My car died today in Catskill, New York. Her name was Rhonda: Rhonda the Honda. My wife had her in reverse when we suddenly heard a loud CRONK and the front of the car sank to the ground. A ball joint had broken, and the left front wheel had fallen off. (Three people later told me we were lucky: if we’d been driving on the highway, our car might have flipped over!)
Since Rhonda was dead, I went for a walk around Catskill. One porch I passed had two Buddhas on it, and in a corner of the garden was a gold-painted angel. I walked down Main Street, searching for art galleries. A man in a lawn chair outside a store called “Dream” gave me a big smile. I read his T-shirt:
You Have To Be Tough To Survive In The Catskills!
Some People Make It, Some Don’t!
I walked into Dream and looked around. It sold imported goods, including a lamp made from pink Himalayan salt that was 250 million years old. In the back I noticed a shelf labeled “Erotica” filled with Indonesian wood carvings. One was of a woman having sex with a man with enormous testicles. Their faces were full of absorbed contentment, as if they were solving a tricky algebra problem.
On the way back I peered into the Thomson Street Cemetery. Near the gate stood a statue of a weary Union soldier, and in a circle around him were the graves of veterans. I examined the tombstone of Francis Steinberg (1840–1884). He had served in the “No. 8 NY Art.” (The word Artillery apparently can be abbreviated as “Art.”)
Why do all cemeteries have fences? This one was a short iron fence; any lithe vandal could have hopped it. If the dead were to come back to life as zombies, they could easily have broken it down. Perhaps the fence had a ceremonial function: to separate the living and the dead. But this is a great mistake. The deceased and the alive need one another; we are mutually dependent. I want to build a cemetery with a hundred paths leading out in every direction.
“Pray for the dead, and the dead will pray for you!” my camp-mates and I sang each time we passed a cemetery. We were only ten, but we were right.
Returning that night to New Jersey, I read Gettysburg: The Graphic Novel, by C.M. Butzer. The book includes Abraham Lincoln’s entire Gettysburg Address. Our nation’s greatest political speech is a prayer for the dead, I realized, a prayer that doubts its own efficacy: “But in a larger sense we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow this ground.” Lincoln refuses religiosity and demands action: “It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion.”
He was correct: we can “take increased devotion” from the dead. As they lie silently in their tombs and graves, they can furnish us with weapons of devotion.
My wife and I attended the Jazz Vespers at Saint Paul’s Lutheran Church in Teaneck, New Jersey. After an unnamed jazz quartet played “I Remember You” and “Body and Soul,” the Reverend Gary C. LeCroy read from Exodus 20: “I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.”
Here is another connection between the dead and the living (if the Bible is right): we are punished for the iniquity of our forebears. How much of our suffering originates from our great-great-grandfathers?
In a dream last night I was sitting in my house when a woman named Barbara walked in. She was tall, erect, restrained. Suddenly I knew that Barbara was a ghost. In fear I woke up.
What scared me about Barbara the Ghost was her self-sufficiency. Something in me was obliterated by her stillness.
I have never seen a ghost while awake, though I’ve always expected to — in particular, a French musketeer. I picture him vividly: sword, doublet, rapier, pink silk shirt, mustache, tricorn hat with plume, a sly look of ambush.
The dead, like the gods, are silent. Perhaps the dead are the gods. Recently I read The Outlines of Mythology, by Lewis Spence, an aged paperback that itself was dying as I read it, its yellowed pages falling out one by one. But I refuse to bury the book, which remains on my bookshelf bound by a rubber band. Spence begins by speculating on the origin of the gods:
The theory that the gods were derived from the spirits of the dead was first developed by Euhemerus, a Greek who lived in the fourth century before our era. He thought that myth was history in disguise, that the gods were only dead men glorified, and that the passage of time and the invention of many tales concerning them had so magnified people’s views . . . they appeared as supernatural beings.
