[Note: The following is an essay I wrote in December 2003 put never published anywhere. I just ran across it and thought I would post it on Quriosity.]
Two months ago I stood in a cemetery in Wilton, Connecticut, looking down at the shiny wooden coffin containing the body of my wife Virginia’s uncle, Paul Lyon, soon to be lowered into the dug grave and covered with earth. Nearby the coffin stood an easel bearing a montage of photos from Uncle Paul’s life mounted on a sheet of poster board. A good breeze was blowing, so my chunky teenage nephews, Kellen and Tristan, trussed uncomfortably in neckties and sport jackets, stood flanking the easel like a pair of ushers, holding either side of the cardboard sheet to keep Uncle Paul’s pictures from sailing away on the wind.
I’m a real crybaby, and that day was no exception; I thought about the cold body inside that wood box — a man I had known and liked, an affable man of my parents’ World War II generation, who had lived what I supposed was a basically decent life.
Two photos stuck to that cardboard matting also stick in my mind from that windy day in the cemetery:
One, a picture of Paul Lyon sleek in his airman’s uniform during the war, not much older than my willowy 20-year-old son Paul (named more for my father than for my wife’s uncle, and named even more for the apostle than for any relative).
The other, a photo of Paul Lyon at age 80, only a few weeks before his death, standing at his front door waving goodbye. Maybe when he lifted his hand to the camera for that wave, he had in mind the cancer that was spreading inexorably inside him.
I think a lot about life and death, and I find myself again and again coming back to photos and to numbers. I told you about some photos; now consider some numbers: At 52, I stand right about between son Paul and uncle Paul: age 20, age 50, age 80. Thirty years back and I am my son’s age, hitchhiking across the country with a duffle bag, tambourine, and five dollars in my pocket. Thirty years ahead and I am lying in a wooden crate.
I love to look at old photos from the 19th century, to leaf through a book and muse on the faces of people from that time. Their faces are fresh, the spark of life is in their eyes. In a moment, this man, I imagine, will turn from the camera, kiss his wife, walk home with her, have dinner, go to bed, and make love.
In reality, he is long dead, a pile of bones under the ground. In fact, all of these faces are gone, carried away on the wind across a cemetery. They are all dead, every single one. Maybe nobody now living remembers them or even knows their names.
And of course, the thing that I am trying to grapple with, to force myself to confront, is that, in the normal course of things, mine will become a face like that. Someone will look at my face in an album, wonder briefly who I was, then flip to the next page.
You should understand that I am speaking as one who believes that this life is not all there is, that there is a higher being who cares, who remembers us and will bring us back. And that belief underpins my life so I can live hopefully. But it doesn’t completely do away with the visceral reaction to the enveloping death that is moving toward me to cover me over and draw me down into the unthinkable sleep. It will flow over me, and I will be gone. How can there be a world, if I am not in it?
Last week I got in my car to drive up to New Hampshire to my consulting job at a graduate school in Keene. The Public Radio program Morning Edition was on, and because of the proximity of Christmas, the interviewer was speaking with bookstore managers across the country asking for recommendations of good books for gifts.
One store manager recommended a book called “When It Was Our War,” and my stomach dropped when I heard the name of the author, Stella Suberman. Jack and Stella Suberman were friends of my parents when I was growing up in Raleigh, North Carolina. I remember watching them play tennis with my mother and father, and I remember swimming in their pool, and I remember them from dinner parties and cookouts. They were two larger-than-life people, awe-inspiring and wonderful and frightening (well, Jack was scary, anyway — Stella was bright and beautiful and charismatic).
One of the devastating moments in my life (among many, admittedly) was when I told my mother I wanted to invite the Subermans to come to my high school graduation and she waved off the idea — the Subermans don’t really know me that well, she said, and they would think it odd if I invited them to my graduation. Suddenly I learned I was nothing in the eyes of these two marvelous people who had been giants to me.
So, sitting in the car last week, hearing a recommendation of Stella’s World War II memoir, I was affected … well, as I said before, I’m a real crybaby. First chance I got, I ordered a copy of “When It Was Our War” from Half.com and started reading it this week.
Reading Stella’s book I become a time traveler. It’s a story of the young wife of a soldier during the war. The fascinating thing is that I am peering into the lives of two people, important in my childhood, before I ever knew them, before I was even born. On the cover of the book are black and white photos, a small one of Jack in his uniform, a larger one of a gorgeous Stella in a short tennis skirt, leaning against a palm tree. In the photos, Jack and Stella are easily recognizable as the people I knew. Seeing their faces, I can hear their voices on the tennis court and by the pool.
But reading Stella’s reminiscence and seeing these photos gets me going playing with numbers as I am wont to do.
In these photos, Jack and Stella are about 20, the age my son is now. But they are actually the contemporaries of my father and Virginia’s departed uncle. So I can peek in on their lives and see them practically as children. When I knew them 15 years later, they seemed old and formidable to me. But even at that age, they were in fact youthful in comparison with my now ancient age of about 50.
So I take these odd jumps of 15 years backward and forward along the line of my life and that of the Subermans and somehow it emphasizes to me how fleeting it all is, while yet so rich and wonderful.
Here’s another game with numbers: I was born in 1951. Go back about five years and you’re at the end of the Second World War, which doesn’t seem that long ago to me but would to my 20-year-old son. Go back just 35 years from 1951, and you are at the end of the First World War. That does seem like a long time ago to me, but it’s a relatively short period of time compared to the 50 years that have passed (quickly it seems to me) since 1951.
I wonder if I’m making any sense.
What it kind of amounts to is that I am like the character Dave in the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey”: I’m a middle-aged man looking back at myself as a young man. But standing in the doorway is an old man, also myself, watching me as a middle-aged man. The whole thing passes in a flash. Day by day, the experience is sweet and incredibly deep. But all in all, 80 years is very short.
As we drove away from the cemetery in Wilton, I told my sister-in-law Natalie and my nephews, “You know, the Bible says it’s good to go to a funeral. And it says that the day of your death is better than the day of your birth.”
Natalie was intrigued by the idea. She thought maybe I was referring to the cycle of life, but that wasn’t what I had in mind. The point is that when you’re born, you could turn out to be anything at all, good or bad. But at your death, you’ve had a lifetime to show what kind of person you are — what you made out of that thin thread of years as they spun their way out.
It’s Ecclesiastes 7:1, 2 I was thinking of: “A name is better than good oil, and the day of death than the day of one’s being born. Better it is to go to the house of mourning than to go to the banquet house, because that is the end of all mankind; and the one alive should take it to his heart.”
So I look through the pages of photos and run through the numbers in my head. And I try to take it to heart. Because I can feel the wind picking up, and all-in-all I’m not much more than a picture taped to a piece of poster board.
AB — written December 2003, posted 26 June 2009