The Distinguished Thing: A Baby Boomer Looks at Death

In Spring a young man’s thoughts turn to love. In the Spring of 2021 with the COVID-19 Virus still taking many lives, a much older man’s thoughts turn to death. This is where I find myself — at this particularly grim point in history — and where I suspect many of my generation find themselves both emotionally and spiritually.

And it is all so very digital.

Throughout the past decade, via the many virtual reunions enabled by Facebook, we’ve shared with our old friends from childhood the joyous arrivals of new grandchildren but also the deaths of our parents: all the “grown-ups” who hosted the birthday parties we attended when young, coached our little league teams, and taught us in grade school. The massive passing of the Greatest Generation has been marked by a communal chorus of mourning enabled by the silicon chip: a digital dirge enacted around a vast funeral pyre suspended in “the cloud.”

Transitions that previously would have been abstract and distant have now, through the immediateness of the Web, become intimate. The passage of a grammar school gym teacher whom we’d at one point forgotten had ever lived now becomes poignant. The jpeg image of the withered old man reminds us not only of his great kindnesses in the past, but of how our own masks, like his, have changed and will change, until at last we each wear our own final face. In some cases, we even see the demise of these great souls live-streamed via a sequence of morbid posts. (We all know the drill. There’s a Facebook check-in at some hospital attached to the cryptic comment: “Here with Dad. Prayers needed.” And so it begins. The virtual death-watch.)

*

Ironically, the first real death I recall being aware of as a child was itself live-streamed.

Like any self-respecting second grader, I was delighted on November 22, 1963 when our elementary school principal announced over the P.A. that our day would be ending three hours early and we should proceed immediately to our buses. A gift out of the blue. If there were tears or expressions of concern on the faces of our teachers — and there almost certainly were — I for one did not notice. It did seem odd, however, that our normally jovial bus driver did not, as was usual, encourage us to sing “The Wheels on The Bus Go Round and Round” as we pulled away from the school.

At the bus stop near my house, my mom along with several other neighborhood moms stood waiting, as was not the habit. My next-door neighbor and best friend, a fellow second grader named Janet, took her mom’s hand and I my mom’s. Then we walked down the street to our houses in a strange and strained silence that neither Janet nor I understood

Inside our small standard-issue post-war Cape Cod, my Nana — my father’s mother — sat in front of the television, in tears, clutching her rosary beads. Nana was inconsolable. JFK had been her president, with all the right boxes checked: He was a Democrat, Irish, and — most importantly — a Catholic. She’d adored him.

Blind from diabetes, Nana had lived with us for several years. My two-year-old brother and I loved her very much and did not mind when, on occasion, she would ask us to stand by her so that she could measure our height and feel our faces with her hands to see how we’d grown and imagine what we looked like. She’d learned to read braille and had a braille Bible with which she spent much time. I remember her silently mouthing the words as her fingers moved across the pages. One of the priests from our local parish came once a week to give her communion. Father Rooney was a cheerful, bald, cherubic Irishman in his forties, with a thick brogue. (My father told me years later, long after Rooney was a memory, that he always smelled of whiskey. When Dad told me this, he did not seem at all disapproving.)

The following days of televised public mourning form a tribal memory that every American kid of my generation can never shake.

Of course, people “died” on TV all the time. Matt Dillon knocked off bad guys every week on Gunsmoke. First there was a gunshot or two, after which a rustler or a bank robber or a gunslinger fell down in a heap on the ground. And that was death. But the ceremony of death was new to me. The morbid idea and mystery of a body in a box had never crossed my mind. I’d never even seen a coffin. What, I wondered, did Kennedy look like in there?

I’d never contemplated the notion of a cadaver in its everlasting, unknowing sleep. But that’s pretty much all I could think of over the next few days as we watched JFK’s box being lugged around DC: hauled by slow-moving horses down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House — all the horses and all the mourners and all the soldiers marching to the slow, steady, relentless, laborious beat of muffled drums. Then there was the sight of the coffin being lifted up the Capitol steps by six grim servicemen before being put on display in the vast rotunda.

Comparatively, the live televised shooting of Lee Oswald seemed almost inconsequential, even though after we saw it happen my father turned to me and said authoritatively: “Edward, you have just witnessed history.” To me it was just another bad man falling down in a heap on the ground. I’d seen it all before. Jack Ruby was, for the moment at least, just one more Matt Dillon.

