Through a Glass Darkly

BY KATHY PERUTZ

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child . . . . .                                                     I Corinthians, 13:11

“It’s D again,” I whispered to my mother when she came up to my bedroom. Just “D” because I couldn’t say the word, it scared me too much.  Witches’ heads were pouring out from the bottom of my bed and death was near.  Like the young Tahitian girl lying on her stomach in Gauguin’s beautiful and terrifying painting, “Spirit of the Dead Watching,” I was rigid with fear.  An only child, and often alone, I probably feared death as not-being, and not-being meant I wasn’t part of my mother, who was my shelter.  I was young enough to have recently emerged from the glue of symbiosis, still clinging to the host (her body) where I had incubated for 9 months to emerge as a creature unable to do anything but suck and cry, with a head still not completely formed.

A charming 5-year old of my acquaintance, also an only child, is very aware of death. His mother tells me he regularly checks up on her: “When are you going to die?” he asks, and says that when she does, he will too.  I’m not sure he’s made the kind of deal I tried to foist on the Almighty, but he might still do so.  I put it to god that, if I refrained from saying “Jesus Christ” forever, he would let my mother and me (my father would automatically come along, I suppose: it was not specified) live for another 500 years.  That would have made me 506.

But there was a problem (which had nothing to do with the fact that I was Jewish, something I hadn’t yet learned, and which would mean little to me then beyond the ability to stay home on certain days in early autumn). It was that, since god knows everything, he would know if I ever thought the words “Jesus Christ,” or just “Jesus” or “Christ” on their own.  And that would invalidate the whole agreement.  But how to stop thinking?  The more I thought about it, the more those two words beat a tattoo in my mind, a constant presence. And so it turned out that my mother died at 70, my father at 88, and I am now close to it, and a long way from being 506 years old.

Death, to the very young, is something that happens inexplicably. It happens to people because they’re old or because they live down the street or because they’re on television. It means you’re not there anymore, and not to be there is as terrifying a thing as can be imagined, as readers of A.A. Milne well know:

James James/MorrisonMorrison/Weatherby George Dupree/

 Took great/Care of his mother/ Though he was only three.

James James said to his Mother: “Mother,” he said, said he.

“Don’t ever go down to the end of the town if you don’t go down with me.”

But of course she did. She went down to the end of the town all by herself.  And she hasn’t been heard of since.

Death is absence. Solitude, abandonment (our latest psychological jargon), the fears of being alone or left alone, unable to cope.

***

After puberty, death becomes something palpable and near.  Certain actions and situations, you learn, can lead to death.  Daredevil stunts, poisonous mushrooms, snakes, tarantulas, mass murderers, aliens, war, bad grownups, gangs, or your own feelings that you are worth nothing and can do nothing. Death becomes a choice, or at least a possibility.

When I was fifteen, we moved from Kew Gardens, Queens – where I was the oldest on the block and still friends with Dukey (a.k.a.The Duke), across the street, whom I’d met when she was 18 months and I two years older, at a time when she was curly haired and cherubic and had not yet decided to be a lady wrestler when she grew up – to a beautiful old house in Kings Point, New York (a part of Great Neck), built in 1638 by British pirates, its entrance facing the sea above our private beach.  A more beautiful house I have not seen in this country, with its wine cellar below the trap door of the dining room, its artificial mound (to protect the house from other pirates) in which we found arrowheads; the old locust trees where a family of raccoons made their home, the unfaced wooden beams of the living room and the tilt of all the rooms; the fireplaces, the historic items scattered through the attic of a house that once served as the school for the surrounding area; the simplicity and authority of the oldest inhabited house on Long Island, with us being only the 4th owners in all that time. It was here that I felt more alone and forsaken than I could handle, knowing no one my age, hating the new, upscale school where all the girls, it seemed, wore cashmere sweater sets and pearls. I developed a fever every day when the school bus unloaded me at the high school, and my mother was called to the nurse’s office to take me home.  It was not far from that to wanting to be dead, and since the wish is father to the act, I was scary enough to myself as well as to my mother that I told her, “If you don’t get me to analysis tomorrow, I don’t know what I’ll do.”  At which point, I put my hand through the glass window of the kitchen door and cut my wrist.

Fifteen and precocious, I’d read my Freud, I knew about libido and thanatos, and every day, after a session at home with a white-haired and kind-hearted retired teacher sent by the Board of Education because I was adjudged emotionally incapable of attending school, I made my way into Manhattan to the office of Larry Kaufman on Lexington Avenue, on whose couch I spoke aloud my dreams and whom I considered beneath contempt because he had a very bad reproduction of an awful Rouault print on his wall, hung askance.

