where the hell did I put him?) Some expressions are less common in print: push up the daisies, kick the bucket, croak, buy the farm, cash out. All euphemisms conceal how we gasp and choke turning blue.
Cremation hides the cadaver; ashes preclude rot. Neanderthals and Homo sapiens stuck their dead underground or in mounds. Pyramids sealed up pharaohs. Romans shifted by the century between incineration and burial. Commonly Hindus burned dead bodies by the Ganges, in the old days performing suttee by adding a live widow to the pyre. Cinders clogged the river, along with dead babies of families too poor to buy wood. Zoroastrians, Parsis and Tibetans tended to raise corpses onto platforms for vultures to eat. My favorite anecdote of ash disposal is recent. After I finished a poetry reading, a generous admirer presented me a jar of her late husband’s remains.
Myself, I’ll be a molderer, like my late wife Jane.
At some point in my 70s, death stopped being interesting. I no longer checked out ages in obituaries. Earlier, if I was 51 and the cadaver was 53, for a moment I felt anxious. If the dead man was 51 and I was 53, I felt relief. If a person lives into old age, there’s a moment when he or she becomes eldest in the family, perched on top of a hill as night rises. My mother died at 90, leaving me the survivor. Soon I will provide that honor to my son. When he was born, I was 25, and wrote a poem called “My Son My Executioner.”
A decade ago I bumped my head and went to the emergency room to get stitches. It had happened before, and it was no big deal. The resident doctor dropped by and we chatted. When I asked about blood pressure numbers, he said I had nothing to worry about. “How many years do you want to live anyway?” Without thinking I grabbed a number out of the air. “Oh, until 83,” I told him. At my 83rd birthday I was quietly relieved.
In my 80s, the days have narrowed. Why not? I stopped driving. I live on one floor, eating Stouffer’s. The postwoman brings letters to my porch, opens the door and tosses the mail on a chair. I get around—bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, blue chair by the window, lounger for Hardball With Chris Matthews—by spasming from one place to another pushing a rollator. I try not to break my neck. My trainer comes Tuesdays and Thursdays to delay the wheelchair. I write letters, I take naps, I write essays. When I am old enough to be the last among my friends, doubtless in some hidden place I will feel triumph.
The people I love will mourn me, but I won’t be around to commiserate. I become gloomy thinking of insensate things I will leave behind. My survivors will cram into Dumpsters the tchotchkes I have lived with, expanding a landfill. I needn’t worry about my Matisse. I fret over the striped stone that my daughter picked up at the pond, or my father’s desk lamp from college, or a miniature wooden milk wagon from the family dairy. My mother approaching 90 feared that we would junk the Hummel figurines that decorated her mantelpiece, kitsch porcelain dolls popular from the 1940s to the 1960s. Thus, a box of them rests in my daughter’s attic. More important to me is this house, which my great-grandfather moved to in 1865—the family place for 149 years. In an attic the generations stored everything broken or useless, because no one knew when they might come in handy. A chest holds my great-grandfather’s under-wear. My kids and grandkids don’t want to live in rural isolation—why should they?—but it’s melancholy to think of the house emptied out. Better it should burn down. Staying in the old place, I let things go. I shingle the roof, I empty the cesspool, but if a light fixture fails, I do without it. Maybe the next tenant will not want it. I let the old wallpaper flap loose. Somebody will remove 400 feet of bookshelves.
There are also bits of land I cherish. When Jane and I moved here, we found my great-grandfather’s stationery, labeled “Eagle Pond Farm,” and borrowed the name for our address. Last November a friend took me driving past Eagle Pond, obscured by the growth of tall trees, a hundred yards west of the house. Twenty acres of water spread under a hill called Eagle’s Mount, where the solitary bird roosted when it wasn’t fishing. My land includes half the pond’s shore. I titled books of essays Seasons at Eagle Pond, Here at Eagle Pond and Christmas at Eagle Pond. Back in the day, Jane and I used a tiny, hidden beach, among oak and birch, to lie in the sun on summer afternoons and grill supper on a hibachi. We watched for mink and beavers, we watched the first acorns fall. In the years after she died I visited it rarely, and by this time it’s long since I’ve even passed it by. When my friend drove me on its dirt road—an afternoon of bright autumn sunlight, the pond intensely blue with its waters choppy—I glimpsed the birches of our old beach, and wept self-pitying tears.
Of course we start dying when the sperm fucks the egg. (Pro-lifers dwell on this insight.) At my age I feel complacent about death, if sometimes somber, but we all agree that dying sucks. I’ve never been around when somebody, in the middle of a sentence or a sandwich, has the luck to pitch over dead. I’ve only sat beside two deaths, my grandmother Kate’s and my wife Jane’s. In both cases the corpse-in-waiting was out of it. Hours earlier each had slipped into Cheyne-Stokes breathing, when the brain stem is stubborn about retaining oxygen although the big brain has departed. Cheyne-Stokes is one long breath followed by three quick ones, then a pause. The brain stem holds on, in my experience, for as long as 12 hours. Because my grandmother’s mouth drooped open and looked sore, a nurse spooned water on her red tongue. She choked as if she had swallowed the wrong way. I held her hand. I rubbed Jane’s head until the long breath ceased. Least enviable are folks who die while alive, panicked as they rush still conscious from pink to blue. My father and my mother—at 52 and 90—both died alive.
