08 April 2009

A Good Death?

A couple years ago, around this same time of year, a friend of mine's mother died, and I rode three trains and a bus out into one of those far-flung districts of Queens that, to those of us not from Queens, will always remain a mystery, to attend the funeral.

Despite being conducted entirely in Spanish, of which I could pick out maybe one word in four, the service was quite moving, but the real drama was reserved for the cemetery, where all the mourners joined in helping to refill the grave once the casket had been lowered into it. There was a great deal of weeping and wailing, and a couple people had to be at least symbolically restrained from throwing themselves in along with their shovefuls of dirt.

But before this all got underway, there was a delay of about half an hour, for reasons I can no longer recall. Something to do with the gravediggers being on their lunch break, I believe, but whatever it was, a couple dozen of us were left standing around with nothing much to say to each other apart from the one thing we were least likely to say, "Nice day for a funeral." Which it was; in fact, it was a spectacular day, the first really warm day of spring, not a cloud in the sky, the newly green cemetery lawn rolling gently away toward the distant spires of Manhattan, and the just-burst-into-bloom trees lining the horizon like so many vanilla ice cream balls.

It was a little too warm to be wearing a dark suit, but that was what I was wearing, and I stood there periodically wiping my brow and wondering if God wasn't adding insult to injury by unleashing such glorious weather on such a sad occasion. Wouldn't some dark, brooding skies and a bone-chilling breeze be more apropos?

Come to think of it, nearly all the funerals I've attended in recent years have taken place on beautiful sunny days. And, strange as it may seem, the funerals themselves have been beautiful, even - dare I say it? - joyous in their own funereal way. I don't mean laugh-out-loud, dance-among-the-headstones kind of joyous, but rather in the quiet yet powerful sense of shared emotion and understanding that at least briefly overtakes participants who, were it not for the death being mourned, might have little inclination or reason to speak or interact with one another.

Back when I was a regular attendee at Fulham football matches, we had a player by the name of Luis Boa Morte, who became quite a crowd favorite, at least until he started collecting more red cards than goals. The fans, with their blithe and characteristic English disregard for the bizarre and unwieldy tongues spoken by Johnny Foreigner, decided that "Boa Morte" must translate as "Dead Snake," and that became his nickname. Occasionally someone - myself for example - would try to explain that "Boa Morte" actually meant "Good Death," but usually without success. Once when I pointed this out to the stroppy gent who sat behind me, I was interrupted with a bleat of derision. "Geroff," he exclaimed, "There's nothing good about death. You're talking rubbish, mate."

Well, there isn't, is there? At least not when it comes to someone we love, and especially when that someone is cut down far short of the time we might have expected them to live. And yet every one of the world's religions or spiritual disciplines - at least insofar as I am aware - seems to have a fairly upbeat outlook on death, comforting the bereaved with some version of "They're in a better place now."

Not to be impertinent, but I'm not sure how, short of blind faith or a visit (round trip) to the shadow world, anyone's supposed to know that. Yet I'm inclined to believe it anyway. Last week I sat with my friend Erika, and held her hand as she died, and although outwardly it was a horrible thing - her body wracked with a lengthy and painful illness, her husband and family devastated, her many friends in various stages of shock and despair - something strangely peaceful and comforting seemed to fill the room as she made her exit.

Only fifteen or twenty minutes earlier, we'd been clowning around with her friends on the internet. She couldn't speak, and though her fingers made a valiant - or perhaps it was merely habitual - effort to stretch across the keyboard one last time, she lacked the strength to type even a single letter. But I was able to read her friends' comments to her, and she would respond with thumbs up for good news or an eye roll at a doofish joke. She seemed brighter of spirit and more aware of her surroundings than she'd been in weeks, and it was difficult to believe what the doctors had told us, that she most likely had no more than a few hours to live.

It turned out to be not even that much. She closed her eyes, as if to take a brief rest from her internet exertions, and never opened them again. The end, though it came swiftly, was not instant; it was more as though she were slipping away from us, like a boat released from its mooring or an autumn leaf detached and carried to the ground by an imperceptible yet inexorable breeze.

Yes, of course there were tears, lots of them, and some of them were my own. Yet there was relief, too. Erika's suffering was over, no small thing for those of us who had seen her in its worst throes, but there was also something profound about having participated, as witness and companion, in one of life's most fundamental moments. She was far too young to die, of course, and because she was so well thought of, it was doubly hard for people to get their heads around her passing. Ben Weasel, in a tribute played at her memorial service, said, "In 18 years I’ve never heard anyone say a word against her. Not once." I knew Erika as long as Ben did - we both met her on a Screeching Weasel tour in 1991 - and I could and would echo exactly what he said.

I feel very fortunate to have had Erika in my life for as long as I did, feel very fortunate to have worked with her, hung out with her, laughed and cried and played goofy games with her. I feel even more grateful that she found and married my very dear friend Patrick, and that though their time together would prove to be shorter than might have been expected, that while it lasted it was a love story for the ages, the sort that many if not most of us can only dream of.

But most of all, I suppose, I feel grateful for life itself, in all its rich, tawdry, shabby, wonderful, heartwarming and heartbreaking splendor, grateful to be a part of it, to be able to show up for the sorrows as well as the joys, to witness the way human beings rise to the occasion, be strong and take care of one another when logic might dictate they should be falling to pieces. Erika Hynes, my life was made better and more meaningful by your presence in it, and in the past few days, I've heard from dozens of people who felt the same way. What I didn't expect was how even the manner of your leaving would touch and enrich the lives of those you left behind.

That might sound strange, even perverse, to those still in the throes of grieving, but in time I think it will become clear that by gathering to celebrate Erika's life and mourn its passing, we gained a better appreciation of what it is to be a human being living in this world, and a better understanding of just how awesome and fleeting a gift life truly is. Rest in peace, Erika, and may those of us who remain be worthy of your legacy.


l00ka said...


DR. J-ROB said...

You made me cry Larry.

Chadwick said...

A friend, Kendra, shared this post with me. There are a few sentiments here which I find so wonderfully expressed that I am printing them out and putting on my wall here at work. For anyone who has lost a loved one and felt the powerful emotions of those moments, both the positive and negative, this short essay on life, loss, and love captures the essence of tragically fleeting moments and the existential beauty of each phase of living and dying. Thank you for putting this into words. How very human of you.

Chadwick said...

You also inspired me to write along a similar line of thought. Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

A great, moving post...
i have been reading your stuff via fanzines or the "internets" for 20 years now and it has always been worth it.
This post hit home in a big way...
This past month I went through my first major physical health scare. Being in my late 30s, I have been pretty blessed with good health.One case of Mono, one case of (bad) pneumonia, one nervous breakdown.
For most of the last month, however, I spent my time moving in and out of clinics and hospitals in NYC and Brooklyn (Woodhull anyone?) getting batteries of expensive tests, having my heart sink every time a doctor orders another test.
Fortunately, I am fine. The situation was "benign" ultimately...
This past week has been a strange mixture of relief tinged with confusion.
I have seen a handful of people pass in my lifetime, including two friends and my father. Someone has to get sick, it happens all the time. And somehow, this time around, it wasn't me.
Hearing of Erika reminded me of how lucky I am.