Each of Us Owes the Universe a Death

Magazine Issue
July/August 2011

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.

The event consists of musical selections and gentle reminiscences that poke respectful fun. The audience learns that Alan was an urbane and witty gentleman genius; that he was a loving father who, married eight times, had a passion for women; that his death left a vacancy in the hearts of those who knew him; and that when everyone in the theater has turned to dust, his lyrics will live on for millions yet unborn. An old film clip of Rex Harrison singing “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” reveals how sophisticated and beautiful those lyrics could be.

But the remembrances are curiously unmoving. However deeply Leonard Bernstein, Kitty Carlisle Hart, and the others may be feeling Lerner’s loss, their grief is not apparent. The impression they give is more like “I hope someone does this for me when I go” than “I miss this guy.” Perhaps cynicism is unfair. A public ceremony like this has its own rituals; wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeve may not be one of them.

Paradoxically, it is the usually very proper, very English Julie Andrews who triggers the strongest emotions. She remembers being a young actress not fully aware of the immense gift Alan bestowed on her some 30 years ago when he helped train her for the part of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. She wishes she had let him know how much she appreciated what he had given her. Amidst the event’s clubby sense of professionalism, here is the clearest hint of a human being lurking beneath the glittery facade of celebrity.

Aside from Julie, though, the celebration is disappointingly flat, lacking that special mixture of joy and sorrow—of life—that the circumstances promised. There is a staleness in the air. Nothing is capturing the fact that Alan himself is now DEAD.

But is he?

Everything seems to say otherwise. Because the art he produced and bequeathed is eternal, it is as if he has not died after all. He has left his mark upon the world, and in that mark he lives. There is something comforting about this immortality: a life has not been obliterated. In a way that is impossible for the billions who live and die unknown, remembered only by a few, death has been defeated.

Then something extraordinary happens. Someone announces that one of Alan’s surviving children, Susan, “is not here today. She died a little while ago.” A gasp runs through the audience. Death is not supposed to behave this way, is it? Striking again, so soon, so close? A blunt reminder has been delivered. Our hope of a refuge—of death contained, death transcended—is a fiction.

Having set loose our insecurities one more time, death moves away. Then, slowly, the soothing balm of reminiscence spreads itself out again. The celebration closes with Alan himself singing “Camelot” on the video monitor. Order has been restored.


No people who turn their backs on death can be alive. The presence of the dead among the living will be a daily fact in any society which encourages its people to live. Huge cemeteries on the outskirts of cities, or in places no one ever visits, impersonal funeral rites, taboos which hide the fact of death from children, all conspire to keep the fact of death away from us, the living.
—Christopher Alexander

Early on the morning after my father died, the day he would be buried, my mother angrily emptied the drawers and closets and threw his clothes and artifacts on the floor. From the pile she withdrew a few items—the dark brown plaid flannel shirt she now wears to bed on very cold nights was one—and instructed my sister-in-law and me to get rid of the rest.

We packed the objects filled with my father into trash bags, loaded them into the car and deposited them at a Goodwill collection point which, for some odd reason, I had remembered passing. We searched a while for a place to unload his walker and the combination toilet-wheelchair contraption he had used in his last months and finally found a giant dumpster in an industrial area nearby.

On the way back we stopped at the funeral parlor. There, guided by the mortician through the crowded cellar showroom, I chose, from among a startling array of options of varying price and quality, my father’s casket.

Back at the apartment, my two teenage nieces waited in silence for my mother’s next outburst of tears and self-recriminations. Meanwhile, in the bedroom, my brother was sleeping off last night’s long drive from New England and his hangover. My brother and I were continuing our life-long roles: one, the good boy, well-behaved, helpful; the other, a slackabout, letting others do whatever needed to be done.

And, even without my father being present, the family continued to act as it generally did, silently watching my mother display emotion for all of us.

The funeral party consisted of my mother, my brother and his wife, their two kids, my father’s corpse, and me. No relatives were invited; all contact with them had long since died away. My parents had no friends to call either. It was as if my father had gone and done something shameful by dying, or maybe even by living, and it was our duty to hide that disgraceful act from view as quickly and as quietly as possible. We did our job. The service was brief.

The coffin was lowered into a freshly dug hole beside a scrawny young tree. We were in a section of the cemetery now only beginning to be occupied. Years earlier, my mother had purchased four adjacent plots at the site. This was the first to be used.

