Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Loud Enough to Wake the Dead?

Not the Joycean kind of wake exactly, although there's an analogy. Finnegan's feasting that would accompany the Hibernians, ribald games played with the body that may have given new associations to the term "stiff," what passed for an orgy in an Irish village when couples took advantage of the all-night festivities to indulge in revelry, and the general atmosphere of boozy reminiscence and wistful observance stereotyped what tomorrow will cast its faint shadow, a "vigil" memorial service.

However, I don't want that "open casket" encounter at the mortuary (inevitably named "O'Connor," and that the body was first shipped by mistake to be embalmed at rival "McCormick's" down the street only adds to the traditional associations) to be my last sight of my dad. (Strange trains of thought, but for a break from morbidity I started Bill Barich's travelogue through Irish pub life and its decline, "A Pint of Plain," and found out what solved my surprise when I saw it still extant in Kilfinnane, Co. Limerick. The custom of publicans doubling as undertakers came from an old allowance that shipped corpses to wine cellars to rest their in cool temperatures until the funerals could commence. Surely this somehow added to the revelry that ensued. Not that, Dad being a teetolling son of a repentant lush, there'll be "streams of whiskey flowing" at his postmortem festivities.) I'm not that squeamish about blood, hospitals, bodies in the abstract, when seen in my usual detached mode. But, it's different with one's own. Perhaps an ancient taboo, one that despite my ingrained Irish Catholicism failed to overcome my aversion. Or, perhaps a deeper taboo surfaces when one is another's son at that final moment.

With my mom, I did not advance forward, so my wife tells me (I blocked it all out), over twelve years ago, at that same mortuary to see her watched casket. On my entry the next day to the funeral mass, I was jolted, then, by the sight in the vestibule. I did not expect it, and it jarred my equilibrium. When after years of hospital stints, intensive care vigils, and calls in the night alerting you to ambulances and 911 calls, you get worn down. A loved one's death arrives with less sudden a knock. This time, I want to remember my parent differently. Dad as I last saw him, alive, waving to me as I blew him a soft and subtle kiss as I turned to leave and to shut the door so he could nap again.

For a man past 92, you'd think the same expectation for me would occur. But, it's never expected, is it? So, I face whether or not to go to the vigil tomorrow night. It's a hundred-mile round trip in rush-hour traffic, I have no desire to go, and I've been feeling a wreck even before I got the news last week. My wife and sons share my distaste for such a display; my head cold, here for a week, continues to disorient me further and space me out. On the other hand, my ingrained I.C. guilt reaches out from the grave to confront me. Must I worry more about what the few others will think, if anything at all? (Hardly anyone's left of what was never a large family or a close gathering of vague associates, and those who are will not recognize me; my sister and I have for decades had nothing that bonds us beyond the now nearly concluded necessity to worry about our elderly parents.)

As my friend Chris commented on my blog the other day, there's a freedom now. The past year's diminishment of verbal communication to a pad and paper follows a long decline in conversation with my dad (as with my mom) on anything deep or disturbing. You avoid such issues after long practice and harsh lessons from those whose relationships are built on fragile foundations not of common interests but familial duty. After nearly a half-century of dealing with a man very different from me, and vice versa, the time has come at last for its cessation. How his spirit will regard my attendance or lack of such at his vigil-- I have no idea, logically or practically, how this aligns with my sister's spoken attestations that he's with my mom in heaven now, and his spirit's at peace with the angels, and that according to her desire three doves should fly upward freed at his burial two days hence.

As I was mulling this all over, I was driving to pick up the boys for carpool from their schools. Despite my sniffles and muddleheadedness, obligations persist. I'd been reflecting on the Buddha's insistence that his monks meditate next to a corpse. I compared that with the Cohen priests of Jewish descent who were enjoined not to enter a cemetery. I favorably contrasted the Hebrew graveyard with its pine boxes and its instant, twenty-four hours or less, time from last breath to first pebble on top of the stone. (Perhaps I exaggerate the marker's prompt installment! Patrick Pearse's father's profession, I recall. What would Joyce have made of that?)

The classical music station, on to soothe my nerves, had an announcer come in as I toyed with my thoughts. She spoke of sad news. The first trombonist of the L.A. Philharmonic died suddenly last night. He was the same age I will be in two months.