Besides the notion of the body in the box, the other thing that particularly phased me was when — after all the pomp and glory had ended, but with the networks still broadcasting — the grieving family, the priests, the soldiers, the buglers, and the crowd of onlookers eventually turned and walked away from the dark casket sitting above the open hole at Arlington, leaving only the Honor Guard and, presumably, some hidden gravediggers who would presently get to work once the cameras went dark.

This is when the profound finality of JFK’s and all other deaths truly hit me. That stark picture did it. That, and the idea of Kennedy alone amid the bleak night: his first night deep underground in solitude on that windswept hillside. I slept with the image of Kennedy in the darkness, enclosed and silent, for weeks.

*

Nana died nine months after JFK.

30 years later, when we brought my father’s coffin to the same old ancient family plot at New York City’s predominant Catholic Cemetery, Calvary, I looked down into the gaping hole of the grave and saw the top of Nana’s casket. Below her, I knew, lay the grandfather I’d never met — the cigar-smoking banker and Yankee fan who’d died in 1954, two years before I was born.

Located in Woodside, Queens within sight of the Manhattan skyline, Calvary is quite the plantation. An enormous wooden crucifix with a larger-than-life Christ stands tall beside the main gate. Ever since my boyhood, this object — perhaps because it is outdoors — has always reminded me of a scarecrow not unlike the frisky body of Ray Bolger which hung from wood but then sprang to life, resurrecting and setting itself free in The Wizard of Oz.

But what kind of scarecrow, I thought as a child, was Christ on his cross? What might he frighten off? Demons, I supposed — keeping them well clear of sanctified ground. But the crucifix was useless as regards actual crows, which routinely perched atop Christ’s head, undaunted by the Crown of Thorns. The vantage point must have been a good one from which to spot field mice. The crows’ droppings ran down Christ’s face. Hard rains sometimes washed the droppings away, albeit futilely. The crows always returned, as did their waste.

Established by the Archdiocese of New York in 1848, Calvary is massive — a seemingly endless expanse of stones and tombs: an astonishingly huge necropolis. The vaulted ramp of the busy Grand Central Parkway floats nearby. Trucks grind their gears and cars honk their horns. The compactly placed graves reveal Calvary as a natural extension of the tightly packed city. It is urban — as crammed as a tenement.

The vast grounds promise to be a busy, perhaps confusing place come the Rapture. Many voices. Many languages. The names on the stones are Italian, Polish, Irish, German, and French. Here lay the lion’s share of New York’s generally impoverished, 19th century Catholic immigrant population — huddled masses, the world’s wretched refuse who yearned to not only live but die free, and then did so. Also, their descendants. Four generations of Renehans sleep here, all the way back to my great, great grandfather Patrick, who came from Ireland in the 1840s. The rest of us, the next generation — vertical men, as W.H. Auden would call us — wait in line.

*

Scrolling through Facebook I see that it is the birthday of a girl with whom I attended kindergarten. She’s posted a photograph of a martini and added the comment: “Celebrating another year above the dirt.”

*

Lying on his deathbed in February of 1916, Henry James commented: “So here it has come at last, the distinguished thing.”

There arrives for each of us a moment when we suddenly pause and feel truly mortal for the first time. When, in a rushed and dark epiphany, the urgent knowledge takes hold that death is not just something that happens to other people. We all recall that fast turn of revelation when death transitioned from something abstract and opaque into a blisteringly grotesque and transparent reality: a passage at the end of a one-way road — hopefully a very long one-way road — which we have no choice but to travel. An unavoidable destination; an inevitable event. A looming truth that puts all other truths in the shade and places them in context. The distinguished thing.

Addressing the 2005 graduating class of Stanford University, the terminally ill Steve Jobs commented that death was Life’s greatest invention. “It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away.” But perhaps death’s greatest aspect was the perspective it enabled. “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. … Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked.”

*

We all walk with ghosts everywhere we go.

Right now I am thinking of the small farm on Kells Road at a place called Bodalmore in Johnstown, Kilkenny, first established by my Renehan ancestors more than two centuries ago. There sit the remains of the “old” stone house where my great, great grandfather Patrick was born circa 1816, now used as a utility shed by the current Renehan still in residence. My 7x great-grandfather William (1745–1801) knew this view across his fields, today largely unchanged. Now so do I; and I hope my grandchildren might know it as well. This is how we break bread with the dead, by sharing things eternal.

It has been said that civilization happens whenever and wherever an old man plants trees the shade of which he knows he will not live long enough to enjoy. In the end, all any of us are is what we leave behind.

Writer published by Doubleday, Crown, Oxford University Press, and other major houses. http://edwardrenehan.com

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