Sunday, June 30, 2013

68. Farewells

     This post is about farewells, both those implying mortality and those that don’t.  But let's face it: most farewells imply lasting loss and often death.  I’ll start close to home with a relatively conventional farewell.  My mother died quietly in her sleep at age 94 – the death that most of us would probably prefer.  I didn’t have a chance to say good-bye, but I had phoned her at intervals during the previous year, so I wasn’t haunted by the thought that I’d neglected her.  But saying farewell also involves burial and all that goes with it.  I flew back to Illinois and my older brother, who lived with her, met me at the airport.  “I already feel had by this character,” he said, referring to the funeral director, “so you can be the skinflint from New York.”  At the funeral home we were served coffee in the sumptuous parlor, where we were to wait until the director could see us.  But the an assistant appeared almost immediately and invited us into the director’s office.  “Better take that coffee with you,” said my brother loudly.  “It’s the only free thing you’ll ever get in this place!”  My brother was not known for subtlety.

     When the director showed us a bunch of pricey coffins, I assumed – uncomfortably – my role as the skinflint from New York.  “Have you any others?” I asked, meaning of course any cheaper ones, though the word “cheap” was not to be uttered.  There is in principle a wide range of possibilities, from the most ornate to – if you can find one – a simple pinewood coffin.

File:Milano - Castello sforzesco - Cofanetto tedesco avorio sec. XVI - sec. XVII - Foto Giovanni Dall'Orto - 6-1-2007 - 02.jpg
This ...?                                              G. Dall'Orto
biodegradable casket
... or this?                                  Nature's Casket
     Footnote:  All right, I cheated just a little, since the ornate casket is a seventeenth-century German one exhibited at the Castello Sforza in Milan, and therefore not readily available.  But it shows how fancy a casket can be.  As for the simple pinewood coffin, it's the bargain item available from Nature's Casket in Longmont, Colorado.  You assemble it yourself.  What an adventure -- assembling your own coffin!  But it wouldn't cost much, and it's eco-friendly, made with nontoxic materials that are 100% biodegradable.  Nature's Casket is part of a growing green burial movement that I have just learned about and heartily approve of.

     Now to get back to our story: the director went to another room and came back wheeling a somewhat simpler coffin, but a far cry from basic pinewood.  We took it.

     The funeral itself was simple enough, attended by just my brother and me, and a cousin and his wife who drove up from Indianapolis.  Having on occasion seen funeral processions pass by in the street, I now found myself in my brother’s car at the head of one, right behind the hearse.  Yes, I felt strangely conspicuous, but the drive was short.  At the cemetery we had planned no final rites, but I suggested that we all scatter on the grave some flowers sent by an old friend in Indiana.  Then my cousin gave a brief impromptu speech, thanking my mother for being such a good friend to her younger sister, his mother, long deceased.  It was true: the two sisters had been close all their lives, with never a moment of friction that any of us knew of.  And so, with the least fuss possible, we said farewell to my mother.

File:French flag.jpg     Now for a different kind of farewell.  When I was studying in France long ago I got to know a precocious young lycée student named Claude, with whom I shared a passion for literature and learning and a keen sense of humor.  (No, it wasn't one of those friendships; we were just buddies.)  He had already written a novel, long sections of which he showed me; from them I learned the word pourriture (rot), since that was what his young protagonist (obviously autobiographical) was rebelling against.  That summer I visited him in Vichy where, like a good Frenchman, he was taking the waters, and a year later I introduced him to the wonders of hitchhiking in England, where we visited castles and country houses and churches, endured the intermittent rain, and stayed in youth hostels.  After I returned to America we kept up our correspondence, and when I retuned to France ten years later there he was, visibly older and now a journalist, ready to travel with me again; on a weekend when he was free, we went to Rouen and visited its churches, then visited various sites of interest in the surrounding area, ending with a sip of cider (not wine, this being Normandy and apple country) in the countryside.  After I returned again to the States we sustained our friendship with letters, but gradually, over time, we began to drift apart.  Years later, when my partner Bob went to Paris, I asked him to check the Paris annuaire and see if he could find Claude's phone number.  He did, and also found his address in the rue des Bernardins, where he had lived for years.  But now, when I wrote him to renew the friendship, I got no answer.  I sensed frustrations on his part -- he had hoped to be a writer, not a journalist, and had family hangups as well --  and he apparently had little desire to revive our friendship.  I felt no such disinclination but had to accept his decision.  So at last I sent him a final note:  "Je regrette ton silence.  Adieu, camarade.  Pour ce qui reste, bon courage!"  (I regret your silence.  Farewell, old friend.  As for what remains, have courage!)  I expected no answer and got none.  With Claude I had shared things I couldn't share with anyone else.  So a big chunk of my youth, and of my connection to France, was gone forever.  A sad farewell.

