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Each of us owes the universe a death

By Fred Wistow

Nobody is interested in hearing about deaths, unless they can be made pleasing or amusing.
—Edmund Wilson

When my mother screamed into the phone for me to get over there, “Daddy’s dead,” a long waiting period ended. My father’s failing health over several years had left him almost helpless; he had demanded and received from my mother as much care and supervision as an infant.

At their apartment lay my father—the inert body of my father—on the carpet which he had, in his first posthumous act, soiled. A few hours earlier, sitting listlessly in front of the television set on a late Sunday afternoon, he had stirred into half-marvelled consciousness as an instant replay showed Jack Nicklaus sinking an impossible putt. Later, after a snack, as my mother cleaned the dishes, he fell off his chair and died. Hearing the thud, she ran in from the kitchen to discover his body on the floor. Now, before me, he was no longer an animate object. Motionless, LIFE-LESS, he, it, lay there, an unwanted piece of furniture soon to be carted away by special movers.

We waited for my brother and his family. The police and funeral parlor people arrived. They performed their jobs with a mechanical concern more irritating than indifference. We wanted more, to have something explained, transformed, restored. But they did not give us more. They couldn’t.

My father was dead, and for me that meant, on the most profound level, that his ability to speak, to smile, even to blink, all those magical talents were gone. No matter how rigid and stiff, how dead I’d thought his personality had come to be, all that was purely metaphorical. This being rolled out the door on a stretcher was dead, this unmoving, never-to-move-again, former human being, my father.

Not wanting to confront the removal of his body and his companionship, my mother scrubbed the stain he had left.


I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work, I want to achieve it through not dying.
—Woody Allen

Lauren Bacall, Phyllis Newman and other show business people are recognizable in the audience at the Shubert Theatre. Onstage, ten other celebrities await their turn to eulogize. Family members sit in the front orchestra. The public, too, has been invited, privileged to be part of this select group celebrating the memory of the recently-deceased lyric writer Alan Jay Lerner.

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