BootsnAll Travel Network

Birth, death, and the inbetween

This week was Seth’s birthday! Happy birthday, Seth! He’s thirty-three. Wonderful number, wonderful age. He was an enormous fat Buddha of a baby, nearly ten pounds at birth, who came to light in New Orleans with an air of wisdom and wonder. He didn’t cry when he was born. I did LaMaze, so he wasn’t drugged, and the doctor didn’t slap him on the bottom because he was so large and well-developed at birth, he just took a big breath, opened his eyes wide, and was fully present before the cord was even cut. His mouth made a perfect O, and he gasped and waved his arms in the air as if to say, “Oh, wow! Lights! Colors! Action! Look at this!”

During the pregnancy I had a day job, a night job, and a weekend job, and I typed dissertations for students at Tulane, so I was able to pay for the hospital in advance, and we went home to a one-bedroom apartment on St. Charles Avenue, where I had created a sunny nest for the two of us. Leif and her then-husband Mischa drove us home from the hospital on September 21st, and they left apples and cheese. Charlie and Leslie Bishop brought over a big pot of gumbo and a bag of carrots that Leslie had washed and scraped clean. Cresap and Jean Watson brought me a case of Guinness Stout because it was supposed to encourage breast-milk production, or that was Cresap’s theory anyway. Cresap was the head of the English Department at the University of New Orleans, an Irish Lit. specialist who drank too much. I was an English major in grad school, and my buddies would come over and read poetry, talk about our classes and readings, and drink the Guinness with me. Seth took it all in, beaming and peaceful, probably a little tipsy from the Guinness I passed on to him.

It was the hippie heyday and the early days of the women’s movement in New Orleans. Chris Shearhouse, who lived in the famous Marengo Street Commune, died suddenly from a ruptured spleen when Seth was three weeks old. As soon as I heard, I went to the commune, where everyone was sitting in a circle, crying and passing a joint. Several joints. I sat down in the circle, and the person next to me took Seth, held him for a while, and then passed him to the next person. In all about thirty-five people passed Seth around the circle, each of them gazing into his eyes as only a group of grief-stricken stoned hippies could do. Seth was completely happy to be passed around, and he gazed back at each man, woman, or child, and each of them was calmed and centered by the time they passed him on. That’s the kind of baby he was. Utterly peaceful, with a gentle gravitas. Word got around that he was a reincarnated lama.

Flash forward thirty-three years. Seth is on the road in a touring bus, engineering sound for a succession of rock stars. I don’t know and don’t ask if beer (Guinness or otherwise) and marijuana are part of the scene.

One of my neighbors, three stairways down the row toward the dumpster, was found dead in his apartment two days ago. He was probably in his fifties–slightly bald, slightly paunchy, with wire-rimmed glasses. He would nod when I said hello, but he never initiated a greeting. He seemed to be away most of every week, was only around on weekends. Nobody in the complex knew his name. I think he did something with computers. In three years I never saw anyone enter his apartment with him, never saw any evidence that he had friends or family. Today the custodians emptied his house and took everything directly to the dumpster. They bagged his belongings in large clear-plastic bags, everything just tossed together, visible to the whole world: shirts, ziploc bags, piles of paper and envelopes, file folders, underwear, packs of spaghetti, framed paintings, his desk and office chair, a couple of uncomfortable-looking wicker chairs, and one of those home gyms with weights and a bar hanging from the top. I stood at the top of my landing and gazed quietly and sadly as everything in that man’s life went into the dumpster.

Sometimes the veil of Maya shifts just a little. We get a glimpse of the veil itself, the illusions we all live by. And then it falls back into place and we go on as before, attending meetings, sending memos, checking our email, worrying about our bank accounts and credit card balances. The veil slipped for me as I looked down on the artifacts of my neighbor’s life on Seth’s thirty-third birthday. Between the peace I saw on Seth’s face the day he was born, and the peace my quiet neighbor has now entered: so much running around. So much effort. So much drama.

I came into my peaceful house and pulled out my Mary Oliver collection and read again from one of my favorite poems, called “When Death Comes”:

“when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness.”

Seth at the moment of his birth, opening his eyes in that hospital room blazing with light.

“and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,”

that quiet man with his balding head, his soft belly.

“and each name”
(I don’t know his name)
“a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.”

I wonder in what ways my neighbor had to be a lion of courage. Was he peaceful in the solitude of his apartment, or lonely? Was his death “natural,” or a suicide? Had he always been single? What childhood did he remember or forget? Did he dream of retiring from his computer job? Was he close to retirement age? Did he leave a Will? Did a family member order that all the contents of his apartment be thrown away? Why do I wonder these things? Eventually all of the stuff of our lives ends in a trash heap.

“When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.”

My neighbor’s box springs and mattress are stacked against the dumpster. He had a double bed. Some of his picture frames jut out of the top of the dumpster. I see among them an African batik: two women outlined against a blazing sunset. Maybe he spent time in Africa.

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