The rest is silence.
Hamlet, Act V
Last lines are a joy forever: perfect codas to lives of the great. The quintessential period at the end of the long sentence. Gertrude Stein, lying on her bed, eyes closed, about to expire. She opens them, sits up and asks, "What is the Answer?" and falls back on her pillow. Silence. The camera waits. Again she rises from the pillow and speaks: "Never mind that. What is the question?" Finis.
Or, going one better perhaps, Alfred North Whitehead, the philosopher: "Why are we always in the dark?"
And beyond him, the great German genius, majestic Goethe, whose last words, perhaps whispered gutturally in his bedchamber in Weimar have resounded through the ages: Mehr Licht! (more light!), leaving to posterity the question of whether he, than whom there was no one of nobler mind or wider range of thought, was still, at the very end of consciousness, seeking further enlightenment; or if, as some cynics have suggested, he was simply asking the nurse to raise the shade.
Death brings a train of perfect feeling, exquisite metaphor, many jokes. Only sex is its competition in arousing laughter, since laughter emerges from surprise, from the bon mot which, like an exquisite bonbon, turns out to be not what you thought at all. Surprise, upset (that old banana peel), the unexpected word, the pun that stands a sentence on its head - anything and everything you're not prepared for.
Death, as the poet has sung,
Comes to the old and the young,
The screamingly funny, the rolling in money,
And those who are very well hung,
according to W.H. Auden.
The Irish bard, W.B. Yeats. wrote his own epitaph in the magnificent poem, "Under Ben Bulben," ending with the words engraved upon his tombstone ("on limestone quarried near the spot"):
Cast a cold eye
On life, on death
Horseman, pass by!
And we, whoever "we" happen to be at the time, sometimes engage in the silly but maybe superstitiously effective game of making up our own epitaphs. (Surely, anyone so at ease with death that they can banter with it will not be overcome by its sudden grasp!) Did W.C. Fields say, "Rather here than Philadelphia"? Or was it, "I'd rather be in Philadelphia"? Either way works (I prefer the first.) A close friend of mine, who vastly enjoyed our traditional Christmas dinners of goose with its goose liver (not quite foie gras) stuffing, bread dumplings and preiselbeeren suggested for me: "She cooked her goose - exquisitely."
And then there are all the circumlocutions. Again, as with sex, or as it used to be when writers wrote or lovers spoke, sex was rarely described or alluded to in the more DIY manual tones of today. The genitals were referred to by any number of handles (if you'll pardon my taking the license, though not the purse), and the act itself was sometimes so vaguely painted that it was difficult to distinguish between orgasm, electrical voltage or aurora borealis. Similarly death was and still is for many an unspeakable thing. People "pass," as in a game of cards or Words With Friends. They leave, depart, fade away, are extinguished, check out, kick the bucket, buy the farm - for all the world as if dying was something you did on stage (opera preferably) before a crowd of onlookers during which your vocal capacity is challenged to its utmost and when, the aria at long long last coming to an end and you fall back upon the well-designed bed (allowing a view of your expiration to all ticket holders), they will weep, stomp, stand up and shout "Brava!"
Sex is not horses' hooves galloping upon the strand and death is not the majestic moment of singing your heart out. Most of us engage in sex, in some form or other, for a large part of our lives. Dying is something we can only do once and there is nobody alive today who can tell you about it, except for a slanted point of view from "expert" observers like doctors or soldiers or photographers, and those who have gone through the dying of another person centimeter by centimeter because this other person is all the world to the observer. Clergy and poets, country western songwriters, dramatists, witches and many many others have written and preached, strummed and chanted on the theme. And Death, the grim figure with scythe and hoodie, has been around for an exceedingly long time, waiting to be inserted into Halloween rituals or New Yorker cartoons and, perhaps most successfully, as the narrator of the story retold by Somerset Maugham and appearing as epigraph of John O'Hara's novel Appointment in Samara.
There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture; now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra..
Emily Dickinson: Because I could not stop for Death/ He kindly stopped for me..
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain. ..
So wrote John Keats at 24, with barely more than a year of life left to him, drunk with happiness and its fragility, intoxicated by his senses, the nightingale's song, fragrances of an April night and his own intense sense of almost unbearable beauty as the words came rushing into him as a bridegroom to his bride. He wrote down the stanzas sometime around May Day, 1819, and in late summer, 2016, I read that magnificent ode to Michael, in the Intensive Care Unit of Langone hospital in New York City, where his window opened out on the East River from where I was sitting, and on a frieze of skyscraper tops from his angle, facing west. I read, teary-eyed, because of what was happening and because we both, or each, in our own angel-youth, had come upon the poem and found it hard to read aloud without gasping or stopping to catch our breath and blink away tears. Because then, at the time(s) we read it first, or maybe the first half a dozen times, we were very young and love would conquer all. Art stood astride the world holding out forever its golden cup from which only the most privileged of mortals, the most sensitive, the artists among us, could sip. In other words, we believed in Art as a form of salvation. We believed in Eternity. Not for ourselves, not in the way a follower of this religion or that might see his own self transported or transformed, morphed into beetle or jaguar, placed at the right hand of creation in a singing choir all wearing diaphanous gowns not made in China. We weren't Believers in that way and yet, without being aware of it, we accepted the main belief or misconception that people like us, European background, middle class, educated, took for granted. There would always be a world, Truth and Beauty ruled, and indeed were Siamese twins, the one unable to do anything or even exist without the other. We, so many years later, could feel Keats' quivering joy, his sense of something too great for the imagination to encompass, his acceptance of a grandeur that simply happened because there was life on earth and each moment was precious and real.
In the hospital room, squeezed into the tiny section allotted him, we were for a moment thrown back to that time. Michael looked out at the tops of the buildings against the fading sky and saw, far to the west, what he called his ocean liner. He could make out its great hulk and tall mast. Every evening he waited for the lights to come on and was strangely satisfied when they did. His ship. I knew what that meant (I am a great one for metaphor) and when I asked, he said, "It's the Jolly Roger." I knew it as the pirate ship, the ship of death, and from my angle, looking down on the gray moving river, I saw a long black scow float by, bringing the souls to Styx, the city garbage downstream. He was old and very very ill. I was a little younger but quite ill myself. Here we were in a New York twilight, all the shades of meaning around us, his arms stuck with so many IVs that the skin had to be patched because it was torn everywhere.
But we talked, partly leading from the poems, about how the world had changed; about ourselves who, after our initial immersion into the Keatsian waters had come ashore, shaken ourselves dry and gone on to more prosaic things, to arguments about the way the world works, to fascination for the richness of Darwinian evolution (though to John Keats it would have seemed the "philosophy" that "will clip an Angel's wings"), to the acceptance of a world with no intrinsic meaning, nothing but what we, each and both, or any other person gave to it.
And then, amazingly, he revived. He was kicked out of Intensive Care after 3 weeks and went on to rehab in a nursing home. I visited him every day until pains of varied sorts prevented me from leaving home. And then, there he was. Here he is. We are both home now, we still read poetry and find a world without a purpose set to be a rational, acceptable and even delightful one. We enjoy our dinners. We talk of this and that, avoiding the dreadfulness of trump as often as we can and yet seeing, confronted with how bad a person really can become (and trump is indeed the very worst person I know anything about) that all else, the everyday kindnesses of people, the beauty of a new leaf in autumn, the first day when we can put on a sweater and smell the crosstown breezes are all in some way as exquisite as nightingales; and life, at whatever moment you look at it, will always be short and blooming.