My Last JDate
“It’s an open wound, Mom, it’s going to take time. That’s what you’d be telling me, right?” Part III of III.
On Wednesday evening, after they’d taken away Dean’s untouched dinner tray, I brought up two grilled cheese and tomato sandwiches from the cafeteria. When I offered one, Dean happily took it and munched away. On the huge screen above the bed the Nets were playing the Pacers. Dean groaned, as he always did, at a missed shot; I interrupted, as I always did, to ask something irrelevant. “So, tell me,” I said, “what did they raze to build the Barclays Center?” Dean gave his familiar palms-up shrug, as if to say You’re asking me something that a) I don’t know and b) we both know doesn’t matter.
You hear about the last breath, but no one talks about the last shrug, the last fart, the last time you said, “I’ll teach you a lesson,” jumping naked onto the bed. The last time you came; the last time you nodded off on your lover’s chest. If you’re careless, you miss these things, and staring death in the face, hour by hour, for months, I was as careless as the rest of the living. It’s not the last Sunday in the world.
The next day, a Thursday, Dean did not wake up. Dr. Mangone, the hospice director, came by, observed him for a few minutes, and motioned me out to the respite room. “Dean’s breathing is shallow,” he said. “His color has changed. This is what we call ‘active dying.’ Have you had a chance to read the hospice website?” I had.
“Good,” he said, “because hospice would now be an appropriate choice.” Dean, who had never followed the model, was dying the way all human beings die: erratic breathing, mottled skin, darkening urine. A textbook case of death.
“Is it a matter of weeks?” I asked.
“I wouldn’t think so,” he said carefully; “more like inside of a week.” This was the doctor who three weeks earlier had signed off on Dean’s treatment goal: “To get stronger and return to chemotherapy.”
“I really liked him,” said the doctor, the past tense leaping like a tomcat. “I’m sorry, such a cool guy.” He looked sorry, handing me a list of funeral homes, and recommending a consumer protection website.
With Rosie’s OK from her Mazda somewhere on the Mass Pike, hospice began.
The change was immediate, like leaving a busy parking lot and walking into virgin forest. The lights were low. Hours went by, and no one entered the room. No one took vitals, no one hung blood, no trays arrived to be returned untouched. All plugs were unplugged, the “snakes” silenced. Only the IV remained, lashed to Dean’s bruised arm, ready for morphine. I texted Adina: “Hard to watch him crossing over. He’s part of the dying, not the living now, and I miss him.”
Rosie and Tony arrived and stayed most of the day; Daphne joined us, and all day Friday we took turns sitting by the bed, holding Dean’s hand. There was not much to do but talk about brands of gluten-free bread, where to buy a tortilla press, macrobiotic restaurants below 14th Street. The big topic was Saturday, and we tossed around who would be on in the morning, and who would have downtime. Perhaps hospice would provide an aide to sit with Dean Saturday evening so we could all go out for dinner together. I was bone-tired, blood-tired, brain-tired, and had given up trying to sleep in Dean’s room. I recall that it didn’t matter to me which of us was with Dean when he died—which is odd since, in the event, it would matter so much. And anyway, if it were imminent, Dr. Mangone would have said.
* * * * *
Saturday morning, I woke up at 5:30 a.m. I was bleary and unwashed, but it was Dean’s bed that I wanted, not mine. I pulled on jeans and headed over. The sun was barely up, but the clouds were brassy and bright.
Dean was asleep, his head listing to one side. His breathing was fast and shallow; amplified by an oxygen mask, it sounded like the scratch of sandpaper. I sat by him for a bit, reading him letters sent by students and colleagues, my tears dripping onto the pages. When I finished, spent, I flopped down on the couch and picked up something lighter—a pamphlet on grief from the hospice agency.
Suddenly Dean seemed to gasp; the world stood still, then he breathed again. I lurched toward the bed, took his hand, and pushed the call button. The nurse appeared, looked him up and down, and said laconically, “Yeah, he’s goin’.”
“In the next few minutes.” Adrenaline bashed my heart. “Go ahead,” she said broadly, like someone offering a margarita, “talk to him, tell him whatever you want, he’s still with us.” What did I want to tell Dean?
I loved when you folded into me at night.
I loved your guacamole.
I loved making love with you stoned.
I loved your beard on my thigh.
When I need you you’ll be gone.
I just met you.
“I love you, Dean,” I said. “I love you, sweetheart. I’m right here.” He breathed again, and the side of his neck was still.