As we drove away, I saw my father pointing weakly to a patch of gray stubble in the creases below his chin, a patch I always seemed to miss while shaving him. I smelled once more, beneath the superficial fragrances of after-shave and talcum, that sickly-sweet stink of age and illness and impending death that both touched and repulsed me.

I asked the driver to stop. I got out to walk back to the grave. I wanted to help the gravediggers bury my father. It was something a friend had done at his father’s funeral, something that had sounded melodramatic when I heard about it, but now felt exactly right. So sudden and inexplicable a reaction was unusual for me; I was the one family member who did not act impulsively. Then I heard the impatient cries of “Get back in the car” and “What are you doing?” and felt I was holding everybody up from doing something important. I got back in.

An hour after returning to my mother’s apartment, my brother drove off, taking his family with him. My mother, afraid to reveal a need that might not be met, supported his decision to get back to work.

She vehemently objected to my decision to take the week off and stay with her: I was going to leave her alone in a week anyway, so why not get on with it now? I didn’t really want to stay. I wanted to flee as much as my brother did, but I couldn’t. I could not bear the image of my being the one to leave her totally alone in that apartment.

Later she confessed how grateful she was for my refusal to leave. I was glad, too. I needed to be away from people. I needed time to face what now looked like the absurd pointlessness of my father’s life and my own.

That night I said yes to everything my mother wanted to cook for me. As we ate, she would suddenly break into tears and hit the table as if the whole thing could have been averted, as if the death had been her fault, as if this or that event had done it to him. Her shrieks penetrated to my bones. I felt helpless to comfort her and angry that I had to try.

“Ma,” I’d argue stupidly, as if the content of what I said were relevant, “he was 82. He didn’t just suddenly die. He was an old man, a very old man. He lived a long life. You’re supposed to die at that age. It’s nobody’s fault. He was lucky he lived as long as he did.”

“No,” she rushed on, not hearing me, angering me still further, going on as if he should have lived forever. It was that fall he took three weeks ago, or those lousy hoodlums who mugged him ten years ago, or how he worked his guts out for his sons. “If you only knew how much he loved you two guys.”

“I know Ma, but it’s not like this was a surprise.”

Failure is much commoner than success, though it has seldom been accorded even a small corner in the work of historians; it is also more endearing, and much more human. No death can ever be dismissed as banal, even if it cannot aspire to the proud luxury of a tombstone—a bold claim on the future.
—Richard Cobb

It was two a.m. A flash of red light splashed across the familiar cracks in the sidewalk that were guiding me home. I looked up to see a police car, and a few feet behind it, a dead body. The superintendent’s son was lying in the middle of the street. Someone had removed his Mets windbreaker and thrown it over his head.

“What happened?” I asked a cop.

“He got into a fight and somebody hit him over the head with a baseball bat.” I cringed, feeling the dull thwack that smashed the life out of him, marking the moment that separated living consciousness from inert mass.

What, I thought, trying to bring a historical perspective to that moment, was today’s date? July 9, 1971. No, it was already July 10th.

A chill accompanied my realization that earlier that very day, while it was still July 9th, and no one knew what was going to happen in the early morning of the 10th, I had argued with him and his father about fixing the broken refrigerator in my apartment. He had stood in the doorway to his basement apartment wearing a T-shirt, holding a newspaper open to the racing page, explaining with excuses that were clearly lies why he could not do the job. How angry his arrogance had made me.

Now, only a dozen hours later, he was dead. Somebody else had confronted that arrogance head-on. Blood covered his T-shirt. The racing page he’d held would be the last he’d ever see. He’d never see the July 10th edition of the Daily News, nor the next day’s paper or the next.

Would the story of his own death make the paper? I wondered. I pictured the giant presses of the News somewhere in Manhattan, churning out their product. It was probably too late for this story to appear. Would it make tomorrow’s late editions? Or the six o’clock news? The 19-year-old son of an anonymous Puerto Rican superintendant: would the smashing in of his skull merit attention? Would the rest of the world slow down long enough to notice his death? And if it did, so what? Whether the item appeared as headline or filler, or not at all, he wouldn’t be around to witness it.

As I turned to go upstairs, I noticed the silent crowd, unusually large for this hour, staring aimlessly at his body. Another 20 or so surveyed the scene from windows overhead. Tomorrow our own lives, our own problems, would regain center stage, and we could once again forget the lesson of mortality that this motionless body was now teaching us. For now, a respectful quiet hung over the block.


