this is a tune for maryanne
died at birth in her grandfathers hands
if she were here now she wouldn’t understand
the notes we are playing,
the words we are saying
to her it would be just
la-da-da-la-da-dum…

there isn’t a cross word that i can say
because i’ve been blessed with a part in the play
but even if i don’t make the curtain call
i was in the cast, and i signed the wall

i’ll be the rich one this time and then
next time it’ll be you
you must believe that
after all maryanne
i would grow old and tall in this life,
but next time you’ll be richer, you’ll be taller
la-da-da-la-da-dum

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Wanderers this morning came by
Where did they go
Graceful in the morning light
To banner fair
To follow you softly
In the cold mountain air

Through the forest
Down to your grave
Where the birds wait
And the tall grasses wave
They do not
know you anymore

Dear shadow alive and well
How can the body die
You tell me everything
Anything true

In the town one morning I went
Staggering through premonitions of my death
I don’t see anybody that dear to me

Dear shadow alive and well
How can the body die
You tell me everything
Anything true

Jesse
I don’t know what I have done
I’m turning myself to a demon
I don’t know what I have done
I’m turning myself to a demon

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[Narrator:]
“So apropos
Saw death on a sunny snow”

[Him:]
“For every life…”

[Her:]
“forego the parable.”

[Him:]
“Seek the light.”

[Her:]
“…my knees are cold.”

Running home
Running home
Running home
Running home

[Her:]
“Go find another lover;
To bring a- to string along!”

“With all your lies,
You’re still very lovable.”

“I toured a light
So many foreign roads
For Emma, forever ago.”

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Difficult Occasions

As you may or may not know, this blog, Psychopomp Kaleidoscope, is dedicated to the memory of my cousin Tish, who died in a car accident 10 years ago last June. Her father, my uncle, Norm, was and is the pastor for our family church. When she died, he did the memorial service. He led the funeral for his own daughter. It was utterly devastating and astonishing to see. You can read about my perspective on those events in a previous post here and you can also read an Oregonian article that my uncle wrote about it a few weeks after her death.

Ten years later, that experience still haunted me, still clung to my ribs. So I wrote up uncle Norm and asked him a million questions. Here’s what he wrote back.

Nathan —
 
I couldn’t locate your original message about speaking at Tish’s memorial service, but here are few things that entered into that time (and I’m going to bullet point these rather than write them up as a narrative):
  • Although I was concerned about whether I could maintain my composure, Susie, Paul [Tish’s mother and her brother] and I agreed that I would speak because we knew a huge number of Tish’s peers would come to the service, and we felt they would listen to her “dad” in a more profound way than to another minister who didn’t have the personal connection.  I also was concerned about having Laura Carlson sing in public for the first time at the service, but I went along with Susie and Paul on that and Laura did great!
  • In some ways, speaking on other difficult occasions prepared me for speaking at Tish’s service.  I spoke at my dad’s service in 1987.  You probably don’t know that Susie’s only sibling, Rod, died suddenly at the age of 45 of a pulmonary embolism.  I spoke at his service on Jan. 11, 1991.  On Nov. 25, 1992, Rod’s only child, Heather, and her boyfriend were killed in a head-on collision on their way home from college for Thanksgiving break.  She was the flower girl at our wedding, and I spoke at her funeral.  And I spoke at Voni Martin Smith’s service after she was killed in an accident on her way home from the Peach Bowl.  Nothing can prepare a parent for the death of a child, but speaking at these other services undoubtedly impacted my ability to speak at Tish’s service.
  • The first time Susie and I went to the funeral home to view Tish’s body (a couple of days before the service) I was completely overwhelmed with emotion.  Her corpse didn’t look like her at all–they had swept her hair down over her forehead in an unnatural way to cover up a gash–and I was upset and offended.  I expected Susie to be upset, but she took one look and said, “That’s not my daughter!”  Then she went with the funeral director while I lingered.  When I went back to complain that they needed to do something to make Tish look more like herself–you know, change her makeup or something–Susie began laughing at me.  She chided:  “Norm, she doesn’t look like herself because that’s not Tish; she’s not there any more.”  Susie’s laughter and words in that moment were a great gift.
  • I was a complete mess about an hour before the service.  I came over to the worship center to practice the “Questions from Tish” power point, but I kept making mistakes because I was so emotional and distracted.  I finally decided to go home and work some more on my message, but, when I got there, the house was full of people–well-wishers and all the pallbearers, etc.  Susie saw that I wasn’t doing well and asked if I would like to have everyone leave and go on to the church building.  I said “yes” and went into work on the computer in the den.  Tish’s boyfriend, Clay, and his mom came in behind me and asked if it would be okay to lay hands on me and to pray for me.  Again, I simply said “yes.”  They did, and, as they departed, a deep sense of peace flowed over me.  Up until that time, I was skeptical that I could get through the service successfully, but from then on I wasn’t even nervous.  I have never felt closer to God than during that service, and many people who attended reported that God’s presence was almost palpable to them during that time.
There probably is much more that I could say, but I’ll save that for some other time.
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21. The Hamptons

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Here’s the deal with New York. It is one of the most spectacularly dazzling panoplies of human activity in the entire history of Earth. When people speak of the great cities ten thousand years hence, they will remember New York City. It’s like that. On the other hand, it can grind you down in the crush of the vast rush hour, the expressionless velocity of capitalism and celebrity and intellect, the relentlessness of its perpetual momentum, the constant noise, the crucible of the Monday morning subway. This city takes its toll and you don’t even realize how high the tolls are here until you get out.

