Sport 38: Winter 2010
Missing the Dead
Last summer a friend of mine earned his living cutting corneas out of dead bodies. The company he worked for would page him when a patient was pronounced dead and he would drive from wherever he was to remove the corneas, put them into a little plastic jar specifically designed for the procedure, and deliver them to a central office until some medical emergency or another could make use of them.
Sometimes my friend would do the operation in a hospital room, sometimes in the morgue. A security guard looking over his shoulder once asked, 'Will the person who gets those be able to see what this guy saw?' It's easy to mock a question like that. We're supposed to know better, to understand what it means when a body dies. But even the most hardened medical professionals, if they're honest, have to admit some degree of ignorance about death. There are questions that the science of it doesn't address, matters of language more than anything.
What does it mean that for so many minutes this tissue was vibrant enough that it could be removed, intact, and grafted on to the face of another, to survive for another twenty, forty, sixty years? Blood was no longer traveling to the brain of that figure in the morgue, the functioning of the body had stumbled to a halt, and anyone with the remotest understanding of human biology would agree that there was no return. That is what we mean when we say dead. But some bit of tissue still survived.
When my mother died seven years ago, when her body stopped functioning, I was at her bedside, asleep, holding her hand. I had been watching her die for months. It had been weeks since she bore any resemblance to the woman who had raised me. She had lost the ability to walk on her own, her eyes were glassy and vacant, and when she tried to speak her voice came out warbled and reedy. If you could make out any of the words it wouldn't matter. Nothing she said made page 84 any sense. A shell of my mother remained, but by the time that shell crumbled she had long since abandoned us.
I've just returned to the United States after living for two years in New Zealand. The government didn't want me there any longer. Nothing personal, just that I didn't have the sort of practical, wealth-generating skills that the departments of labour and immigration deem worthy. I was a writer whose books sold in the low triple-digits and most of my income came from work I did at a bookshop. If I had the technical mastery it takes to slice up eyeballs, maybe I could have struck some kind of deal.
In my last month there, as I was preparing to move on, I got news that my father's cousin Gene had recently been hospitalised. Nobody knew what to expect, cancer maybe, but he had to go through some more tests before anything was certain. Gene and my father were as close as brothers. My father may have felt closer to Gene than he did to the brother who was dying of pulmonary fibrosis at the time. Almost as much for my father's sake as his cousin's, I hoped the diagnosis would be something more innocuous.
A couple of weeks after Gene went to the hospital, I called my father for an update. Our conflicting work schedules and the eighteen-hour time difference made regular phone calls a chore, so I had to go without any news for longer than I would have liked. I tried to anticipate the worst, what I thought was the worst: that Gene did have cancer and that he would have only months to live. My father confirmed as much, and then with a heavy sigh he added, 'And have you heard about Walter?'
Walter was my mother's brother, and, no, I hadn't heard anything about him in months. As far as I knew, he was fine.
'He fell down some stairs. Eleven stairs. He's wrecked his spine, and he might not make it through the week. If he does, he's going to be paralysed from the neck down.' My father allowed a slight pause in between each dose of bad news. While I stood numbly trying to make sense of what I was hearing, he added, 'And things aren't looking too good for Carol,' my mother's youngest sister, her body being consumed over these past five years by the same thing that had killed my mother. 'Her cancer might have spread.'page 85
We knew Carol's death was coming eventually, but nothing in the past several months had led us to believe it was imminent. If I hadn't been facing expulsion from the country in a few weeks' time, I probably would have got online immediately and looked for plane tickets. That was one bit of stress at least that had been obviated. My return was already booked. I had been planning a trip around the States ever since I got that first email from Immigration New Zealand reminding me that my days were numbered. The family members now facing death were spread throughout the country. I didn't know if I'd see my dad's brother again, and there was a good chance I wouldn't see Walter, but I thought I'd be able to reconnect one last time with Gene and Carol.
When I got off the phone with my father, I called Gene. We had the sort of meaningful, tender conversation that you don't usually have with those close to you, too fraught with emotion to hold regularly. Gene had spent the past several years traveling, staying in touch with family and friends, cementing existing relationships and fostering new ones. Those were the things that mattered to him. I wanted him to know how much I appreciated the time we spent together, especially the friendship that developed between us in my adult years. My brother and I had been talking, even before this spate of bad news, about reassessing our values, making sure we were focusing our energy in the right direction. The kind of life we were aspiring to was the kind Gene had been living.
