Raising the Dead
Stephanie Barbé Hammer
“oh baby i wouldn’t like death if death were good.” ee cummings
My mother told me on several occasions “‘pass away’ is a ridiculous expression.” I remember her actually shouting at somebody when her father died, “No. he did not pass away. He DIED!”
She’s dead now too. But she was right about the words we choose. “Died” is one of those savage old English terms. Like “shit” and “fuck.” “Died” tells it like it is. Or at least how it feels to the survivors. I think of Thomas Hobbes’ description of life as brutal and short. That’s what death is. The brutal part, anyway.
I had two people die on me this year. They died within 6 weeks of each other (but who’s counting? [I am, obviously]). These people were important to me and I feel terrible about them. One is (was) my best friend from the university where I worked, and the other is (was) a very young brilliant quasi-adopted nephew.
Both their deaths are bad in different ways.
But first a brief rant about all the stupid fake verbal comforts that people have been dumping on me during the past few months: “They’re in a better place,” and “they’re at peace,” and all that crap. Another one is “I can feel their presence.” Or “They will live forever in our memories.” Etc. etc.
I saw a terrifying play in April where the world falls apart, but a completely monstrous Bart Simpson lives on in people’s post-apocalyptic memory. And his murdered family (including the youngest Simpson baby) lives on in his. So living on in someone’s memory may NOT be the ticket. And it doesn’t change anything.
The fact is -- to requote my mother – my beloved people are DEAD.
There are a lot of things I don’t miss about my mother, but I sure do miss her honesty sometimes.
What’s weird and what’s hard is that these two deaths make me feel differently about death in general and about God in particular. I’m feeling downright existential. And also not a little traumatized.
I haven’t always felt that death was so terrible and so final.
Granted, I didn’t really experience death until I was 30, when my maternal grandfather died and my mother yelled at that someone about “passing away” and told me all about how weird it was to shop for coffins.
“They call them ‘caskets’’’ she said. “But don’t be fooled by their bullshit. Some of them even have refrigerator-type doors!” She rolled her eyes. “But they’re still COFFINS!”
When I hit 40 the big deaths began to happen.
And they keep right on coming. Until they don’t.
You catch my drift.
Until these two recent deaths, I used to think there was maybe some sort of afterlife, and that perhaps the ancestors graced us with their spiritual presence.
I used to even think I intuited them from time to time. When my father died, there were moments when I sort of felt him talking to me. Caught in a rainstorm in Paris, I was late to a fancy dinner, I sat in the bus in my wet clothes and looked out the window. I saw a Chinese restaurant named Lao Tzu – the founder of Taoism. And I heard my dad say, “Don’t be like me. Don’t get so angry about everything.” I relaxed and got to the restaurant and ate a great dinner.
But lately…. I don’t know. I watch my body and face – and my brain too – changing, wrinkling, and slowly collapsing. Voltaire used to say, “this long disease – my life,” and I get what he means. I am dying. Slowly, hopefully. But nonetheless.
There’s nothing fancy or elevated about it.
So let’s talk about my two deaths now. I’m ready.
When my young friend Jackson killed himself, he put a bullet in his brain like the title of the famous Tobias Wolff story. I picture his little head blown apart by the gun he used on it. That seems pretty final to me.
My university friend, Theda, got cancer and then stopped being able to breathe. I saw her body in the coffin (not “casket”!) before the funeral; I had organized the ceremony because I was one of her closest friends and I knew what to do. Before the service, the funeral home official told me that someone had to verify – for legal reasons – that the person being buried is the correct individual.
I remember looking at Theda’s body. Her corpse was empty. Whoever she was, was gone.
Gone. Another brutal Saxon word.
Theda and Jackson are gone.
So now what?
I write about them.
The trouble is: I don’t find that process as comforting as I used to either.
