Still Alive—A Memoir
For nine months I swam like a tiny fish in my mother, then was born and did my best to take over the lives of my parents. First-born son, I ruled. Later, I watched them fading, dying. In turn, I co-created my own little fish, five of them, and now they accompany me through the process of late living, future dying. I still feel like a fish swimming—not in my mother but free in the ocean. My eldest daughter tells me she doesn’t like my living alone. But I’m not alone—much of my company is now invisible because only remembered.
One friend, call him Buddy, still survives from my childhood in Lakewood, Ohio. Inheriting from his parents, he lives in the same house where we ate buttered Wonder Bread toast after school and pretended we weren’t classroom rivals. At my family’s house a few blocks away, we ate my mother’s oatmeal raisin cookies. She said they were sugarless, so they wouldn’t harm our teeth. In those days, saying would make it so. (She explained herself 65 years later, clearing her conscience before she died.)
Buddy says he doesn’t travel because he likes to be always within a few steps of his bathroom, with all its requisite implements. When I saw him fairly recently he was remodeling another room, the library that had been installed long ago by his upwardly mobile parents. Exhibited on the shelves had been a blue glass Shirley Temple cream pitcher (earned in a Kellogg’s or Post Toasties promotion), a teakwood Buddha from the opening of a Chinese restaurant, with a grinning plastic Confucius stationed nearby (Buddy’s family liked dining out), trophies from travels and marksmanship competitions, and also a collection of books, including a Tarzan series from Buddy’s childhood, the World Book Encyclopedia, and two of my novels.
But soon, when the contractor finished removing the dark panels and shelves, the library would be a den.
“A den, a den, a den,” he said rapidly. “You think I have time to reread those old books, what with all the good shows, plus cable, plus my DVD’s?”
“You used to . . . Remember in the summer we’d read a book a day and keep score?”
“I’m not so fond of reading lately. Maybe it’s the macular whatchacallit. I’ve got this macular generation, plus working my way from cataract to cardiac. And I could tell you about my prostrate—oh boy. But otherwise I’m mostly fine. My den’ll give me a leash on life.”
I imagined him as an old dog on a new line. I said, “We used to give ourselves names from Thomas Wolfe, James Branch Cabell, Kenneth Roberts.”
“Hey, I remember those days. The world was our oyster, right. But lately Bonnie did the reading, specially in our sunset years.” He fell silent.
I said, “You miss her?”
“Sometimes, yeah.” He sighed and cast his eyes toward the unfinished work. “Her birthday maybe. Other holidays. I’m gonna keep the ashes on that one shelf up there above my entertainment center. With the DVD’s.”
Buddy’s teeth were regular and white, but not thanks to my mother’s sugarless cookies. They were removable. He smiled as he used to.
Perhaps I’m only hiding encroaching senility by remembering the past and anticipating the future with relish. A screen for the inner, drooling, limping, shrunken, bent, squeaking Herb? Every year or so, I telephone my first college girlfriend and render thanks that her voice is still strong and clear even as she gives me news of the debilitation of her husband. Occasionally I also hear from a playmate of very early childhood days, writing from her retirement home in South Carolina and begging me to accept Jesus before it’s too late. Out of old friendship, she wants to die knowing that I will not burn in hell. I don’t have the heart to remind her that at age four we used to play hospital together, a game made in heaven for us because I had no sisters and she had no brothers and therefore we were intensely curious about the anatomy of the opposite and, frequently, opposing sex. On a need-to-know basis, she doesn’t need this reminder.
I began to read the obituary pages because of what I told myself was an interest in stories, each obituary representing a condensed life. Then I began to notice that some of them, more of them, many of them were about individuals my age. “So young,” I would mouth aloud. Now I still think it, although most of the perishing who earn obituaries in the New York Times are younger than I am, veterans of later wars than mine.
I regret the loss of enemies, too. Like friends, beloveds, and the famous, the hated fill a place in our hearts. On the one hand, I grieve for their consequent inability to repent. On the other, I lose with the death of an enemy the ability to take revenge. What’s the use of hatred now?
