Washing the Corpse

July 17, 2010

  

 

“and since they knew nothing about his life

  they lied till they produced another one.”

                                    Washing the Corpse, Rainer Maria Rilke

                                                            [translated by Edward Snow]

Tuesday my friend, Michael Silver Dragon died. He had been fighting his illnesses for as long as I knew him. He had been in hospice care for nearly a year. He was lifelong motorcycle rider; two summers ago he sold his motorcycle because he couldn’t ride anymore. A couple weeks ago he wanted to take me out for drive in his Tiburon. Over the last months he had taken up driving the mountain roads by himself and smoking little cigars while using his oxygen respirator. “I’m going to die soon” he told me” so cigar smoke isn’t going to kill me.” I suggested the exploding tank might; he laughed. It was a hacking laugh that suggested he was whacking things with a hatchet. I went on the condition that he wouldn’t smoke cigars while he was using oxygen. He took the curves and hills a little too fast, and drifted over the  line a bit while telling me what once was down this dirt road, or what Fenton Lake looked like before the highway went through. We laughed a lot with the loud laughter you sometimes hear in bars—that vague coughing sound that usually has little to do with what’s been said, but is releasing something that isn’t being said, but wants to. The paved road ran out and we decided to turn back. He was tired, but wouldn’t let me drive. We stopped in Seven Springs and visited a friend. We sat in her kitchen drinking tea and listening to the brook that runs outside her back door. It was a painterly moment…maybe a little too restless to be Romantic or Impressionist.

A silence fell into our conversation as our friends ate lunch. I looked at Michael and saw suppressed surprise in his eyes. He was lost, but I didn’t know where I should look to find him. Eventually the tea and honey found him and brought him back. Like most return trips we don’t remember many details, that was true of us and soon we were saying good-bye in the library parking lot where we left my car. By chance his wife and friend, Berta, was parking her car to attend a meeting. We all stood hugging and thankful. It would have been a kind perfection for things to have just evaporated into those instants of affection and fullfillment.

But they didn’t.

That is the kind of vignette that makes genuine human character rhetorical. It’s warm, sentimental and allows itself to be contrived by the pathos and a hinted knowledge of death. At this point Michael Silver Dragon is really dead. But in these scenes I have replaced him with my desire to produce an elegiac fictional Silver Dragon. I’m not writing an obituary; rather contriving a sweet eulogy intended to make my reader abstrusely sad, but also to engage in my fictionalization as a form of easy belief. You as my reader must believe this, in order for it to grow to be the truth. I confess to knowing practically nothing factual about Michael. For me he had little history other than our private shared adventures on my holidays and vacations. He could have been my Great Uncle Johnny. The day after he died I was asked to write the obituary. Those dictated facts were a series of revelations, which I suppose a certain amount any obituary actually is, but an obituary is also a symbolic punctuation indicating when the dead receive a new life as adjuncts to those of us who remain and construct memories. They belong to us, like movie characters or pop stars. We build the dead out of need. We shape them as the  poetic corpse washers shape the lies they need to tell one another. This is more about me, about my need to remember and forget the same thing. 

“Not all truth comes in beautiful words; not all beautiful words are truth.”

 Last Saturday morning Berta called from her panic. Michael wouldn’t wake up. Again. He had died several times in the years I’d known him. Yet he returned from the hospital again and again. He had fallen and hurt his neck, he had  pneumonia and he didn’t want to eat. When I arrived I found him twisted awkwardly on his bed. Berta was trying to support his neck. He moaned and pulled at bed clothes and the neck support pillow until his head drooped forward in a posture that made me cringe. Together we lifted and shifted him in their bed. He made noises, but not to us. Then he fell back to heavy sleep. Berta had hospice on the telephone. They were suggesting a hospital bed and neck brace. They were willing to bring them out that afternoon.

Things were collapsing too quickly.

Berta and Michael had scheduled respite care in a facility in Albuquerque so she could go to her father’s birthday party. I was supposed to spring Michael from the rest home the following Saturday. We would eat dim sum, find some mischief, then I’d bring him home. Berta and I surveyed the available space in their home. It would take some significant rearranging, but we could squeeze a hospital bed in somewhere, shifting out her study and furniture .

Things were spinning apart.

We tried giving Michael his medications. It took two of us to try to open his mouth. The pills drooled out on the wild goatee he’d been growing for twenty-five centuries. He was thrashing weakly. He was moaning. The medication took effect, he seemed quiet. I drove 30 miles to the Walgreens in Bernalillo for a foam cervical brace. We got it on him. The collar didn’t provide him any comfort. The hospital bed didn’t seem such a good idea. There were no beds available at the hospice hospital unit.

We’d have to wait for someone to die. 

The next morning Berta called.  A hospice bed on the unit was available. Michael would be transported by ambulance to Albuquerque. It would take most of the day to transport him and get his paperwork checked at the hospital. She wanted to do it by herself. She said she done it so many times, that alone was better. She suggested I come

later in the afternoon.

