I don’t mind thinking about death. I am not repelled by its possibility. (There’s a joke.) My fear of it has dissipated as my children have grown and I have become so contented in life. Also, I’d much rather beat my husband across that meridian.
Now that I’m well into my fifties and traversing the shadowed side of the mountain, what lies below in the valley seems interesting. My sense of adventure is aroused. When I draw my last and my body begins the process of turning out the lights, then might I learn what is next. Ah! The chance to discover the big fat unanswerable question — how is that not very very thrilling!
I detest violence but I like reading about death. Let me explain why. One is cruel, full of pain, hurt, suffering, the other is a stop to that. A cutting off of the ugliness. The world can beat up on a body but when death comes in the room, it’s a referee with a whistle, a mother separating her quarreling children, a period to a sentence that describes nothing but pain and suffering. Death is the final vote.
I shouldn’t bog you down with all this talk of death. You are probably drinking a cup of coffee, drawing in your breath, and wishing to make the most of your day. But that is the point here. I’m sharing a book that will make you take notice of your alive state. So I in my fascination with mortality and you with your coffee can perhaps meet in the middle with this wonder of a book. The Baltimore Book of the Dead by Marion Wink is a tiny little volume of beautiful death writing. Six paragraphs or so, at a time, summing up a lovable human’s existence. Miniature elegies. Flash obituaries. And fascinating, every one of them.
In the introduction, the author explains how during a dinner party, she got out her manuscript and read aloud a passage. The table was silent. So she read another. The hostess of the party objected. “I’m on vacation!” she said. Perhaps take that as advice. Just as you don’t want to attend more than one funeral a month if you can help it, don’t gorge on this book. Maybe read one or two entries a day.
Here’s a really great one to get you started: (page 5)
The Perfect Couple
died 1991, 2011
It is 1956 at the beach club, the whole crew lined up on lounges like glamorous crayons. She’s the one with the legs, the baby, just back from boring old freshman year. Have you two met? someone asks, and she looks up from her Bain de Soleil. Why, that’s the sweetest smile she’s ever seen. Poof, there goes college.
In 1965, she was the prettiest mom at my seventh birthday party, with her long, swinging hair and white patent leather belt, her third little bundle in the stroller. She wanted more but the doctor said no. Too many miscarriages, and this guy came two months early and almost didn’t make it. Then there’s the problem the doctor doesn’t know about.
Having been in a marriage something like hers decades later, I suspect she knew the truth about her husband early on—but as long as she could pretend, she absolutely did. They were the best-looking couple in town, and so much fun. And she had her three darlings; how lonely could she be? The kids were in their teens when she finally cracked. It was the third night of Hanukkah, all of them standing around the menorah wide-eyed as he headed for the door. Go, go, she screamed into the street. Just go.
There was no shortage of suitors for both of them, no shortage of busybodies and bigots, either. It was almost a relief when he moved to an apartment in the city. In some ways, he had picked the best of all times to come out, the Manhattan of the seventies and eighties, the Limelight, the Boy Bar, Studio 54. And also the worst of times; as the eighties ended, he got a sore on his foot that wouldn’t heal. She came as soon as he told her and stayed through the end, grumbling boyfriends on both sides notwithstanding.
After that, it just kept getting harder with cameras and mirrors: once allies, now bullies to be avoided. You don’t want to care so much, but how do you stop? Mom, the kids would scold when she’d try to slip out of a photo or bury her face in the nearest grandchild. Don’t be silly, you look fine. She did adore them all, but when Mr. Lung Cancer knocked on the door, she was ready. Give me just a minute, dear. I’ll be right down.
If you are a new reader here and don’t wish to take my word for it, take Cheryl Strayed’s. She was asked which book she recommends over and over and her answer was The Glen Rock Book of the Dead, which is this book’s precursor. I’ll be reading it next. I imagine it will be like my stroll through the Oak Hills Cemetery in Washington D.C. where the steeply terraced rows of gravestones cause your heart to pump and your legs to strain in order to see all the beauty.
Photo of Oak Hill Cemetery by me.