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Finalities 

The hospital pajamas with the yellow sunspots heaved and billowed with each passing breath. Steady. The red-number readouts on the monitor hadn't changed in hours. He was making a real fight for his life. The tall and concerned doctor had already said it was a fight he couldn't win.

He had fallen and split his head, but the doctor said the stroke had already done its damage. Now there wasn't anything left to do except wait.

Only a month ago, I had been talking to a friend about news from a doctor. Her mother had cancer, and the doctor had given her six months. "And somehow it hasn't really sunk in yet," the friend had said. "How can that be?"

My daddy was dying in somebody else's pajamas, but there was this: He was dying in the same Charity Hospital where he had been born all those years before and where his dear mama had worked in housekeeping for 41 years. There was a symmetry in that.

You look for the small victories when the big one is no longer possible.


I had been holding up well. But in front of this morning's shaving mirror, I saw his face in mine, body and soul. I cried into the shaving cream because someone should weep at our going. And for what we were together even if that was plenty of hard talk and hurt.

He and I together; there is this, too. No matter how old you are, so long as your parents are still alive you feel it's not yet your turn. Now this lie no longer belongs to you. You are, as the saying goes, on the top step of the escalator now.


Once, in one of my meanderings around the magnificent Metairie Cemetery, I came across the belled tomb of Augustus Bernau. In 1891, the tomb was erected for Bernau's 38-year-old wife Elizabeth, and he spoke at the laying of the cornerstone.

Some of those words are inscribed on the side of the tomb and suggest that Bernau shared the Victorian faith that the laws of blood and science can guide us -- up to a point. After talking of these laws, Bernau shifts to this uncertainty:

"But where or what is the spring that drives the wheels of the human organism! What or where is the power that maintains and enforces the law: Whence comes life? What is death?

"The solution to this mystery is the prerogative of these who lie silent in their graves.

"Let us hope that when death shall claim us, we may find the solution of life's mystery in the verity of the words divine"

"'I am the resurrection and the life. He who believeth in me though he be dead, yet shall he live.'"


He had told me the story of how, when he was a small boy, his grandfather -- a coffin maker, he said -- had died. The body was waked at the house they all lived in. The family hung a black wreath on the door, and everybody in the neighborhood came.

He remembered the unease he felt waiting for sleep with his grandfather laid out in the next room. And he remembered the noise that the last mourners made as they wobbled up the alley, filled with laid-out liquor.

It got me thinking about how much things have changed, even in a town that worships its ancestors. Our grief is abbreviated by society now; show signs of grief that last longer than a couple of weeks and people whisper about you. Take more than a month and the whispers get loud.


Burial day at Schoen's, most graceful of funeral parlors. The man in charge of making the body ready had done a great job, getting rid of the blackened eye and bloody whiskers caused by that final fall.

Few are here. Almost all who could remember his salad days are already gone. Those who laughed at his jokes, bought him a drink, danced with him. Whose lives ignited when they rubbed up to his. Who knows these lives?


Final finalities at St. Patrick's No. 3. There is something unnerving about standing in front of a tomb with your last name etched on it. The world
changes a little as the little grey coffin slides in. A new sadness has been added. The priest shakes everybody's hand and leaves. Everyone stands around, not wanting to be the first to leave. Nobody seems to know exactly what comes next.

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