Tag: dying

Why My Hair is White



Why My Hair is White



One evening, upstairs in a Connecticut brown shingle house on Long Island Sound, I stood in front of the mirror as usual, naked as usual, and oiled my hair a slippery black, smearing downhill flat against my skull with a viscous goo a friend brought me from Alaska, walrus oil—something to encourage my hair, to bring on new things, and maybe old ones as well. And then I lay back, showered and cool on the smooth, expensive summery sheet so soft and was bathed a second time in wind coming through the evening screens on both sides of the wooden room.

I never expected the results. A cry full of longing rose up out of the sloshing cove. It was more a sobbing toothy singing, possibly the walrus cow we’d heard of, even though I know you’re thinking it was the wrong latitude. Yet there were connections. My own Clarissa was gone, drawn beneath that moody water back in another summer, sailing alone—an accident, best not mentioned again, even to myself. I thought nothing of it, the cries briefly confused with memory. I lay on my aunt’s guestroom bed, lingered instead at the edge of boyhood, adolescence, young man love, times full of hope and expectation and yearning in memory of Clarissa’s sun-warmed skin, her breasts, her fears, my hopes.

At the same time, I heard the gravelly crawling on the driveway, the sigh of elms, I felt the moon’s full blue, the cat’s mentioning something about shadow and the invasion of territory. And not until the moon had slipped in through the screens on the other side of the wooden room, on the side away from the sea, did I sit up on my stretched sheet and peer out over my white legs to see her, massively huddled at the foot of the bed, with her weight bowing down the floor, and probably the old beams below it, and eclipsing my aunt’s disordered shelves of vacation mysteries.

What can I tell you? How much I pitied her? Not my aunt with her lipsticked cigarette stubs and her unfinished glasses of Scotch, but my sad blubbery visitor with her big eyes, one turned sideways, spy glassing me, calling on me to explain myself and the stuff in my hair, the cruel trick of the oil, the impersonation of friends in frigid worlds I would never understand. I thought to look at the tube, the one the oil had come in. Was there some writing on it, something I should have considered, some warning? We sat that way for a while, waiting for the moon to move on and leave us for the elms, the sand tennis court, the cove where the boats lay rocking, asleep, including the one which had carried my Clarissa to her grave beyond the reef. A plunging fifteen-foot nun she had cut too close to, which spilled her over the side, then repeatedly drove her under until like Ahab she rose and fell with it, entangled in its mooring chains, no longer afraid.

I felt I owed my visitor some explanation, sitting there with my hands on my knees, she with her flippers touching the brass bed on one side, and Agatha Christie on the other, her tail, wet against the white porcelain of the toilet all the way into the adjoining room.

“Do you have some kind of message for me?” I asked. “Is there something I need to know? Or is it only something about my hair?”

I fully expected her to disappear, as all apparitions do, fade into shadows, join familiar contours, become clothes flopped over wicker rockers, lumped blankets on pine chests, towels on the floor, the shadow of a door in the mirror. But she shifted and sniffed the sniffing of twenty dogs. I smelled seaweed and fish breath, ripe squid and sour sand, dead eels and mud at low tide and most curious of all, the hardest part to tell, the smell of sunlight and wind on a young neck and cheek, the wry wrinkle, the corner of a mouth, she who could mock me in water, at tennis, a flurry of legs while dancing, wrestling and breathy in bed.

I hesitated, something cold uncoiled in the stomach.

“Clarissa?” I asked, fearing my own voice, fearing what the question might bring.

“Clarissa, is that you?”

But there was only more sighing from the flippery, undulating mass, the one eye cocked in my direction and that seemed to say, “Watch what you say, think, and do. Watch what you remember, ask to repeat. And stop oiling your hair with oils to which, God knows, you have no right. And above all, leave the dead alone, do not disturb their sleep, nor their drift, as they tack through dark water. Get lotions from the earth, its plants and such. Take memories from the living. Walrus fat is for walruses, and life for the living.