What is happening with these losses is a gradual depopulation of my world. I don’t want to become the goofy old guy heading out for coffee with the morning newspaper under his arm and his head filled with nothing but nostalgia, which, like jealousy, produces diminishing returns. History should be a continuing activity, leading into the future.
Youth may be wasted on the young, but age is also wasted on the old, who are often too preoccupied lining up their time-release pills to relax and really enjoy their diminishment. Time-release also applies to bodies and souls, even in those who think it doesn’t. I don’t sit in an undershirt over a microwaved supper in a lonely kitchen. Even if I did, it wouldn’t be illuminated by a bare bulb as I read the newspaper, lips moving, using a nail clipper to cut out pieces to send to faraway and uncaring children. I do clip things, of course, but in a Starbucks where the light is better. And my compassionate offspring claim to be amused by my little notes in the margins. I also know where the scissors are, keep my driver’s license current, and don’t wear a senior bus pass on a shoelace around my neck.
In the morning, in the cafés where I insult cellphone blabbers by saying, “Thank you for sharing the sordid details of your life,” I replenish my stock of disasters by reading the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. In particular, the ever-new, ever-deepening chaos of Haiti has become a long-running obituary notice for me. Fascinated all my adult life by that isolato of nations, I’ve returned gratefully to the scene for more than 50 years.
Haiti was the tragedy you could dance to. My first marriage decayed dramatically on that chaotic tropical island, among its songs and ceremonies. I had joined a group of Haitian friends with a pirate map on a treasure hunt. At a hotel in the village of Port-de-Paix, I found not Spanish doubloons but malaria. Anopheles bit me one night when a girl whispered from the road and I opened the shutters of my room to joke with her. She said she wanted to know if I was white all over.
Two of my remaining friends from that first long stay in Haiti, during what is now called the golden age—General Paul Magloire’s brutality was casual, irregular, drunken, and merely greedy—died this year. I wonder who will be next. Two years ago, my son Ari held me up to help me breathe after I had eaten algae-poisoned lambi, a Caribbean shellfish I now avoid. Haitian beaches don’t post warning signs during the red-tide season. They don’t post warning signs about much of anything there, although risks to life are not unknown.
About Haiti, about my two marriages (one bad, one good; both ended), about my disappeared friends, I think I remember everything, although there’s a tendency to selectivity—I remember more of the bad about the bad marriage, more of the good about the good one. A consolation of my experience with poisoned lambi was the proof that I can count on my children. With them, I am not alone in this world. Like Polonius, I try to pass on to them in exchange the wisdom I think I’ve accumulated.
A doctor pal in San Francisco eats very slowly, seeming to stop the world while he lifts his fork, glaring at it. We have always shared tales of adventures with women, and now we have returned to this familiar topic. The fork arrives at his mouth. He continues: “I met this nice person . . .”
I watch the fork begin the re-descent to his pasta. He is still balefully studying it.
“Do you like her? Is it love?”
He twirls and twirls. A few strands cling to the slowly revolving fork. He sighs. “I’m not ready to settle down again. Been there, done that.”
The fork rises. He stares. I don’t ask if he thinks the food might attack him. A tomato-affiliated strand falls onto his shirt. He shrugs. “Too much. I wasn’t paying attention.”
I nod at the explanation. He has a right to it. Parkinsonism is not easy to conceal. His thumb and some of his fingers are jumping as he puts his hand in his lap. He will not marry again. He will not rush food to his mouth. He will do his best not to drop his pasta. He won’t practice surgery. But he will hide the shaking and stiffness as long as he can.
It’s unlikely that an illustrated manual entitled The Joys of Decrepitude would find a grateful audience among folks seeking a gift for Grandparents Day. The comedy of falling apart, represented in self-help hardcovers with accompanying CD, “Let’s Get Debilitated!,” would not appeal. The Joy of Sex was illustrated with drawings of various isometric riffs and variations. Few would relish photos or sketches of novel postures for easing constipation. Nor would the makers of Depends and denture cleaners rush to advertise in Naptime: The Journal for Sunset Couples.
