‘My sad smile corrects her’

Joan’s PET scan came back negative. The doctors don’t know what the spot on her lung is. Maybe just a scar.

Joan turned 89 the week before last. Today she said, “Eight-year-olds are such a marvel. They see and say so much.”

We drank champagne on her birthday and, with her two sons and also with the eldest son’s common law wife, talked about the best traps for catching rats and mice. Elizabeth, her Hungarian housekeeper who’s been coming twice monthly for three decades, came again on Tuesday. She is such a dear. “I spoke with my lawyer last week about changing my will. I’m leaving some things for her.”

In the back garden near the compost bin, Elizabeth tells me her thyroid is growing. Her father back in Hungary is a good man; he is frail. “You’re too young to know death.” My sad smile corrects her.

Joan’s heel is healing slowly and her cough, the one she’s had off and on since winter, is slowly going away.

Further Reading

Andrew Taggart, “When Lois Came to Stay”

Of an African horse and a mad-grinning man

So I’m at, what?, 54th and 6th and there’s this horse right? and I’m thinking Af–shushu–fric–shushu–ca and what the fuck right? because I must’ve heard Africa from the mouths of this pea-coated couple standing on the corner somewhere before who knows when walking whereto and why the fuck am I thinking Africa as this horse on 54th and 6th is looking over at me, this half-drunken man with his whirly girly hair, this man with his gooolden hair, man this Bern-helmated man, next to this horse with his nightly nostrils, his cool animal eyes, and all, you know, under the guise of the cool cool night.

I’m thinking I’ve got, what?, 5 blocks till I hit Columbus Circle, so turquoise and so luminous, 5 dark blocks till I slip into the Park and I’m thinking, “Well, Andrew, this is NYC. Why haven’t you got that already? How long, really, have you been here? And how easily taken, taken in, taken by surprise can you truly be?” And this horse, meanwhile, is breathing still, still breathing fiercely (O that adverb–is it just a fiction?, my mind now three-quarters drunk). And the moon, that almost full, ever ever beyond, ever fun fun moon is–O maaan is it breathing, it’s sooooo breathing, and I’m thinking, “Ah well, to die tonight, you know, that’d be all right…”

And then, before you know it, we’re back on the clock, unset on heavy lungs, stuck on fierce animals legs, on clawing feet, the light ka-click-ing green green green! and, being a man child still without shame, I sprint, left-laned, ahead of the horse clip clop clip clop clip clop and carriage and slip seamlessly into the Park.

Que sorpresa, dip and slit, the Park letting me in without warrant. As I pedal pedal through the Park, I can’t help but think–God am I smiling, smiling so dumbly now, can’t you see me?– “Afff-friccc-ca,” over and over and–yes–more over again. And I grin madly–for to fall now, to fall from this my jiggering bike now–and laugh, I laugh amid the cool cool night air, the winter not having come till this very instant, because what the fuck and because: how lovely is life, really how lovely is the shush shush sound, heart enribbened, enribbening, between the Africa syllables and also: how nice this mouth of mine and this saliva in this helmet-bangled hair and well: how glorious the whole damn thing. How wondrous to hear, so deep bassed:

To die tonight
that’d be all right.
 

Further Reading

Andrew Taggart, “DIY Wednesday: Premeditatio Malorum”

On death scenes and final words

Montaigne muses in an early essay about the possibility that the true test of a life may be how well we act in our final scene. How well have we prepared ourselves for death? How do we face it? Do we regard it with equanimity? With cowardice? With ennui? Today, we rarely face it at all: we get crushed in cars, mangled by steel beams, or we lose our minds and fall asleep beside machines.

“Tell them it’s been a wonderful life,” Wittgenstein apparently quipped before his last breath. Seneca quipped also, jesting around with tranquility. In his essay “On Tranquility,” he relates that the philosopher Julius Canus had been put to death by Caligula. The philosopher plays out his final scene masterfully:

He [Canus] was playing checkers when the centurion who was dragging a column of doomed men to their death ordered Canus to join them. At the summons Canus counted out his pieces and said to his companion, “Don’t cheat after I die and say you won.” Then he nodded to the centurion and said, “You are witness that I am one piece ahead.”

In death, it’s always best to leave off one ahead.

Further Reading

Andrew Taggart, “On First Words, Last Lines, and Final Thoughts”

On first words, last lines, and final thoughts

It was while lying in bed beneath the flowered sheets that I’d read to her the opening line of Mrs. Dalloway and we’d loved. “Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” And it was while lying on the grass beside the northern spring lake that she’d read, less enthusiastically, the opening lines of To the Lighthouse. “Yes, of course, if it’s fine tomorrow,” said Mrs. Ramsay. “But you’ll have to be up with the lark,” she added.

I can remember lying on top of the sheets and reading that line to her. On the beach, we opened the book and already had in mind the idea that the next first line must shimmer, must shimmer as radiantly but also in its own way, had all this mind and then found Mrs. Ramsay’s words wanting by comparison. I think we had wanted to love those lines just as much as we’d loved Clarissa’s, but then we couldn’t work ourselves up to the business.

