Image by Marv Newland, from Marc 2000.
I turned over, he said on the phone, and I fell out of my skeleton.
He is fond of quotes. During one telephone conversation he said he’d found a good one from Pascal, which he read to me, the one where Pascal says the sum of all evil would be greatly diminished if men could only learn to sit quietly in their rooms. This means younger men, he told me, not someone who’s just turned eighty-eight, but then, he said, I don’t spend a lot of time sitting quietly in my apartment and any evil I commit is of the modest kind such as with the bank teller today who wouldn’t let me close Brigit’s account without providing her will. Look, he told the woman, I am in the business of dying and you are obstructing my course and whether you like it or not the world is full of old people who are in the business of dying and soon enough you will be one of them.
He got his way about closing the account and that pleased him but also left him feeling troubled that he may have upset the woman by reminding her she would eventually die. This feeling brought to mind, he said, another quote, one by the aphorist Eric Hoffer, the statement that the three ways to get through life are by realizing your talents, keeping busy and identifying with something apart from yourself—cause, leader, group, possessions. A fourth way might be to obliterate and repress, he said, as Don DeLillo wrote in White Noise, but that, he believed, was the coward’s way.
He also said during this call that he thought he had early Alzheimer’s disease because he’d forgotten whether he’d taken his morning pills and was afraid to take a second dose in case he had. When you’re at this stage of life, he told me, your body keeps changing —bumps and lumps and all sorts. You keep getting these different pieces of information and you don’t know what they mean. For this reason I’ve created a new word—symptomaniac.
He ends each call with Cheers for now.
He and Brigit got together in their forties having run away from their marriages. They were like Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, living the intellectual life. Brigit spoke five languages and when they were first together got a job at the university library; he gave up his job delivering heating oil to play drums in a trio and do odd jobs, and then enrolled in university at age forty-six. They lived on boats.
He has four friends from that time who have remained close—three men and a woman, me, his executor. All of us are at least twenty-five years younger and he has formed us into a legal group to administer his bequest. I have no family I care to bother myself with, he has said, you four are my family.
During a late afternoon call, he told me he’d been cleaning out bank accounts, giving things away, visiting his lawyer, and doing further planning about his bequest. When I go, he said, I want nothing left in the apartment but dust. Then he quoted an elderly Stephen Leacock—Old men live in a world of horrors—adding that there is nothing funny about that. Keep moving, is my advice, he said, that way you’re more efficient at dodging bullets. And there are many bullets, he said. I have the apnea problem, the blood chemistry problem, the water in the lung problem, the kidney problem. I’m deaf as a post. Although, he added, there are no alarms on the horizon today. He’d just returned from picking up Brigit’s ashes from Telford’s Burial & Cremation Centre.
She’s inside a small cardboard box that’s sitting on the bookcase, he said, and she’s with me now!
In one morning call he told me he had fallen out of bed in the night. His exact words were I fell out of my skeleton. I turned over, he said, and my hip appeared to fall out of its socket. This is what happens to our bodies. It’s like being an old car on blocks and disintegrating bit by bit. I awoke with a sore ankle too. I’d been dancing in my dreams with a lithesome woman at the community hall who called me a naughty boy. He quoted Dr. Johnson—When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully. And he laughed.
Once when I missed his call there was a message on my answering machine that sounded like haiku. Unable to contact you my life flashed before me as a series of recorded messages. The message from another missed call said I have some surprising new information for you. This turned out to be his reading of a book on string theory and being taken with the brilliant and beautiful author-scientist.
For his eighty-eighth birthday he and three of his four friends had lunch at a Greek restaurant near his apartment. One friend was a retired longshoreman, one worked in arts education, one was a writer. The fourth, a former probation officer, had had a stroke and was confined to his townhouse.
Of his birthday cards he liked the one from the arts education friend the best. It contained a quote from Gertrude Stein: There ain’t no answer. There ain’t gonna be any answer. There never has been an answer. That’s the answer. I’ve spent my adult life, he told us, believing God is dead and now I want confirmation of the fact before I die.