And then something pressed me back upon my sheet, where I placed my hands, my fingers intertwined, over my chest, and sank back down into summer sleep, determined to leave well enough alone, as I’d been told .

In the morning she was gone. But not the water on the floor, nor the smell of the sea. I rose and showered long, scrubbed and purified, revealing my hair as what it was—preternaturally white, and resolved never again to use what was in the tube, nor yearn for the dead. And since then, I have gone dry, tousled, feathered, fluffed and never flat. I have a girlfriend. I am kind and say “I love you.” And almost all of me means it. I’m reformed and renewed, in every way, with abundant confidence. Except that I do not sleep naked in moonlight on sheets pulled flat beside the sea, nor yearn for things I cannot have, and do not ever peer at that spot between Agatha Christie and the porcelain toilet, in that wooden room, above the cove and the bobbing, breathing, sighing sea.


Death Expressions

It seems it’s easier to talk about death if we make light of it, speak indirectly or make metaphor.
Hence: Some examples

He’s no longer on board (fishermen)
shipped his oars
feeding crabs
gone adrift
gone to Davey Jones
sleeping with fishes
assumed room temperature
cashed in his chips
counting worms
freed his horse
hopped the twig
pegged out
popped his clogs
riding the pale horse
taking a dirt nap
turned up his toes
wearing the pine overcoat
gone up the flume.
bit off the twig
gone out with the tide
paws up
won’t be down for breakfast
flown the coop
fallen off the burro (landed on his head)
smacked the liver
lost his shadow
stopped blinking
holding his breath a lot
visiting the worms
feeding the worms
Relaxing underground
Given in to the crows
Dedicated his eyes to the crows
Gone to avoid the sun
Caught the last train
Clothed in sea
Making the carrots jump
Pushing up daisys
Snuffed out
Got no wax left
Renting earth
On the last train to Memphis
Singing to the worms
In permanent meditation
Singing the Dirt Mass
Resting a lot
Kicked the bucket
On a pebble diet
Spitting out roots
On a dirt diet
In Donald Trumps case: a case of asses to ashes
Doing the long shuteye
Using the long hyphen
Has mud in both eyes
Buried in thought
Clodding along
A man clodified
Growing his hair long
Said the great good-bye
Enjoying the long silence
Kissing the Angels
Knocking at Heaven’s/Hell’s gate
Tanning below
Lying with the dogs he loved
Skidded to oblivion
Met his Maker
Suspended his creation
Supporting corn from below
Donating to worms
Given up the ghost
Dancing with worms
Having Thanksgiving with worms
Texting from below
Become the ring on his tub
Slipped on Death
King of Moles
Resting his bones
Played dead, couldn’t stop
Resigned his vertical position
Lingered among us too long
Got off at the wrong stop
At the very end, married below himself
Was breathless too long, got used to it
Sold his soul, then the rest
His clock has run out.
His sand ran out.
He’s no longer flapping.
He smells like pine.
Fluting through the last hole.
He’s thrown away his spoon.
Wearing a wooden skirt.
Wearing the green jacket.
Watching the radishes grow from underneath.
Crow food.
Gone to meet the Head of Light Entertainment in the sky. John Cheeves on the occasion of Graham Chapman’s (author of the Dead Parrot Skit) Memorial Service.
Withdrew as the final act
Still paused to gather his thoughts
Il mange les pissenlits par la racine. He’s eating the dandelions from below—Jean Pierre Buono

Left the glittering runway of life. Richard Grabman

Dissolute underground behaviorCame as carbon, lived as carbon, returned to carbon.
Had a molecule change.
Went from comma to period.
Disappeared in the final edit.
No longer takes messages.
Is on silent hold.
Rubbed out what he had painted.
Composting nicely.
On his last pair of shoes.
Staying in shavasana.
Joined the great majority.
Accepted into the big club.
Staying in the Horizontal Hilton.
Out of print.
Returned to sender.


Putting Down Me and the Dog

When my dog died—how many stories start that way?—I put off trying to discover new ways to market my novel. I cried in waves, as I dug the hole, a place where an old orange tree had lived for as many years as my sons are old. I wrapped the old fellow in my favorite Harris Tweed and eased him into his grave.

