Death reunites the dying man with himself

 In the theater of his coma-bound scull, death reunites the dying man with his past. With the infant searching for the loving eyes that, if he could find them, would be the only mirror he would ever need. With the child who missed his bus and now can't find his home. With the love-struck teenager who envied the glowing violin that long-haired Paulina plucked pizzicato at their lessons with the moody music master on East Avenue. With the young man whose bold ideas, courage, and certainty he came to despise as the century drowned all truth in blood. With the family man who rocked his home with desires he could not control, whose children’s earnest faces looked to him for clues as he chewed the olive from his martini and counted the hours to the neighbor woman’s back door. With the careerist whose politics clashed with those on top and somehow justified the cynicism of long, boozy lunches and ad hoc projects with lithe and willing women resentful of the sluggishness of Gus or Howard or Tom back at home in Chevy Chase. With the early retiree who tried his hand at painting, cooking, travel, reading, teaching—you name it—goals and interests on a resume that no one read. With the couch-bound drunk he came to be, rallying for a walk or a trip to Italy, and always for an afternoon with his grandchildren, who looked at him for clues as his own children had and this time he did not disappoint, no longer counting the moments to any woman’s splayed hair and legs and warm smoky breath on a hotel pillow, satisfied now with sun and sky and shy children asking him to tie their shoes, put on their jacket, or take them for chicken wings and fries. No more peaty exhalations, grunts of pleasure, panting aftermath. Mushrooms swathed in béchamel, baked in a puff pastry cup, downed with racy Pouilly Fumé—this the new seduction, the new climax. 

Death reunites the dying man with these moments and millions more in a painterly swirl of dreams whose content varies perforce from man to man but whose inchoate structure will never be mastered by the most masterly of cinéastes, at least until they, too, are dying men and women, reuniting in swirling dreams with the child, the adolescent, the careerist, and the pensioner who shared their name. Those scull-bound dreams—can we guess at their form: great bold colors, sudden sounds, odors that pull the mind from scene to scene across the years, now a frozen field traversed by clanking tanks, snow stained with blood and parts of soldiers the rest of whom was carried back to tents open to puny fires encircled by men still living but with sagging spirits whose sodden woolens steam where they face the fire, freeze where they face the storm. And back from there to a brighter fire in a brick house in Chevy Chase with children safe in bed and amber cocktails with ruby cherries on a tray and the coy glances of Louise from two blocks over, in her sheath dress, who shepherds the Brownie troop to which your little girl belongs. 

A thousand scenes like that, or shards, or fragments, couplings that occurred, those only dreamed, humiliations like a hot gash of garnet on the canvas, elation in canary yellow, thick green applied with a pallet knife for the times you drowned yourself in the pulse of this beautiful world, blue-black for the soft cold sky between the flinty stars, orange for the food you ate on holidays and after work, with its soothing steam and scent of sage, silver for the fortune you never had, gold for the ring you gave and for the one that sits now in your walnut box, with your father's captain's bars and your first passport: the visa for the Scout jamboree in Berlin in '37 emblazoned with the swastika that marked the planes under which you cowered in the snow a few years later, dressed now in a very different shade of green, your compass and pocket knife replaced by grenades and a bayonet.

Into that three-dimensional swirl of sound and light and color come new words spoken from outside the theater of your scull. “Daddy,” says one voice, “Daddy, it’s me, Susan, I love you so much; we’re all here with you, all your children.” And this is good and you dwell on the faces of those children in 1958 or 1985. One brings you a clay horse baked at school then wants ice cream and to play on the swing. Another has come home drunk and stumbled on the stairs, the car left somewhere unremembered. Another graduates from college and has braces on her teeth, or the other way around. The voices from outside are hushed and a gray velvet curtain falls over the carmine electric storm of names and years and tears and blame and pride and hope and disappointment. The violin of Paulina. Her downy cheek and long neck. The cruelty of the Boy Scout master who kicked away the fire you made. The severed head and bullet-ridden body of your tent mate at Bastogne. The ferocious asperity of your silk-clad mother who arrived in her Phaeton to reshoe your pony when he went lame on your ride in stony Allen Creek. Your secretary’s perfume and the feel of her breasts against your back as she kneaded the tension from your neck, displacing it downward. “Daddy,” the voices again. “We’re back, all of us. Steven’s going to read to you. David’s getting coffee. Tom is taking Chance for a walk. Tonight I’ll stay here with you, the way you stayed with us. We all love you so much, daddy.”

The storm grows wilder, Lear is raving on the moor. Breathing is more difficult. Snow is in those clouds. I like Roosevelt but can’t tell my mother. Hanover was cold that winter, but your mother and I were happy then. That dog never was house-trained. I wish I’d painted more. What happened to Nancy Randall and Barbara Wise? Paulina is still alive, I think. Does she play her golden violin? Does she remember me? That blue is the right shade, but move it closer to the patch of orange and the dark olive stain. Truman was right to sack MacArthur. Why was god always so unimportant to me? My lungs are beating; my heart barely breathing; I’m trying to speak, but my mouth is dry, and now I know my eyes are closed and will not reopen. Susan is lying near me now; she says, “Daddy, your work is done, let go. Be with the child and all the men you were. Pack all the moments of your life, fold them in your case; walk through the tunnel to the train. Look back so I can wave goodbye.”

 January 3, 2014