Another contemporary, a singer, has decided on a change of careers. “Always kind of wanted to act, so why not? Character parts, probably.”
“You present yourself well,” I say, telling the truth. “You always have.”
He grins appreciatively, sensing sincerity. “Comedy, probably, maybe use my singing, too. Combine things. You call that a twofer?”
And then because we’ve been friends forever, or at least since college days when we called ourselves “the dynamic duo”—the writer and the singer—I offer him a silent nod.
“Okay, pal,” he says, “I’m not leveling with you because you already know, so we can’t call it leveling. Can’t hack it anymore. Don’t have the breath, the volume. The range is gone.”
I tell him I have problems, too. Tell him some of them, the main one being anticipation. In our different ways, we’re working toward the same conclusion, which does not involve singing or writing. We wish to sing or write along the way, until we get there. “Eventually, maybe next year or so, I can be First Dead Man in a show about undertakers,” he says. “I have a great future in mortuary dramas.”
“That’s so last season,” I answer in my best granddaughter imitation. I suggest he audition for a part in the next big biblical movie, Armageddon: The Sequel, starring Angelina Jolie in the title role as Arma.
Neither of us is ready to cry the end of the world, despite the market for it. The public festival of comedy and tragedy, bliss and desperation, still makes us want to get out of bed in the morning. And suddenly my friend and colleague in the survival trade breaks into the first lines of an aria from Boris Goudonov: “I am dying. Six years now I have ruled all alone. . . .”
In the opera, Boris reigns for only six years, but in life we think we can rule for more. My friend the singer and I are trying to learn that even in real life, there are limits.
The life-affirming joys of hatred and revenge invigorate a person like a surge of steroids. But, with age, the purity of passion can be disturbed by double vision. Therefore I obeyed an otherwise peculiar impulse to invite a former, seriously former friend to meet me at the Chameleon Café in my neighborhood. It was an inspiration that didn’t rise to the level of a considered idea because it would not change my mind about the status of my former friend—a cheating, lying, conniving, remorseless sleazebag.
Extant was a grievance about a financial scam. In its aftermath, I used to host a dinner for other victims on the anniversary of a futile legal decision in our favor. Each year I would invite someone new who had been similarly afflicted by the same affable and charming operator; we would laugh, applaud, and toast the guest as he recounted his adventure, sometimes breaking glasses in our enthusiasm.
At the afternoon date with my former friend, I bought the lattes and organic bran muffins. After all, I was the host. It was only right. He looked haggard and shrunken, going through a serious divorce. He had married the lady at the time of our lawsuit and put most of his assets in her name, protecting them from his victims. (Perhaps she was also his type.) Now he brightened with pleasure at the assumption that I had “put our little business disagreement behind us.” He made a tearing-paper, casting-out gesture.
I said that I was sorry about all the trouble in his life. His back, his knees, osteoporosis, divorce, child custody, asset division: all that must be difficult. On my next trip to Haiti—compassion flooding my soul—I might visit the voodoo priest who had put a curse upon his existence. I might ask him to remove it. I might also extract the pins I had inserted in the back, knees, and genitals of the dedicated ouanga, the black magic doll, I had hung in my closet.
I might do so if it was not too expensive to cancel a Haitian fatwa. Compassion is desirable, forgiveness is a virtue respected in many creeds; but betrayal of a friendship for dollars still seemed drastically discourteous. I told him I prayed events would look up for him in the distant future. That was a slip of the tongue; I meant to say near future.
“How’s it going?”
“Not so . . . not so okay.”
“Things will improve,” I warmly replied.
“It’s nothing.” In fact, it was something. And yet, hearing him reminisce about our old companionship, I too felt sentiment welling in me. We used to drive to Big Sur, we pulled on wet suits and pried abalone off rocks when it was approximately legal, we pursued the bachelor life together, we discussed taking or not taking mind-expanding cactus brews. Those were the 60’s, after all.