So we got out! We got out of New York and went to the gosh darn Hamptons. Yes, those Hamptons. The Sex and the City, Lamborghini driving, martini guffawing, yacht sailing, Hamptons. THE Hamptons. But before you raise your eyebrow too high and make some snarky comment about “how I’ve changed,” know that the only reason we could afford it was to have 15 of us go in on a single beach house. Many of us slept in sleeping bags on air mattresses on the floor. We were like a refugee family in paradise. And a paradise it was. It was so beautiful that it was almost hilarious.

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Yup.

We played badminton barefooted in the grass. We sipped margaritas in deck chairs and leafed through magazines. We ate lobster and mussels and barbecued hamburgers, hot dogs, and ripe ears of corn. We sunbathed on the private beach and swam out into the bay. We played every manner of game and watched the dogs sprint after rabbits in the yard. But mostly we just talked and drank and laughed. I seriously can’t remember laughing that much in a long, long time.

In the evening, as the sun sank into the horizon, the whole scene was like an advertisement for Tommy Hilfiger or Lacoste or Polo. No joke. My heart almost hurt to see such idyllic splendor. Then we all went up to supper together at a long table on the porch, still wearing our swimsuits.

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Most of the crew were buddies of my wife from her days at Columbia and in Paris and here’s what I say about them: These are some of the most exceedingly thankful folk I’ve ever met. As is their tradition at Thanksgiving parties, Christmas parties, New Year’s parties (not Halloween parties), a moment comes during dinner when someone, most often Gia, calls for toasts. Everyone goes around the table and makes a toast of some sort. It’s sort of like a prayer in a way. As this was a birthday for our friend Claire, who had just returned from her work in Africa, everyone took a turn saying something nice about her. And she deserved every kind word of it. Claire is pretty damn great and it is very good that she was born. It was a hell of a meal and an altogether thankful affair.

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Many times during the weekend, people asked about the weird blog I was writing. “What’s this death blog thing you’ve been working on? I get Facebooks about it but I haven’t checked it out yet.”

“Oh,” I would say uncertainly. “It’s about all the happy and painful and miraculous and scary and hopeful aspects of death, I guess. Also there’s a bunch of poems and songs.” Then I’d go on at some length about Duende and Negative Capability and all the things I had been writing about. Then it was time for another beer.

One evening, I sat up with my friend Booters (yes, that’s what people call her), talking about her very interesting ideas of birth and death. She happens to think that bringing a child into the world is actually morally wrong. She believes that people usually have children for selfish reasons and a parent bears all responsibility for the pain and suffering that a child experiences. Because we have a moral obligation to not cause pain, especially to those we love, it is immoral to bring a new person into being.

Booters is really freaking smart and, though I often disagree with her, I love listening to her describe her outlook on the world. For one, I pointed out how funny it was to argue for the immorality of birth during an exquisite birthday weekend. If she had her way, at least in my opinion, this little holiday would be a time of mourning, which would suck. It also seemed to be borderline Nihilistic, that it would be better if none of us had been born and I don’t hold with that. And so we went back and forth for a long time. I wasn’t trying to talk her out of her position, I was just real curious.

Then we saw the longest, brightest shooting star I’ve ever seen. It drew a line from one corner of the sky to the other. It had a lengthy, fiery tail and burned for at least three seconds as it came into our atmosphere. One one thousand, Two one thousand, three.

In the morning, I woke up and it was raining heavily outside our window. The sound of it was so comfy and my dog, my wife and me all went back to sleep in our little room. I slept almost til noon. When I finally woke up, the whole house smelled like bacon and coffee and the rooms were crowded with laughter. We played Celebrity, which is a game kind of like charades except for the fact that it’s actually fun.

By the afternoon, the storm had passed. The sky cleared and the sun came out. Once again the bay was a postcard and we were back to our badminton and swimming and lounging and posing for beer commercial photos. In the evening, the long table on the porch was set for dinner once more and it was time for toasts.

This time the toasts of thanksgiving were more open-ended, longer and more emotional. At least two of our number were brought to tears by thankfulness (and wine) and love. It could have been a wedding! Being thankful is probably the best thing that humans can do and, in the end, it may be the only aspect of this life over which we have dominion. Then we ate and drank our fill and got back to the important business of laughing.

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Booters, shocked at the sight of a very small dog trying to hump a very large dog. You know what? Get over it already.

Late in the meal, one of our fellows returned to the table after a long absence and sat down in silence. He was so very quiet. Then he said softly that he had gotten a phone call and had been told that his father had just died.

I was stunned. We all were. Him most of all. But a dickish, greedy part of me was also excited. After all, this was exactly what I had been writing about for a month and it was happening someone right before my eyes! After a time, I asked him, “What was your favorite memory about your father?” He just shook his head vacantly and got up and walked away.

