You open your windows to good air
...you gulp and deeply inhale
as if you have a death sentence. You have.
—Stephen Dunn, “Before the Sky Darkens”
Our first lovestruck summer, on a road trip to the California coast, my soon-to-be wife and I drove all night through the Mojave in order to not drive through it during the day. Even past midnight, it was ninety degrees. Hours of driving from darkness into darkness, the only light from oncoming cars and our own headlights reflecting red in the eyeshine of jackrabbits, a phalanx of them gone tharn along the roadside. Beyond that, a darkness so complete it had no contours, no texture.
Which is why the sudden cluster of lights was so startling. Rendered by memory to a still image, it was a freeze-frame explosion after all that night—a scrum of headlights, crisscross of flashlights, silent red pulse from the ambulance, each light with a flitting halo of moths and gnats. The trickle of cars clogged to a slow crawl, a rolling gawk.
Red flares meant a scene lit from the knees down: blue and chrome of a motorcycle’s undercarriage, a sand berm scattered with shattered glass. Nearly white with the light they caught and held, the soles of two cowboy boots, unmoving. A length of blue jeans, a dark plaid shirt. A head and face lost, thankfully, to the shadows.
Cops with walkie-talkies stared and paced, waved us on by.
So even during that highway time of my hand perpetually on her thigh—there to confirm she still wanted me beside her, would always want me beside her—in the middle of that love, of that desert, of that night, death was clearly, relentlessly present.
We knew the man was dead because no one hurried.
With a skull-emblazoned clock to the left and a sepia-toned graveyard to the right, the website’s red title reads simply, yet ominously, The Death Clock. Below, sans serif, is a welcome to “the internet’s friendly reminder that life is slipping away...second by second,” followed by a series of drop-down menus in which you enter your date of birth, sex, body mass index, if you’re an optimist or pessimist, and whether or not you smoke. With these vitals and a stats mash-up from medical journals and the CIA’s World Factbook entry on life expectancy, DeathClock.com kindly calculates your remaining time on the planet.
I, with great thanks to my solid Polish peasant stock, will apparently make it to ninety-five, dying Monday, September 9, 2075. Meaning, as I write this, I have just under two billion more seconds to live. Meaning I’ll die as summer gives way to fall, on the brink of the Jewish new year, just short of the Days of Awe—those ten days of atonement that could have potentially left my soul clean and white as a sheet fresh on the line.
If I knew it were true, if I knew my body would last six more decades and no catastrophe would intervene, would I live with more or less urgency? And what would it be like to die on a Monday? I’ve lived enough of them that the day has far greater significance than the year. 2075, such an abstract number, what will it bring? What new pandemics, wars, extinctions? Will I have to scuba dive to visit my childhood home in Florida? And, most importantly, will my wife be there, in that number, with me?
Married now, we’ve added to our own lives the shared one we build between us daily. I imagine looking at the bedside table. If there are flowers, peonies brought in from our garden, it means she’s still alive, still vital enough to stoop and tend, to bring forth the beauty for which I have neither knowledge nor patience. Yet The Death Clock, random as real death, gives her until only 2055. Which means I’d die twice—once, with her death; again, after twenty years of shadow living without her. Death, at that point, would be something to be not postponed but welcomed.
According to the Talmud, there are 903 types of death. The easiest is described as a kiss given to tzadikim, the holy ones whose spiritual attachment to God is so great it takes only one small divine gesture, one radiant kiss, before their souls detach from their bodies to join the energy around them—this yielding, this coalescence, the moment for which they’ve been waiting all along.
For the rest of us, the separation of soul from body is less a slipping away than a wrenching. And the more invested we are in the material over the spiritual, the more wedded we are to our bodies, the more difficult this inevitable disunion. The Talmud compares this most difficult type of death to pulling a thorn backward out of a ball of tightly wound wool.
Never having cared much for material things, I fear my wife is the world with which I am entangled.