I also planned to tell him as we picked at the raisins fallen from our bran muffins that I no longer bore him any resentment. He had taught me something about human nature—that it was not to be trusted. Red in tooth and claw; nasty, brutish, and now short—only about five-foot-seven, in fact, due to calcium loss. But I couldn’t speak these things aloud. Anyway, he was not a regular reader of Hobbes or Machiavelli. He was a human creature with a cheerful relish in his hustle through the city. My beloved and intelligent second wife used to suggest I try looking at him in the fluorescence of the Safeway meat counter, a glow she claimed would strip away the jolly surface to reveal inner character.
Only when his excess of grateful, damp-eyed feeling overflowed as we said goodbye did it occur to me to say: wait now, sit down again. You’re a villain—I want to remind you of that. But I let the impulse pass. Bile brings acid reflux, a lasting aftertaste. So thank you, old pal. You enriched my life.
Next time, he said, the snack would be on him. Knowing I was watching, he jumped into his antique Mercedes 280 SL convertible—top rakishly folded down despite the fog—just as he used to, barely wincing from his arthritis. He waved a happy salute.
Old age is a shipwreck, DeGaulle wrote. But not necessarily. It can be a holiday in liberated reality after the vain, anything-is-possible fantasies of youth. As an eighteen-year-old soldier in World War II, I was convinced nothing could kill me. Now I’m not so sure. Blondes may have more fun, but grays have more responsibilities. Evidence of the slippery slope surrounds me. I need my rest and look forward to a nap after lunch—a power nap, of course.
There are hours of gray dreariness as I think of the friends summoned away, one by one, and nights when I awake suddenly to remember others. Those who introduced me to new ideas, those who confessed their ambitions, failures, and longings and to whom I confessed mine, some who were merely good company because we laughed a lot together, although surely that’s not a “merely.” I’ll not list the women because the list needn’t be a complete inventory of griefs and lonelinesses.
Scrapbooks, photo albums, letters in boxes, journals become instruments for nostalgia and pain. Perhaps they help to deal with reality, just as does the dentist’s drill; unlike the dentist’s drill, they excavate but do not clear away. Prolonged useless yearning, like jealousy, is a condition that does no work.
Proust, at the end of his monster effort to recover lost time, and by doing so to redeem it, tells of venturing out of his cork-lined present to a party where he hopes to meet again the friends of his past. Instead, he enters a nightmarish scene of garish crones, doddering relics, desiccated and lumpy masks of themselves. To him, dwelling in time past, this exemplifies Freud’s definition of the uncanny: something that cannot be, yet is. He is horrified.
Then he notices a young woman. He speaks to her. He sees in her eyes her reflexive disdain: who is this geezer? And realizes what he has become.
In a North Beach coffeehouse, I take a table near a skinny California beauty with the just slight loosening at the belly that healthy skinny California yoga practitioners offer as part of their blessing upon the universe. She is reading a book in French with a pocket dictionary by her side. Ah, but life is beautiful! I can always chat up a woman who reads French.
My plan, eventually, if all begins well, if her fluency is sufficient, is to point out with sophisticated savoir vivre that I am definitely of another generation, in case she wondered. Even if I were twenty years younger, a relationship between us would still be inappropriate. But since I am beyond the twenty-year cutoff date, it would be ludicrous. Therefore (raising a Gallic finger on behalf of close attention) all she needs for the situation is a sense of humor, and we’re in business.
What decent café reader of French could resist this appeal?
But before I advance to the envisioned triumphal conclusion, I notice in her eyes a certain look: this guy seems harmless . . . maybe a professor or something . . . whatever. I’m explaining to the Francophile that I’m a skopto-kleptobibliophiliac, pronouncing it slowly to see if the light of interest can be kindled. “It’s a word I made up. It means a person who likes to steal looks at other people’s books.”
She doesn’t say, “In that case, Franco-skopto-klepto-biblio . . .”
