Death for Beginners
My wife Joan died about two and a half years ago. She’d a terrible time for several years before that, and she did some things in her anger and her pain that drove me crazy– almost- but I loved her. I loved her the way I tell my kids I love them every day, as much as two dump-trucks full of gold.
Shortly after she died, I started writing these little books “for Beginners,” a series of sort of children’s books for grown-ups, primers about what the world looks like when stripped of both denial and illusion, when viewed naked and well-lit, as corpses are viewed. I wrote one called Atheism for Beginners, and one about the sad state my country is in called Kleptocracy for Beginners. Then I took on the subject of death, which in some ways I suppose is the underlying subject of all of them.
I wanted to write a book about death as it really is, and how different it is from the stories we tell ourselves about it. I’m not interested in myths, folk tales or religious stories, except insofar as they express our wishes. I’m only interested in reality, in the facts, in the real world in all its grim detail. So this book has its harsh moments, as does any human life. If you don’t want to read anything unpleasant, you might as well stop here. But if you have an inquiring mind and you don’t judge what you read based on whether or not it’s pleasing but instead on whether or not it’s honest or true to life, read on. Keats once wrote, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” I don’t know if that was so when he was alive, but it certainly isn’t now. In modern America, youth is beauty, beauty youth, and that’s a fact. But in this little book we’re going with Keats’s definition, right or wrong. If I’m out of step with the times, too bad. The times can get in step with me if they want to, although I’d never recommend it.
If someone asked me to say what human life is at its essence- and believe me, no one has- I’d say that it comes in two parts; on the one hand, reality, the known and the knowable, nebulae and quarks, skin slippage and hide beetles, that with which our first job in life is always to come to terms, and on the other, the stories we make up about it, which for every good reason in the world tend towards wish-fulfillment and fantasies of victory and survival. Well, this is an attempt to look at the former without the distortions of the latter.
By now- and mind you, I haven’t written a full page yet- Joan were she still alive and healthy would be at my shoulder asking me, “What about love, though, darling? What about us? What about our story?” Okay, sweetheart. Okay. I’ll tell the story of what happened to us, too- or parts of it- and of what happened to me when she died, of learning to put my anger behind me, of finding hope in the worst of human experiences. I’ll share some moments from my tumultuous relationship with my beautiful but dying wife. But even those, without a liberal dusting of illusion and denial, can be pretty tough to take.
Sheesh. Together we’re like Dennis Rodman. He once said life in the NBA was 50% money and 50% sex. When a reporter asked about basketball, he said, “Oh yeah, and 50% basketball.” In that same spirit, I would say our lives are 50% reality and 50% stories we’ve been telling ourselves about it for so long now that we can no longer tell them from reality. Then, when poked in the ribs by my beautiful wife, I’d add, “Oh yeah, and 50% love.”
Winter of ‘09
A is for Angels.
According to a CBS news poll conducted in 2005, 78% of all American adults believe in some kind of an Afterlife- big A, meaning somewhere other than here in reality. Of course, that same poll also revealed that 56% of American women believe in ghosts, and that more than 1 out of 4 American adults under the age of 45 actually claim to have seen one. That’s pretty scary, isn’t it? At the same time, it makes a certain kind of sense that fantasy is so widely preferred to reality where death is concerned, as the immediate afterlife- small ‘a’, meaning here in the real world- has so very little to recommend it. Here, the afterlife is characterized by things like Palor, Livor, Rigor and Algor mortis, respectively the paleness, color, stiffness and coolness of death (that last an oddly beautiful phrase to my ear, for what it describes). Then for those of us who choose to be buried, there’s embalming and interment. For those of us who choose cremation, there are a couple of hours in the oven, followed by many years in an overpriced urn on the mantel, or in the case of our local surfers here in LA, maybe a reverential dispersal in the waves off Zuma Beach. For those of us unlucky enough to be left out in the woods, there are the many indignities of putrefaction, and sometimes even the dispersal of our bones by dogs. But alas, no angels. I’m sorry. For better and for worse, all the angels are here, amongst the living. Until she died, my wife was widely considered to be one of them.
I remember, in the last week of her life, sitting at her bedside, singing her one of the many love songs I’d written her over the years, then looking at her- at her sallow complexion, at her deep-set eyes, at the hollows at her temples, at her wrists that were only bones and skin- and starting to cry. She knew what I was afraid of, as she always did- that I wouldn’t be able to raise the kids on my own, that I could never live up to the example she had set as a parent, that I couldn’t make it without her- and she whispered, “You can do this, Chris.” Damn, I thought. Damn. That’s my wife, alright. She’s dying, and she’s comforting me.
B is for Burial.