The ellipsis is where the corner of the page had fallen off.
Is Euhemerus correct? Were the ancient gods just women and men who became immortals in death?
In my college dorm lived a devotee of Eckankar named Carl. (Eckankar was a spiritual group based on Indian philosophy. Their leader at the time had the delightful name “Sri Darwin Gross.”) Carl was earnest, pale, and blond. He gave me Eckankar literature, which I noticed never used the word died. Instead it said the deceased had “translated.” Of all the euphemisms for death, I like “translated” the best. Dying is like being translated into another language. Here, I will translate my name into Turkish:
Now “Sparrow” has died and entered a Turkish afterlife.
I live in Teaneck, in a house built in 1873. Since I moved here a year ago, I have been fervently reading history. I am, in truth, studying the dead.
Most of the books I read are also by dead authors. Sometimes I choose a book by a dead person about someone who’s even more dead, such as Marcus Cunliffe’s George Washington: Man and Monument.
My wife and I are trying to buy a new car to replace Rhonda. We found another Honda on Craigslist and went to see the owner, a Filipino man named Robert, who lives in Secaucus. Across the street from his house, seventeen people were sitting glumly in a yard. Robert whispered to us: “The woman in the house across the street died this morning.”
My wife drove the car for ten minutes with Robert in the back seat and me in the front; then we returned to Robert’s house. It was a good car, a black 1998 Civic with only 68,000 miles. Robert was asking $4,095. As we spoke, I felt the mourning party staring at my back. It seemed morally wrong to buy a car so near the (nameless) woman who had died.
The Yiddish term for the afterlife is yenne velt, which means “the other world.” In Yiddish the dead don’t inhabit a “better world” or a “paradise” but simply another place, perhaps equal to ours, like Finland.
Plants and animals die, of course, but so do objects: toothbrushes, wristwatches, ballpoint pens, refrigerators — all these experience death and then are “buried” in a landfill. But pencils rarely die anymore, because no one ever seems to wear one down to a nub. Pencils, nowadays, are usually buried alive.
My friend Adah gave me three sweaters that had been owned by her boyfriend Mitch Wirth, who’d died suddenly at the age of fifty-five. Mitch ran perhaps the only store on earth that sold only eyeglasses and Buddhist antiquities. It was called “Mad Monk” and came into existence because Mitch had large collections of both eyeglasses and Buddhist statuary.
The three sweaters Adah gave me are my finest clothing. Each time someone compliments me on one, I mention whose they were. By wearing the sweaters, I am preserving the memory of Mitch Wirth.
In Not So Deep as a Well: Collected Poems, by Dorothy Parker, I found this:
The Flaw in PaganismDrink and dance and laugh and lie, Love, the reeling midnight through, For tomorrow we shall die! (But, alas, we never do.)
This is a sarcastic rejoinder to the proverb “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we shall die.” Actually, the original saying is not pagan but Jewish. It comes from the Bible: “Let us eat and drink; for tomorrow we shall die” (Isaiah 22:13).
A suicidal vein runs through Parker’s poetry, and in fact she did attempt suicide multiple times. A couple of days after her first try (by slitting her wrists), she was visited in the hospital by fellow humorist Robert Benchley. “Welcome, Mr. Benchley,” she said. “Could you do me a favor, pretty please, and press that little ole button marked ‘Nurse’? Why? Well, it will give us forty-five minutes of undisturbed privacy.”
Parker died of a heart attack in 1967 at the age of seventy-three. In her will she bequeathed her estate to the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Foundation.
As an epitaph Parker suggested “Excuse my dust.”
When I was a boy, my friends and I played a game called “Who Dies the Best?” One kid pretended to fire a machine gun, and the rest took turns running in front of him and dramatically dying like the soldiers in war movies. At the end the machine gunner would choose a winner — generally the boy who “died” the most flamboyantly.
I’ve never met anyone else who played this game.
