Monday, November 28, 2016

ON DEATH AND DYING

I do very much enjoy the fact that the voices on this "Boyhood Memories" blog are so diverse. Here's one that recalls the death of a sibling at a very young age, and reflects profoundly on the event itself, its meaning, and the lasting impact of the lesson it taught. I have had high regard for Howard N. Fox for many years, first as a curator of contemporary art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and, more recently, as an independent writer and curator who is passionate about art and artists in Southern California and beyond. This piece is an extract from a letter he wrote in response to an old and dear friend--you'll see that her name is Rosemary--who had recently written to him about her own sobering close-encounter with the inevitability of death. As Howard notes here, it triggered his own memories and thoughts, which resound with a depth of acceptance, understanding and compassion.



BUNNY
(An extract from personal correspondence)
By Howard N. Fox

... As you said, "time marches on...and on...and on...until it stops!"  At least for each and every creature alive.  I've always thought about death--in an unseemly way according to my husband Douglas and to my parents, when they were still alive; maybe it's because I had a sister who died when she was only seven and I was only three.  I have only two memories of her--one, probably my very earliest memory, is quite pleasant: she was trying to comfort me by tickling me under my chin as I went into a bawling fit because my father was leaving the house to go to work.  The other memory, much less clear, was visiting her in the hospital when she was dying of leukemia.  I have zero memory of her funeral, and I'm quite certain my parents didn't take me to it, but I do remember asking my mother, probably a day or two later, where Bunny went.  She told me she died, that it was like going to sleep forever.  But mommy where is she now?  They put her in a wooden box and made a hole in the ground and put the box in the hole and put the dirt back on top of her.  The image I had then, standing in the laundry room of our house in the residential end of Atlantic City, was, quite specifically, that the box was an orange crate and that Bunny could see them putting the dirt back on top of her.  It was a disturbing image to me then, as it is now.

But I no longer fear for the dead nor pity them, nor myself for being among them one day.  The change was gradual but inevitable as I grew up.  However, the real realization came when I had neurosurgery on my left elbow at Cedars Sinai, I think about eight years ago, when I started to lose sensation and dexterity on the left side of my left hand.  The condition is called cubital tunnel syndrome–something like well-known carpal tunnel syndrome, but it occurs to a compressed nerve in the elbow rather than the wrist.  There I was, prepped and laying on the surgical table in the operating room and staring at the operating lamp above me, with its many intense facets and multiple lenses focused on my left arm.  As I was looking at the lamp, I felt something with the intravenous connection on my right arm, and I asked if they were ready to start.  The assistant surgeon declared "No, Howard, we're done.  You've been out for about 90 minutes."  I was amazed--flabbergasted.  I had absolutely no sense that I'd virtually ceased to exist as a sentient being for an hour and a half.

And truly, Rosamarina [my affectionate nickname honoring Rosemary’s Italian heritage], my immediate, first waking thought was that I have no need to fear being dead.  Not for myself or for anyone else.  I recall quite vividly being wheeled on the gurney into the recovery area with that idea firmly–and happily!–in my mind.  It was a life-changing--and I guess you could say a death-changing--experience for me.  (BTW, the surgery went fine.  The chronic tingling stopped, though as the surgeon explained going into it, I would never regain the feeling I lost nor the dexterity my body forfeited.  Big deal.)  The most salient content of the whole experience was that welcome realization about non-existence.

Of course there's a major difference between being dead and dying.  We can only hope for the best when it comes to dealing with the "endgame".  But the subtext of your letter is about engaging, or at least beginning to acknowledge that, perhaps, its earliest incidentals have begun.  To quote you, again, "Elevated liver 'counts,' anyone?"  Been there, done that, got the tee-shirt....  I've had one or two scares; and Douglas has had prostate cancer, has had a knee replacement, and has repeatedly had a procedure, under anesthesia, to burn away precancerous esophageal cells.  It's no fun, and it brings anxiety.  But neither are we afraid of the inevitable outcome.  As Voltaire says in Candide, the only thing one can do is tend one's own garden.  

It's a simple truth, but sometimes knowing simple truths is the most important thing of all.  I'm not a believer in any religion, you know that.  God forbid, were I!  But I recently re-heard a recording of Leonard Bernstein's “Mass”, which he was commissioned to write for the opening of the Kennedy Center.  The one line that I remember most from the time we saw it at Kennedy Center to the time I heard it last week as I drove on surface streets to Pasadena, is "God is the simplest thing of all."

I also remember reading an article about the Big Bang theory of the creation of the universe, in which a physicist was quoted as saying "No God is God enough for me."  When you think about it, that's a rather profound statement, maybe not about religious devotion, but about the wonderment of it all.
I'm heartened that Brian is up and around again, attending to those myriad household details and maybe even returning to painting.  He's tending to his own garden.  Good for Brian...!


*****

PC notes: As to Howard's final paragraph, I take the liberty of appending this delicious quote from the astrophysicist and cosmologist Carl Sagan:







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