Really? Really Nathan? I mean, how totally insensitive can you be? Here’s a dude in the throes of loss and you want to interview him or something for your stupid blog? Damn! I can be a real asshole sometimes.

I didn’t know what to say to him to apologize. Eventually, he came back with a drink in hand and asked to make a toast. We all stood and he said, “So I found out tonight that my dad died. And I wanted to raise a toast to him. So… to Walter!” We all raised our glasses and gave him hugs. The whole spectrum of life was with us in that house in the Hamptons.

That next morning, I was impressed! Everyone was like a small army and pitched in and whipped that place back into shape. Then the whole lot of us went to Claire’s aunt and uncle’s house for a pool party because… you know… that’s just how we do.

It was easily one of my favorite vacations ever. And, though I love my job, going back to work this morning was just straight up hard!

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20. The Psychopomp

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I am the Psychopomp. I have been and always will be. I will be inhaling as you exhale for the last time. I have countless names in countless languages. They have spoken of me in every corner of the Earth since there were mouths to speak and ears to listen. They have called me Xolotl, Morpheus, Volos, Shinigami, Charun, Gabriel, Muut, Anguta, Wepwawet, Eshu, Ogmios, Ankou, Azrael, Epona, Jeouseung Saja. But I was before language and before that. Besides, I am no more my name than you are yours. These are simply sounds that people use to refer to us.

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The middle-place is my domain, the halfwhere on the edge of mist-shrouded dusk, when the shadows coalesce and assume substance. If you’ve seen me, or think you’ve seen me, it has only been a fleeting thought in the corner of your eye. Your direct gaze falls off me in every direction.

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I have often wondered but never known what it is to live. I do not claim to understand why people react to my approach in all the ways they do. To me, life is an ocean I stare out at while standing on the shore. I cannot claim to know much about what comes after either. I have my ideas just as you have yours.

I am the cab driver, the bus driver, the train conductor, the coachman, the ferryman. I am a messenger and the guide. My passengers are always so full of questions and some I can answer but most I cannot. Often the journey is very short but occasionally it is a great distance and takes a long time, although “time” is not known here. Sometimes it is a narrow stream and quickly crossed and sometimes it is the Sahara. Only a handful of times have I made a round trip and then I was the one full of questions.

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Many people remain silent during the trip, staring out the window or over the bow at the fathomless waters. Perhaps they are remembering something or contemplating I know not what. But many people talk to me to pass the “time.” They have told me things.

For millennia, they have told me things. About loved ones and places. About weddings and births. About pets and tragedies. They tell me about the moments that have mattered most. They sing me their favorite songs or cry or describe the homes they have lived in. I try to take in all that they tell me and imagine what it might be like to be alive. And I am always grateful for the conversation.

It’s quite lonely here and it’s nice when someone is unafraid enough to talk to me and to let me talk to them. After all, I am the only inhabitant of this place. It is only me and the ghosts, although they are mostly too sick to speak. So I chat with my passengers and listen to what they say and, for a brief spell, I am glad.

I have come to realize why so many of them fear me. When war comes, when famine comes, when a pandemic comes, I must seem like a dark and terrible specter, rising obsidian-winged in a chariot of coal and fire, to sweep the entirety of the globe into the tatters of my robe, to reap a harvest of unnumbered multitudes and feast on loss and imbibe their wailing! They imagine me as a grinning skull in a black cloak, wielding a lengthy scythe. They imagine me as a devilish beggar or a screaming owl or an ancient, toothless woman, scampering up the fire escape to steal the baby.

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But none of these are true.

When the things of Earth grow strangely dim and the light falls away like an echo, their eyes come into focus and they see me, as I actually am, for the first time. I try to begin with something comforting. I say, “I mean you no harm.” I say, “You needn’t be afraid.” I say, “If it happens to everyone, how can dying be something bad?” I have even attempted to open with a joke but have been told that this approach is disconcerting. My sense of humor is not well developed.

Some come bearing offerings. They give me coins, though there is nothing here on which to spend them. They bring me flowers and fine liquors and eloquent odes. But I particularly enjoy when they offer me an excellent cigar. The taste and the aroma and the thick, silver ribbons of smoke… yes, I find that cigar smoking suits my mood exceedingly well.

On occasion, I have even made a friend, if that is what you want to call it. I remember, two or three millennia past, a certain Grecian philosopher, whose wit and rhetoric were so keen that I laughed out loud. The sound of my laughter, not heard by many, terrified him at first. It must have seemed to him like an earthquake or the bone crack of sky-splitting thunder. I recall a Priestess from the city of Ur, a bejeweled Maharaja, a French peasant woman, a Spanish poet, a rock star, a young prince, a Prime Minister, a Queen. I count one in a billion, perhaps one in twenty billion, as a companion.

Regardless, our voyage always ends. It is with a mixture of surprise and recognition that they first glimpse their destination. And there I leave them. Not one glances back as their forms recede from my sight. I remain. I wish that I could offer a deeper consolation. I wish that I could tell you which stories are true. But, like you, I do not know. Like you, I am only a being suspended between two eternities.

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