As the days go by,
I keep thinking,
“When does it end?
Where’s the day I’ll have
started forgetting?”
But I just go on
Thinking and sweating
And cursing and crying
And turning and reaching
And waking and dying And no,
Not a day goes by,
Not a blessed day
But you’re still somehow
a part of my life.
And you won’t go away.

—Stephen Sondheim

The death of my father interfered with the realization of a long-talked-about family fantasy. My brother had finished converting the basement of his New England home into a place for my parents to live. Without my father to join her, my mother at first refused to move. Some weeks later, however, she consented to a weekend trial run, but just for one night.

The morning after that first night she announced that she was never going back to the apartment where my father died. And she never did. She moved into the basement. Between her and the rest of the household she erected a Chinese wall on a foundation of shame and gratitude.

She consigned herself to the physical care and supervision of my brother and his wife, and I, at long distance, became responsible for her emotional well-being. Her children were taking over for her husband. And was it ever any different? Perhaps I just gave up fighting it, and my brother stopped running from it. Several of the physical ailments she had left untreated during my father’s last years finally got taken care of. And to me, living 200 miles away, she could express the loneliness she felt she had to hide from the people with whom she now shared a house.

We began a semi-annual pilgrimage.

My mother would come to New York and I would take her to my father’s grave. There, as if on cue, hysteria would reign. She’d cry and wail, “Why did you have to go? Why didn’t you take me with you?” I felt pushed further into the role of parent and resented having to watch over her, having to let her emotional outbursts and needs predominate. She’d forget I was there, then remember, then balance her statements, editing as she went. “Why did you leave me? I’m all alone. I have nothing to live for. . . . I mean, of course, I have the boys, but you promised you’d never leave me.”

A few feet away, I would squirm, self-righteously enduring this outrageous display. I wondered if I missed the man at all. What ever had he given me? Did he leave a void or just some burden? I couldn’t tell, the experience was so totally devoted to my mother’s needs. Here she was, specially dressed in old clothes for the occasion, lying on the ground beside the grave and, to my embarrassed eyes, playing a scene, badly.

I felt pre-empted. It seemed only a husband was lost, never a father. I realized that in the years since his death, and aside from my mother’s histrionics, my family had honored my father with silence. We rarely mentioned him, and never expressed what, if anything, we felt, either about his life or the fact that he was gone. Our family’s muteness had swallowed him whole. With friends I had discussed him at length and often bitterly, but never with my mother or my brother.

To offset the agony of our cemetery visits, I insisted on committing the sin of taking my mother to a restaurant. She would attack me and my idea viciously, railing on about the waste of money, the dishonor to my father of introducing pleasure into the procedure, and even admitting embarrassment at how she looked. In time I added a Broadway show to the ritual. “We’re not dead,” I’d argue half-heartedly. In time she came to look forward to what she had once fought.

As the years passed, slowly but unmistakably, it became clear that my mother’s seemingly endless tears and fits were subsiding. The positive aspect of my father’s death was having its effect. His constant complaining was gone. So too was the thankless caretaking she had managed to perform under crisis conditions, expecting death at any moment. She started acting and looking younger. My nerves became less raw. I reacted to her less out of anger and self-righteousness, more with patience and reassurance. Gradually her panic lessened.

Changes were taking place, but always individually, never family-style. In addition to her move from the city, my mother started taking sewing classes at the Y. My brother wound up in an alcohol rehabilitation clinic where he kicked his 20-year-old drinking problem. And my incessant depression brought me to a shrink. We were treating our addictions.

On the fourth anniversary of Nicklaus’ putt, we went to visit my father yet again. This time my brother joined us. Our corner of the cemetery was becoming more populated; the tombstones of new neighbors blocked our view as we approached.

My father’s absence had by now become less a trauma and more a soft ache. My mother’s old theatricality had nearly vanished. She tenderly hugged his headstone and sobbed. Then, murmuring gently, she rested her head on the hard stone slab as if it were a pillow. My brother stood off to the side in the shade of the tree and cried. I loved them at that moment as they let their feelings take hold of them without their customary need for hysteria or flight.

I saw these three people anew. Yes, for there too, a few feet below us, confused and touched by this outpouring was my father. Separate and awkwardly solitary they were, heavenly bodies destined to orbit in isolation, yet exerting on each other and on me a silent gravitational pull of enormous intensity. The forces and the bonds had weakened substantially since his death, but they remained far more powerful than any others I had known.