It’s currently estimated that about 50 billion people have lived and died throughout the course of man’s history on the planet. Taking into account the fact that we’ve been getting bigger and stronger throughout that time– and only recently fatter- let’s say their average weight at death was 80 pounds. That’s 4 trillion pounds of human flesh and bone, much of it interred in the soil to be eaten by bugs or to become nutrients for plants, trees, and crops, and thus returned to the food chain that way, and some just left to dry up and blow away, becoming part of the atmosphere, and being inhaled by such creatures as wild boars hunting for truffles or young lovers on the banks of rivers getting themselves pregnant and causing their parents great pain. We’re each made up of about 7 billion billion billion atoms, so the likelihood that some of them had once been part of another human being is quite good. Given the amount of organic material we’re talking about, the likelihood that you ate a bit of someone else in your last meal is pretty good, too. In that sense at least, we really are all part of one another, and death itself makes every meal a kind of communion.
If you’re a recently bereaved spouse, I don’t expect that to be of any more comfort to you than it was to me. If you’re a child though, it might pique your interest. Until a year or two ago, whenever I told one of my kids an odd fact like that- my twin girls are now 6 and my son 8- if they weren’t completely sure I was telling the truth, they’d peer at me and ask, “Is that in real life?” That became one of my favorite questions, and it’s the standard by which everything in this little book will be measured; “Is that in real life?” I think coming to terms with real life is such a big part of growing up that they might as well be one and the same thing, and growing up is always our #1 job, no matter how old we are.
Of course, it’s fair to say that at some meals, we commune more than at others. On my first date with Joan, we ate at a Chinese restaurant in Beverly Hills called Joss, and I remember feeling terribly lucky that this beautiful, bright, warm, funny woman seemed to feel so much at home in my company, and I in hers. We stayed, chatting and laughing, until the place closed. On our second date, we went to a friend’s 40th birthday, then back to my house, where I told her she was the first girl I’d gone out with since I’d gotten sober about a year before, and that, unlike in my previous life, when I’d always jumped into things head-first, as they say, I wanted to go slowly. Not that I had matured or anything. It’s just that the idea that I’d have to take my clothes off in front of someone I liked for the first time without any alcohol or drugs to lubricate my self-consciousness was quite daunting to me. So I suggested we try a 90 day sex-free schedule, to see if we really felt that strongly about each other, an idea I’d just heard about from my 40 year old friend. Joan thought that sounded terribly wise, or pretended to, but she didn’t want to go, and I didn’t want to let her. So she stayed the night, although we each kept to our own sides of the bed. We lasted ‘til morning, when we made love for the first time. Oh well. So it goes with schedules, I guess, when love walks in the room. It was less than a year later that I woke her at 3 AM and sat on the bench at the foot of the bed to play her this love song I’d just written for her on the guitar.
burning down this building © chris gerolmo june 20, 2001
i was burning down this building
when you walked in through that door
i hid my gas can behind my back
i don’t burn nothing anymore
i was pissing on the future
when you sneaked in from the past
you’re not the first girl i ever let in here
but you may well be the last
now all my friend’s are hoping
that i don’t burn you too
but i think i finally found the girl
with the juice to keep me cool
i was burning down this building
hell i was burning up the world
i was dying in my own holy war
now i’m just living for a girl
now i go to work each morning
and i race home every night
but i don’t run from sirens no more
and i don’t flinch at flashing lights
instead i find myself hoping
and baby this is true
that for just one more lucky morning
i’ll get to wake up next to you
She loved it. She cried. She made me sing it again. In fact, Joan was the only reason I ever got serious about writing songs. I’d written a few when I met her- I’m a screenwriter by profession- but when she heard them she made me join a songwriting seminar and put together a band and get out there and play around town, and now I’m an Emmy-nominated singer-songwriter, as well. She was relentlessly encouraging, to me and to everyone she knew. It’s one of the many things I miss about her. To tell you the truth, I haven’t written a single song in the year and a half since she died1.
Anyway, some six months after I wrote the song, we were in London, at the opening of a James Bond movie. The party was in a public park the production had taken over, and there were hundreds of well-dressed people there, as well as a terrific jazz band. One of the producers was an old friend of mine, and she was trying to get people out on the dance floor they’d installed in the middle of the park, no doubt at great expense. I asked Joan to dance, so we walked out onto the empty dance floor to what we used to call in the 8th grade a “slow song”, and no one else joined us at all. At first, Joan was intensely self-conscious, feeling that all eyes were on her (they were). But soon enough she relaxed, and gave herself over to the music, and the feeling of being held, and of being loved, and so did I, and we whispered silly things to each other, and danced, and were transported. It must have been pretty clear that we were a couple of grownups in love, because when the song ended and we applauded the band, they stopped and applauded us in return.
C is for Cremation.