I thought I would have learned something about dying from him, but it is very hard when you’re not the dog that’s dying. I stroked his head and spoke to him, telling him how much I was going to miss him. I held his head when the vet approached from behind, touching him gently on his upward shoulder, looking for the spot for the needle. My friend’s eyes were warm and full of confidence, even as the needle entered, and for a few seconds afterward.

His gaze stayed on me, even though he had already left.

The man I sit across from, my writing partner, is experimenting with the various sounds his cell phone can make when calls and messages come in. My late friend doesn’t call me. Neither do my mother or father. Age, not the needle, put them down. But I can see the advantage of the pointy thing. Your love caresses you your forehead with a hand that is no longer young, but still as warm and smooth as when you met her when she was thirty-four.

“Are you ready?” she asks.

“No,” I say, with a spoiled, irritated whine, at the idea of being extinguished forever.

Her eyes are wet. I have increased my breathing, tightened my stomach for the exertion that is coming.

“Are you sure this is what you want?” she asks.

“No,” I say, in the same snotty tone. “It’s an impossible decision.”

I sob once, then try to smile. I love her and life equally. I am too smart to not know what’s about to happen.

“Then stay,” she says.

“How long?” I ask.

“As long as you want.”

Her smile is warm, her eyes, brown. As deep as my old dog’s.

“A few days, a week at the most. The point comes eventually,” I say.

She looks at me.

“Both points,” I say.

We have always had our little jokes. A doctor friend has brought the needle and the treacle. He will approach from behind, the upper shoulder. All I have to do is give the signal.

We have reached the point two times already. And each time I have taken the reprieve, unable to leave everything and step into obliteration.

My old friend wagged his tail and trusted me. Perhaps knowing what was happening—perhaps not. He could not tell me how to do it. If acceptance is a kind of intelligence, then I do not have it. I think it was Karl Gustav Jung that said the unconscious cannot imagine its own extinction. He may have been right concerning my dog. Perhaps that is a good reason for waiting until the unconscious—the sea from which we came—has crept closer. Or we have ebbed back toward it.

In writing this, at about where I wrote Perhaps that is a good reason for waiting, the brown-eyed love I have referred to came up the stairs to the second floor of this wreck of a café, where we write—something she has never done in the ten years I’ve been meeting with my writing partner—to whom I will soon read this free write, as per custom.

I am someone that believes—to a certain extent—in synchronicity, the theory that things happen in coordination with each other, i.e. not entirely by chance.

“I need money,” she said.

I reached for my wallet.

“I don’t have a lot,” I said, noting matter-of-factly that neither of us might have enough.

“I need just enough for D,” she said. D is our personal trainer. We say those words with irony each time—aware of their pretentious ring. Instead of shrinking and withering away, my love and I have decided to buff up and work on balance.

“And for the gym,” she said. “Thirty pesos each.”

I hand over my money. My writing partner holds out his hand. He wants in on the dispensation. The mood has changed; the ocean, receded. I don’t have to mourn for my imaginary dog any longer, at least not right now. He has trotted out ahead, through my field of autumn thoughts. And I am glad enough if he does not come back right away. My love is walking toward the gym, a place as rickety as the café I am writing in. I am still here, on my own.

Still not ready.


When my first wife died, I told my father I didn’t think I could ever love anyone again. He, in turn, out of habit, I suppose, must have told my Grandfather Edwin. My grandfather was older than old, and very senile. He could still walk about and speak a few sensible words, but otherwise he didn’t really exit at all. Occasionally I spent the night with them –my father, my mother, and Edwin – to extend the visit, and be with them just a little bit longer. Because I was very lonely.

Early one morning – it could not have been five o’clock – Edwin ghosted into my room and lay something on my chest, already heavy with grief. Then he brushed a boney hand over my forehead and sailed away, vanishing into the pre-dawn darkness, like a ship of sail setting out to sea.

