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The Death Master

Over my desk are two photos of my father who died at the age of sixty-one. The first shows him a fairly vigorous man of sixty, dressed in slacks, and in a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up on his muscled forearms. He is standing by a horse paddock on a farm in County Kerry. With him is my cousin John, a husky lad in his late twenties. My father and John are smiling comfortably, relaxed, and enjoying themselves. My father has a cigarette in his hand.

The second photo shows my father much debilitated and emaciated, dressed in a blue sports jacket, white shirt, and perfectly knotted scotch-plaid tie. He is seated on a piano stool with the piano behind him in the Victorian parlor of my grandparents' house. There was someone seated next to him but that person has been neatly scissored out of the photo. My father's smile is tentative and not natural. Though not quite a grimace, it nevertheless speaks of pain and acceptance. His eyes are red-rimmed and watery. He is obviously sick. The photo was taken a month before his death of lung cancer which, according to my mother, with both unexpected and sudden.
My sister sent me these photos shortly after my father died. When I called my mother to talk to her about them, she expressed surprise that I thought my father looked terminal in the second picture. "I just thought he had a touch of the flu," she said. "He never complained. Even when he finally decided that he should go to the hospital, it was just a bit of a cough, but when they opened him up the cancer had spread throughout his insides. It was too late. He died the next day." When I asked her who cut her out of the photo, she again expressed surprise. "Oh, I remember being in that photo. But, no, I don't remember cutting myself out of it. Why would I?"

Why, indeed? Unless she felt that death was stalking her and, having already captured one half of the image might move on to the other half. My sister assures me that the picture came to her from my mother in that condition and no one else would have had the opportunity or inclination to cut her image out. But in all these years since my father's death, thirty-four to be exact, no explanation or even admission has ever been forthcoming from my mother. It's as if she edited her history along with my father's to reflect her absence from the day death first began its reconnaissance and then invasion of my father's body. There is a kind of Irish peasant wisdom in her which, despite her formal Catholicism, her middle class status, has never been eliminated. Like the Ogallala Sioux in the 19th century who feared you would capture their spirit if you took their photograph, my mother was perhaps superstitious of leaving behind evidence that she accompanied the condemned is his final days.

When my father died in 1974, she was only fifty-nine which is still young in this century where fifty is the thirty of the previous generation. She was slim, did not smoke or drink, enjoyed walking, house cleaning, even doing laundry. She had no dishwasher in the kitchen, no microwave, no washer/drier combination in the basement for clothes. She did everything the old fashioned way, and hung up the clothes to dry on the line: two ropes stretched between wooden poles in the back yard. She did this even in winter, when the sheets froze and crackled in the December wind, while her knuckles reddened and cracked as she gathered the sheets like frozen sails in her chapped hands.

So much of what I know of her comes from the vivid years of my childhood living on Aquidneck Island, buffeted by winter storms, and seduced by summer visitors to Newport who had more money and more opportunities than those of us who served them could ever expect. Still, Newport was a beautiful town nestled among the elms and sycamores with the lavish mansions of the Gilded Age guarding the Ocean Drive. But even the loveliest of islands becomes stifling when you reach maturity and find that opportunities are rare, and social status as real and more limiting than race. So, I left home when I was eighteen and never - well, almost never - looked back. I moved to another country finding both my hometown and the States too rigid, a plutocracy in which class (which was never discussed) was the only thing that really made a difference.

My mother is Irish and was raised in an immigrant family. She grew up during the Great Depression and married just before the war began. Rationing and penury were part of her upbringing and her idea of husbandry. A good wife was careful with budgets, bought nothing on credit, paid each bill as soon as it arrived, and saved every penny. This is why at ninety-two, she now has a house worth half a million, and another half a million in savings and investments. Despite this comfortable cushion, however, she continues to save scraps of soap, wash clothes by hand, and eats like a bird, making a can of tuna and a pack of saltines last for two days of lunches.

My sister who lives a couple of miles away brings her a hot meal each evening, makes sure her clothes are mended, and buys her pharmaceuticals and sundries. My brother-in-law mows the lawn, cuts the hedges and does minor repairs on the house. Of her wealth she says that she will leave everything to the Church because her children are both undeserving and ungrateful. While both these adjectives easily apply to me, my sister on the other hand has sacrificed years of her life, tending to her needs, doing her shopping and banking, taking her to doctors' appointments, to dinner, to weddings and funerals. And, as I mentioned, brings her a hot dinner and company each evening.