The hour of my grandmother’s death—twelve years after the death of my grandfather—her body silent and breath-halted beneath the sheets, I noticed the orchid was dying. The violet one in a pot perched to the right of the television, the one I’d found my eyes drifting to during Oprah or Ellen or whatever else my half-asleep grandmother half watched as her hand fell slack in mine. I plucked the flower from its stem and cupped it in my palm.
Almost without weight, the orchid felt like a key, like a way back to the moment of her death, awful as it was, and then back to the moment just before it, when my grandmother was still my grandmother, the her-ness of her not yet gone.
I found a leather-bound dictionary on her desk in which to press it. Opening the book at random, I saw at the very bottom of the page an unknown word—than·a·top·sis (th¯an’ə-t˘op’s˘ıs), n. [thanatos, death + opsis, a sight] a view of, or a musing upon death, as in a poem—and felt for a moment that if there is a God, it is a God with gallows humor.
Yet as the detailed machinery of mourning was set in motion—the time of the funeral decided, the rabbi secured, the necessary phone calls made—to resist despair, I found myself searching for the word’s antonym.
Maybe thaumatography, a work written on the wonders of nature, from the Greek thaumato, “a wondrous thing, a thing to look at”? But that was just a blue-sky view of life with no real-world city grit. Pastoral? Too many shepherds and sun-kissed fields. Perhaps the reason no word exactly means a view of, or a musing upon life, as in a poem is that every poem, even those about death, are views on life. And the best poems are those that write the daily, the seen-so-often as to no longer be seeable, in a way that makes it new—those poems that give the world back to us.
So maybe reading and writing are means to living well: reading, the closest we can get to thinking another’s thoughts, to vicariously living out lives beyond our own, and writing as a way to pluck a moment from time and hold it close, to turn it and turn it in your hand and view it from all angles—experiencing, learning about, then reexperiencing life as we find the words to write it all down (experience after all from the Latin experientia, “knowledge gained by repeated trials”).
But however they enlarge us, writing is lonely work, reading a solitary occupation.
At eighty-five, after a decade of chemo strafing her brain, leaving it broken as a bombed-out city, my grandmother had a peripatetic relationship with time. She traveled through it in circles, touching down lightly on islands of memory, moments from her fifty-plus years of marriage, from times with her children and grandchildren: how my grandfather laughed every time she rolled up to a McDonald’s takeout window for her beloved soft serve and, though their cones came in only one size, ordered “a large cone, please” to subconsciously influence them into giving her a bigger serving; how the two of them had taken up roller skating in their forties and snow skiing in their fifties; how the best way to get me to sleep as a baby was for her to dance me around the room singing Rosemary Clooney’s “Buffalo Gals.”
In her final months, a time before my wife in which I was single and able to work remotely, I flew home to Florida to visit her as often as I could. When she felt well enough to venture into the living room, we’d sit together on the couch, watching the citrus-bright light change outside her window, talking when she was able, hearing those same stories again and again. But each day, I learned something new: her fingers were close to half an inch longer than mine; we had the same color eyes.
When her mind faltered, seeking solid ground, she’d pause, then deliver what I came to think of as her refrain, “I had a wonderful husband, a loving family, and, if I have to be sick, at least I have this beautiful view where I have so much light and can watch the wind move through the trees. Even on days when it rains and the sky is dark, I’m thankful for this view.”
So as all the memories and manners we think of as making the self a self wore away, they exposed not anger at the failures of her body and mind, but a bedrock of kindness, a deep, abiding gratitude for the life she had lived. But what moved her most when she lapsed into the past—that’s what I’d missed when trying to find a way forward for myself: it wasn’t work or ideas or external achievements that sustained her, but family, the connections made through a life of caring for others and being cared for in return.
And by the end, she was ready. She asked for death, trusting she’d lived a good life just as she trusted herself to an unknown preferable to all the known physical pain.
The day she died, I raced a borrowed bicycle down a road with orange groves on either side. Each tree I passed was an orange constellation, each grove a mythology already well on its way to rotting by February. Being so close to death had unmoored me. All the stories she told at the end looped through my mind, but the details were already running together, and I could no longer ask her to clarify. Giant oaks towered above the intersections, thick with tattered pennants of moss, casting all possible new directions into deep shadow. I rode forward without looking side to side, not wanting to make any choices.
