Here Comes the Night
Death in the 60s
Lorenzo went first. A brain tumor, surgery, and then what looked like a full recovery. The last time I saw him, we joked and made plans. A month later, he was gone.
Elizabeth was next. We hadn’t seen one another in decades, but we had periodic e-mail until blood filled her lungs and drowned her.
Chai’s bad heart was as notorious as his smoking and drinking in college, and yet I was surprised to hear that he had the inevitable cardiac arrest and the slide into coma, the ventilator, the Advance Directive.
Sheridan was wiry and athletic, but a rare form of dementia descended, and she was gone in weeks.
Four friends, all solvent and then some, sustainably fed, massively insured. And all, in their 60s, dead.
This, it seems, is how it begins. Decades of career and family, of creating and building, then the culling of the tribe. The first memorial services seemed strange and awkward. I expect the empty seats at the 50th reunion will be less shocking. And then, as we hit the actuarial mean, I imagine a sudden emptying, like a dam breaking, as death sweeps my generation away.
Why don’t I feel unnerved?
Because I believe none of this applies to me.
Upending the natural order, I became a first-time father at 56. Now I’m 68, an age when many of my college friends are retiring. I can’t imagine that. At the desk where I’ll work until I die, I ponder the same question my daughter does: What will I do when I grow up? Death? Not until I hit “send” on the last book I intend to write: “Talk to the Urn: Conversations I Wanted to Have With My Daughter But I Ran Out of Time.”
I have other reasons to feel jaunty in the valley of the shadow. The way I think about people, living or dead, is that they are forever the age they were when I met them, bathed in sunshine for eternity.
The reading I’ve done supports this radiant optimism. Like the Tibetan Buddhists, I believe that “the body is but a garment which the soul puts on and off.” And I’m in complete agreement with Thich Nhat Hanh: “It is not true that I did not exist before I was born. It is not true that I will no longer exist after the disintegration of this body. My ground of being is the reality of no birth, no death. No coming, no going.” So lovely
There are limits. Of course I have the garden-variety fear of annihilation. And then I have the predictable Boomer pushback --- my generation is the exception to all rules. We invented sex, discovered drugs and defined activism. Of course we’d never do something traditional and banal like die. That’s for our parents. We’re Peter and Petra Pan, stress-resistant, surgically enhanced, forever young. And then Nature strolls in like Mariano Rivera and mows us down?
We resist. We look for the way out. In our golden youth, hippie sages said that “death is the biggest high, that’s why they save it for last.” We nodded and went on building monuments to ourselves. Not just for the lines in the yearbook of life, but because what was the point of running a hedge fund if you can’t buy a “get out of death” card?
In what is surely his shortest poem, Donald Hall writes, “First they die. Then they stay dead.” Yes, they do. But they’re still alive for me, in me. It’s what Bruce Springsteen said about Clarence Clemons, the larger-than-life sax player in his band: “Clarence doesn’t leave the E Street Band when he dies. He leaves when we die.”
So there is Lorenzo, onstage in drag in a college musical, on his way to the Comédie-Française and then to the revelation that a career as an investment banker might be more satisfying than a nightly climb to a cold water garret. He climbed the ladder and became a patriarch, but never lost his goofball smile. I see Elizabeth in her vast apartment in West Hollywood, a newscaster then, soon to be Jerry Brown’s press secretary. The first time I saw Chai he was standing in the empty living room of a freshman dorm, wearing jeans, cowboy boots and sunglasses, a Camel in his mouth as he cracked a bullwhip --- not exactly the picture of a distant heir to the throne of Thailand. Sheridan was domestic royalty, a WASP heiress on the Grace Kelly model. We were both writing about the excesses of the human potential movement, and then, although we were an unlikely pair, we just kept on caring about the same things.
I recall standing with Dr. Matilde Krim, champion of AIDS research, as Magic Johnson, who had recently announced he was HIV-positive, gave a speech that suggested he planned to be around for decades. “He’s really in denial,” I said. “Yes,” Dr. Krim replied, “and the longer he is, the better.”
If what I feel is denial about these deaths and the deaths to come and, at some point, my own death, then more, please. And the longer, the better.