She says, “So you used to teach French before you retired?”
Like some healthy older guys, I awake in the morning young, virile, and filled with hope. Sometimes. After good nights. On the less good nights, heeding the middle-of-the-night call to bathroom duty, I glance in passing at the unfamiliar grizzled head in the mirror. I lie awake till dawn, listening for the first chirpings of the robins and sparrows of my childhood. I don’t hear them because the birds have disappeared or because the little ear cilia that conduct sound toward the brain are now sparse and shriveled, thanks to wartime gunfire, rock’n’roll, and time.
Or I manage to return to sleep and dream of the lost wife who in memory still takes my arm like a happy lover. I awake and dismiss the three a.m. insomnia as vain and self-indulgent. I do some stretches, leg lifts, and pushups on a mat. I follow the routines of cold water on my face, a brisk stroll, coffee amid the anonymous good fellowship of a public place. For once more I am young, virile, and filled with hope.
Who was that man in the mirror? What is the grizzled beard doing on a face like that of my father? Those who plan to live long had better have a plan for answering such questions, but of course they don’t. Once I jumped out of an airplane and asked the captain on the ground why, obeying our training, I had to kick the soldier on the stick ahead of me to get him out. “He’s twenty-eight,” said the captain. I was nineteen.
In 1956 I spent a summer in retreat from my desolate early marriage at Yaddo, an artist’s refuge near Saratoga, New York. I ate well, whined to my companions, listened over and over to a Louis Armstrong recording that I recall as “Loveless Love” but that was actually a version of “Careless Love.” Armstrong’s thick happy articulation was a great comfort. Loud complaint appealed to me. I hit my Olivetti Lettera 32 portable typewriter with my pains.
Pouring words over trouble sometimes calms, sometimes flavors the fire with gasoline. Rehearsing rage, inventing, elaborating, remembering idiocies, remembering regret, blaming another, blaming myself, pleading, denouncing, sorting out, muddling, telling a story was fulfilling and exhausting. “Loveless Love” rumbled and growled in the recording equipment of my head. I had nightmares despite telling myself that self-pity was about as useless as jealousy. Love O love O loveless love.
Late in my term at this retreat, it dawned on me that we were guests, not inmates. I decided to walk into town like a normal decent person, carrying money in my pocket in case options for spending it presented themselves (beer, cheeseburger, postcards). There would be strangers in Saratoga Springs, tourists and summer visitors. I would amble among them like a living creature in a place of non-complainers. It was a pleasant hike to a main street with ramshackle but grand hotels, built with spacious terraces, from the days when folks came to take the waters at the spa.
But the sight terrified me—a nightmare vision of an entire population brought down by a curse. Everybody here was ancient. I had not left the grounds of Yaddo for nearly two months, and in the meantime the world had sunk into decrepitude. Wheelchairs, crutches, walkers, gaped mouths, a drifting crowd of the drooling and the crippled filled the street. They were strewn on the verandas like the debris of some magic catastrophe. Quick, I needed a mirror. Was I one of these palsied, shrunken, pitiful creatures taking lurching or shuffling steps if they walked at all, making little mouse snorts with the effort?
Then I saw the banner stretched above the street: WELCOME VETERANS OF THE SPANISH-AMERICAN WARwho lives in San Francisco, is the author of the forthcoming My First Murder, among many other novels. In somewhat different form, the present essay will appear in a book in progress about aging and the passage of time. . It may have been their last gathering.
Thanks to abated panic, I noticed attendants, children, grandchildren. There were a few sturdy younger wives, too, and kindly and patient expressions on the faces of those pushing wheelchairs. I was released from fear, I felt warm and alert in downtown Saratoga. I found a tavern for a beer and a hamburger. I observed a pretty young woman, probably a student at Skidmore College with a forged I.D. (Where are you now, pretty young woman? Please write.) I hiked back to Yaddo, ready to make a final copy of my story, a story inspired by early romance, too-early marriage, grief for the child-victims of their parents, and the booming, thick-voiced roar of “Careless Love.”