“He’s gone,” said the nurse, and started to take off the mask.
“NO! Leave it on! Just in case he breathes again.”
“OK, dear” she said patronizingly. I gaped at Dean’s neck, and a moment later she said, “It’s been five minutes, hon; he’s gone,” and took off the mask. I was still holding his hand, and the thought that I should hold it till Rosie arrived landed like a fly that wouldn’t leave. The nurse said, “I’ll leave you alone for awhile,” drew the curtain, and left.
You plural became you singular.
Holding his hand tightly, I kissed him on the forehead, on the mole on his left cheek; with my free hand, I peeled back the sheet and the gown, and kissed his chest, his belly, his penis, then his forehead again. A few minutes later a doctor came in to “pronounce” him and told me there was no rush, the family could have three hours with him, if we wanted.
I was still holding Dean’s hand when Rosie and Tony arrived, just as Tony’s phone rang. Daphne was on her way down from Nyack, almost two hours away.
“Does she know we have only three hours? Actually two and a half.”
“She’s coming down,” Tony said, and she was.
* * * * *
At the three-hour mark, two stout, masked nurses gowned up outside the room. “I’m sorry for your loss,” said the first to enter. “I’m sorry,” began the second, “but it’s time for the family to leave.”
I stood between them and the bed. “Don’t touch him!” I yelled. “His wife is on her way.” Without a word, they exchanged glances, and left.
* * * * *
Daphne arrived, red-eyed, sniffling. I hugged her, and we cried together. We weren’t wearing the same thing; were we even grieving the same man?
“Did he hover?” she asked.
“I mean did his spirit hover awhile after he died? Hover over?”
“No,” I said, “there was no hovering.” While she held Dean’s hand, I went to the nurse’s station for a scissor, then cut two locks of Dean’s hair and handed one to Daphne. “Great idea,” she said brightly.
“Not my idea,” I said, “My dad did it when my mom died.”
While Daphne sat with Dean, I called the funeral home to arrange the cremation. The funeral director asked for Dean’s Social Security number.
“I don’t know, I can get it to you.”
“Place of birth?”
“Not sure; Los Angeles, I think. I’ll get back to you.”
“Mother’s maiden name?”
His home address, which in life had been Montclair, in death was Nyack, since the ashes would go to Daphne, by UPS, within a week.
I texted my daughter, who said she’d drive down from Connecticut, and my ex-husband, who was on his way up to see her. I texted my brothers, wondering if they were checking messages on Shabbat, and moments later, my sister-in-law Dori tried to call, but I was off talking to Tony. My 28-year-old son came by and held my hand tight, as I’d once grabbed his during a scary ride at Wildwood, and we walked back into the room. Daphne, still holding Dean’s hand, looked up, then lowered her eyes. “It’s cold,” she said quietly, lifting Dean’s hand an inch or two. “Already?”
On the bed was a yellowed wax mannequin, like those the Italians laid out centuries ago for anatomy lessons. Dean was already hiding. A bare foot stuck out from under the sheet; I touched it—cold, already—and left.
Three months later, Dean was still hiding.
He hid through a memorial service Daphne, Rosie, and Walker organized, through the tearful tributes of students and colleagues, and the off-color stories of cronies and nephews. He hid during an hour-long tribute on WNYC; hid while we read obituaries in the New York Times and the LA Times, long awed descriptions of the Partch instruments, the zoomoozophone, and Dean’s wild sounds. He hid through a memorial recital by his students, and a tribute by colleagues, one of whom gleefully reprised Dean’s impolitic comments at meetings. He hid when I drove the wheelchair, shower chair, and walker back to Hackensack, hid when I pulled the paisley quilt off his bed—our bed—and loaded it into my car, along with salad claws, four china bowls I’d given him, and the bullshit grinder.
Daphne reported visitations by Dean’s spirit, but in my house, he was always absent—freshly absent, as if he had just left the room, just taken off his gray short-sleeved shirt, slipped off his sneakers, folded up his headphones. When I awoke, he was up and out before me. His absence smarted, like soap in the eye; even his things were complicit, lying everywhere but all cooling down, inert. With infrared photography, I might see where the warmth had all gone. I showered before bed with Dean’s black soap, its fragrant primrose oil cut with astringent herbs; sweet and medicinal, like our life together. But if I thought Dean would emerge from the bathroom, towel-wrapped, bemoaning the perfidy of A-Rod, I was wrong. Sometimes the smell of black soap made me cry myself to sleep.
