My friend's letters had mentioned the possibility as far back as the fall of last year, but now what had stood merely possible had become painfully probable now: the death of his father. He had come back to Brooklyn from San Francisco each time the alarum had rung: the complaints about vague pains and exhaustions, the initial physical exams, the test bore of a biopsy, the sentence of liver cancer, the metastasizing of the cancer to the brain, the long vigil at home, the final breaths. Because of the way nature had built my friend, I knew this whole event was wrenching for him, so I called as often as I could to see how he fared and offer what ear I could for his thoughts and feelings.
As we talked, however, it became quite clear that his father, enfeebled as he was, did not intend to follow the tragic script laid out for him by the expectations of those gathered around him: a graceful acceptance of the inevitable, a slow but metered decline into death, with his family encircling him. Even though he knew that the disease had no intention of breaking camp and going home, he refused to let the siege have its say. He lingered, tenaciously, not with a grim countenance, beads of sweat on the forehead, but with good spirits, a little scorn, and his trademark stubbornness. (It also helped that he didn't have to take pain killers: the tumor in the brain seemed to clamp off the pain, and so he could, unmorphined, keep his full wits about him.) Why should he follow out the tragedy to its appointed curtain-fall? What did he have to lose?
The phone calls got funnier and funnier as both he and his sister, in alternating conversations, would mock-groan about how the long the man hung on to life while the rest of them, lives on hold, waited for him to let go. His sister said she'd forgotten what her husband and children looked like, she'd vigiled at the bedside for so long. And my friend, a clinical psychologist, phoned, e-mailed, faxed, and phoned again to keep his practice going and the grant proposals on schedule. He said that they'd even started to joke with him about it, sitting in the bedroom, drinks in hand, asking him if he could please tell them, with a little more precision, when he intended to let them all get back to their land of the living. And he took it good-naturedly because, as my friend said, he was doing precisely what Dylan Thomas had told him to do: "Do not go gentle into that good night. / Rage, rage..." Well, perhaps not rage, but instead affection: why break a long life-habit that had brought, along with its share of misery and confusion, such a fine cargo of happiness and zest? It doesn't make sense to break up such a good match.
Of course, the sharp sense of overdue had its downside as well. My friend had learned how grieving requires its proper time and measure; interruptions in that process, for whatever reason, formed many of the reasons why his clients came to talk with him. His father's dogged fight, his blithe "No" in the face of the fated, had strewn sharp stones in the path of his family's grieving, making them wince and dodge and curse. Rather than allowing them to float through a caressing fog of feeling and land in a clearing laved with light, his resolve to stick it out to the end deprived them of that calm exhaustion of a strong emotion playing out its rhythm completely. Instead of a long ride in a limousine, they had a driver who didn't know how to use a clutch.
Which all goes to show, as my friend pointed out, that life never leaves off kidding you. Something as tragic and inevitable as the death of a parent comes along, definitely a one-time deal in life, and you bring out all the cultural, emotional, and familial scripts you own to cope with it. You lay out your suit, shine your shoes, and prepare your dirges. And then life blindsides you with a man who refuses to fulfill the chapter and verse: the suit gets stained, the dirges are off-key, and your heart falters between fiasco and love. You adapt, you cope, you grouse and steam, and in the process you create the "Do you remember when"'s that will keep the memory of the man refreshed. There is no reason why the dying should be any cleaner or more precise than the messy, ad hoc, semi-understood living that proceeded it. Kübler-Ross may have her stages, but nothing ever proceeds that smoothly, or should. One needs the nicks and scrapes for healing to take place.
The last time I spoke with him, when he called to let me know his father had finally passed away, he said everyone was on his or her second drink and that they were reviewing the funeral logistics. Upstairs, the body waited for its preparation. Downstairs, the living lived. It doesn't get much simpler or opaque than that. Life goes on until it ends; as Lily Tomlin's Edith Ann would say, with her lovable lisp, "And that's the truth."
Through all of this, I thought, of course, of my own parents, who are still alive and feeling pertinent, and of the Marvelous Maria-Beatriz, whose father died almost four years ago and against whom, every once in a while, washes a spring tide of grief, seemingly from out of nowhere. Happiness and peace may preserve the human race against its darker tendencies, but it is grieving that gives us the edge that cuts through cant and veneer to help reach an accord with our own mortality. We may grieve with a dour face or with a fine scotch in our hands, but grieving is, in great measure, what makes us human and gives us whatever we can pass off as wisdom.