I am trying to make friends with Death. He has been flirting with way too many of my friends and his recent moves to consummate a few of these relationships have forced me to rethink my strategy. While we are generally reassured that these incidents come in threes, there was yet a fourth last week. Admittedly, my 'stepmother' the artist did take her own life. She cheated Death, in her way, and he did not like that. He expects to beat you at his game, not have you put yourself in checkmate and deprive him of his victory rush. So he pulled another trick? The fact is, he lost count, long ago. He has way too many fingers.
If you've been reading my essays, you know that I've seen him in Chelsea. Summer heat doesn't phase Death; under wraps his cold breath gives him away. He likes the galleries; he's rather vain and is sure to see himself in a painting or two on any given day. Andy liked to include him-- a shadow, a symbol or a doppelgänger; maybe it pissed him off. He's in all the trendy fashion houses, in one form or another, and as we all know--- he has great taste in music. He is a patient lover: he can be violent and cruel, or he can be gentle and invisible. But he will eventually come to all of us, whether we embrace him or fear him, whether we court him or evade him; he will come.
Personally he fucks with my head. I feel responsible; I feel guilty and inadequate. He reminds me of my father who try as I might, does not love me as a daughter. Okay… my cousin was old--- he was ill and had come to a boundary; his passing was a blessing. My stepmother? She feared her end. She was an artist and she wanted an audience, she wanted recognition; she wanted a guaranteed choir of mourners. Death taunted her-- held a cruel mirror before her vanity. She'd once painted for her lovers and now she'd outlived every single one. I was a lone voice for her; my love and admiration was not enough. She was cranky and bitter in her last weeks, and the truth is, I was avoiding her. She scolded me; I reminded her of failure. Even at the end, she left a small pile of envelopes, and I waited in vain for mine. No sentimentality; her only request, as always, is for me to disperse her art-- to find collectors, to enhance her legacy. I am the designated 'sweeper' of her leavings. Nothing more. I could have pimped for her. Maybe she would have stuck it out. Sometimes Death makes you a star; sometimes you don't even make the New York Times obituaries unless you pay.
My lovely drummer who passed…. he used to bring me small trinkets from his trips-- purses, tiny elephants from Thailand, cloth fans and memorabilia. At some point last year I cleaned my closet and donated bags of these things. So now I feel guilty. I searched my closet for a souvenir--- nothing. I somehow brought this on, with my callow attitude toward his sweetness and sentimentality. After all, he was young-- who could anticipate I would outlive him? I am guilty.
And that woman in Chelsea--- it was serendipitous that we had met through a mutual friend. Who could have conceived that she would chase her dog into the arms of Death in the form of a garbage truck? Her dog? I forgot to ask. I doubt he feels guilty. But I do. I wish we'd never met.
At my cousin's funeral his children remembered poignant moments. They were loved, had wonderful lives with and without him. It was perfect. I wept. I thought of my own father-- -the one who can't bear the sound of my voice, the mention of my name-- -for Death knows what reason. I can't think of a single tender moment. My sister methodically stole my packet of M & Ms every day for years. I willingly gave up my toys, my allowance-- I took the blame for every bit of family mischief. She has the birthright-- whether it is fair or unfair, I am glad to stay out of the family spotlight. My father owes me an apology. Besides marrying rock musicians and turning down a Harvard Law scholarship… what did I do to him? I offended his legacy. I failed to enhance his family with suitable accomplishments. I work in bars. I was a single mother. This is the 21st century. But he is ashamed. I did what I could; I paid him back. I gave them the art I'd lovingly collected through my friends. I paid my sister and her husband and put her kids through college while I took an oath of poverty and devotion to music. I am a Goth nun. You'd think I blackmailed them. They have weddings and parties and exchange gifts. My son got a check for $100 for his combined 21st birthday, Christmas and college graduation. We have many nights gone hungry Not even a card. A folded check in a small envelope.
I have dedicated songs to my father; I post his military accolades on my Facebook page. I honor him in the only way that I can. None of this matters. He will take his hatred to the grave and I will not have a seat at his funeral. Whatever he thinks I did, I did not do. Death-- tell him. Whisper. I go to funerals, I take care of my friends. I'm guilty. I give money to homeless people and split my last-dollar hotdog today with a hungry man in the street. I never stole from him or lied to him or cheated. I won all those awards. I even bought him a computer once with money I won and he complained. So I give up. Death, compared to my father, is just. He spared me a few times-- he's whispered in my ear and sat on my bed through a couple of nights…and mysteriously as he entered, in the morning he was gone.
I finally got the nerve to visit my stepmother's apartment; the very room where she put a plastic bag over her head and inhaled lethal quantities of helium several days ago. Kind of a stagey exit, but painless and effective. It looked exactly the same; the bed was made, the Saramago I loaned her on the nightstand, the smell of helium was nowhere. Death had vanished-- no wagging fingers, no morbid reminders. Just the art, like an albatross--- like guilt mirrors around the room. But I'll rise to the challenge. Death has no wish to participate. It's too late for dying young, he coolly whispered to me as I lay awake the other night… and then, dressed like the 1961 Elvis, he left the room.