A few minutes later, I stopped the car at Leo's school before he got out. I picked up my new library book, "What Makes You 'Not' a Buddhist?" The book jacket informed me that Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse was born the same year as me, too. This Bhutanese monk drew his self-portrait, a playful yet serious sketch, rather than the usual snapshot. This reminded me of the linear space framing the emptiness within the solid body that we claim to inhabit and that seems from us trapped within it and those peering from without so lasting, so endurable, so immortal.

The monk began energetically, with the "four seals" (not to be confused with the Four Noble Truths): "all compounded phenomena are impermanent, all emotions are pain, all things have no inherent existence, and enlightenment is beyond concepts." (7) So far, so good. I continued with chapter two that elaborated point one. Siddhartha in his princely palace kept finding evidence that maturity brings not stability but decay. The walls could not shield him, nor his wealth protect him.

Khyentse reminds us: "Death has become a consumer product. Most of us do not contemplate the nature of death on a deep level. We don't acknowledge that our bodies and environment are made up of unstable elements that can fall apart with even the slightest provocation." (9) All this and I had barely begun the text. He went on to warn how we will never reach that plateau where we've got it all made. We yearn always for more "baby rattles" to distract us and to drown out this truth.

Starting the book in the few minutes I had, I heard the man in the pickup next to me going on in loud Spanish on his cellphone. Behind the window, but he made himself loud enough, as they say, to wake the dead. He had parked at a bad angle, nearly cutting off my own exit. I could not help but have his spiel interrupt my study. As his voice yammered on, I wondered how seekers can maintain their meditative spirit, their sense of detachment, within the city and the crowd. James Coleman's study that I reviewed here a few days ago finds that the "new Buddhists" follow the old in that most are from the elite: brainy, well-off if restive types. Professionals and bohos both, who cannot fit in to the societal or spiritual norm despite their outward success. They also benefit from their education, status, and income, it seems often in the West, to withdraw and do what their neighbors might call naval-gazing.

For many years, below the sometimes snow-capped mountain that towers at the right angle over the range under which I grew up and today parked my car to wait for Leo, one musical exponent and student of the dharma has taken retreats for years at a time. Leonard Cohen, speaking of those not halachically allowed to come near corpses (or marry divorceés), left his Mount Baldy Zen Center to go on tour after winning a $9 million settlement. I wondered where his money would go. Debts to producers and studios? Donations to hospices? His interior decoration or his inner fulfillment?

On Facebook recently, I read of a "Friend" jazzed about paying big bucks to see him in concert. She's a lawyer. Another "Friend" lamented not being able to afford the same concert (not to mention The Boss, advocate for The Working Stiff). I commiserated by commenting on the hundreds of dollars she saved. This brings me around to Chris' second remark. I wonder how we should send condolences now?

Will weddings be announced on MySpace? Is even Evite too antiquated? Will we bother engraving this and embossing that to tell our real friends (or those who familial duty summons to swell the guest list) of births and bat/bar mitzvahs, a bris or baptism, a getting hitched or a letting go? I felt awkward even blogging about my dad's death last Friday, but I figured I share the rest of my life here, so why not?

Yet, I did not feel compelled to post this on my FB Wall, nor tell anyone there. A columnist with whom I shared a dais (a folding table in fact) a year ago at a book reviewers IWOSC panel published a piece in last week's L.A. Times. She's nearly ten years younger than me from the "internal evidence" in her Op-Ed essay. But, she told of learning of the death of school classmates from Facebook, and I wondered if this agora, this public forum, will be in our future the way we promote of our comings (Twitter already annoys me) and, left in the hands of others, our goings.

Newspapers, as the mortuary employee doing my dad's paperwork with my sister and I informed us, charge $300 for an obituary now. We opted for the free internet link provided, with maps and opportunities for others to upload their own comments and pictures and tributes, by the mortuary. Not that many old folks will do so, but in time, we do and we will. So, one day who knows when, that's how I suppose we all will learn of each other's downloading from FB, Blogger, and whatever social networking supersedes or survives our own wake.

Illustration: 1873 Scene at an Irish Wake. Caption: Hand colored engraving from "Harper's Weekly," titled "An Irish Wake." Mourners are gathered in a small room with the coffin, crying and talking amongst themselves.

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