Beginning as a schoolboy, death turned me on, and for decades I practiced an enthusiastic morbidity. At home a whole bunch of great-aunts and great-uncles took their turns at dying. At 10 I enjoyed banquets of precocious morbidity, telling myself that death had become a reality. In seventh grade I wrote my first poem, which explained that Death hunted you down, screeching through the night, until Death called your name. When I was 15, more and more practicing the poet, I decided that if I announced I would die young it would appeal to cheerleaders. I let it be known that I would die between pages 17 and 18, not noticing that 17 and 18 are two sides of the same page. When I started writing real poems I kept to the subject, though death dropped its capital letter. I wrote cheerful poems—about farm horses or a family dog—and pointed out that eventually they all died. Who would have guessed? I wrote a poem, “Praise for Death,” which tried to stave it off.
Except in print, I no longer dwell on it. It’s almost relaxing to know I’ll die fairly soon, as it’s a comfort not to obsess about my next orgasm. I’ve been ambitious, and ambition no longer has plans for the future. My goal in life is making it to the bathroom. In the past I was often advised to live in the moment. Now what else can I do? Days are the same, generic and speedy—I seem to remove my teeth shortly after I glue them in—and weeks are no more tedious than lunch. They elapse and I scarcely notice. The only boring measure is the seasons. Year after year they follow the same order. Why don’t we shake things up a bit? Start with summer, followed by spring, winter, then maybe Thanksgiving?
I’ve only wanted to kill myself three times, each on account of a woman. Two of them dumped me and the other died. Each time, daydreams of suicide gave me comfort. My father presented me with a .22 back when I was 12, but self-assassination by .22 is chancy. If I didn’t aim it like a surgeon, I could spend the rest of my life on a breathing machine. My friend Bruno suggested an infallible method—to carry my gun into Eagle Pond, wading up to my knees, then plonk a long-rifle bullet into my head. I would drown if the shot didn’t finish me off. Bruno gave suicide a lot of thought, and he took no chance with himself. In his Beverly Hills condo he pulled the pin on a hand grenade clutched to his chest.
By this time, even if I wanted to, I’m too frail and wobbly to walk into Eagle Pond.
In middle life, I came close to dying of natural causes. When I was 61, I had colon cancer, deftly removed, but two years later it metastasized to my liver. A surgeon removed half of that organ, and told me I had a 30 percent chance of living five years. Both Jane and I assumed I would die soon, and she massaged me every day, trying to rub the cancer out. I went through the motions of chemo and finished writing what I was able to finish. Aware of my own approaching death, I was astonished and appalled when Jane came down with leukemia. Her death at 47—I was 66—was not trivial. Six years later, my potential death felt matter-of-fact when I had a small stroke, a carotid artery 85 percent occluded. Dr. Harbaugh removed a pencil-wide, inch-long piece of plaque during a two-hour operation under local anesthetic. I enjoyed hearing the chitchat of the white-coated gang. Now and then somebody asked me to squeeze a dog’s ball, which tinkled to affirm my consciousness. I was disappointed when Dr. Harbaugh wouldn’t let me take the obstruction back home.
My dearest old friend just died at 89. What else should he do? At least he died at home. I’m old enough to remember when everybody died in their houses, tended by family, as Jane was. I was nine when I spent a summer at the farm while my grandmother’s older sister lay dying in the parlor. Parlors in those days were reserved for special events—entertaining the local pastor, funerals, weddings and dying. (My parlor has become the television room.) Great-Aunt Nannie lay on a cot, blind, unable to turn over in bed, her back in continuous pain. She told my grandparents, Kate and Wesley, that the people of this house (Kate and Wesley) tortured her by making her sleep on the woodpile. She told Kate she wanted to see her family, and Kate told her she could arrange a visit from Kate and Wesley. When Kate and Wesley dropped by, Aunt Nannie was overjoyed. She died soon after I left for school, in September 1938, just before the New England hurricane. My mother got stuck coming back from the funeral.
Some fortunate people die in a hospice, which is tender but brief. I visited an old friend, James Wright, as he lay dying in a Bronx hospice, under warm and intelligent care—but the hospice found a bed only four days before he died. My first wife died in a New Hampshire hospice—admitted with only two days to live. Some hospitals perform palliative care for the terminally ill. Others of us still die at home, like my father, Jane’s father and two aunts of mine. Jane could have died in a shiny hospital bed, but chose home, as I will do if I can manage. These days most old people die in special expiration units. Their loving sons and daughters are busy and would have to forgo and sacrifice their ordinary lives. One told me he did not want to diaper his parents. I watched, as he handed them over to women who diapered them at the minimum wage. My best friend spent two of her college summers working at a place called Eternal Peace on the three-to-11 shift. After she fed the patients, she pulled out their teeth and put them in a jar. One night she could not get a woman’s teeth out. She pulled and pulled and pulled. One tooth came out, dripping blood.
Old-folk storage bins bear encouraging names. I’ve heard of an Alzheimer’s unit called Memory Lane. There are also Pleasant View, Happy Valley, Pastures of Paradise, Paradise Pastures, Heaven’s Gate, Peaceful Meadow, Summerglen, Paradise Village Estates, Autumn Wind, Fountain of Youth, Elder Gardens, Harbor Isle, Enchanted Spring, Golden Heirloom, Golden Dawn, Live Forever, Pastures of Plenty, Thistlerock Farm, Village Green, Green Village, Ever Rest and Everest.
At such addresses our elders pass away, or rest in peace, or kick the bucket.