The truck came from nowhere. Its cab, a blue no darker than the day.
Instinct said, Go back, go forward, go slower, go faster, go, just go, but I stopped instead. Didn’t move. Couldn’t. Stood static and footed, entombed in the blare of horn as it swerved so close I could feel the exact distance between my head and the side mirror. So close I smelled the driver’s cigarette before she left me in the middle of the intersection, straddling the bike, that forgotten means of movement, alone with my body’s still weight.
Close your eyes and repeat after me:
What if death comes today?
Open your eyes and remember:
When death comes, it’s always today.
In the intersection, adrenaline metaled my mouth and spiked questions through my useless shaking hands. I’d always believed that within me was a fierceness ingrained and automatic as a heartbeat, a will that would fight to the last to keep me living. Yet in the face of almost certain death, I’d done nothing. Had given up. If we are as much in the process of dying as living, then what inside me was dead already? Is accepting death the same as wanting it? Perhaps witnessing my grandmother’s death had brought me to a place of acceptance for my own. Or perhaps I was too scared to push back against fate; perhaps I was simply a coward.
Back home after the California road trip with my wife, I went on a long bike ride and got caught in a downpour, the rain so heavy my wheels left a small wake on the road. When I finally made it home, knuckles clenched and white with cold, my wife was in the bath. Shivering, dripping sweat and rain water on the bathroom rug, I knelt to kiss her while thunder flexed the windowpanes. She responded by wrapping me in her arms and pulling me, fully clothed, into the tub.
Once I’d stopped laughing and wriggled free of the sodden spandex, I held her to my chest, twining my legs around hers, candlelight flickering across the ceiling as I lost my body’s edges to the body-temperature water, to her skin against mine.
Whatever The Death Clock may say, my death is as certain as its exact time is not. Yet the Talmud teaches sleep is one-sixtieth of death. Which means I practice dying nightly.
But if that truck came again today, I’d like to believe I’d act differently—would act, period, with more than just myself in mind.
So much of what I do, have done, since then, is push back against that moment of inaction. To insist with every mile I bike or run that I can thrive in difficulty, that I believe my life, this body, my wife, is worth working for, worth pushing back against even what might feel like fate.
“The difference between the state of man before Adam’s Fall and after is expressed through the nature of skin,” Allen Afterman wrote in Kabbalah and Consciousness. “According to the Midrash, the original skin of Adam and Eve was white light (chasmal)...After the primordial sin, God clothed Adam and Eve with ‘skin clothing’...coarse ‘skins’ somewhat analogous to scar tissue...snake’s skin.”
When we’re husked in our bodies and amply clothed, we feel safe, protected, and held in. Disrobing is an act of vulnerability, as, I imagine, is dying. But perhaps, as with snakes, molting our bodies, our old coarse skins, is a way to grow.
I want to believe this, I do; I want to find comfort in this thought. But love complicates everything, makes death something with which I cannot be at peace. With every new person I care for, with every moment of joy I share with my wife, it feels like I’m multiplying my potential future grief, like I’m inviting a magnitude of despair I’m not sure I can manage. Now when she leaves the house, every “I love you” is paired with “Be careful,” worry a coarse weight, a rough skin straightjacketing my own.
In the period immediately after the death of a relative but before burial, a person is said to be in aninut, a state of deep grief, which Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik characterized as “an outcry, a shout, or a howl of grisly horror and disgust...[when] man responds to his defeat at the hands of death with total resignation and with an all-consuming, masochistic, self-devastating black despair.”
A person in aninut is called an onen and is relieved of the responsibilities of all positive commandments, allowed for this brief period to give themselves to distress.
Both terms come from the root aven, which means “curved, hollow, pressed.” Just as in this immediacy of grief you are hollowed, a shuck collapsing into the space, now empty, your loved one once occupied.
Buddhist death meditations suggest that a way to live without fear of death is to imagine not just your own death, but the death of those you love. On a night when she’s gone out, I put on a recording of a cantor chanting the Song of Songs in Hebrew. I fear I’m punishing myself to imagine this, but I need to find a way out of this gnawing dread.