Joan died the day after Christmas 2007, after a long struggle with cancer. She had chosen to be cremated, so her body was sent by the undertaker to a local crematorium, where she was burned at between 1800 and 2100 degrees for 2 hours in what’s called a retort– a computer-controlled fire chamber lined with refractory bricks that resist heat. While bodies have been burned throughout history for various reasons, most notably on Hindu funeral pyres in India and on the occasional Catholic bonfire in Europe or America (although in the latter case the burnees were generally not yet dead) cremation has only become popular in the west as an alternative to burial in the last 100 years. Pope Paul VI didn’t lift the ban on cremation for Catholics- dead Catholics, that is- until 1963. Cremation is still forbidden to Jews, on the grounds that the souls of the recently dead are not yet aware that they’re dead, and experience great pain at seeing their bodies be burned.
To tell you the truth, I didn’t know until yesterday that the blue ceramic urn we bought from the funeral home to hold Joan’s ashes held not her ashes, but rather about 4 pounds of her dried bones that had been pulverized by a device called an Electric Cremated Remains Processor into a kind of fine sand. Apparently, there are no ashes left after cremation. The fire’s too hot. There’s only bone. Why people in the death business don’t tell this to the bereaved I don’t know, but it doesn’t surprise me. When death is concerned, most people seem willing to smile and nod and let us think whatever we want to think.
Of course, Joan and I did the same thing when we got married. We realized with just a week or two to go that the state of California hadn’t finalized Joan’s divorce from her first husband yet- she’d filed the papers a year earlier and it should only have taken 6 months- so we had to decide whether to call the ceremony off or let it be just that; a ceremony. Which is what we did, in the end. We let everyone assume it was legal, but it wasn’t. It was just a show for the families. Joan was terribly afraid about hers, too- I can still see it in her eyes in all the wedding pictures- both about how they’d get along, especially her long-divorced but still-bitter mother with her father, and whether or not they’d approve- her mother was a Daughter of the American Revolution and I’m just an Adult Child of Alcoholics. I told her what my therapist told me; that when you’re up there saying your vows, creating the new family you’ve actually chosen to create, you can finally look out at the crazy people you’d accidentally been born with and think, “Bye bye!”
But it didn’t help. She still looked like a deer caught in the headlights to me, if not to anyone else. I don’t think it was until I kissed her awake at the Four Seasons the next morning, and whispered, “Good morning, Mrs. Gerolmo,” that she finally relaxed and let herself enjoy the whole thing. That’s when she cried the traditional tears of joy. She told me for years thereafter that that was the first moment when she really felt married.
Her son Eddy moved in with us very shortly thereafter. He was 6 at the time, and a terrific kid, with a wry sense of humor. (Once, when his young cousin Liam, who’s a bit of a terror, was stomping around barefoot in a huge box of Legos, a grownup asked what Liam was doing, and Eddy said, “Making Lego wine?”) We got him into the local public school, and Joan started volunteering at the library, and making friends amongst the neighbors (I didn’t know any of them) and meeting other moms at the park, and generally introducing me to the community I’d already been a part of for some ten years without ever really knowing it.
D is for Denial.
I said that when it comes to death, most people seem willing to let us think whatever we want to think. Not so the in-laws. Almost immediately after my wife’s death, they began in one way and another denying to the children the fact that she was dead. They told the kids- my son was 6 and my twin daughters 4- that their mom would always be with them, that she was watching them from heaven, and that she still loved them very much. I have no doubt that she would have been with them, or watching them, or loving them, if she could. She was a wonderful mother. But she was dead, and to imply otherwise was a disservice to the kids, not to mention confusing. I remember a friend of mine talking about his dad, who died when he was 7. He was told so many times and so matter of factly that his dad had only gone to heaven that for years he thought heaven was some other little town in Idaho and it was just a matter of time before he came back.
In these kinds of situations, of course, grown-ups think they’re protecting children from the pain of reality, when in fact they’re only indulging their own wishes to deny the abrupt permanence of death, and the terrible facts of loss and sorrow. Me, I try to avoid denial when I can. As a recovering alcoholic- I’ll be sober 11 years this Sunday- I have a more active understanding of its dangers than the average citizen. I root it out in my own life as a matter of survival. Of course, it’s fair to say that most recovering alcoholics believe in a God of some kind. Apparently, the connection between denial and faith that seems so obvious and scary to me- if denial is the ability to look directly at a thing we don’t wish to see and not see it, then faith is the ability to see things that aren’t there simply because we wish they were- doesn’t scare them, at all. In any case, I held my tongue with the in-laws, out of politeness- or such is my recollection; I may actually be in denial about that- then later, when the kids asked where Mommy was, I explained to them what had really happened. Or tried to. I told them she died. Like the animals on Animal Planet. Like the rats and birds the cats bring home. They knew what that meant. But they still asked, “Where is she? Where did she go?” So I showed them her ashes- or her dried ground bones, anyway- and told them she’d been cremated, which didn’t hurt because she was already dead, and we sat with her bones in their blue urn by the fireplace, and clung together, and stared at them in silence. We felt her absence quite acutely, in that moment, and were terribly, terribly sad. 2
By way of finishing the wedding story, though, we went to the Palm a few weeks later, Joan and I and Eddy, inviting as witnesses the friend who’d gotten a license on line to perform the original ceremony and another couple, and signed the document that meant we were legally married. I prepared a document for Eddy to sign, too. It read, “Sept. 1, 2001. I hereby accept the unavoidable fact that Chris Gerolmo, aka Crispy, will now and forever, or until I’m 18 and I can run away to the jungle to become an ornithologist, be my step-farter. Uh, step-farther. Sorry. Step-father. As if I ever had any choice after Mommy first spotted him. Sincerely, Eddy”. But the city of Beverly Hills managed to lose this paperwork, too. So it wasn’t until our third try, when we went to the Office of the County Clerk together and stood on line holding hands like all the other couples, and did it all on the spot, that Joan and I were officially man and wife.
