For months I’ve been aware of the skeleton under my skin, the possibility of death attaching itself to cells circulating in my body and microbes in my bloodstream without my knowing it. I’ve been thinking about all those artworks where Death lurks in our midst. Sometimes unseen. Sometimes not.
That Diego Rivera painting where Doña Sebastiana stands next to the artist in a gathering in a park, or am I thinking of another one where a skeleton loiters in a crowd? The James Ensor painting with the mob of masked Mardi Gras revelers, one with a large skeleton face almost hidden on the lower left of the canvas. Those COVID performance art photos in the news back in May, when carefree beachgoers in Florida ignored warnings to stay inside, swarming the beach instead, and the figure of Death garbed in black with a scythe sat in the lifeguard’s chair. There were those hordes of unmasked protestors in the early days of the pandemic shouting in U.S. state capitals, holding signs that said, “I want a haircut!” Death readied his scythe to start giving haircuts and look where we are now.
* * *
Death personified, with or without a scythe, suddenly seems to be everywhere. I never took it personally before. When I read W.H. Auden’s poem “A Summer Night” for the first time recently and got to the line “And Death put down his book,” I immediately saw him in my own back yard.
Death set his open book on the mesh metal table next to our folding chaise lounge, lowered his glasses on his nose, and stared at me. A long stare, as if to say, “Yes, you’re disturbing me, but I’ll hear you out. I have plenty of time, I’m in no rush.”
It was an early summer evening, still bright enough to read, but the warm air was starting to cool, the light beginning to fade. A yellow and black butterfly fluttered around the lemon tree, alighting on a waxy white blossom. A blue jay jeered, warning of something I couldn’t see—a neighborhood cat concealed in the shrubbery perhaps, or a red-tailed hawk tracing lazy circles in the sky. I looked back at Death, and the words died in my mouth, because there was so much to say but it added up to so little. What were words in the face of his implacable patience? What case could I make for my life? Why speak at all? And if we were to play a game of chess instead, and if I were to win, we would surely play another, and another, and eventually he would win the last game, and go back to his book.
* * *
In Emily Dickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop for Death,” Death is courtly, or maybe the word is courteous. Now I imagine him showing up at my house and he becomes scarier, more like Arnold Friend in Joyce Carol Oates’ story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” This guy you’re drawn to and realize too late that you can’t escape.
The way I imagine it, I’m pulling weeds in the side garden when he pulls into the driveway in a black Trans Am and beckons me over to the car. It ‘s obvious that I don’t have a choice, though I can’t explain why. It’s something I just know. I want to go into the house and change into nicer clothes, but he says, “Baby, you don’t need nicer clothes where we’re going.” What does he look like? He’s wearing shades and a black T-shirt and jeans. Medium build, medium height. Long dark hair, curly and tangled, smoothed back from his face. Some kind of tattoo on his neck. He’s polite. Maybe he’s white, maybe he’s not; he has the kind of café au lait skin where it’s hard to tell. Maybe thirty-something; I’m never sure about people’s ages. Now that I’m over sixty, everyone under forty looks young to me. If they’re over forty I think we’re the same age. I forget how old I am.
My heart’s beating fast. I get hot, then cold all over. Once I get into the car I look straight ahead. I’m thinking that we don’t know what happens to the girl in Oates’ story, but I doubt she comes back from her “date” with Arnold. I’m thinking I probably couldn’t pick this guy out in a lineup, but I probably won’t get the opportunity.
Dickinson doesn’t tell us she’s scared, but I’m frozen with fear.
* * *
There’s the looming figure of Death stalking through the rooms at Prince Prospero’s party in “The Masque of the Red Death,” not my favorite story of Poe’s, though I taught many other Poe stories in my literature surveys before I retired this spring. The story always seemed so rigid and allegorical. There’s that enormous clock tolling the hours, so obvious. Prince Prospero ignores the possibility of the Red Death, shuts everyone in the castle, and the figure of the Red Death shows up anyway. Death is inevitable. It’s almost too apt, isn’t it?
I mean, isn’t it? I picture my mother at Prince Prospero’s party. We knew she was slipping at the end, but didn’t realize quite how delusional she was for a while. First she said she’d started wearing her ball gowns in her Assisted Living facility every day, just for the fun of it. I figured she meant long hostess gowns and hey, why not, if it made her happy. Then she started saying that she was going to galas at the White House and I should turn on the TV and I’d see her. She was a party person, my mother, and loved to dance before she met my father, who hated dancing and hated parties and pretty much hated people.
My father died first. Then my mother. Then my brother. I guess you’d call me an orphan, but can you be an orphan once you’re over sixty?
* * *
He, my younger brother, died a couple of months ago, at least twenty years before he was supposed to. There’s that poem about Buffalo Bill by e.e. cummings where he asks, “And what I want to know is / how do you like your blue-eyed boy / Mister Death.” It makes me think of Van Morrison singing about the “brown-eyed girl,” and I’m thinking about all the dead, my parents dying, my brother dying, all those blue-eyed boys and brown-eyed girls who were young once, and how some of them died young, and some died old. Whatever happened? Do you remember when we used to sing? I can’t stop thinking about my brother. Long summer days splashing in the lake, running barefoot through the meadows, climbing trees in the woods, catching fireflies in jars, whispering in the dark about what we wanted to be when we grew up. Chemo kept him alive for a long time after his terminal diagnosis, but he died during this pandemic and there wasn’t a funeral and there was bad blood in the family anyway, so I don’t know what it would have been like. I remember when we were little kids, his warm breath in my ear. Sha la la la la la la la la la la te da la te da.
Hey where did we go? Where are we going?
* * *
Age came so quickly. Death will come much sooner than I ever expected it to. For a while I’ve felt like I’m rushing to the end at breakneck speed when I thought the middle would last much longer. Several contemporaries died of cancer in the last ten years, but I’ve closed my eyes to the fact that some lives end in the middle. And now the pandemic.
The shelter in place drags on, and still I stay away from stores and state parks and beaches and remain locked inside my house. Every day my husband and I leave the front gate open for deliveries to our porch so we don’t need to go out, but what if Death slips in through the front gate, glides up the path, and raps politely at our door? If I don’t open the door, won’t he slip through the keyhole? Perhaps he’ll enter without knocking first. I can picture the scene so clearly.
Nighttime. I’m alone in the kitchen. My husband and son are already in bed. The house is quiet, except for the dishwasher humming. The only light in the dark kitchen is the one over the sink where I’m standing, spotlighted. I’ll turn my head and see him behind me, waiting at a respectful distance, and feel a rush of adrenaline (is it too late to run?), and a fleeting moment of terror. I’ll catch my breath. My voice will be calm because, after all, I’m not surprised. I’ve been expecting him. Is it possible that I’m even ready?
I’ll nod. “Hello, Mr. Death.”