I drove to Santa Fe to the International Folk Arts Festival for diversion. I wanted to get lost in the crowds and ersatz open market of rugs, jewelry and carvings for a couple of hours. I had a couple of artists I wanted to see specifically. One made fantastic painted resin dioramas of Bolivian peasant life crossing barriers into other realms where they might be suddenly drinking or dancing with devils, angels or skeletons. The other was a Mexican muertos artist from D.F., who carved intricate calaveras on matchsticks. It was the last day of the festival; many of the artists were tired of listening to English. They sat sullenly painting, or dully detailing metalwork with small hammers. I couldn’t find the two artists I wanted to see. By chance I ran into Jacobo Angeles, a wood carver whose studio I had visited in Oaxaca. He was exhausted from shaking too many hands. His English met my Spanish and he turned me over to his nephew. “We have a website.” He handed me a card angeles@tilcajete.org. I bought a glass of iced tea made with all renewable resources. It had rooibos leaves, beet roots and ginger; I had a stomach ache, albeit a healthful one. It served to keep me from being dulled by the early afternoon sun.  There was drumming and dragon dancers were leaping on the plaza as I boarded the bus to the parking lot.

Driving back I found the World Cup final on the radio. It was being broadcast on a Spanish station. With the score zero, zero and cinque minutos left in regular time I spotted my favorite used bookstore in Santa Fe and a place to park. I found a used CD of the master copy of “John Coltrane at the Village Vanguard” and Edward Snow’s translation of Rilke,  A Head of All Parting. These items seemed essential in my immediate future. When I returned to World Cup the game was in extra overtime. Although I, along with the entire Spanish speaking Western Hemisphere, had waited for the elongated scream of “G-o-o-o-o-a-l!” when it happened I wasn’t much relieved. I stopped at the Santa Domingo reservation for gas. $2.59 a gallon. I chewed a few berry flavored Tums and drove towards the hospice hospital in Albuquerque.

Berta called on my cell phone, room #1029.

In Lovelace Hospital if you press the elevator button for the tenth floor any employee on the elevator, or getting on later, first is suddenly silent, tries to smile, then looks blankly away. Modern hospice care is a hospital service, not a dread Hotel Dieu, but quiet, orderly and intensely humane. What judgments the staff makes, they keep to themselves. They don’t use euphemisms; it’s death and dying. They look at you when speaking with you. When I asked at the desk, they knew who Michael was and that Berta was in the room with him.

Michael looked worse than the day before.

He was restless and more jaundiced,

He appeared to be suffering less.

We had had our last conversation.

I smoothed his hair and sat down.

Berta was exhausted and dazed.

We went out to find some dinner,

it turned out to be salads we pushed

with our plastic forks and then threw away.

She drove back home and I returned to #1029.

I sat as the sun was starting its slow summer setting. The hide-a-bed love seat sunk me deeper than was comfortable, but there was nowhere else to go. As distraction I wondered about Walt Whitman’s days as a nurse. How he must have learned, as these nurses had, how to intimately diagnose each detail of approaching death. I wondered how he was able to keep experiencing the buzz and yarp of the world. I wondered what that change meant to him as he walked home, or worried about enduring his persecutions and keeping his position a little longer. Did he still see the great cosmic body transcendent…or like me in this golden evening, seeing it struggling minute by minute, breath by breath, cell by cell, system by system, moving towards absence.

 Four years ago Michael completed translating The Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu. Having no Chinese, only his ambition translated the notion of wei wu wei.

[ http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/tao-te-ching-of-the-way-and-integrity/856790?productTrackingContext=search_results/search_shelf/center/1 ]

At the party when he finished it, I imagined, he’d discretely disappear along the huts at the Great Wall. But he didn’t, he continued living inside his dying.  Less than a century after the man who was the original author of the Tao Te Ching died, no one knew precisely when or where he disappeared along the frontier of the Empire. There were arguments over his family name, afterwards he was just called Lao Tzu, Old Man.

Michael Silver Dragon McKain (1939-2010)

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6 Responses to “Washing the Corpse”

  1. Linda Bedre Says:

    Thank you Dom for your exquisite mastery of subtly.
    I am glad you were his friend and that I knew him as well as he would let me.

    • domzuccone Says:

      Thank you for that support. This was difficult for me. As in most funerals it isn’t what you say, but what you want to say and don’t that feels most vital and corrosive and as Freud pointed out…most likely to slip out. I didn’t want to injure anyone, but as I said early it was about me…and I genuinely felt it as something I wanted to form into an expression rather than a repression. I suppose it’s it’s own grief.

  2. Mike Says:

    “Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship, Evryone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick.” — Susan Sontag

    SURF WARNING: Post Mortem Riptide / Swim With Caution

    Rest In Peace, Michael Silver Dragon, Linda Bedre, Dom Zuccone.

  3. carol Says:

    Having revered my friendships with Michael and Berta these past 8 years or so, I had been settling into a peaceful acceptance of Michael’s passing, sad, but relieved that he no longer suffered. He had promised to remain alive as long as he was having fun and now the fun was over. I was turning my emotional energy toward concerns about what Berta’s life holds without him. Your loving eulogy brought full force the loss of this deeply complex, mostly wise, powerful, imperfect and loving man. I am today crying my grief that I will no longer see that face or hear that resonant laughter. Thank you for saying so many words I could not or would not find.

  4. Meredith Says:

    As always, I found comfort in your words Dom. I am sorry for your loss. I too had to write an obituary this week for my own father. I have decided to keep my mouth closed for much of this week after a series of awkward situations in which inappropriate things came out of my mouth. I am not really sure why, but I suppose sometimes death can become such a surreal experience and I hold onto what I find comfort in the most, humor.(which is obviously maybe seems strange to outsiders..) My father was one of the funniest and joyful men I have known in this life. The world seems so much darker without him. I wish I could have gone to the folk arts festival with you as I am desperate for a diversion. Death is such a strange thing and I catch myself still thinking my father will walk through that door, that he is still alive, that I can hear his loud giggle one more time…I want the world to stop…my best friend and loving father is dead, and there is nothing that can be done.


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