Gene asked if I could put down in writing what I had just told him, and I promised I would. We made plans to meet up in Wyoming when I made my return to the States.
Two weeks later Gene was dead.
In Portland I met a young artist with a dead man's bone in his mouth. A year earlier he had been in a bicycle accident. He couldn't remember the details. Alcohol was a factor. The bottom row of his front teeth were driven down through his chin and out, onto the pavement. His girlfriend wore one of the teeth on a necklace. I remember feeling annoyed that I was surprised by how long the tooth was, annoyed that I had forgotten how much is hidden inside the gums.
When I met the artist, his mouth was fat and ineffectual. He was page 86 drinking his pint of Hamm's through a pair of straws. This was days after his third surgery. The dead man's bone had just gone in.
Why did it have to be bone?
Even less than the tissue at the front of our eyes, we don't think of bone as something with life in it. But this procedure would not have been possible if the surgeons had used plastic, as much as our modern technology has done with synthetics. The young artist needed organic material, something his body could absorb and bond to, render as part of himself, his mouth an accurate enough facsimile of the mouth it was before his drunken bike wreck.
Gene died the day before the launch of my second book. I had three days left in New Zealand and was making the latest round in a lifetime of goodbyes. I was at the center of attention, being celebrated lavishly, and as much as I enjoyed the approbation, something about the situation seemed perverse. Thousands of miles away my brother and my father were driving north to Wyoming wondering how things had gone bad so quickly.
My uncle Walter pulled through, survived the first ten days after his fall, which were the most crucial, and it was starting to look like I might get to see him again when I made it to New York. I began prepping myself for the encounter, wondering how it would feel to see someone so close to me in that condition, bound to a wheelchair if not to a bed, unable to move anything except his jaw, to make his jokes and mock his own existence.
This was a more complicated relationship than the one I had with Gene. Walter had been diagnosed late in his life with bipolar disorder, but when we were growing up nobody really knew anything about the condition, so we just thought he was an asshole. He left his wife when their children were young and wandered around the country, staying with us at the house my parents had built in the mountains outside of Denver for weeks or months at a time. For a period of years in my early twenties, I hated Walter. It came as a revelation to me that I could hate him, that I no longer lived under my parents' roof and so didn't have to suffer his visits, could choose to have nothing to do with him if that was what I wanted.
In those years I mostly thought about Walter's abuse, of his page 87 throwing rocks at my oldest brother, of his slugging my brother Michael in the stomach. Or shoving Michael up against a wall, his hands around Michael's throat, throttling him, while I watched from a few feet away screaming at him to stop. Michael must have been thirteen or fourteen.
There was one episode that Walter liked to remind me of, a story he would relate with dark mirth every time he met one of my friends. My memory of the event is shaped more by Walter's telling of it than by the experience itself. I was four or five the first time I can remember meeting Walter, although he might have been around when I was an infant. I kicked him in the leg. Maybe I thought he would wrestle with me like my other uncles did, or tickle me, or toss me up into the air, or at worst ignore me. I don't think that I was motivated by aggression, not even in Walter's recounting. I was maybe overzealous in my attempt to engage him in play. He grabbed my ankle, dragged me crying across the floor and down the stairs and held me up in front of my mother, saying, 'I believe this belongs to you.'
I don't know why Walter loved that story so much. 'Oh boy,' he'd say, telling it almost like he thought I would be the one embarrassed by it, 'Willy learned then what happens when you mess with mean old Uncle Walter.'
In one conversation years later with Walter's daughter, when she was complaining about being abandoned, I remember thinking, 'You don't know how lucky you were.'
But to properly hate Walter, I had to deliberately avoid thinking about certain aspects of my childhood, his manic happy swings, when he would spoil us with candy and ice cream. He loved watching movies with us and talking to us about books, his tastes wildly different from my parents'. He put his best impulses as a putterer and a war junky to use to build us a treehouse like a fortress in the lodgepole forest behind the house, complete with gun turrets and a trap door. And he spent hours with me playing games, fostering an appreciation for backgammon and chess and, before life's frustrations and defeats grew too overwhelming, for High Ground.