He made it clear again at this lunch that after his death his and Brigit’s ashes are to be mixed together and interred near the sea, one of his many instructions. Absolutely no religious component to the funeral service is another. No mention of souls or ascension or descent for that matter. No hymns. No mention of anything everlasting, not even, he says, memories because that’s a lie; memories dissipate like smoke. Music will be allowed at the service, though, something by the Ramsey Lewis Trio he suggests.
He then told us Brigit had joined him in a dream. They were strolling along the seashore; it had been eighteen days since she’d died. She was on his left, taller than she had been at the end, and wore a hooded sweatshirt, the hood covering her head. She told him that the peace had entered her and so she came. He asked her what it was like when she died and she said it was like a jet plug which, he told us, he took to mean that the change had been explosive, sudden. Next in the dream, they were in a hotel room, high up, with a stunning view of mountains, sea and sky. They lay on the floor of this room and embraced, he said, and then Brigit left, descending some stairs with a group of strangers while speaking to a man in this group. Remind me, she told the man, to get your son a new pair of boots.
Then she was gone, having come into the world, he reminded us, in the Shanghai International Settlement in 1925, as did J.G. Ballard five years later although they never met but whose writings she later admired, especially Empire of the Sun, a copy of which she had given to each of the four friends, friends who had been Brigit’s as well as his.
When asked his opinion of the world on the day of his birthday he said as usual the world’s affairs were absolute bullshit which was what we expected he would say because he had told us many times that he found the world to be a sad domain of conflict and contradiction. He then stated that an enemy is someone whose story you have not heard but couldn’t remember where the quote came from. Nevertheless he was trying, he said, to take the quote to heart even when it came to Yolanda, the administrator of the seniors’ health centre who treated him, a man who graduated in philosophy and reads physics for fun, and who has spent much of his adult life reading and thinking and talking and arguing about what he thought, like a simpleton.
One morning he called very early to read out a quote by Eduardo Galeano that he’d found in Galeano’s book Upside Down. I’d answered the phone still holding my toothbrush. God, he quoted, sold the planet to a few companies because in a foul mood he decided to privatize the universe. Isn’t that rich? he asked, and then read something he’d written himself: the God search is the unending creation of the fictional world which reduces merely living to a second class temporary existence while casting envious glances at the magnificent world of the spirit. During this call he said he’d begun writing essays and that God was to be his first topic even though God, or the human worship of the unknown as he called it, was the thing that made him most angry.
In his will he has stated that the funds are not to be used as mercy money or speculation money, but used in the service of democracy and in the interest of knowledge, science and the dissolution of the heavenly kingdom. The four friends must agree on the allocation but he hopes the money will go toward some branch of scientific research, even though one of his friends would prefer setting up an annual grant that would be available to a visionary poet or prose writer.
Often I call him. In one conversation he laughed about a newspaper headline he’d read that day. Just a minute, he said, and went looking for it. The outlook for quirky is grim. This headline, he said, not only summed up our position on the planet, but described his personal situation to a T. He then mentioned he’d thrown the I Ching that morning and it turned out to be Ko, The Judgement—fire in the lake. Thus the superior man sets the calendar in order, he said, and makes the seasons clear. This is what I am obviously doing, he said, while trying not to suck the essence out of each day by dwelling on what is to come.
During a recent call, and before signing off with Cheers for now, he told me about a run-in with another bank official and said there are no wrong questions, only wrong answers and I could quote him on that. He also said, right now I am at your disposal, but soon I will be for your disposal.
The word call as it pertains to you and me, he has mentioned, means telephone conversation and not an incitement to action such as Stephen Hawking recently made by saying the only hope for the survival of the human species is escape by space travel within the next hundred years, an indictment, he said, that left him outraged. Space travel is merely another attempt, he said, to form a new world religion based on suffering and everlasting life and which completely ignores our present predicament.
He also said, I’ve heard music in my head for fifty years. Today, though, the music changed, became stuck on a Fats Waller tune. I had to work hard to erase it. Over and over I hummed the opening to the 1812 Overture. That did it.