a time of death and funerals

April 2012

Three days shy of my sixty-third birthday, and three days past the death of Levon Helm. Dirt farmer, southern white man. Drummer and singer for various bands, but most famously the Band.

The Night they Drove old Dixie Down and Up on Cripple Creek were recurring songs of my children’s childhood. Along with Welcome to my Nightmare. For my own childhood nightmares I had the Erlking, and the Glory Road, hissing and scraping on 78.

I saw Richard Manuel and Rick Danko at the Lone Star in Manhattan in 1983. Manuel stared at the keyboard and hardly played a note. Three years later he hanged himself in a motel. A few years after that Danko died of whatever it was among the many things that could have killed him that did kill him.

It was fortuitous that it was my hand my father held when he died. I didn’t hear his final breath though I was intent. Several times I thought he’d gone, but he hadn’t. I didn’t feel him go. I realised he’d gone just as the district nurse rang the door-bell. She may well have known before I did, having had all that previous experience in these matters. I miss him. I want to know what he thought about things. I want to know what happened.

This is the time of death. Not yet mine, probably not today. I had a serious chance eighteen months ago when my lungs gave out under the overwhelming assault of virus and abuse. A chance obstinately, gratefully, not taken.

They pick up the coffin after the famous tenor sings how great thou art with uncharacteristic humility and consequently flat. Later, a congregation of greybeards sit in a circle to drink whisky and draw straws for who will be next.

Don’t feel the length, feel the intensity. They belatedly severed a painfully rogue foot from a jazzman, at his own request reuniting him with it in his coffin. In the hospital they'd enraged his sensibility by playing ambient whale music, exacerbating the horrors of nicotine withdrawal. So the story goes.

His distressed mother rang to tell him she couldn’t find the phone.

The falling man is not actually falling. He’s hanging there, in suspension. Not hanging like a hanged man, floating. This is one of the things the actor’s great-niece and great-nephew said about a painting of mine the actor bought off my kitchen wall in a state of pissed enthusiasm and charity. Later he rang to tell me he’d heard the next-door Persian kids say other interesting things about this painting. What did they say, I asked. I don’t know, he said, I don’t understand Farsi. He chortled, coughed uncontrollably, and hung up. He frequently spoke of disgraceful death and eventually got himself one, the course of which he kept to himself and a few close others. He was awarded a splendid obituary in a major leftish English newspaper, concerning his achievement in a previous life. Arriving by boat in Shangri La, he stayed awake the first night in lavender-scented sheets at the Ritz, then slept the next on sodden ground in Hyde Park, escorted to a place of relative safety by a laughing policeman. A little later he acted in a radio play with Dame Sybil Thorndyke, she as Victoria, he despite his youth as Gladstone. Or Disraeli. So he told me, when I swapped that small painting for an envelope containing ten new hundred dollar notes, at a café where you might once have seen the cast and crew of The Piano, before the ones who weren’t already famous became famous.

In close succession three more deaths are announced, of warm familiarity if not fierce closeness – a writer, an old schoolmate, a guitarist who’d improved my tunes. All about my age, and of no worse habits than my own.

The ritual goes something like this. As the years get shorter the nights grow longer. Mornings are to be endured, ideally slept through. Maybe a thimble-full of cold cider at lunchtime creates a momentary scent of possibility. Then, pain and fog might recede, and there is, for those with the blessed fortune, an hour of two of conversation, memory, speculation, even passion. Friendship. Love. Habits accumulated in living may influence dying.

When you rang wondering if they were going to a funeral, you caught them on their way out the door to a different funeral.

I have an old friend who many years ago, in a fit of the kind of rural sentimentality that sometimes overcomes city-dwellers, bought some farmland. On this land he fattens steers and lambs and maintains the occasional bull. One of these bulls recently approached him with apparently murderous intention, so he decided to get in first. He hired a pig-hunter, a merciful assassin who could despatch an animal instantly and obliviously with a single bullet from an unthreatening distance. I wonder if at some point I might consider seeking his services for myself.

This friend has also borne the weight of a hanging suicide as he released a belt from the top of a bedroom door. I don’t know how the belt was secured. A death that like others of its kind was not expected, but neither was it surprising.

Why do I say all this? Because in the midst of death we are still in life. The stories that are over are complete, however unfinished they might have seemed at the time - those not yet over still hold their portion of hope. The fat lady may have sung her last aria, but the band play on. They have yet to agree on what tune they are playing.

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