Comfort came from far away. From an Irish friend: “In Ireland, they say at the death of a special person—ni bheidh a leitheid ann aris: His likes will not be here again.”
From my cousin in Athens: “In Greek, they say zoi se mas or life to us, which gives you courage to go on with your life.”
From Marina Del Rey, Maury wrote, “It’s what Sigmund Freud said to his dear friend Wilhelm Stekel, as they boarded different boats at Dieppe and saw each other for what both knew would be the final time: ‘People who belong together, need not be together.’ ”
And from New York, a friend who’d recently lost her father wrote, “It is a shitty drill but it’s the flip side of true love.”
Comfort came from my ex-husband and his girlfriend; from friends and colleagues, some of whom had never met Dean; from my brothers, sisters-in-law, and ex-in-laws. From strangers—musicians, poets, playwrights who had heard Dean’s music and never forgotten it. From my daughter, who slept for three nights on Dean’s side of the bed; from my mathematician son in L.A., whom I called at 2 a.m. one night, sobbing. “I can’t believe I’m not going to ever see him again. Not even once.”
“Mom,” he said, “it’s an open wound, Mom, it’s going to take time. That’s what you’d be telling me, right?”
* * * * *
July: My frail, demented father, diagnosed with pneumonia, is on hospice care in his apartment in New York. En route to visit him, I board the E train at Penn Station, and behind me is a heavy black woman in a floral dress, her head wrapped in yards of lime-green kente cloth. As the train heads uptown, she bellows, “Who will praise the Almighty God?”
Heads turn to the summons, but no praise is forthcoming.
She starts to cry, her hands clasped in prayer, over her head. “Will no one praise the Almighty God?” she wails. She must trust the Almighty God, because she isn’t holding on, and no one’s holding onto her. No one I can see. She sways as the train lurches, but holds her stance.
“Will no one praise the Almighty God?”
Evidently not. When she goes around the car, some give her coins, and some bills. I hand her a bag of cherries, and she says, “God bless, God bless.”
* * * * *
Dean was still hiding when my father died on July 14th.
My father was a gifted, eccentric man who’d dined on a smorgasbord of occult beliefs, but preparation for his funeral was in strict accordance with Jewish law. After a glacially slow decline of 13 years, things suddenly moved fast. His body, washed and shrouded in white, was guarded by young men reading psalms while we composed our eulogies, emailing late into the night about who would tell which story. There were a couple of minor hitches. My father had told my stepmother to bury him in Queens and my brother to bury him next to my mother in Long Island; with my stepmother’s gracious consent, we chose Long Island. And when my brother suggested a plain pine box, I demurred: “The guy went around in a Cadillac, he’s not going into the ground in an orange crate.” But for the most part, all went smoothly: Rabbis were called, the news went out, obituaries were emailed in, and between the time he died and the time he was buried, less than 26 hours elapsed. One minute we were massaging his hand; the next, shoveling dirt into his grave. Over hard-boiled eggs following the burial, my brothers, stepmother, and I agreed that we would sit shiva separately.
For Dean there was no funeral, and I did not sit shiva. When he died, I didn’t notify my synagogue, which routinely sent out death notices and shiva information to the entire congregation. Above all, I couldn’t bear to receive an email headed Baruch Dayan Ha-emet—Blessed is the true judge. And without intending to—certainly without being asked to—I mourned Dean as he’d mourned himself, with uncompromising, atheistic rigor. It was, as my friend had said, “a shitty drill,” but I was equal to it.
Still, I had never scattered anyone’s ashes.
A master of logistics, Dean had left clear instructions: cremation, then we were to scatter his ashes on Hook Mountain overlooking the Hudson, where he used to hike with Maggie. On a Tuesday in early August, Daphne gathered us together at the family home for lunch, to be followed by a hike up the mountain, ashes in tow. All of Dean’s siblings came in with their families. It was the first time all eight cousins, who ranged in age from 5 to 32, had been together. And Dean not here, I thought; go figure.
I felt like a minor character in a play, brought in to further the plot, conspicuously less rounded than the others.
Walker was playing Kind of Blue on the CD player, the music Dean and I preferred for chopping vegetables.
After lunch, as we pulled on hiking shoes and sprayed on bug repellent, Adina said, “Where’s Dean?” Walker looked up and began the sweet smile-cry I’d seen so many times as he sat by Dean’s bed. He went back into the house for a moment and emerged with his backpack, laden with heavy freight. “Ready?” he said uncertainly, and we started off, the smallest cousins jockeying for position. “I want to be with Rita!” said 5-year old Bella. “But,” said Rita, “I want to be with Maggie!”