This constellation was more than my family, it was my identity, it was me. We were each less addicted now—to alcohol, to hysteria, to sadness, and to suffering—but we still could not comfort each other. We sought our solace alone, in silence, as if there were something wrong in seeking comfort. We hid openly, in the shade of a tree, with the support of a stone, in the shelter of a coffin and the safety of detachment. Receding from them, I watched, as always, from outside that mysterious triangle of pain and loss and love while somehow being trapped in it too.

From beneath the headstone silently whispering our family name, my father waved goodbye. His burial was almost done.


There is . . . no death. There is only . . . me . . . me . . . who is going to die . . . .
—André Malraux

In a box in a corner, a very dark corner of the mind of each of us, is a voice. The voice says, “I am going to die. One day, I am going to die.”

We tend not to venture near that corner. We rarely listen to that voice. Sometimes it speaks to us so clearly and emphatically that we have to listen. When we’re sick, when we narrowly escape harm, when someone we know dies, we hear it speaking to us. We hear it more frequently as we age, as our bodies fail, as our cumulative experience of death increases. Sometimes the voice emits a powerful, powerful scream that shakes us mercilessly. When someone we love dies, the voice tells us that our life is forever altered, that there is no going back.

The voice reminds us that we are, like everyone else who ever lived, mortal, expendable. How we react to this voice, how we try to block it out, determines how we live our lives.


It is late afternoon on a crisp, clear spring day in New York City. Down the hall, through the 25th floor office windows, are visible hundreds of buildings—the breathtaking skyscape of New York. But the sight is tempered by a telephone call I’ve just received. A fellow worker is in the hospital, seriously ill. The shock of the news leaves me uneasy. I’ll visit him tomorrow.

My energies turn to a minor problem. Unexpectedly, I have an extra ticket to a play this evening; a friend has cancelled at the last minute. I don’t want the money to go to waste so I start calling people to see if anyone’s available. One by one they politely reject the offer; other plans and desires stand in their way. The fact that the play is Hamlet does not ease my task.

Each time I hang up the phone, I feel a mounting sense of isolation. Everybody’s readiness to do other things, to keep going their own way, in spite of my dilemma, is having a surprisingly intense effect on me. Each rejection seems terminal. I feel helpless, almost nonexistent. I can see how I’m overdramatizing things, but I can’t seem to help it. I’m gone.

After the fifth call I must stop. Exactly how I got there I don’t know, but I’m feeling the frightening sensation of what the world would be like if I were dead: how it would simply go on, impervious to my absence, just as it already seemed to be going on as if I weren’t there.

I walk to the end of the hall. The floor is empty, people have gone home for the day. Through a window, I can see the spring sunset illuminating the rows of buildings standing guard over the green carpet of Central Park. It is an awesome display. They are the world, a massive line-up of beautiful solidity, majestic indifference, filled with invisible people making love, having fights, watching TV. A dark spot, the shadow of a cloud, passes over the soft green tufts of trees. Off to the left I see the hospital I’ll be visiting tomorrow. In the distance, the George Washington Bridge connects this hyperactive island to the rest of the planet.

I think of my father, and the other people I’ve known who have died. They are memories to a handful. The world, serenely and implacably, has moved on. The buildings show their blind faces to today’s setting sun. Tomorrow the rains will wash them clean for the next day’s sun whose memory will be washed away by the rain of the day thereafter and history will continue to unfold, unaffected, as if those lives had never happened.

Now, as I look out through the window and see in their fate my own, I am stunned. I am dizzied by the beauty of the scene before me and how it reflects the fragility of my own life. A deep loneliness overcomes me as my body fully absorbs the simple, unavoidable notion that one day this scene will be when I am not.

Then, as unexpectedly as it appeared, my lonely panic transforms itself. I feel calm. The dispensability I share with the rest of humanity is reassuring. The realization of my mortality has somehow strengthened me: there is simply nothing I can do about it. However I die, or when, the world outside this window and the infinite masses of things and people beyond my vision will go on just as they do now, inexorably, indifferently. My father finally settles in his grave.

As the sun sets, I bask in the light of a stark truth: my efforts to place the ticket, or, on a grander scale, to leave my mark upon the world, will one day be as comically irrelevant and as fleeting as ghosts on a television screen.

Comforted by that image, shielded by it, I go down to the nighttime streets, off to the play, alone.


Illustration © Marla Baggetta

Fred Wistow

Fred Wistow is a former contributing editor to the Psychotherapy Networker and lives in New York City.