She is ninety-two and expects to live until she is at least one hundred and twenty, and we know this because when my bother-in-law calculated how long her money would last even if she were to double her current rate of expenditure (thirty years!), she said that was just about right, but she was still concerned that she would outlast her savings. There you have it in a nutshell, although what you have is not quite certain.

So, what does she do with her days? we wonder. She never leaves the house except when my sister takes her shopping or to the bank or a doctor's appointment. She uses an aluminum walker, does some small housework, watches TV, and reads the Sunday (Catholic) Visitor and the Newport Daily News. She is not, however, waiting for death. She expects to outlive everyone she has ever known, with a kind of mild defiance and delight. She is a survivor.

She knows that death is waiting all right. It is waiting for the neighbor kid who gets behind the wheel with no seat belt and a six pack of beer. It is waiting for the ruddy-faced executive who loads up on carbs and smokes his after-dinner cigar. It is waiting for the boys from West Virginia and Tennessee going off to fight in Iraq. And it is waiting impatiently for the last of her contemporaries including her ninety-four year old sister and her eighty-six year old neighbor to weary of the New England winters and fade into non-existence as all her friends and neighbors have over the years. Part of her raison d'être is that she might see death take everything and everybody and leave her behind as a sole witness. She is a survivor.

Victor Frankl once wrote, "People can survive any 'what', as long as they have a 'why'. He survived the Nazi prison camps and more because he created a reason to live, even as others perished daily in the brutal winters of Buchenwald. My mother is a true existentialist in this sense. She has focused on one enemy who has many allies, and she intends to stare him down.

"Of all the wonders that I have yet heard, it seems to me most strange that men should fear, seeing that death, a necessary end, will come when it will come." Unlike Caesar, however, death will not catch my mother unawares; she does not fear death but at the same time knows whose death's friends and allies are, and will not let them into the house of her consciousness. She refuses to admit any thought, idea or suggestion that implies weakness, decrepitude, even normal ageing. She refuses to allow her grandchildren to call her "Grandma." She will shut off any conversations relating to her own condition, although she relishes hearing about the infirmities, illnesses and mortality of others, especially those younger than she. My sister's chronic pulmonary obstructive disease she sees as the wages of sin paid by an ex-smoker. The maiming and killing by roadside bombs of young boys in Iraq, she sees as a product of feckless poverty which put them in the army instead of at a good college. The cancers, heart attacks and strokes of neighbors in their seventies and eighties, a result of a weaker gene pool. She is a survivor, and each death she reads about in the obituary page is further proof that she is destined to continue, to outlast death, until death itself is but another neighbor gasping in his oxygen mask as she hobbles past him down the lane.

It is a narrow world, this austere life she has accommodated herself to in her island retreat. But to her there are no real options. I am reminded of a line from Hamlet when told by Horacio that perhaps the isle of Denmark was too small for his ambitions, replied: "I could be bounded in a nutshell ,and count myself king of infinite space..." This is my mother in her room in the house my father built, alone and defiant, mistress of infinite space.

I look at the photo of my father again. His hands are crossed, his wedding ring conspicuously absent (his fingers had grown so thin that it would not stay on). His eyes are watery and strained, yet there is that forced smile of someone who is already seeing the other side and not liking much what he sees. He is three years younger than me in the photo and will not live another month.

There is a story that the Paul Auster character tells in the movie Smoke of a man who goes skiing in the Alps and is killed by an avalanche. Twenty-five years later his son climbs the same mountain to the peak. Then, halfway down, while he is resting and eating a cheese sandwich, he discovers the body of his father frozen in the ice. He looks down at him and has the strangest feeling that it is himself looking back at him. Even stranger is that fact that the self he is looking down at, is younger than he is right now. The boy has grown up and become a man, a man who is older than the father who died all those years ago.

That is me now looking at this photo of my father. And that fact that my mother has cut out her half of the photo, so that my father is along on the piano stool, creates in my mind the illusion that anybody could have been there: my sister, my mother, my son, even me. With his perfectly-knotted Windsor, his crossed legs and tentative smile, my father watches us all grow old from his perch in the Victorian parlor. And, at this moment, I feel a bewildered and reluctant affinity for my mother in her single-minded defiance. When every force in the universe, including gravity, combines its energies to put you into the grave, the very fact of survival is the ultimate act of affirmation. There is nothing left to prove to anybody, only yourself; to know that you will be true in the end - not to the image of youth, nor to the social self of ambition and accomplishments, not even to the transcendent soul if it truly exists. You will simply be true to the brittle bones and translucent skin, the faded blue eyes and relentless brain which witness and hold in place one flickering flame against the dark.