In the years since we parted, I’ve mused about those opening lines: the invitation to a dinner party, the unforeseeable end of childhood. Here are cut flowers, stalks stout, eyes raised up from the table, welcoming all, and there the lark flying, its extravagant song, its flitting farewell to boyhood. In the years since, I’ve read the first lines of stories, essays, and books with an eye to… well, with an eye to an inexplicable something.

She said she’d pick up the flowers herself. Yes, but you’ll have to be up with the larks. Compare with Gopnik (Adam–not his sister) from his book on winter for which I am to write a review: “I recall my first snowstorm as though it were yesterday, though it was, as it happens, November 12, 1968.” After that sad start, it took some courage to read on.

(A note: the awkwardness of first lines: to be lived with, smiled about. An image, a real one: clinking teeth for a first kiss.)

The delicacy of first lines, like warm greetings, has led me to think about the pallor of last words. On his deathbed, Wittgenstein reportedly said, “Tell them it’s been a wonderful life.” Before then, nobody who knew him could have had any idea that Wittgenstein could manage to tell a joke. Though maybe, after having tried to build the perfect house–white, sharp, without eros–for his sister who’d spared no expense and after having failed miserably, he finally–I don’t know–felt maybe that lives were nothing like modernist buildings or engineering projects. Or maybe he wasn’t telling a joke after all; perhaps he really meant it.

Whatever it is he said or meant, I realize that, in interpreting his words, I am, as it were, talking over him, not letting him have the last word–his final words. And this all along has been my weakness: the desire to put in the last words. The desire to get in there in the nick of time, to be so clever till the very end. The stillborn dream of the clever one is to make the end his own. These, my dear, are my terms. Don’t you love my mastery? Can’t you see that this world I have made, with these words, my own?

Only a few days ago, I wrote to a beautiful woman about this problem: “Something I’ve learned over the past year or so is how to let the other have the last word. When I’ve done this, sometimes I’ve heard the other’s last word resound. I think there’s a restraint involved, at least initially, but after a while a learning to listen and let be.” All well and good apart from the fact that I’d managed, once again, to talk over her when I’d written these lines about final lines. (Open parenthesis. In this case, I wanted to give her praise. Is this exculpation by another name? Close parenthesis.)

In my philosophy practice, I am now, or so I would like to think, much more attuned to letting the welcomed one have the first and final lines. At least I want her to have them. Want to give her the opening she needs in order to say the opening words and make the parting gesture. (Do you see how alluring that idea is? And do you see a radiant life just here: in all the giving all others the first and final words and in the not feeling as if you’ve merely settled for a few good words in between?)

Maybe the idea is to let every other have the first words and the last lines. And then, when it comes time, to be silent, letting the gods have the final thoughts.

On night visions and homecomings

On the way to the airport well before dawn, my middle sister told me about the recurring nightmares she’d had when she was a girl. There was the one about the angry man with the red eyes. The one about my mother who’d become the mean witch from the Wizard of Oz. And the one about the Incredible Hulk who’d turned evil. In each case, the dream had been precipitated by an intimation or experience of death. In one case, she’d tried counting by 2’s to distract herself from envisioning; in another, she’d stayed up all night to protect us while we slept. This led to her two weeks of insomnia.

Have you had insomnia recently, I asked. No, that was years ago.

Mid-air and half-asleep, I remembered my recurring boyhood dream. In it, I feel my teeth getting loose. I think they’re going to come out, I bring my hands up to my mouth, but they don’t. The teeth stay put while moving about. Then, I go to speak, but my jaw is half-locked, not locked entirely but out-of-sync. My teeth rub up against each other, painfully but not as painfully as I expect them to, while my jaw moves discordantly, out of tune. The truth is that I can speak, can speak just fine, but the words that come forth clot out. These intelligible words are not the right ones.

For me, this is the shudder of a death that is mine. The meaning of the nightmare is not pictorial but metaphysical. It is not that there is some structural flaw in the architecture of my mouth nor is there some cognitive degradation in the hardware of my brain but rather a metaphysical rivenness in the order of things. In the face of the Unfathomable, my mouth is relatively intact whereas my words cannot but come forth broken. For someone like me who’s lived his life according to right speech, the terror abides still.

And will this be how Death comes, comes kindly for me? With whatever I say being the wrong thing but without the ability to make amends with some last rites? No matter my philosophical meditations on death, no matter my nightly ruminations or morning exercises, regardless of my lifelong preparations (Cicero, recall: “To philosophize is to learn how to die.”), will I befoul the earth and the air, leave polluted a consecrated space, despoil the lives of others in my final moments? That is horrible.

Maybe this is why the wise (and lucky) among us, sensing the end, know to close their mouths and put out their hands and rub.

*

When I got home, I checked the lights and the heat. I looked in the refrigerator and checked the pantry. I turned on the faucets and watered the plants. I imagined having dogs at once forlorn and ebullient. Food, heat, light, life: the basics, the essentials. We’re inclined to think that these are no more than material necessities, but they may very well be inchoate philosophical thoughts.

It could be that our thought-actions are of home. Omphalos. Thought-actions that are a three-fold answer to a three-fold question:

Do you exist, ask the pigeons in the tree. (Yes, here I am.)

And have you forsaken us, plead the plants and the animals. (No, my friends, I’ve not forsaken you.)

And are you grateful, entreat the lights and the heat, grateful for this and for everything. (Yes, I am. Danken, my friends.)