High Ground was a board game that Walter had created, designed, and manufactured on his own. It was sophisticated and well thought-out, but with enough element of chance involved that the creator page 88 could lose to his twelve-year-old nephew. You had armies made up of cavalry and artillery and infantry units, waging war over a hand-drawn map of varying terrain, with rolls of dice standing in for the hand of God. When you died in High Ground, you didn't stay dead. You had a supply wagon that could resurrect your armies. You were still in the game.
When I came back from New Zealand I spent a few days in Monterey, California, with Walter's daughter and her family. We found a copy of High Ground in the attic, one of the final versions, when the paper board and clay pieces had been reproduced in cardboard and plastic. I taught Walter's grandson how to play, maybe overexplaining the rules a bit. He caught on quickly, harboring a certain natural intuition. He even came close to winning, for a brief moment. I didn't go easy on him. His grandfather had never gone easy on me.
I can't keep track of everything that was going on, of the order in which things fell apart. I was trying to buy a car for my trip across the country, recuperating from jetlag still, acclimatising to the sudden shift from a dreary grey winter to a searing California summer. My dad's brother went into hospice at the beginning of September. The last time I had seen him was during the big blizzard of 2003, when he and my father and my brother Michael were buried beneath twelve-foot snow drifts in the house where I had grown up. After the roads in Denver got plowed, a friend and I drove up into the mountains as close to the house as we could get and snowshoed in the rest of the way with provisions. Michael was going a little stir crazy, cooped up with the old men, cards and dice and Uncle Jack's awful puns the primary distraction from the blankness outside.
I used to see Jack fairly regularly when I was a child, either down in New Mexico where he lived, at the Dewey family reunions in Wyoming, or at that house in Conifer. Then I kept wandering farther and farther from home, to either coast of the United States, to Spain, to New Zealand. He resides mostly now in those childhood memories, characterised by his goofy laugh. Unlike Gene, whose path kept crossing mine throughout the country, I saw little of Jack, and never really got to know him as an adult, as any sort of peer. When, in page 89 a bar in Berkeley the day after my thirtieth birthday, my father got the phone call letting him know that Jack had passed, I felt an abstract sadness. His death was less sudden than Gene's, and came, like my mother's, almost as a relief after those past few months of suffering. I wasn't as close to him as I was to any of the others whose bodies were shutting down in those days. What struck me most was sympathy for my father, and a sudden pang of irrational fear for my own brother, sitting with us at the same bar, similarly slack-eyed.
Also with us around that table were my aunt Carol's son Matt and his wife, six months pregnant with Carol's first grandchild. Carol had recently taken a turn for the worst, and Matt was trying to figure out whether he should go to see her, or rather, when he should leave. We didn't know how much longer she would have. He kept asking questions about our experiences with our own mother's death, hoping we could provide some kind of key to dealing with this, a hint of what to expect. I thought about the last conversation I had had with Carol, over the phone from New Zealand, the same day I had called Gene. When I reached Carol, she sounded blissfully content, 'I'm just sitting here in front of the TV eating blueberries,' utterly unconcerned with this talk of death. 'I might have six months, I might have a year. Who knows?'
And I thought about the last real conversation I remembered having with my mother, before her eyes turned to fog and her voice fell apart. I asked her after lunch one day, driving her home, how she felt. Slowly, after a considered pause, she told me, 'Lost and confused.'
Carol had given us Matt. It was a delayed gift, protracted over something like twenty-seven years. I was sixteen when I met him for the first time, nearly the same age Carol had been when she met my father, seventeen and pregnant, far away from home. She lived for a time with my newlywed parents, and when her baby was born she named him Derek, had the name etched onto a necklace cut into the silhouette of a child's head, his name and the date of birth, and then she gave the boy up for adoption.
He came back into our lives the summer my mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Carol came out from New York, and we all met on the deck of our mountain home, studying Matt, trying to figure page 90 out how much nature had made it through the twenty-seven years of nurturing. He was about a foot and a half taller than Carol, big and brash, as intolerant of bullshit as she was, and with the same irreverent sense of humor. Carol had always been the favorite aunt, so quick to spoil us as children, and then the first to treat us as adults later in life. Which meant, sure, offering us a beer or a shot of schnapps occasionally, but also holding us accountable for every individual act of stupidity.