     When my friend Ed got cancer of the esophagus -- a very aggressive cancer -- I asked him for a half hour of his time so I could present an alternative perspective on healing, and assured him that, if it didn't interest him, I would never mention it again.  I'm not one to proselytize, but knowing how quickly fatal his cancer could be, I decided -- just this once -- to give it a try.  Ed listened patiently as I put the case for an alternative treatment, and after a half hour I left, so he could think it over.  He never brought it up  again, so neither did I.  A month later he asked me to escort him on foot to his bank, and a month after that he had me fetch a taxi so he could go to Saint Vincent's (it still existed) for radiation.  When I wheeled him into the waiting room and saw all the other patients waiting for treatment, my heart sank, for I knew radiation had many nasty side effects and offered no definitive cure.  Several months after that I saw him again into Saint Vincent's, where he told one of his doctors that just taking one short step drained him of energy.  "They don't understand," he kept saying, but then, once, to me: "Maybe you understand."  "I think I do," I replied, aware that Ed was too tired to want to go on living.  A doctors' conference resulted, and they promised Ed that, by rehydrating him overnight, they could replenish his energy.  So Ed agreed to stay over.  When I and other friends went to see him two days later, one of his doctors told us that a biopsy had found the cancer all through his body; he had only a short while to live.  But Ed had indeed recovered his energy and was focused on the practical, giving each of us an assignment; mine was to go to his apartment, get some envelopes and stationery, and put stamps saying LOVE on the envelopes, placing them -- he stressed the importance of this -- upside down.  When I delivered the envelopes as requested, it was the last time I saw him.  Other friends saw him into a hospice, where he died within a week.  So my getting him the envelopes with LOVE stamps placed
upside down -- typical of his sense of humor -- was my farewell.  A small gesture, but somehow fitting.


     Part of a Manhattan farewell is the cleaning out of an apartment.  Ed had left his records to my friend John, and his books to another friend of his, and named the two as his executors.  To dispose of the records and books they each contacted a dealer who was willing to come and appraise the spoils; as a result, the books brought a thousand dollars, and the records three hundred.  That left the furniture and various odds and ends, and to dispose of these they called in what is known as a liquidator to offer a lump sum and take the lot.   I had never heard of liquidators until John told me about the transaction; back then one found them in the yellow pages, whereas now one googles them and finds numerous listings, usually promising prospective buyers bargain prices for all kinds of wares.  Some obviously prefer to buy up the estates of the affluent, but others deign to take the possessions of those more modestly circumstanced, since these too will find their market.

     Lucky are those who die peacefully in the presence of those they loved the most:  Sarah Bernhardt in the presence of her son, André Gide with the young man -- by then grown, married, and a father -- who as a boy had become his lover.  But not all farewells are peaceful, nor need they come with death.  On the radio recently I heard a man tell how, as a freshman in college, he told his family he was gay, and what resulted.  They seemed to take it in stride; he went back to college happy.  But later he would learn from his sister what had then happened.  His mother, the reigning matriarch of the clan, had the family bring together in the back yard all the son's possessions: letters, clothes, photographs, old report cards, everything in his desk, the desk itself and all the other furniture in his room -- in other words, everything relating to the son.  This done, she set fire to the pile and watched the blaze that followed, until every last vestige of her son was destroyed.  From then on, none of the son's letters was answered, and he slowly came to realize that, because of the mother's action, his bond with his family was severed forever.  He tried to see the mother at work, but when she came down the hall and saw him there, she turned on her heel and avoided him.  After that a package was delivered to him: a funeral wreath mourning the loss of her son.  He never saw her again and years later heard she had died.  Perhaps the saddest farewell I have ever heard of.

