Here’s my latest piece intended for an ongoing book project, a collection of essays on mortality and memory titled ‘Man Has Premonition of Own Death.’
I’m not talking about Michael Jackson’s song. I’m talking about me, and mirrors, and how I just can’t bear to look at myself these days. It’s like I’m looking into a funhouse mirror — except it!s no fun.
This is what I told a friend the other day:
‘I don’t look like me. My face is bloated and red. I had a nice full head of hair. It upsets me -I guess it reminds me that I’m sick… A lot of friends have said they want to meet for lunch or coffee, but I’ve said no, not now, and it’s mostly that I don’t want people to see me like this…so vain, right?
Her reply: First, she completely understood. Second, it was interesting because she’d read about the self-image issues faced by women in similar situations, but not about men feeling the same way. Third, she said ‘You look just fine.’
So, yes, that made me feel better. But vanity, thy name is Nick.
Guaranteed, then, if I suddenly encounter a mirror or reflection, I’m still going to cringe and cower like a B-movie vampire.
OK, so I’m showing off, quoting Tennyson in the title of this essay — the latest intended for a small-press project, started (ironically enough) before my recent health issues: a collection of literary essays on the subjects of mortality and memories titled ‘Man Has Premonition of Own Death, the headline on a 1920s newspaper article about an ancestor’s surreal and terrible demise.
Anyway, here’s the latest essay:
It’s a trait I inherited from my late father. I well up with tears when George Bailey’s brother shows up at the end of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ — and it happens every time, and even though I’ve seen that movie a hundred times, Zuzu’s damned petals still make my lip quiver.
Worse, really dumb and embarrassing things can make me emotional — like once I stumbled upon a TV show called ‘Undercover Boss’ and the CEO of some fast-food chain gave some well-deserving employee a new car, $25,000 and a family vacation, and I nearly bawled and blubbered like some operatic Italian clown.
Today, though, was different. After emergency surgery several months ago, followed by another medical crisis nearly two weeks ago, I resumed treatments this morning – still confident, feeling fine, but bloated, practically bald, and wary about the effects of this latest round of therapy. A very caring and sweet nurse asked me about my latest ‘adventure’ — and I filled up with tears, couldn’t talk for 10 seconds, and accepted a tissue.
I suppose it’s a good thing to acknowledge. Being sick doesn’t just suck — it’s also sad, and something to think about, and significant, so it would be weird and unnatural to not get emotional about it once in a while.
And I’m fine now: watching some TV and reading some old essays by Annie Dillard, catching myself daydreaming about trips I’d like to make (to Alaska, to my grandparents’ village in Italy – and for yet another writing residency at a beloved artists’ colony in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains) – and hoping someone comes along and gives me $25,000 and a vacation and a new car…and a handful of Kleenex, because…well, there’s that thing about me and Zuzu’s petals….
OK, this will date me, but I’ll point out that I was just a 13-year-old from Yonkers in my first year at Fordham Preparatory School and, being from Yonkers, I may have been totally out of my element among the boys from Scarsdale and Larchmont and Bronxville, but I was cooler than them all, and somehow found my way very quickly to the Fordham University Bookstore on that campus in The Bronx and bought the first record albums I’d ever owned: Let It Bleed by the Rolling Stones, Magical Mystery Tour by The Beatles, and the album by Neil Young and Crazy Horse with “Down by The River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand.”
Yes, very cool for a 13-year-old – but I have to confess the identity of the very first record album I purchased at that university bookstore: the original cast recording of the musical “Hair!” I can’t explain why, so don’t ask.
In any event, hair – not the album, the thing that used to be on top of my head – is much on my mind these days. So much so that I’m inspired to spew this poem that badly echoes the Beat poets of San Francisco (I’ve been reading Richard Brautigan lately), Asian poetry, and the prayer poems of my great friend Robert Lax:
Run my/Hand/Over/My head/I am holding/Handful/Of hair.
Chemotherapy, as the doctor promised, does that and did that. I’ve still got some left, but most of the hair is gone from the top of my head, all within the last two weeks, and who knows if I’ll keep any of the rest.
I know it will grow back. And I like the NY Yankees cap I’ve taken to wearing. But I’ve always taken great and vain pleasure from looking in a mirror and knowing that I’ve never gone bald and only in the past few years acquired a touch of grey. It’s a family trait on my mother’s side of the family – the Nash and Crooks side. My Grandpa Nash still had hair on his head when he died, and his son, my Uncle Elwood, had a full head of hair into his late 70s; my mother’s, her other brother – Uncle Ken – likewise kept his hair. And I’ve been so happy with that family inheritance.