It was a still, dry August day, as if the weather, an expert in storms, had been called away for consultation. With Maggie leading, the 15 of us ascended, rounding to a ridge, which we followed past boulders and vines, hopping over deadfall and streambeds, mostly dry. Occasionally we’d pass a couple of hikers, who if they had an inkling of our errand, gave no sign. It was an easy, clear trail, and I simply shadowed Adina, who was chatting with her sons.
I thought of Roethke’s “Elegy for Jane My Student, Thrown from a Horse”:
Over this damp grave I speak the words of my love:
I, with no rights in this matter,
Neither father nor lover.
I was Dean’s lover of less than two years, and what was that to his widow and orphans, the bereaved siblings whom he had taught to swim? Even his sisters-in-law went back to the days of his parents’ cliff house in San Pedro. I felt like a minor character in a play, brought in to further the plot, conspicuously less rounded than the others.
The trail took a sharp turn to the left, and we climbed, up a gully of scree, to a clearing. A few steps on, the summit opened onto an expansive view of the glittering Hudson. I caught my breath, taking in the view; when had Dean paused on this summit, thinking scatter my ashes here? To the south, the Tappan Zee causeway cinched the wide river, but the bridge hunched close to the Westchester side, a yogi reversing a pose. A huge yellow pile driver was busy at its task, which was to replace the most dangerous bridge in the state with something safer—for cars, for would-be jumpers. It struck me as utopian, replacing danger with safety.
Walker and Rosie picked the spot, and we gathered around. Walker knelt down and opened the backpack, pulling out a bright-blue-lidded box. He hugged it to him and, tears streaming down, said, “This is what I do every time I come home; just hold it close to me.” I looked around; we were all crying, and the little ones were hanging on their parents’ legs. Walker reached into the backpack for a yellow cloth that he unrolled ceremonially to reveal scissors. Then standing up, he opened the blue plastic box to reveal a plastic bag tucked inside, and snipped off the top.
Rosie read a poem: a dead person asking us not to mourn over his grave.
But Dean wasn’t that person, this wasn’t a grave, and the “ashes” appeared to be a fine white powder, like the processed flour Dean would never buy. A colleague of mine had once put her brother’s ashes in an oatmeal canister, labeled “Bone Meal Supplement,” and flown it to Venice to be scattered at Torcello. I was glad not to have to carry Dean’s ashes through the world; the box looked heavy.
Walker began to scatter the powder on lichened rocks, and passed the box to Rosie, who did the same, and passed it to Daphne, who passed it to Adina, then Tony, then Liana. I hung back, unsure of my “turn,” but suddenly Adina’s son handed me the box. There was a typed label on the plastic bag, but I didn’t have my reading glasses and didn’t want to see it anyway.
As I flung the ashes onto the ground, I realized that Dean had not been hiding.
No. Dean had wasted away, along with his lust, his courage, his hope. Day by day, I’d watched him turn into a corpse, which fire and grinding, while I looked away, had turned into this. If I looked for him, for days, for years, for my whole life, I would never see him again. Not once. And all my love for him, and all of his for me, would not change this.
When Dean fled the house of death, he ran for the house of life, not the house of love. I just happened to be in the doorway.
No, love doesn’t conquer all. But vanquished, love survives, humbled, frail. And if it is really love, it goes out looking for its own kind and lives on. Dean knew this when he asked me to breathe with him after making love. Slowly, he’d say. Deeply.
It was not the last Tuesday in the world. I passed the box on and deeply breathed, deeply enough for both of us.
For Dean: GNBF
Berlin – Rome 2014
The author wishes to thank Irwin Keller, Martha Sandweiss, David Grossman, Maayan Dauber, Jonathan Wilson, Aleta Drummond, Lea Carpenter, and The American Academy in Rome, where most of this manuscript was written.
Esther Schor, a poet and professor of English at Princeton University, won the National Jewish Book Award for Emma Lazarus (Nextbook/Schocken). Her poems include The Hills of Holland and Strange Nursery: New and Selected Poems. Soon to appear is Bridge of Words: Esperanto and the Dream of a Universal Language, a cultural history/memoir of the Esperanto movement (Metropolitan Books). Her essays and reviews have appeared in The Times Literary Supplement, The New York Times Book Review, The New Republic, Tablet and the Forward. She lives in Princeton, New Jersey.
Illustration: Lincoln Agnew
Art Direction: Esther Werdiger