We're All Buddies On This Bus
Bald as a baby
Suddenly, the PA system began to blare a tinkly music-box rendition of the Brahms Lullaby.
The phlebotomist lit up like a cigar. The tinkly music meant that an actual baby was being born, she told me. Right then, that very moment, in this very hospital! Mindless of the huge hideous needle protruding from yet another collapsing vein in my elbow, we paused our wig discussion for a moment to contemplate the special pink or blue miracle du jour: another tiny, helpless (and possibly baldheaded!) babe had just been born into poverty at Our Lady of the Damned.
"So," I said once she resumed fiddling with the plunger, struggling to extract one last drop of blood from the pathetically desiccated turnip that is my right arm. "What do they play when somebody dies around here? Wagner? Mahler? Taps?"
The phlebotomist looked up at me, shocked, her expression as horrified as if I'd just wandered downstairs to the nursery and set that poor newborn infant on fire. She was so disconcerted, she yanked the needle out of my arm before undoing the tourniquet and blood spurted everywhere.
I mean, yeah, sure, I get it. We live in a culture where birth is the happiest most amazing miracle imaginable, but mentioning death in anything other than hushed reverent euphemisms at a funeral parlor is a tasteless and rude social offense. Nobody wants to be reminded of mortality: maybe if we pretend to ignore it, it will cease to exist. Viva la denial!
But you know, this squeamish pretense of cheery deathlessness often leaves those of us who've been arbitrarily assigned to pair up with the Noble Truth of Impermanence as our buddy-system hand-holding partner on the great field trip through life feeling just a little bit crazy, and very very lonely.
So, Death. Capital D. Mine, yours, everybody's. May I talk about it frankly here, without being scolded?
Last night I learned that a woman I used to know back in California died of lymphoma, a little over a year ago. She was almost exactly my age. I was talking to my son, and he had asked me if there was anyone I would like him to invite to his wedding. I thought for a moment, and named this woman and her husband, who had been my son's music teacher over 15 years ago. He hesitated a beat, then blurted out, "Uh, actually Allison is dead." I imagine that delivering this news was somewhat awkward and uncomfortable for him, considering. But I appreciated that he plunged ahead and talked about it openly, even though I was obviously rattled, and told me what little he knew about the details. It had been a long time since we'd been in touch with these friends, so he didn't know much.
After we hung up, I went online and found an obituary. It said that she "died gracefully and in peace at home with her loving husband at her side, following a long and valiant battle with lymphoma." Naturally, my first self-absorbed and embarrassing thought was: Hooboy, nobody in their right mind is ever going to say that about me, unless maybe there's a very large tank car of morphine involved. I'm sure as hell not being graceful or valiant while I'm sick, and I doubt anything short of some really badass drugs is going to change that if my condition worsens.
I was relieved to read on, though, that "Allison was absolutely her own person and never strode blindly down life's path but always found and followed the right and compassionate way." Yes, I believe she did, although as I recall there was never anything sticky-sweet or nicey-nice about her. I admired that, and I would be honored if those same words were carved on my headstone. Or scotch-taped to my mayonnaise jar, or whatever.
And finally I was really touched by this: "Allison's latest attachments were to the city of Paris and to her Border collie, Jack, but her greatest love, her husband, survives her and he mourns her passing."
I wonder who wrote this? Obviously someone who knew her well. How often do you read an obit that mentions a surviving canine by breed and by name, even when the dog was the dead person's truest friend? She was always a dog person: back when I knew her, their dogs were Tucker and Ajax. But Paris, I think, might have been something new.
I believe she was lucky to have died at home. I would certainly prefer that to dying in a hospital. But if I do have to die in a hospital, I want my devoted survivors to promise me this: that somebody (Dixie Rae? Are you listening?) will break into the control room at Our Lady of the Damned, lock the door, and blare a recording New Second Line by the Olympia Brass Band over the PA.
And if anybody asks, tell them I was never graceful or valiant, but I was always my own person, a real pain in the ass who made the whole damn bus stop every ten minutes for juice and cookies and bathroom breaks on the great field trip through life. And that the whole time, I was never ever afraid to hold my assigned buddy's hand.