At that point, he had me wide awake. I turned on the light and found he had given me a volume of a diary, bound in leather and brittle with age. A faded maroon ribbon marked a page that was dated September 18, 1925. The script was a tired black ink, the small careful flowing script of the mining engineer that he had once been. I squinted my eyes, furrowed my brow, and began reading.

“Yesterday was grey and rainy. In Belgrade, long before any sign of dawn, holding my breath against the combined bite of brown coal and unclean steam, I boarded the Oostende – Istambul Simplon Express, and stumbled immediately toward the dining car. The train was beginning the second or third day of its run north, I was not sure which. I was only hoping that its supply of thick dark coffee had not been exhausted.

There was only one passenger sitting in the dining car. He was a man like me in his middle years. He nodded immediately, with a friendliness that two solitary travelers sometimes grant each other, so that I continued in his direction, shaking out my raincoat as I went. I hesitated, as if the possibility existed that I would sit at my own table, next to my own dark window. But he gestured at the seat across from him and in an accented German – on the assumption I suppose that I was on my way to Berlin – said, “Sit here, my friend, and we will wait for the dawn together.”

The night waiter brought me my dark, thick Turkish coffee and sweet Greek rolls. My new acquaintance, a Hungarian and by coincidence also an engineer, continued with the second half of a bottle of a good German Riesling. We talked about our children, our careers, our youthful dreams, and as the first grey of dawn revealed the dark hills on the left side of the train – with the help of a second bottle of the German Riesling – we moved on to the most painful loves we had ever known.

His was a seventeen-year old beauty who was a gifted painter and was bound for art school in Budapest, and was the kindest, sweetest, most gentle and joyful person he had ever known. She had begun coughing during their encounters, in secret spots known only to them, in the meadows and woods, and as time went by, she grew paler and paler, lost weight, and in a year was dead from tuberculosis. After they buried her, on a brilliant Indian summer day, at the side of a quiet lake, in a clearing surrounded by ancient beech trees, her mother led him back to the house and indicated a large flat package that Sophie had intended him to have.

He returned to the university on the night train and sat down in his small student room. He placed beeswax candles, two of them, one on each side of the package. When dawn came many hours later, he carefully removed the common string and thick brown paper, and found a portrait of himself and Sophie, together – golden, young, and glowing in a way that kept him staring, until the first rays of morning sun rose up and flow over the edge of the frame.

“Just the way the sun has found our table at this very moment, my patient friend,” he said.

At that, the conductor entered the dining car, came half way to the table and said somewhat conspiratorially, I thought, “We’re here.” My acquaintance stood up, left a large bill on the table, gathered his coat and small canvas traveling bag, shook my hand graciously, and left the car. The Soplon Express slowed, shuddered almost to a stop, then immediately glided forward again, accelerating, as smooth as the smoothest European technology.

From the window next to the table, on the left side of the train, I saw him descending on a path toward a village with an onion dome church, some distance below the level of the rail bed, still un-touched by the sun. On the trail, climbing toward him, I saw a lovely poised woman reach both hands out to him, then hold him in her arms. Two children held his legs, one on each side. And while the angle of my view still made it possible, and by learning forward and pressing my head against the far edge of the window, I saw him turn and wave at me, with the same cordiality he had offered me when I entered the dining car, in that cold dark period of night before dawn.”

I turned off the light and closed the diary. In the grey light outside beyond my window, I could see Edwin standing motionless in his pajamas, barefoot, where it must have been quite cold, staring at something he appeared to be seeing. Each time that day, when he drifted by, he stopped and turned toward me and raised his bushy white eyebrows, as if asking a question. And each time I nodded my head and said, “Yes, I think I understand. Yes, I think I know why.”

A week later, he lay down and died, out on the lawn, in the same spot, in the cold of the early morning. They closed his eyes, but it took some time before they could make him lower his brows. For a while, I thought they had been raised for my benefit. But as the years have gone by, I have come to think that, in the moment, his brows might have been asking a different question, one directed toward himself, or perhaps toward someone he had loved, and still loved – first during his life, then right on into that long period when he no longer existed, but had not yet stopped living.