Suicide is the main cause of death among teenagers. It is almost always an apology, an admission of failure – “I was not what you (my parents) thought I was;” or some variation of A.E. Housman’s echoing lines: I, a stranger and afraid/In a world I never made.  A few years later I read in Albert Camus’ long essay “The Myth of Sisyphus”: In a sense, and as in melodrama, killing yourself amounts to confessing. It is confessing that life is too much for you or that you do not understand it.  

At seventeen I became a freshman in college, and my close friend in the room directly opposite mine killed herself. I found her, lying blue on her pillow, an overdose of sleeping pills.  Her mother, a stage-mother type, had been taking her to auditions for Broadway plays and musicals over our Thanksgiving break; she was also a debutante, and much was expected of her.  She was very pretty, wide-set blue eyes, a love of Botticelli and escargots.

***

Death changes as we near it.  My mother died, and my world ended in many ways. My father died.  My aunts and uncles, and then my friends. Michael, my husband of 50 years, died this year.  My metastatic cancer continues its determined hold; I am now in the 24th year of its habitation.  What I fear now is not death so much as disfiguration, and by that I don’t just mean physically.  I mean the suffering that flesh is heir to, the bones of the spine crumbling onto the nerves, as happened last year; the cancer in pancreas or liver making itself felt   Suffering is of no possible use, in my opinion.  It makes no one better or wiser or nobler; quite the contrary.  The suffering of Jesus is a source of fascination to many, not only Christians. But it’s not for me.  I have decided that instead of letting “nature” (in this instance “cruel nature” might be allowable) take its course and transform me from who I am into a thing of pain, I want to be able to die as myself.  This means suicide, of course.  A chosen death instead of one imposed, which would inevitably include torture; just as, in the early war years, people killed themselves to avoid the boxcars taking them to Auschwitz-Birkenau.  In the state of New York, doctor-assisted suicide is not legal.  Other states offer it, but to residents only.  I have little time.  I am making plans to go to central Europe to a place that offers what I seek.  It’s tricky: I have to be well enough to get there – transatlantic flight and all – and to be fully conscious when I arrive.  It’s hard to choose the right moment.  When I’m with friends, or even now, at my desk, writing, I feel the whole scheme is absurd.  I love life, I want to go on living.

Razors pain you;/Rivers are damp;/Acids stain you;/And drugs case cramp.

Guns aren’t lawful;/Nooses give;/Gas smells awful;/You might as well live.

– Dorothy Parker, “Resumé”

And then I remember some of the deaths of friends, and I do not want to descend into that chaos, the loss of clarity and humor and self that has been all I know of the world. I realize that each of us knows the universe only through his or her consciousness, and that each of us inhabits (creates?) a slightly different universe from anyone else’s.  It is a great pity that these universes must die.  But to paraphrase Pascal, Man is nothing but a reed, the weakest thing in nature.  But it is a thinking reed. . . and the advantage that man has over the entire universe is that he knows he will die, while the universe knows nothing.  Or, in Saul Bellow’s words: Death is the dark backing that a mirror needs if we are to see anything.

Death gives us life. Mortality is the source of time, and only in time do we live, love, create – or take our fate into our own hands.

Getting Old is Like Feeling Fat

 

BY KATHY PERUTZ

It turns you into something that isn’t you, never was, couldn’t possibly be you, though some people out there and a chorus of inner voices continue to insist this IS you, all right, you (fat) (old) (thing).

Feeling fat doesn’t have to mean you actually are fat, of course – just as not feeling fat doesn’t guarantee that you’re not.  But the feeling, as of dirty laundry being mulched in your mouth, is unmistakable.  It’s a mood or emotion and also a new viewpoint, a rearrangement of your vision, the crunching of your posture, of the way you move, the inability of your feet to stop shuffling.  In the dressing room, you turn slowly – this beautiful outfit, so absolutely YOU a few minutes ago when it was hanging on the store mannequin, has turned into a torture device.  You must weigh at least 350 pounds, an unkind voice barks at you, and even though you know it’s one of your own voices, kept in that box where you have a teacher voice, mother voice, bitsy girl and tough businesswoman voices, along with the alluring, the suspecting and the altogether too glamorous for-you voices, still this unkind voice of your own is now barking like a rabid hound saying Take it Off, take it OFF because there in front of you, plain as the nose on the face in the mirror, you have added 200 pounds in one slow revolution of your extraordinarily elephantine body tightly wrapped in cruel gingham.

You run out of the store, you have a coffee to calm your nerves, you tell yourself that you are suffering from delusion, from heat, from anything you can think of, and you reason with yourself that it is impossible for anyone to gain that much weight that quickly. You have always been a touch on the not-altogether slender side, but then, you never expected to make your living as a fashion model.  Your bones alone would be too heavy.  And people haven’t complained, have they? they seemed to like the breasts and hips and all the contouring that makes the silhouette of a woman different from that of a man.  People have even loved you, you think miserably, knowing that they were all tricked, it was a bad show, and now it was over and time for them to claim their money back.

