Death is in the house this week. Not that he is ever anywhere else-- I often feel his cold breath on my right hand, reminding me not to take my eighth notes for granted. Some nights it is my left ear-- like he is whispering to me in some weathery language: Listen to the rain, he says… or Notice how the fog speaks-- how it blurs lines and descriptions-- yes, this is his language, his courtship-- his entry…
Last week I sat with him by the side of my friend. He taunted me-- She's mine, he said; she's been mine for years now… this is just the final approach… Then stop the suffering and have her, I scolded him… Ahh but don't you enjoy this time with me, he asked? You and I and Jesus-the-cat in this lonely dark apartment, you with your silly rosary beads and your sympathy? Me just having a rest in the city-- usually I must be quick and urgent here. Exhausting, these urban hubs-- with the hit-and-runs, the shootings and overdoses… the jumpers and depressed, the muggers and murderers who beat me at my own game. Then I have to consider revenge. But you-- you're so quiet here…you the writer of my music… you're so facile with the language of gravestones and black winds… it's so peaceful sitting with you in the dark, watching…
This is the way Death spoke to me while he also watched my friend writhe in her extended agony without emotion. He was quiet, he was cold. I left him for a few hours and he finished the deed, left his mark and no sign that there was peace at the end. My vigil was clearly over, and I ended up without a souvenir, without closure-- on the other side of the hideous yellow police-tape which was used to mark off her doorway. No answers, no autopsy; without a will or testament, she is legal property of the city medical examiner's office, another cold corpse in the morgue awaiting the appearance of some kin or family who never showed up during her illness-- so why would they want to pay for a funeral?
There is little I can do; after all the nights and days of fear and diagnosis, treatment and suffering and anxiety… the questions and tears--- decisions and research… I cannot even be certain of her name. She is another mystery-- another open wound in the sequence of human experiments for which I have somehow enlisted, my friends tell me-- out of some genetic defect which continues to prompt me to turn around every time someone says 'help'. Or 'Mommy'. Or even 'Mami'.
I can't seem to sign up for lucrative jobs-- me, who turned down a Harvard Law scholarship-- the sore thumb of my family, with the ivy league black sheepskin. I refuse to gig in club-date bands or even tribute projects which might compensate reasonably enough for me to afford groceries like a normal person-- to take a taxi every once in a while, to see a movie that's not on free TV, have a coffee I didn't make myself… to buy anything that hasn't been used by someone else. I admire your conscientious deprivation, Death commented-- As thought you're preparing for the next life-- when all bets are off. And he has spared me, once or twice--- or many times-- when a city bus brushed so close as I crossed an avenue-- when a plate glass window fell 60 stories and sprayed me ever so lightly with the tiniest splinters… he's definitely loaned me a few free passes.
So how do I explain my attachment to a no-win situation-- a doomed patient who was not particularly loving or nice or even appreciative, although at the very end she did express some tough gratitude, and I assured her it was my privilege to have been able to be there? Was it my privilege? Was it my own personal penance, my perverted version of twisted sainthood to atone for all the mistakes I've made-- the bad marriages and the failures? I definitely identified somehow with my poor deceased friend, who had paid a lonely price for a pile of bad choices. Was that it?
The truth is, I love my life. I cling to my bizarre stoicism and spartan lifestyle and I manage to produce something I feel is worthwhile. My distractions are emotional and empathetic ones; my path is often lonely and without luxury. I read a description of middle-income housing qualifiers last night and was shocked to discover the low-end cut-off was 10 times my annual income. I am not just low, but below poverty income-qualifying. Who is going to sit by my side at my end, with no prospect of reward or inheritance? I have yet to come across my own double.
Still, I know I would have made the same choices, again and again. We can't take all this stuff with us, and I have plenty of meaningful stuff, although I have no fortune. No, I did not ask Death for a bit of extra time for good behavior, although maybe that is what I intended, subconsciously. I have work to do-- things to leave behind that someone some day may value.. not in dollars, but in worth. There is no closure at the end; there was no relief for me, and I feel the spirit of my friend wandering the dark streets--- after all, she is in the morgue, a kind of urban purgatory; she did not help herself or me with any information or truth that might have made the process easier. I, too, am stubborn and have some pride; I might have wanted control of my own end, when I had lost all else-- even if it meant dying like an abandoned dog, in pain and without loved ones-- only some version of me, which in itself is doubtful. What separates me from my friend? I leave my poetry-- my music-- I make cds and books-- my 'calling'. Do people acknowledge even the artistic version of sacrifice? Occasionally there is a comment, or praise, or 'likes'… but in the end, it is another item for the loss column, on the balance sheets of pragmatism and poor financial health. But I will continue, despite lack of closure.
For my friend there is perhaps burial-- or cremation, or scientific autopsy-- but there are still dreams and memories, and a past somewhere-- customers who drank what she poured, men who made passionate love to her-- cats and pets who slept at her feet. And then there is me, the sleepless writer who will continue to commemorate this woman's poor life, to try to find some meaning and beauty, perhaps rescue something from her self-imposed obscurity-- martyrize her anti-heroics and pedestrian eccentricities, make some attempt of poetry out of the raw materials of disease and squalor. Then-- like the rest of us, I will wait for my hour to look Death in the eye and say.. Remember me? This is what I have done.