Every so often I see a dead sparrow on the sidewalk in New York City, and I always catch my breath. This is a danger of having the name “Sparrow.”
One of my favorite sayings is “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.” When Dante wrote The Inferno, he proved a corollary proposition: No one wishes to go to hell, but everyone wants to visit.
In his novel The Fall Albert Camus writes:
Have you noticed that death alone awakens our feelings? How we love the friends who have just left us? How we admire those of our teachers who have ceased to speak, their mouths filled with earth! Then the expression of admiration springs forth naturally, that admiration they were perhaps expecting from us all their lives. But do you know why we are always more just and more generous toward the dead? The reason is simple. With them there is no obligation. They leave us free and we can take our time, fit the testimonial in between a cocktail party and a nice little mistress, in our spare time, in short.
Camus’ narrator’s cynicism is striking but wrong. In fact death frees us to love. It is dangerous, in this earthly world, to tell anyone you love them — even your mother! If the two of you are of different sexes, it’s at best unwise, and if you’re of the same sex, you might get punched out. No, there’s always a reason to avoid an earnest avowal, until one of you dies. Then you may pour forth your adoration. (And perhaps the dead person, too, feels newly released to love?)
Religion offers many not-very-convincing reassurances about death. Yet the grim certainties of atheism are no better. Psychic spiritualism gives a third option: It teaches that whatever you believe in life about death comes true when you die. If you’re an atheist, you’ll feel nonexistent. If you’re a fundamentalist Christian, you’ll think you’re in heaven. So start developing a happy postdeath philosophy now!
And what of the dead my own nation has killed: the Penobscot, the Cherokee, the slaves who perished in the middle passage, the lynched, the war dead? Toward them I possess a sad duty. In the past many died from racism, Manifest Destiny, and the mindless rage of mobs. Nowadays we kill to “install democracy,” as if the democratic process were a bathroom sink.
May these victims strengthen my will to renew America.
When I was twelve, I didn’t like my smile. Every time I looked at it in the mirror, my mouth seemed deficient. So I chose to imitate another’s smile — that of Butch, an African American boy in my housing project. His grin was bright, warm, and slightly tilted. After a few tries in the mirror I learned it.
Six years ago my old friends organized an elementary-school reunion. I asked George Thornton, “Where’s Butch now?”
George shook his head. “Butchie didn’t make it,” he said sadly.
Butch survives into the twenty-first century in my smile.
While I read the London Review of Books, it occurs to me that one day I will certainly die, and I begin to laugh. “Death will solve the problem of Sparrow!” I remark to no one.
My first friend to die was Timothy Haden, whom I met at Cornell University in 1971. He was a good-looking fellow with a sad smile and hair that fell over his forehead. For fun Timothy and I would call Montana information and talk to the operators for as long as we could — sometimes half an hour. These lonely women on the northern plains were flattered by our attentions.
I once visited Timothy at his home in Kingston, New York. His family had owned a brickyard that was now abandoned, and we walked through it. Piles of bricks still remained, each stamped with his name: Haden.
After Cornell, Timothy went to Washington University in St. Louis, and one day he went swimming in the Mississippi and never returned. Timothy was twenty-one.
Dreams are related to death. Last night, for example, I met an artist in the Dream World. I didn’t learn her name, but I’ll call her “Esther.” She showed me her sketches — tiny, cartoonish male heads with either smiles or sneers.
Now that I’m awake, where has Esther gone? Has she disappeared forever? Or does she remain in the Dream Kingdom? These are the same questions we ask about the dead. Maybe dream people and the dead live together.
One day, when I was twelve years old, my friend Jeffrey and I were walking along the Hudson River in Manhattan. Lying on the sand next to the river was a corpse. We edged forward to see: a white man in his thirties. He didn’t look dead, just wet and asleep.
Jeffrey and I walked away, deciding together never to speak of the corpse. But forty-four years have passed, and I am breaking our vow.
