Sunday, November 29, 2009

we must march, my darlings

I have considered renouncing holidays, as their onset in my life has recently been eclipsed by death and dying. Per esempio: the eve of my birthday saw me lose my young father and the dawn of Thanksgiving was the first without my desperately beloved Nana here on terra firma.

This last bright and blustery Saturday we buried her and I faltered before a church full of family and oldest friends, buckling at the lectern under protracted grief, too choked up to read my way through the first letter of John from the New Testament. My voice cracked and I involuntarily held my hand to my throat in that way people do when they're trying to pin wavering emotion in its place. I forced my way through it, the butterflies so loosely netted:

See what love the Father has given us,
that we should be called children of God;
and that is what we are.
The reason the world does not know us
is that it did not know Him.
Beloved, we are God’s children now;
what we will be has not yet been revealed.
What we do know is this:
when He is revealed, we will be like Him,
for we will see Him as He is.
The Word of the Lord.

A Buddhist back in my day-to-day Californian life, I'd delivered the "word of the lord" rather hastily and rushed back to the pew to collapse against my brother's arm, a mess of muffled sobs as the rest of the mass blurred by. After kneeling, standing, sitting, signing the cross and breathing the incense, after weeping at the gravesite and clinging to the coffin, eulogizing over candlelit dinners and embracing those befogged elders that still stood among us, I retired with my clan to our Nana's humble brick home for some time-tested Irish Catholic grog slingery.

Late into the evening, my cousin (once removed) and I sat out in the dark on the covered porch, him the chain-smoker, me the weak-blooded Californian cloaked in wool throws, and we got to talking about the meaning of these rites, just what—aside from our heritage, the religion of our childhoods, the honor of our now lost elders—we were affirming there in that church. And we got to this exchange, when the priest and congregation conduct a call and refrain at the end of the mass of the faithful.

May the Lord be with you. (Dominus vobiscum.)
And also with you. (Et cum spiritu tuo.—Actually that's "And with your spirit.")
Go now, the mass is ended. (Ite, Missa est.)
Thanks be to God. (Deo gratias.)

Just having lost his own father two weeks back, cousin K seized on the priest's last words: "Ite, Missa est." There we have two clauses, the first in the imperative mood, second person plural: "You (all) go!" And roughed out, "Missa est" is equivalent to "The dismissal exists." A swish of scotch spilled over the lip of his Waterford lowball, his voice and gesture emphasized: I was not getting it! This is the news; THIS is the word of God. We're being told at the deathbeds of these mentors, our illustrious, cherished members of the Great Generation, he insisted, "Go. You are dismissed! You are set forth. You are called upon to go and live."

Back when my father died, a relatively new friend of mine advised that, however hard his death may have been on me then, that it was only the beginning of a lifetime of living without. I think now of Joan Didion, how she, like I have, suffered a one-two punch of abandonment. She wrote in The Magical Year of Thinking, "That I was only beginning the process of mourning did not occur to me. Until now, I had only been able to grieve, not mourn. Grief was passive. Grief happened. Mourning, the act of dealing with grief, required attention.… Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death."

In the past, my mood toward death was one of piteous sympathy, a distance and distaste not unlike that of Philip Larkin's uncharitable characterization in "The Old Fools." Now I am tempted to feel something much finer, a sorrow that the mythos of our childhood must end. Our parents tell us they will always be there for us, will always protect us, and we as parents go on and say the same, but none of this is assured or in any way within our power. It is much like Cormac McCarthy's The Road, when the boy clings to his dying father and demands in a religiously charged exchange, "You said you wouldn't ever leave me." We do not want to be left. We do not want to leave. We are animals and we continue to crawl on. Iron & Wine sings a song that I think chronicles it well, the lifetime lived in the mix, all need and hope for recollection:

Please, remember me
As in the dream
We had as rug-burned babies
Among the fallen trees
And fast asleep
Aside the lions and the ladies

And I necessarily think of who may remember me, who I might lose next, who is afraid of being left, who is also guilty of wanting to be remembered. I want to recall them all, with a different urgency than I want to be with them.

I think back to an early date with the man I now love ardently, and despite how critical we both are of everything, always the analysis, always the dismantling and the resistance and the pleasing demolition as shifting plate grates plate, in this one recent instance, we both sat in a theater riveted by, of all things, a Levi's commercial. Whitman's voice, an early wax recording, sifts heavy sentiment. "O pioneers!" he proclaims over a montage of beautiful youth aflame with action.

I was lying in bed after we saw the short for a second time, this after the second death, and I was feeling so in love yet blinking through the effort to soothe my eyes, achy from crying. And he said to me so mildly that it nearly failed to register that he expects, given age, to die before I do. And the little siege of sorrow against my heart surged, only until the simplicity of what my cousin was saying came back to me. It is the obligation of the living to the dead: live now. And this, incidentally, requires a resistance to maudlin attachment.

Put more grandly, the poem proclaims more than Manifest Destiny, but that "by those swarms upon our rear we must never yield or falter, / Ages back in ghostly millions frowning there behind us urging, / Pioneers! O pioneers!" It calls upon us to "spring to your places." So perhaps it is reason to look forward all the more to the holidays I have, for I have twice been reminded now on the brink of celebratory milestones that the remote future, unlike this instant, is beyond any ken or comfort. At the end of the ad, the youth run through the frame, away from the camera. The banner behind them as they go reads, "Go forth."

Go forth. Inevitably.