But a day later, a week later, one afternoon after a lunch you failed to eat in order to tame the calories already raging in your system, someone tries to pick you up (at your age!) and your indignation is as nothing compared to your pleasure, to the relief of having landed back, safely, on the island of the well-shaped, the young, healthy, the sexually desirable.

You will feel too fat again, and then you will have days of feeling slim and fashionable, and so you see-saw through life, never quite at ease with what you have, your senses at the ready to change your perception of yourself in an instant.

 

Getting old is like that. Comes and goes in spells and aches.  It may be that you’re past 80 and still see yourself, as my husband Michael did, as the same lad who could easily carry a clutch of suitcases down the stairs or run for the bus just taking off across the street.  And one day, boom! “I feel today I have gotten old,” he announces, as he has on other days, and will on many more.  Because on this day the joints ache or the eyes strain while reading.  Because he can’t be bothered by the folderol of news that is churned out every day, every minute, disturbing our universe. Or it will be before a surgery that he, that I, may not survive.  Or looking at the photos on a grandchild’s smartphone showing the passing of years, the hollowed cheeks, the skin that once was rose now closer to pea green.

 

Most of the time what we’re feeling when we feel old is a sense of dislocation: we are not who we were and the world has shifted, along with word usage, grammar and of course to us now, the preposterous invention of the internet that simply begs people to become illiterates so they will never be alone. But then, the old ways are not worth keeping up.  It’s become too tiresome to again have a dinner party and have to plan it, shop for it, prepare it, cook it, serve it, clean up after it. . . . Just too much effort.  A wild expense of energy that will not benefit us or our offspring one bit in the grand scheme of survival.  And we know it’s ebbing away, that life has not a long way to run; and as we become aware of that, everything seems to fall inward like Alice’s playing cards: we are not physically strong enough to do this or that, our body has betrayed us once more; our thoughts are fleeting, they start as strong distinct streams and not long after peter out in a dry ditch.  Our friends are dying.  Simple colds turn into pneumonia.  Childhood moves closer, dead friends reappear and yes, even heaven awaits the atheist because of a small cat who might, just might, be dwelling there.

And then you become afraid – of the next diagnosis, of the “cure,” with all its side effects and consequences; of the need to cancel plans, of your inability creeping up on you – do you dare to drive? can you drink the way you did? Why is his touch so boney, her lips so cold?

Because you are old, says the voice, because you are old.

And the night comes and in it you fear desiccation and negation, life is not tolerable, and you drift off and re-enter in the morning to soft light spilling out from the sides of the blinds, and something stirs in your chest, a small flutter or a gentle breeze and you realize you are alive, you will get well, you are not lost, not over, you will rise again, your phoenix self, as bouncy and funny as ever you were.

And you realize it wasn’t age at all that had you in its maw, but illness, something very different, though as much a concomitant of age as slenderness of youth. But we can be young and plump and middle-aged and slim, and we can be old with no plaints or aches, and in that way we can be free of age because we have conquered it through spirit.  Just as John Donne tells the specter: “Death, thou shalt die,” so we now, getting older, are just a little smarter than others, know just a bit more, have been round the block (and peered in all the windows) and know what we know.  Let the world see us how it will, and let the dumb mimicking voices repeat what the chattering world is saying, but I am not feeling fat, I am feeling fine.  And I am not getting old, just biding my time.

 

In and Out the Window

BY KATHY PERUTZ

 

The rest is silence. 

– Hamlet, Act V

Last lines are a joy forever: perfect codas to lives of the great. The quintessential period at the end of the long sentence.  Gertrude Stein, lying on her bed, eyes closed, about to expire. She opens them, sits up and  asks, “What is the Answer?” and falls back on her pillow.  Silence. The camera waits.  Again she rises from the pillow and speaks: “Never mind that.  What is the question?”  Finis.

Or, going one better perhaps, Alfred North Whitehead, the philosopher: “Why are we always in the dark?”

And beyond him, the great German genius, majestic Goethe, whose last words, perhaps whispered gutturally in his bedchamber in Weimar have resounded through the ages: Mehr Licht! (more light!), leaving to posterity the question of whether he, than whom there was no one of  nobler mind or wider range of thought, was still, at the very end of consciousness, seeking further enlightenment; or if, as some cynics have suggested, he was simply asking the nurse to raise the shade.

Continue reading “In and Out the Window”

LISA

By KATHY PERUTZ

When I visited her in that place where the door was always ajar, she would be waiting in the chair at the far end until I came up with my kiss and chocolates.  She grabbed them first, quickly unwrapped a truffle and popped it into her mouth.  Her cheeks filled like a squirrel’s.  She lifted her chin to indicate the door and the life beyond it.  “They leave it open,” she explained, “because they have to drop the dead bodies in here.” Continue reading “LISA”