     Our friend Hugh, the cunning waif of vignette #16 (6/17/12), was a gentle soul and a mostly recovered alcoholic, but he still had his quirks and obsessions.  Afraid of people yet relating to them well on the phone, for years he had worked as a telephone receptionist, his last job being with a prominent Manhattan law firm that sent him home by limousine to his apartment in the distant nether reaches of Brooklyn.  Certainly he was paranoid, so fearful of identity theft that he didn't throw out any correspondence with his name on it, keeping it in his increasingly cluttered apartment for what ultimate disposal I can't imagine.  And when a close friend died suddenly, he suspected foul play, though there was absolutely no evidence of it.  Furthermore, a hearty meal was an experience almost unknown to him; once retired, he preferred to snack all day on junk food while watching television.  Yet for all these eccentricities, he was kind, gentle, sensitive, considerate, never failing to send an amusing birthday card or heartfelt holiday greeting.  One of Bob's best and oldest friends, and a good friend to me as well.

Euphoria, maybe.  But this stuff can do you in.

     Alas, time caught up with Hugh.  A longtime alcoholic, junk food addict, and user of amyl nitrite and numerous other pills, he had not been kind to his body.  His health problems multiplied, yet he had no doctor to oversee his condition and offer treatment.  Bob kept me informed, as Hugh deteriorated steadily.  Finally one day he phoned us and in Bob's absence I talked to him.  "Hugh," I told him, "for God's sake get to a hospital.  If you have to, go to an emergency room!  Don't wait.  Go!"  He took the advice and ended up in a hospital in Manhattan, where Bob visited him three times, noting further deterioration at each visit.  Hugh's problem was now pneumonia and some other complication, Bob never quite grasped what.  The first time he saw him, he had some device inserted into his mouth that prevented him from talking.  But he obviously wasn't happy being there, wanted to go home; when he was served a tray of food, with a quick gesture he swept it to the floor.  On Bob's third visit he found Hugh heavily sedated and completely out of it.  A nurse told him that they had given him two powerful antibiotics, but to no avail; since he had lived on junk food for years, he had no immune system and therefore no defense against opportunistic infections.  Soon after that we learned from a visiting cousin that Hugh had died.  No funeral; he had arranged to have his remains cremated by the Neptune Society of Medford, New York, the warm ashes to be deposited in the cold Atlantic -- so fitting a conclusion, in Bob's opinion and mine, that we decided to arrange the same with the Society for ourselves.

     But that was not the end of Hugh; his cluttered apartment had to be emptied, and this task fell to Bob and me.  It wasn't just the usual accumulation of a clutterbug, but huge plastic bags crammed full of correspondence never discarded lest his precious identity be stolen, and further piles of mail that had to be gone through, in case they included items of importance.  It took days.  Among the litter were the sketches and eye-catching doodles of a potential artist who had never gone to art school -- so appealing that Bob and I both took some in remembrance of him.  Hugh's cousin and his wife returned from Virginia to collect some items that neither Bob nor I wanted or had room for, and the rest we left for a liquidator.  After closing the apartment door for the last time the four of us went to a nearby restaurant where, by way of a final farewell, we lifted a glass to Hugh's memory, hoping that, wherever he was, he was happy and fulfilled, no longer obsessed with identity theft and the other woes of life on this earth.  A gentle guy, an unfulfilled life, a sad yet hopeful farewell.

     Here is another kind of farewell, or maybe the absence of one.  I had been long out of touch with an old friend, a veteran New Yorker, who was so negative and depressed when I last visited him that I couldn't bring myself to get in touch again.  Years passed; I often thought of him.  Recently I summoned up the courage to phone him; a stranger answered.  If his phone number no longer worked, it could only mean one thing: he was no longer at that address, his residence for years.  And since he had nowhere else to go to, I have to conclude that he has died.  There is no mutual friend to confirm this, but my conjecture is almost certainly correct.  I know he had no will, didn't care what happened to  his things when he died.  Will I ever know for sure what has happened to him?  Maybe not.  So it is in the big city; people can disappear without a trace.  All I can do now is remember the good times he and I shared long ago.

     And now for one more farewell, the last I shall relate.  When my novel The Pleasuring of Men was published, it by chance coincided with the publication of a new list of the survivors of my high school class, with their updated addresses.  So I sent a notice of publication to several old friends whom I hadn't been in touch with for decades, with a personal note addressed to each.  Only one replied: Jean (a fictional name), whom I had dated in junior high school and the first two years of high school, and who surprised me by saying that she had read the novel and called it a tour de force, with scenes that leap off the page without being wordy.  I thought the subject matter might put her off, but she said that this was not the case, explaining that her now deceased husband had done interior design for hospitals and residential customers, had known many gay men in his work, and had been horrified when the AIDS epidemic eliminated many of them.  Other letters followed with news of her family, hometown reminiscences, and even a detailed questionnaire about my vegan diet, which greatly interested her.  The only hint of a problem was her mention of Christian TV, membership in a non-mainstream Bible-based Presbyterian church, and reference to a Damascus Road experience that had changed her life.  Urged by me to explain that experience, she told how a desperate prayer to God had rescued her from chronic depression accompanied by persistent chest pain, and how she felt a wave of power come down from on high to change her utterly and make her a completely new person.  This story fascinated me; I had never experienced such a thing, but greatly respected it as probably the most meaningful event of her life.

