I always intended this blog to be about the whole life of an academic worker, and last week I posted notice of the death of my father. Isn’t death part of the education we’ll all receive, now we’ve matriculated on this earth? That some of you sent condolences means more than I can say. It also moved me that 50 or 60 of my students sent e-mails that were sensitive and adept, and that my wife’s coworkers (staff, not faculty) sent flowers.
There was no reaction from my own department. My editors here once asked if I risked exposure by posting a picture of my son Starbuck. My reply was that maybe four people at this university know what my children look like—a good indicator of the social milieu and my place in it. I don’t take it personally. Most faculty in the English department dislike each other anyway, and many are inept at basic social conventions—unfortunate, given that they profess that social forces are responsible for the identities we mistake for Selves. It’s an interesting paradox that those best informed in the humanities often act the least humanely. Do they think rationality makes death déclassé, petit-bourgeois?
None of this should be mistaken for hard realism. My friend Frenchy is a realist, and when I told him about my dad, he said there was little that could be said in such a situation, but that he was sorry to hear it. We shared a few memories, and he asked after my sons, and I took his response for what it was—that of a wise and excellent friend who’s seen about everything in his time, or at least enough to know.
While my dad was dying in hospice, I went to the restaurant where he and his wife ate breakfast six days a week for eight years. He had collapsed, the first time, there a month earlier, and one of the Greek owners, George, had stood over him, shouting to my stepmother, “It’s okay, Alix, he’s breathing, he’s alive!”
George is bald with a fringe, in his fifties, has soft-boiled eyes. He’s goodhearted, I think, but stingy and gruff with his staff. (His waitresses, mentioned in an earlier post as “booze hags,” got off work one afternoon and drove over to see my dad, who could no longer speak but loved that they came.)
When I went to pay for breakfast, George asked how much I wanted to tip. The bill was ten bucks, and I said to add five. George dismissed me. “That is too much. Two dollars, that’s enough,” he said in his accent and started to punch in numbers on the credit card machine. “No,” I said firmly. “You’ve all been very kind.”
We stood awkwardly while the transaction went through. “We are sorry about everything that has happened,” he said finally. He ripped the receipt off and put it down for me to sign. “But what can you say? There is nothing to be done. We are born to die.”
The day after my father was cremated, I was back in the department and ran into friend and administrator Rory, a self-described cowboy poet. He doesn’t mean one of those guys who used to show up on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show to recite humorous lyrics about eatin’ beans on roundup, or ropin’ a bear. No, Rory is part of that literary community who see the act of writing as inherently macho. They like very much the theme of Liquor and Love, with maybe a Remington added for color, and mentions of Wallace Stevens for pedigree. (One might suggest Louis L’Amour instead.) One knucklehead’s creative-writing pedagogy is to take his classes shooting at the range.
(The French are often involved in this movement, and I’d have thought they had better sense, despite the fact that they also love pro wrestling, goose torture, and the worst excesses of Edgar Allan Poe, whom James Russell Lowell called “two-fifths sheer fudge.”)
Rory drinks bourbon I can’t afford and wears cowboy boots and an ear stud to his desk job. At lunch the other day, he expressed admiration for some literary tough guy (it’s always guys) who had gotten drunk and drove his shit-beater into a swamp so that he and his buddies could shoot it with shotguns until it exploded under the moon. (Huh?)
“How tough do you have to be to pull a trigger or swallow a drink?” I asked him. He looked puzzled. I suggested that those guys wouldn’t last five minutes where actual toughness was needed—to be a Ranger in Afghanistan these days, for instance. Better yet, how about the hard endurance of the garbage man, or of the mother of young children in a bad marriage? I recalled an old Roseanne Barr joke about a real man being somebody who sticks around to pay the mortgage. (Let me be clear: Rory is a real man.)
When I told him my father died, he mumbled he was sorry. People often feel awkward, I think—especially about a parent’s death—because they project so many emotional responses of their own.
But watching someone die is both more horrifying and banal than anyone (except maybe Tolstoy) has written. Those not afforded quick deaths—I’ve seen seven slow ones, I guess—often must work incredibly hard to rid themselves of last energy. (In order to abandon their bodies without regret?) An old man who can’t shift his weight off a hotspot before it becomes a bed sore, let alone sit up on his own, pulls at the bed rails with such strength that one thinks the steel tubing will bend. The struggle is awful, in the old sense of the word. And boring. Death is like a trick ending we’ve already read, or a song stuck in its skip or groove. And anyone who’s witnessed it knows that another commonplace indignity of the intensive care, nursing home, or hospice is that grief becomes yet another bodily function to be performed publicly.
I took pity on Rory and changed the subject. We walked down the hall, talking about no-name presses, and met the current director of the writing program, a sensitive and good poet. He looks like an aging hippie from the neck up but listens avidly to radio morons in whom he detects the voice of his dead father, a stockbroker.
“Oh, great,” the director said to us in the mock-cynical voice that’s part of his persona. “Here come Rigor and Mortis.”
I laughed and pimped him about his pants falling off his ass. But when Rory and I were alone in Rory’s office, I had an evil urge. “You know, if [the director] were a closer friend—like ones I had in the Army”, I said—“I would have joked with him differently. When he said, ‘Here come Rigor and Mortis,’ I would have said accusingly, ‘My father died on Sunday. Thanks a lot for reminding me. That’s very painful, you jerk.’”
It’s an odd joke, but one that some of the toughest guys I ever knew personally would understand and know was not in any way disrespectful or griefless. But Rory is a nice man and father and as essentially soft as Mellocream. His face blanched.
“Oh,” he moaned softly, involuntarily. “No. No, you couldn’t do that….”