It Tolls for Thee

Absence is a house so vast that inside you will pass through its walls and hang pictures on the air.    -Pablo Neruda

So if you see me and think I’m wrong
Don’t worry ’bout me just let me go
My sweet life ain’t nothing but a thrill
I live the life I love and I love the life I live
-Willie Dixon

I know that the ones who love us will miss us.-Keeanu Reeves

 I have attended more than a few wakes. As a product  of the Catholic schools that once enveloped the west side of Manhattan and the son of an Irish American dock worker the tradition of the public viewing of the deceased was baked into the cake of our culture.  I would not want one for myself. But I understand why the ritual has meaning for some.

The Bundy Drive Gang consisted of some of the most prominent and by prominent, I mean notorious, screen idols of the 1930’s and 40’s. W. C. Fields, Raoul Walsh, Errol Flynn and John Barrymore were charter members. There were others, but these names should give anyone the least bit acquainted with the Hollywood lore of their times a reasonable idea as to what their principal activity was. Here’s a hint,  odd as it may seem, it wasn’t making movies. And it wasn’t athletic activities, unless lifting pints and rocks glasses whilst bending elbows qualifies as weightlifting.   

According to legend, upon Mr. Barrymore’s demise, Raoul Walsh bribed the mortician for a  probationary release into his custody of the cadaverous actor so that they might visit the estate  of Errol Flynn. Mr. Walsh asked Mr. Flynn’s butler to  conjure up some coffee so that the Great Profile  might sober up. The butler was to say the least, confused.  Walsh assuaged the man servant’s doubts  by reminding him  that he certainly had seen the great actor in this legless condition before. Hadn’t he?  Such anecdotal evidence coming from the esteemed director  apparently made a  certain kind of sense to Mr. Flynn’s trusty domestic. In short order a fresh pot was brewed and the stone (dead/drunk) Mr. Barrymore was propped up on one of Mr. Flynn’s more comfortable chairs to greet the carousing movie idol when he came home from a night of championship carousing. According to legend, the swashbuckler was more than a little swashed and demanded that the Great Profile be returned from whence he came before they were all profiled in mug shots for the local police department. The Barrymore family disputes all of this as set forth in Mr. Flynn’s autobiography (My Wicked, Wicked Ways) , insisting that they stood guard at the mortuary overnight and that the famous corpse never left the premises, with or without an escort. Not even for a cigarette. Still, who am I to argue with a dead swashbuckler? More to the point if anyone should ever decide to wake me in spite of my wishes , at least have the good graces to do it in such a manner. Even though I do not really consider myself an avid consumer of spirits I think my spirit would approve of this one posthumous Jamison, neat, with a side of club soda, spare the rocks.  I’ll save the coffee for later. This type of waking might meet with my approval.

My own sensibilities aside, I do appreciate the custom of the wake.  For those having to negotiate the living realities of death, the wake can be a measure of respite from the inevitable complexities of what is still to come. Words of comfort and offers of assistance , some more sincere than others, will be exchanged. The more than necessary laugh will explode from time to time as an unheard as yet anecdote forms on the lips of one also grieving but finding the strength to resuscitate  the humor of the deceased. To the uninitiated this might seem inappropriate, to the rest of us it is usually more than appreciated.  Inevitably there will be time enough for tears.

A few years ago, a young neighbor of mine decided to move out of his apartment and beyond this  “vale of tears” as well. I was home that evening, sitting in the exact same space I am sitting in now, composing a letter. Police were summoned as were parents and eventually a very carefully locked door was pried open and within seconds it seemed there came the most unearthly squeal of motherly horror that I have ever heard and hope never to hear again. This all took place on the floor immediately below and for all the deficiencies of this building which I may have harped on over the years, acoustics are not one of them. For a neighbor one floor above with little connection to the deceased there was entirely too much clarity with a side order of an unexpected deep and abiding sadness.  

This young man had taken over the apartment’s lease years before when his parents moved out. We had been neighbors for a very long time, but I cannot say I knew him. We would pass in the hallways , and there was always an acknowledgement, either I to him or him in response. He often seemed distant but there was also the occasional smile. After a few years he married. And in the last year or so it was not uncommon to hear the sounds of verbal altercations coming from the couple’s apartment. Of course, when he passed, the rumors flew. I heard stories of infidelity, professional insecurities, and more than occasional unemployment. I don’t know how much of this was true and to be completely honest I never really cared. The only sound still resonating in my ears relating to this for months was that horrific howl of maternal grief that defied words.

If I said little to the young man over the years, I don’t think his wife and I ever exchanged a word. If any of what was being parsed about her in the rumor mill of the building complex  was even remotely true, she must have felt uniquely alone.  Long before any of this, in a quiet corner of my own mind I had applied my own label. Ice Princess. I had ceased any type of attempt at salutation quite awhile back. In the close quarters of the vestibule or staircase her eyes seemed to be plotting a continuing escape from any other human contact.  So, when I encountered her unexpectedly in the vestibule about two weeks after the event and soon before her formal vacancy of the apartment, I was unprepared. There she was, standing alone by the mailboxes, reading some sort of correspondence. I suppose she was as unprepared for this encounter as I was, for as her head lifted from the paper she was reading, her eyes transfixed upon me with the well-known deer in the headlights gaze.  It was likely the very first time our eyes had ever met. I am never usually at a loss for words but suddenly I felt completely inept. Somehow, I knew I should say something but “ Hey, how ya doin’?” seemed completely inappropriate. How was a young woman whose husband had taken his own life and whose grief was apparently being questioned by more than  a few people supposed to react to such a question? In the silence of an eternal second the simplest response is the best : “ I’m so sorry”. A mist of sadness flowed from her eyes, all pretensions melted and somehow, a smile penetrated the clouds and a soft “thank you” caressed the air between us. This was not an Ice Princess this was Cinderella, sans the lowly singular glass slipper that would never be recovered, but in this moment, seemingly resolute to write a better chapter to her story.  We both hung there for a second, I returned her smile and went on my way.  She wiped away the spray and  went back to her correspondence.  

So, this is for my dear friends who have too recently suffered a tragic and unexpected loss. The object of our affections here, unlike the young man in the story above, wished to stay around. Ultimately, he had no say in the matter. The universe called for him.  I too am diminished by this departure but as much as I enjoyed his company, I did not have the same proximity as those of my circle who are now undoubtedly reliving memories and refiguring a future without a most humorous, clever and robust personality. Our circle tightens a little more with each passing year, but yet that circle remains unbroken. I have a sign, stationed in front of me on my desk as a matter of fact as I write this, gifted at my wedding some time ago which proclaims, “we may not have it all together, but together we have it all”.  This has never been truer than in times like these.

The traces of grief are as individual as fingerprints and we are all suspects. We stand indicted by our very humanity. We are collectively guilty.  There are no timetables for healing. No purported self- help books are of much value. An accurate template is yet to be published.  We can hold on to our judgements, our fears, our bigotries, our slanders, our grudges and our rumors or instead, we can hold on to each other. Seems like an easy choice.

10 thoughts on “It Tolls for Thee

  1. This is particularly appropriate for me, as my brother-in-law just passed away, so thank you very much. I look forward to hearing wonderful stories about Ray and sharing a few myself, as we say goodbye to this guy who made my sister fall in love, and be willing to share her life for the last 41 years. I hope all of this ritual will help her get through these next few days. It ain’t easy, but as you say, no one gets out of here alive.


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