There are other things I could write about my hair. How it once cascaded down to my shoulders – and how one time a guy in college saw me from behind, sitting in a chair, and thought I was a “chick.” I could write about fights I had with my father over the length of my hair – it was a threat to him, I understand now, both in terms of American society at the time and his whole image of himself as a second-generation Italian-American “man of the house.” And I could go back a few years before that, when my father would take me to the barbershop of his cousin Carlo, a hell of a nice guy and one terrible barber.
Or I could just end this by saying that, in my own way, I am pondering my vanity…and mourning my hair…and avoiding mirrors, at least for now.
I’m pleased to report that Blue Heron Book Works has just published a new anthology, “Songs of Ourselves,” which features a variety of personal writings works by 24 different contributors — including a collection of essays by me on death, mortality and bygone lives remembered.
My contribution is gleaned from a larger book project, still in the works, titled “Man Has Premonition of Own Death,” a title inspired by a 1920s-vintage newspaper headline describing the death of one my ancestors, 23-year-old Thomas Crooks — my great-uncle on my mother’s side.
Young Thomas had met his fiancée for a picnic lunch, and was returning to his job at the old Alexander Smith carpet mill in Yonkers, New York, my old hometown. According the newspaper account, “As he was returning to work, he turned to her and said, ‘I am going in. But I shall be carried out.’ ” Within a half-hour, my ancestor had “fallen” into a vat of acid used to cure the fibers used in the carpets. He died soon after at a local hospital in the arm’s of his devastated mother — my maternal great-grandmother.
Two of the essays I contributed to “Songs of Ourselves” contemplate the awful fate of poor Thomas Crooks.
Sounds kind of gloomy for holiday reading? Not really. My contributions to the anthology aren’t grim. They’re sometimes melancholy, sometimes thoughtful, sometimes nostalgic, and mostly a celebration of life — and the fact that I wish it didn’t have to end. I think it’s a perfect reading material for sitting in a comfortable chair — by a crackling fire, perhaps, or sitting near a window as snowflakes swirl and the winter winds whirl — and thinking long, long thoughts of a long, cold winter night…
And that’s just my contribution! “Songs of Ourselves” features an impressive array of works by 23 other very talented writers representing a variety of voices and experiences that would impress even the good gray “Songs of Myself” bard himself!
It’s not true. When your mortality is suddenly looking you straight in the eye and staring you down, your life doesn’t flash before you — at least for me, it happened so quickly that I hardly knew it had happened.
We were visiting Beavertail State Park on Conanicutt Island near Jamestown, R.I. It was an impromptu visit — we were driving around that lovely island when we spotted the park, with its classic lighthouse and rocky shore along Narragansett Bay.
We decided to walk down onto the rocks. Other folks had already done it — some were sitting there reading books or admiring the view; others had towels spread out and were sunbathing.
We headed slowly down toward the water, being very careful about where we stepped, very wary of slipping and falling and getting hurt on the rocks.
And then I slipped. My feet flew out from under me and I was aware that I was sliding down an incline. I heard my companion shout out my name.
And suddenly I found myself underwater. I felt my head make contact with a smooth rock — the impact, luckily, was apparently cushioned by the water.
I popped up to find myself in a deep narrow crevice that had been carved out of the rock by the waves and current — a space maybe about six feet around. I was standing on slippery rocks in water that was about chest-high. The ledge I’d fallen off was at least two feet above my head, and so were the surrounding ledges.
My companion, who at first could see nothing except that I’d disappeared, shouted my name again and then shouted frantically, “Where’s Roxy!”
She couldn’t see me. But she could see a pink leash floating the water. Roxy’s a tiny little puppy, half-dachshund and half chihuahua. I’d been holding her to my chest as we walked down the rocks.
Where was Roxy? I turned my head and there she was, looking scared but doing the dog paddle, treading water in what was certainly her first-ever swim — and an unexpected one at that.
I got hold of Roxy and handed her up. So one of us was now on dry land — or rock. Me, I now faced a new problem — how in the world was I going to get out? I could reach the stone ledges by stretching my arms upward, but the rocks were slippery and there was nothing to grab hold of — and the bottom was slippery and sharp rocks were nearby. It was definitely time to get help.
