April 27 2017
A year ago I lay flat on my back, in a drugged stupor, recovering in a hospital in Matera, down in the south of Italy. The day before a surgeon had removed a disk from my lower back, the resolution of some decades of chronic pain. For many years I’d had to stand to work, and sitting was often toxic, especially at a computer or similar setting. This pain had reached a crescendo in the previous year, prompting a visit to a doctor, MRI, x-rays, and a quick trip to the operating room. That was a year ago. Now I sit without problems.
And move. And move we did: in autumn to Sicily, a small town on the sea, Caucana, where a friend offered an empty summertime place for us to sort of squat. Utilities. I took long walks on the nearby beach, a ton of photos of it and surrounding areas. Kept up a regimen of exercises, though backing off a bit from my year earlier one of 100 pushups, 60 squats, yoga etc. And then we moved to Ragusa, about 20 miles inland, where a small (but quite nice) apartment and winter contrived to persuade me I am indeed an older man, and I let go of the exercises altogether, except for long walks in this very up and down town. Spring is still attempting to arrive, and once it does I suspect I will resume exercises, if not in the gung-ho manner of the past. My body tells me it is plain and simple old, and things once readily done, are no longer possible, or just plain old hurt. The usual places: hips, knees, shoulders, neck. Muscles cramp up in my hands periodically (have done so some years) and of late leg cramps greet me in the morning as I get up. All the processes of the body breaking down, falling apart.
Skin sags, bellies expand, muscles shrink, eyes fog. The walking gait leans towards a stoop, and steps are slower, shorter. Occasionally the hand shakes. The hormones that once animated spring with illusions of love lie dormant.
Yesterday Jonathan Demme died; pancreatic cancer said one notice, another said throat cancer. 73. A few weeks ago got notice that a friend in Butte, Dan Cornell, died in his sleep, no illness attached. 70. Last year a few other friends bit the dust: Peter Hutton, 70. A long ago lover for a while, Patricia Kelley, died February a year ago. Not sure of age, but under mine. And of course myriad “famous” people likewise gave up the ghost in the past year, to the customary weeping of the fans. Prince. Bowie. Haggard. Zsa Zsa. George. Cohen. Muhammad Ali. And a host of others, often said in their obits, to be “larger than life.” Meaning they were famous and you heard of them. When one of these dies, Facebook fills with “sorry” and RIP, and depending on the fame of the dead soul, endless weepy sentiments gush forth, which I suspect are forgotten tomorrow as life sweeps on, and the scythe guy does his work.
On average these days, about 150,000 people die each day (double that are born – see a problem?).
Naturally, as time slips by, and one ages and the mirror or your mind no longer lie, the reality of things becomes ever so clear: your number is coming up, as is that of your remaining living peers – friends and family, and the famous names of your generation. Tomorrow’s assumption evaporates, and no, not necessarily will you “see you next year.”
I have, since I was quite young, been very attuned to death – the idea, the presence, the reality. Not, in my view, in a morbid way, but rather a realistic one. We live. We die. We are animals like the road-kill on the highway, like the vast orchestrated slaughter by which we eat. Live. Die. It is axiomatic. For me it has always been a puzzle why people say they are sad when someone has died – those Facebook sentiments like Hallmark Cards. To my mind it is as if one said, “I’m sorry so and so lived.” To be sad about a death, is to be sad about a life. That’s the deal. To not cope, honestly and realistically, with death is the same as not coping honestly and realistically with life. They are the same thing.
Occasionally, spurting from me in some involuntary way, words arrive and I put them on paper or these days in digital 1’s and 0’s. Perhaps these are poems. Since I was a teenager these came to me – usually in waves which overtook me, and then subsided. Many of these seem to center on death. A sampling from a long sequence being prepared as a book.
It doesn’t glitter anymore and gravity is mean
heartless pulls the pretty girls apart
and heartless lays them down
down there for physic frolics
fondling and fucking as ought to be when young
when the snap of muscles lifts to push and pull
the basic alpha-beta of oscillating sways
that confuses them with simpered love
and later lays them down in sullenness
the creases deeper, untended meats gone sagged
ragged now from head to toe
spirits dispirited to wonder where it went
or even if it ever was
miasmic snipping at most central cortex’s
as we and she forget who she was and is
a beauty dimmed to nearly nothing
not even there a glimmered eye
floating on her now-mustached face
as gravity lays her one last place
I had a lot of baggage
A life time’s worth
Just like anyone else who’d spiraled the sun 70 times and more
Dragging all the debris of living’s mess
You’d been bad and good, or maybe just waffling along
Hedging all your bets, playing it safe.
And here towards the final verses
You found you’d blown it
All the savings, the careful steps
The well-considered investments all erased
Just like you’d be.
Looking in the mirror the flesh sagged like all your peers
Gravity was working on the same stuff
And likewise your spirit limped
No longer limpid when you thought you knew it all
And now know you know almost nothing.
what’s left is ever less
the yawning eons of childhood now shriveled as one’s skin
the seeming infinite closes in
time diminishes to imagined years,
seasons, days, hours, and less
until so little one is no more.