Matt fell easily into his role as our older cousin. He'd help me through the final pages of my high school history papers, after I had taken a break to do shots with him and Carol at the dining room table. And when I was despairing at the prospect of ever losing my virginity, it was Matt who assured me that there are some things in the world better than sex. I was at that age when such assurances were necessary.
When I had called Matt to ask if he wanted to meet up in Berkeley, I hadn't seen him in years. I wondered if I would still idolise him like I used to. I left feeling closer to him than I ever had and feeling like I knew him better. He decided to fly out to New York as soon as possible to see Carol. His wife joined him two days after he arrived, and the hospice nurse set up a fetal heart monitor so Carol could hear the heartbeat of her grandchild. She died later that day.
Her funeral was held on the 26th of September in Saranac Lake, New York. That same day, I had a book reading in Seattle that went mostly unattended. Matt had offered to pay for a plane ticket to get me out to the east coast, but I told him I'd be carrying on at the pace I had planned. I had missed the dead, and no amount of hurrying could change that. I still wanted to make sure I got to spend time with the bereft, from Oregon to Wyoming to Maine, and points in between. I had thought when I left New Zealand that I might see some of these people alive again. Now Walter, who had seemed doomed after that fall, was the only one left. I harbored hopes of getting to sit down at his bedside to tell him I had taught his grandson to play High Ground, but I didn't expect too much.
The day after my reading, I took a friend to the Greyhound station in Seattle. We got there a little bit early, had some time to kill, so a small page 91 group of us wandered down the street to a park in front of the Federal Court House. It was a clear sunny autumn day, and a fairly large crowd had gathered in the park, milling about, lazing. We sat down on the concrete steps and made idle conversation, and eventually I noticed that one of the people sitting a few yards away had a torn shirt, caked with blood, dark rings under his eyes. Across the park, a woman stood up to throw away the remnants of her sandwich, and when she turned I saw a jagged wound starting at her neck and running down across her chest. A man standing on the steps of the courthouse had blood matting his beard, the same dark rings underneath his eyes, the same dead stare.
We had wandered onto the set of a zombie movie, the cast and crew breaking for lunch. I was surrounded by the walking dead.
That night, my uncle Walter died in his sleep.
In Cambridge, Massachusetts, I stayed with an old college friend I hadn't seen in years. He had been doing work with a hospice, helping care for people at the end of their lives. I imagined all the death would wear on him, but he told me it wasn't usually difficult. 'Most of the time, I'm working with very old, very sick people, and I'm coming in right at the end. I'm providing what comfort I can, but by the time death comes, it can be a blessing.'
What moved Nick was the anguish of the survivors. We talked about the pain of losing someone, and he confessed that he has sometimes wondered whether the love of the living could ever be worth that pain. He has discovered in himself a desire to avoid ever getting close to someone, to preclude grief by keeping his heart closed off. He's trying to fight that desire.
We talked about many deaths through the evening, but the one that stuck with me was the story of an old man named Hubert, who had wasted away alone in a room provided for him by the government. Nick got a phone call from the housing director one day after Hubert had failed to show up for breakfast or lunch. When he reached the housing project, he found Hubert still alive, but desiccated, sweating away his last pieces of flesh in a sweltering room, his soul evaporating. His mouth was working, but Nick had always had a hard time understanding him, parsing his Caribbean accent, and that day Nick page 92 could make out nothing. He called for an ambulance, because he could call for no one else. Hubert had no friends or family. Nick might have been the last person to see him alive who knew anything of his history, and even Nick knew little.
'That's what scares me,' I told Nick. 'Dying alone, not having anyone around to provide any sort of comfort.' I was thinking of something a dead uncle used to say if anyone ever protested his leaving a party or a dinner: Better they ask 'Why did he go?' than 'Why does he stay?' It has always struck me as paramount to be missed, to be remembered fondly if you can swing it, but, Jesus, to be missed, at least.
'But this is something I've realised,' Nick said. 'You can't let fear guide you either way. It's as devastating to the spirit to base relationships on a fear of loneliness as it is to push people away because you fear the pain of losing them.'
Earlier in the summer, my mother's brother Jack was struggling to come to terms with the notion that he and his sister might soon be the last remaining siblings from their family of five. 'It's hard to imagine,' he said to his aunt, herself the last in a line, 'being the only survivors.'
His aunt's eyes twinkled, and she told him, 'It's not that bad being a survivor.'