I’m studying the grammar of my future. Who I will have been when I cease to be is the sum of what I was. It’s a congeries of verb tenses, future, present, past, and also conditional.
Still leading this conditional existence, I visit Ari in New York City and we ride bikes up the trail along the West Side Highway. I’m entertained by his concern as he keeps glancing back to make sure I’m not wobbling into traffic. I feel a surge of happiness in the river breezes, on a bike, May in Manhattan; the big-city joys of the strollers in their jeans, the joggers, the other bicyclists sailing along. Ari grins, winks. He is young, strong, filled with hope and ambition. At this moment, I too will live forever.
Later, when he meets me for dinner with his girlfriend, she does me the honor of not treating me as if I’m totally harmless. They bait me for reminiscing about times in the Village before herpes and AIDS. When they go off together (I say I’m sleepy), I decide to sit awhile at the White Horse Tavern, where Dylan Thomas took his last drink and where Norman Mailer, in 1958, in his alternating Irish-brawler and Texas-cowboy phases, told me he didn’t like Israelis because they spoke Yiddish, that language of his childhood in Brooklyn. Either he didn’t yet know that the language of Israel was Hebrew or, more likely, he was making a point about his adopted roles, or, most likely, he was simply announcing that he lacked any interest in the concerns of a non-headbutting Jewish writer from Cleveland. It was the era of Advertisements for Myself. We’ve both outgrown that particular quarrel, at least.
In recent years I also notice changes in my children. If Ari keeps glancing behind to see how I am managing as we bicycle, Ethan explains three times how to get to his apartment in Los Angeles, Ann telephones every day and calls her siblings if she doesn’t reach or hear from me within a few hours. Judy hasn’t gotten to the stage of adjusting pillows behind my head to make sure I’m comfy, but Nina did try to help me snap on a seatbelt.
I’ve passed the traditional cutoff point for elders and have no justification for persistence. Is it genes? Maybe my father’s grandfather, who according to family legend, lived to be one-hundred-twenty-two, is the culprit. He was said to pass his later years dangling money on a fishing line out of a second-story window and jerking it out of reach when passersby bent to pick up the loot. I haven’t yet bought my fishing equipment. I don’t even have a cure for osteoporosis. Trying to teach others to nurture their old loves, hatreds, and ambitions is a mug’s game, or a televangelist’s.
Balzac (or maybe someone else) said that Paris is the paradise of misery and the capital of hope. I would like to nominate old age as something like this grand ancient city, a stalwart relic shared with the rest of the natural world. We begin in dust and end in dust, true; but in Haiti, new rocks appear in the terraced mountain fields, no matter how often the peasants clear them. In the ceaseless churning of the earth, fresh outcroppings grow out to replace the disappeared ones.
Alexander Dumas’s children used to listen at the bedroom door as their old father, the most famous French writer of his time, made love to a succession of respectful damoiselles. No prurient interest; they were simply worried about his health. At a crucial moment, they heard one of the acolytes cry out in ecstasy, “Now, oh now, Monsieur le Dramaturge!”
Like my children, like everyone, I entered the world noisily, but most likely will go out in silence, nobody slapping my rump. Betweentimes, most of us do our best to stir things up in such a way that others—family, friends, lovers, even adversaries and enemies—accompany our departure with their thoughts. They may make comments. They may be preoccupied for a time with our images. They may glimpse reminders in the street, styles of walking or the familiar shape of a head. Flashbacks are evidence of our existence. Someone has a loving dream. Someone else dreams of revenge, waking to realize that it’s too late.
Gradually, the memory fades. Perhaps there’s a pang like Buddy’s on his wife’s birthday. In some cases, there’s a historical record, or at least a stone or a plaque. The grave marker is what remains of most of us, not how we grinned at the smell of roast beef or touched a beloved with a yearning hand. Fortunately we’re no longer in the neighborhood to notice how we have been forgotten.