Closing my eyes, I enter a sanctuary within the cantor’s singing. In that space, I find her: beside a basin built for mikvahs—the ritual baths of purification—on a slab lined with emerald-colored tiles, there is my wife’s body. There are no wounds, no wasting, no advanced age. This is the body of the woman I kissed awake this morning. I don’t know how she died. My mind simply won’t allow such speculation.
Around her, the walls are papered with prayers in Hebrew, a language she couldn’t read. But in my imagining of her death, this Jewish rite, the taharah, is the only one I know. Just as a seed planted in the ground must first slough its pod, losing itself to the soil in order to flower, I am here to bathe the body that held her, to help prepare her for this passage.
Though I don’t know if I can bear this, to think of anyone else doing it is far worse. Taking a step closer, I want to wish I’d died first, but I would never wish this pain on her.
The ritual is this: take a clean white cloth, dampen it, and begin with the head; move down, right side then left, front before back. I am supposed to pray. I have the option to sing. I begin with the words engraved in our wedding rings, Ani l’dodi; v’dodi li: I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine. I can feel the weight of her head in my hands, the head I held how many nights when she rested on my chest, a sweet anchor pressing me to the bed. Here, its full weight, without her help to lift it. Her hair, her hair, that mass of beautiful dead cells. The rest of her now just as lifeless. I bury my fingers in it, bring it to my lips. Her face. I can barely look but must touch every crease and curve, the softness of her eyelids, the more prominent vein of her right temple, her lips that took me in, that brought her out, her words, her breath by which I timed my days. But it is the small freckle on her left eyelid that undoes me, the one normally covered by eyeliner, the one she said I was the first to notice. This is not just a body; it is her body. I run my hands, a cloth, over each limb, watch the water find her closed pores, trace the lines of her arms. Her breasts, her belly, her never-quite-right feet that I rubbed and rubbed to ease the miles out, to bring her closer to me. I can go no further. I can’t get to her back, cannot turn her away from me.
Jewish custom dictates mourners practice kriah, the tearing of their garments as a sign of mourning. A rabbi often helps by making a first, small cut in the fabric, the cut made on or near the heart to act as a vent for sorrow, to create an opening through which a person can express her grief. I tear off everything I have on—shirt, pants, everything but my wedding ring. A ring identical to the one she wears, though she is no longer there to know it.
I lower her into the bath and get in, too, sliding myself behind her as I did in our clawfoot tub, where she leaned into my arms, my chin resting on one of her shoulders, my arms wrapped around her, her hands reaching up to hold mine. Here, an onen, I take her, best I can, into my arms this way, fit her to the hollow she has left in me. The water is cold, the marble holding it colder. Can I stay long enough that my body will drop to the same chill as hers? Can I let the cold bring me to her? I want to stay long enough to have one last moment in which our bodies join, in which we are seamless, in which she is my love and she is anything but dead, anything but gone from me.
Now, like a small talisman, I carry this imagined memory in my chest, a reminder away from each day’s irritations and concerns, as a prod toward tenderness, toward awareness for all that is passing—which is everything.
My birth date, that first parentheses, is the bottom sheet on every bed I’ve ever known, cool and clean and sturdy enough to be both my swaddling blanket and the first half of my burial shroud. If I can learn death well enough, can hold it close and quiet enough to know the name it most likes to be called, the short or long of those syllables, if I know the musk in the crook of its neck, the scent that trails it like a deep shadow, like a sweet dog, then perhaps that second parentheses can be less a brick wall I’m racing toward without a helmet, less a whisper from a dark bush on a road where all the flickering streetlights are one flicker from failure, and more a top sheet—cool and inviting as the one we fold down each night to slip into our bed.
What I want most is to live a life of enough kindness and fulfillment that I can ease between those two sheets, can give myself calmly enough to death that I can hold every memory of her in my arms, can trust that however long I dream, however far we range, we’ll find each other, just as we did in this life, death something even close to a kiss.