     Then, without warning, came the twist: her next letter urged me, since I wasn't born that way, to give up being gay (no hint of such advice prior to this), and ended with the announcement that this was her last letter, she had no more to say, please do not reply.  So complete and abrupt a change of tone astonished me.  I answered briefly, insisting that she tell me why she wanted to kill our friendship.  A month and a half later came her reply: we live in different worlds; in all matters regarding politics, economics, and religion we are at opposite poles, she being Christian and conservative, while I am secular and leftist.  I have dismissed or deflected every opportunity to glimpse into her world, she said -- a statement that amazed me, since I had listened with the greatest interest, even fascination, to her account of her Damascus Road conversion.  The New York Times (which I had never mentioned) is my Bible, she announced, even though it slants and censors the news, and Social Security is a Ponzi scheme.  I believe that, because I am a good person, I will end up in heaven, even though I don't accept Jesus (an opinion I don't recall ever having expressed).  Then, to round things out, she told an anecdote that occurred during the Monica Lewinski affair and that, she assured me, would make my hair stand on end.  (She seemed to know a lot about my hair.)  During a lunch with some women from her church, the subject of the Lewinski affair came up, and the good Christian ladies concluded that our eminent president was WHITE TRASH.  This being the world she lived in, why would I want to have anything to do with it?  Her last words: "I hope all is well with you."

     It was months before I could reply, or even wanted to.  Finally I did, saying that her well-meant advice to give up being gay was based on a false assumption: we don't choose our sexuality, it is imposed on us.  Yes, I admitted, we live in different worlds, but we can still communicate; it might even be interesting.  In the last election, I didn't vote for Obama or even vote Democratic.  (I didn't say who I voted for, hoping to puzzle her at least a little.)  Of course the Times has biases; all papers do.  Clinton is white trash?  I wouldn't have put it that way, but his involvement with Monica was stupid and invited such comments.  Above all, I said, I endorse the words posted on the wall of my health foods store:



As for heaven, it might be a bore: all those goody-goodies!  My closing:  "Answer if you want to (I hope you will), but don't, if it would be painful.  Either way, I wish you the very best.  Happy New Year!"

      That was months ago; she hasn't answered.  I regret this and will always miss the gracious correspondent of the earlier letters, who metamorphosed so suddenly into the opinionated correspondent, carping and contentious, of the last letter.  We are indeed in different worlds.  The children of darkness and the children of light can have little commerce, the preachers used to say, though which is which isn't always clear.  In some ways, the saddest of all my farewells because of the opportunities missed.

                Farewell    Adios    


                  Leben  Sie  wohl        Addio       Sayonara

     Village celebration:  The decision last Wednesday by the Supremes voiding the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), coming as a surprise to many, was celebrated wildly in the West Village, especially at the Stonewall Inn (see post #38, A Walk Through Greenwich Village, 12/16/12) and the gay center on West 13th Street.  Many of you probably saw it all on TV, which I did not, having no TV.  Today is the day of the annual Gay Pride Parade here in New York, always a slightly crazy day, and the Supremes' decision is sure to fever the fervor.  (See vignette #9, Me and the Gay Pride Parade, 5/27/12.)  My friend John and I will have to navigate carefully to get to a restaurant for lunch and then go our usual separate ways; coming down Christopher Street, the parade may interfere, in which case we might do as John did a year ago and join it for the last few blocks, smiling and waving to the spectators, before it disbands at the river.

     Coming soon:  The last of Jim Fisk next Wednesday, July 3; he goes out with a bang.  Me and the Seven Deadly Sins next Sunday, July 7: my confession: sloth no, wrath yes, and a tiny bit of greed; illustrations by Bruegel.  Beyond that, topics to be announced.  Meanwhile, Happy Gay Pride Day to all!

(c)  2013  Clifford Browder