Why did Jeffrey and I adopt silence about the dead body? One reason was practical: we worried we might be suspected of murder. Another was existential: we hoped that by never mentioning this lifeless man, we might defeat Death itself.
My friend Beth DellaRocco took a typesetting class in New York City and decided to use one of my writings as a practice text. She made fifty copies of my proverb “Death has its limits.”
“I like leaving it under my plate at restaurants,” Beth told me.
Recently I studied with the Jehovah’s Witnesses for a year and a half. Why? They came to my door. If geometry professors went house to house, I would study with them. Also I liked the Witnesses. They have a quality I lack: true faith.
“I may never die!” one of my teachers said to me. The Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that after the Last Judgment — which is coming soon — only 144,000 will enter heaven. The rest of the faithful will live forever in an earthly paradise.
Does everyone feel that a small band of dead souls are cheering them on from the yenne velt? I certainly do. Among them are Abraham and Lena Gorelick, my grandparents. I was their first grandchild and only grandson. They would shower me with bounteous kindness when we visited them in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Grandma washed my hair lovingly with beer. In the early morning Grandpa would drive my sister and me to the arcade in Nay Aug Park and hand us each a pile of nickels to play pinball. One machine contained a two-foot-high puppet. When you dropped in a nickel, its mouth would move, and it would sing “Polly Wolly Doodle.” With four buttons I could control the hands and feet and make him dance. My grandfather had an endless supply of nickels. He was like a millionaire!
Grandma baked thick, chocolaty brownies and made memorable kreplach: dough wrapped around beef and fried. Grandpa liked to play cards; he and I had long games of War. Though the game requires no skill — you simply turn over the top card from your stack — Grandpa made subtle jokes about who was the better player. When he was winning, he’d say, “The old man is doing good today!”
My grandparents also visited us at our home in Inwood, the northernmost section of Manhattan. We’d go for walks in Highbridge Park. One time Grandpa pointed to a boulder: “Is that rock bigger than it was last time?”
“I don’t think so,” I replied, confused.
“Because there’s a Russian proverb: ‘Given enough time, even a rock will grow.’ ”
I visited Grandpa on his deathbed at a hospital in Scranton. I was eighteen and had hitchhiked down from Cornell University. Abraham was seventy-six years old and on dialysis three days a week. He wanted to die, because his life was painful and unnatural. I stood before him, struggling for words.
“My grandfather wrote this play,” Grandpa told me.
“What play?” I asked.
“The one we’re in now,” he replied.
The year is almost over, and I’m looking back at the arts events I’ve seen. The best was the Merce Cunningham Dance Company at Rockefeller Park in Manhattan on August 1. Cunningham, the founder of the company, had died four days before, and the performance was free. Thousands of eager New Yorkers sat on the lawn beside the wide Hudson River. The day was lofty and gentle; the dancers performed on two stages about a hundred yards apart. Some of the dancers were weeping. (I heard this later, but I could not see it. I’m a bit myopic.)
Merce Cunningham’s spirit was not present at all. He seemed utterly gone. But the dancers were brave and mighty, beneath the sky. Sometimes I’d wonder, “Are the dancers on the other stage better?” (This was one of the “jokes” of the performance.)
Occasionally a boat would pass by, or a helicopter. At one point two planes flew across the sky, parallel to one another. This was the first time I had ever thought, Those two planes are dancing.
The crowd was silent and respectful. We realized a miracle was happening before us. These angular, mathematical dance moves were being revealed as prayers. The dancers, presenting these abstract shapes with precision, were like the letters of an alphabet, and Cunningham was their writer.
Suddenly all the dancers stopped moving; the music stopped too, and the performers stood absolutely still. How long will this go on? I thought.
Probably their stillness lasted only four minutes. This was their way of “mentioning” Merce.
We are all lucky to be alive and not dead. Alive, alive beneath the high sky, which is reflected in this great river. We all thought this, privately.