Within a minute, two men were there, looking down at me worriedly and taking stock of this unexpected scene. The three of us decided it might be too risky — for them and for me — to try to pull me up while they lay unsecured on the slippery rock slopes.
There was one option short of calling 911: Seeing if I squeeze through a narrow passageway, moving about six feet in the direction of the shore, toward the water. If I could get through there, I might be about to pull myself up onto the somewhat lower rock ledge.
I squeezed through sideways. Then I pulled myself, bracing my legs again one rock wall while boosting my body up onto a flat rock on the other side, then rolling onto my stomach and crawling up to a drier, safer rock.
And I was perfectly OK — a bit shaken up, bleeding from bad scrapes on both of my forearms. I was absolutely not quite OK when I realized how fortunate I’d been — if I’d slid an inch or two in either directions I’d have crashed into rocky ledges; if I’d tumbled over head-first, I’d most certainly have hit my head.
Over the last few years I’ve posted a series of essays here titled “Man Has Premonition of Own Death.” Is it possible to have a premonition after the fact? Or maybe it might be more accurate to use a phrase that’s the title of a book by Edmund Wilson — it was a work of literary criticism, and it had nothing to do with death or mortality, but the title fits: The Shock of Recognition.
Funny, too, how such mundane thoughts come to mind in the most serious moments. As I walked carefully up the rocks, checking to make certain I really hadn’t broken any bones or cut the back of my head, I had an image of the opening credits of an old TV soap opera. There was a close-up of an hourglass and a narrator’s voice declaring ominously and with great authority: “Like sands in an hourglass…These are the days of our lives…”
Got some things to talk about, here beside the rising tide…
The title of this post — of course! — is from the song “Uncle John’s Band” by the Grateful Dead.
Let me take you down ’cause I’m going to…
I’ve been staying recently in my old hometown of Yonkers, N.Y.
A time to mourn…
One morning a few weeks ago I acted on an impulse and visited my father’s grave — more specifically his pullout drawer high up in the marble wall of a creepy mausoleum in Hartsdale, N.Y.
To everything there is a season…
The depraved piped-in organ music and the sickly funeral-home smell of flowers got me thinking about my own funeral plans.
Little trip to heaven…
Basically I have no plans. I do know I’d like to be cremated. I do know I don’t want a funeral.
Imagine all the people….
I think I’d like my friends and family to gather for an informal nondenominational memorial celebration.
May you stay…forever young…
I’d like my younger daughter to read one of her poems. I’d like my son to play something on his guitar. I’d like my older daughter to choose and read some samples of my own writing.
No need for greed…no hunger….
I’d like donations to me made in my memory of anti-hunger groups, peace groups or literacy groups.
And…most important of all perhaps…
May your song always be sung…
I’d like there to be a really good sound system set up
to play these songs (in no particular order):
“Uncle John’s Band” by the Grateful Dead
“Strawberry Fields Forever” by The Beatles
“Little Trip to Heaven” by Tom Waits
A Bach cantata
“Forever Young” by Bob Dylan
“Turn Turn Turn” by Pete Seeger
“Amazing Grace” (no bagpipes, please!)
and, of course, “Imagine” by John Lennon
Someone who’s more than dear to me wants her final farewell to include Eva Cassidy’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World…”
My poor father requested “Ave Maria.”
So many other songs would be appropriate and meaningful and sprung from the heart. So maybe I’ll add a few more songs and someone can burn a CD…it would make a nice departing gift for everyone in the studio audience to take home — and take to heart.
This is the latest in a series of essays titled “Man Has Premonition of Own Death”
A friend reports: “My first memory of death is having to kiss my dead grandfather’s forehead and thinking it was like a cold potato.”
My own first memory of death: My kindergarten teacher at P.S. 9 in Yonkers pointing to an empty desk in our classroom and telling us that the little girl who sat there had “gone to heaven.” I don’t remember the little girl’s name. This was more than forty years ago. But for some reason I have a memory of a somewhat chubby little girl with dark curly hair. And I remember hearing from my parents later, when I was older, that the little girl had died in a fire along with six other children and an invalid grandmother who was babysitting the brood when the blaze broke out. All of the children were buried together. I’ve seen their gravestone at a cemetery in Yonkers – seven little angels are carved upon the stone.