E is for Eternal Life.
By any standard, we were old for newlyweds- Joan 37 and I 48- but we were also youthful, if not positively childish, and at the time I guess we expected to live forever, in the same silly way everybody in love expects to live forever, or at least for what they call the foreseeable future, as if any of it really were. But if you’d asked us if we believed in Eternal Life, we would each have answered with a resounding No. I’m afraid Eternal Life is an idea whose future is not nearly as bright as its past. In the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church used it to rule Europe, side by side with its kings. The kings had the power to collect taxes and raise armies, but the Church controlled the story of the world- the story that justified the kings’ power, that gave unto Caesar what is Caesar’s- and used it (along with torture and dismemberment; remember the Inquisition?) to keep the peasants in line. The story it told is that in return for a life of poverty and hard labor here on earth, the faithful could expect an Eternal Life of leisure in heaven. Well, things have changed. The Renaissance broke the Church’s exclusive hold on the public’s imagination, and now, in 21st century America, the Church is no more than a rich but irrelevant haven for pederasts, and most young people expect an eternal life of leisure here on earth in return for just getting into college.
I was looking through some of the things I saved from our wedding today, wondering if there was any reference to the Eternal in what we wrote for ourselves to say- there wasn’t- and I came across something I’d completely forgotten about. As part of the ceremony, we quoted Arthur Miller on the subject of the play: “My conception of the audience is of a public each member of which is carrying about with him what he thinks is an anxiety, or a hope, or a preoccupation which is his alone and which isolates him from mankind; and in this respect at least the function of a play is to reveal him to himself so that he may touch others by virtue of the revelation of his mutuality with them.” Joan and I then said these words: Chris: So every man has a secret that he believes separates him from the community of men. Joan: Maybe it’s also the job of a wedding to show him that his secret is just like everyone else’s. C: My secret was that I knew I’d always be alone. I knew I’d always be unhappy. I had given up on love. J: And I was sure I’d never find it. So I hid from life. C: And then I met Joan. J: And I met Chris. C: And I came to realize that everything I’d believed about myself and my fate was wrong. J: And I found out that I hadn’t known the first thing about love. C: And now I have a new secret. J: Me, too.
I love that. It breaks my heart, but I love it. It reminds me of how happy and resolute we were, and that even though I feel the same way once again now that she’s gone- that I’ve somehow been abandoned to a life of loneliness and sorrow- I may well be as wrong now as I was then. In any case, the wedding took place right here on the patio. We asked Eddy to be the ring-bearer but he’d done that job at his uncle’s wedding the year before and didn’t want to do it again. So we gave him a free hand. He decided to lead the procession in from the driveway, blowing bubbles as he marched. He was the Bubble Boy, and a huge hit amongst the guests. As far as I’m concerned, every wedding should have one.
My friend Dan gave the best man’s speech, turning a tiny moment into a funny 15 minute story about meeting Joan for the first time in Manhattan just after I had gotten a very short haircut. When I left them together on the street for a moment to duck in somewhere and get something, he looked at her and said that with my new hairdo I looked even more like a serial killer than I had before. Joan beamed and said, “I know. Isn’t he cute?” Dan just stared, and nodded, and thought, “He’s finally found the right girl.”
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1 I wrote this some time before I finally wrote the foreword, which I hope explains this particular temporal displacement. There are others in the book that are just mistakes, what Joan Didion called “cognitive deficits” related to grief, in The Year of Magical Thinking.
2 We’re not so sad to see them, now. In fact, it’s nice to have them around. Whenever we have “Family Sleep in the Living Room Night”, for instance- a tradition started by Joan- the kids fight for the right to sleep next to her, meaning to be on the mattress closest to the fireplace-surround on which rests the blue ceramic urn. It’s a wonderful way to service the kids’ wishes to have their mom be present even after her death and still be “in real life”.