I used to think that writing was a way to make the person live – a kind of resurrection, where I compensated for the actual loss by making the person “live on in literature.” I have often thought that Mary Shelley was writing about her mother Mary Wollstonecraft in Frankenstein. Anne Rice writes about her dead daughter all the time too. I get that.
It’s a nice idea to imagine that we can raise the dead in writing. Then I look at the novel that I just published.
Both Theda and Jackson are in it.
And they are still very much dead.
My father is in the novel too. I think I did a pretty good job with his character. But the fact of the matter is, that he’s still dead as well.
Supposedly we write to connect with others. Albert Camus, who certainly had plenty of problems – political and personal – wrote that art was communion. I’m a bit suspicious when an atheist uses a metaphor like that. Because communion is also a kind of mini-resurrection, depending on whether you’re a Catholic or a Protestant.
Happily, I’m Jewish, so that let’s me out of the whole communion thing. Jews don’t know what happens when we die. Maybe we’re just dead, and maybe we go to heaven – be it Hasidic, Marxist, or JuBu – no one knows. Or maybe it’s something else.
Jews also believe in angels. Or some do.
A creative writing student of mine called me a poetry angel last night. I felt absurdly pleased by that.
My two recently dead people were Jewish, and they represented for me two crucial aspects of Jewish identity: incredible kindness and wildly wicked humor.
Theda was what we call a mensch, a Yiddish expression for a true person of valor. She was patient, friendly and supportive. She was the person who made our university campus more diverse and friendlier, by being actively involved in hiring women and minorities. In fact, she hired me.
Jackson was a satirical sharp funny genius. He mocked everyone and everything. This, too, is a trait I admire – just as long as I’m not the butt of the joke. He was the quintessential bodkin – an archetypal Jewish comedian known as the “insulter.” In that sense his humor reminded me a bit of my mother’s impatience with sentimentality. She would have liked Jackson I think.
But I am writing not to praise Theda and Jackson, but to…. I don’t know what. They are buried already anyway.
I am writing about them, because if I don’t, the pain of missing them will become so great I won’t know what to do with it. These days I’m thinking that when we write the only life we can save is our own. We write to express our love and our sadness because if we don’t we’ll burst. Or worse. We’ll find that gun and put that bullet through our own brains. And that is something that we mustn’t do. Jackson’s suicide has devastated a lot of people. Including me.
I guess I also write because – despite what I just said about communion – I am hoping you will understand what I’m talking about and resonate with it. And that gives me hope.
Hope for what? I have no idea.
For some reason that I don’t understand, I send these words out into the world. I can feel tears running down my right cheek as I type this. Physical. Living.
Don’t be dead, I think at Theda and Jackson. Please don’t be dead.
But they are.
And as a writer, I have to work with what I have.
Which reminds me.
The person who told me that artists have to work with what they have is my friend Eric. Eric is a gifted performer, who worked with Marcel Marceau and other famous mimes and clowns. He has devoted his life to teaching other actors at the university where Theda and I worked.
And in all those classes he tells his actors, “Work with what you have. Whatever it is, however it presents itself.”
Now that I think about it, Eric is the only person I know who has in fact risen from the dead. He had a series of debilitating strokes, which killed him for a bit, and then – thanks to modern medicine – he came back.
He is now performing a one-person show about recovering from these devastating events.
Frustratingly, Eric doesn’t say anything in his play about what he saw or didn’t see when he died. Instead, he talks about the hospital and he enacts for us his slow struggle for recovery. While he performs, he runs a creepy slideshow of the inside of his heart and his body and the hospital room. We watch the doctors and nurses take care of him and we see how weird his face looks in post-stroke mode.
It’s visceral and intimate.
Theda loved Eric’s show when she saw it a year and a half ago. She told me to see it. I think she was still alive when I saw it, but now I don’t remember. She may have been dead already. She died very fast.
It’s weird that Eric has outlived Theda, who was our mutual friend. It’s even weirder that he has outlived poor Jackson, who was not yet 26 and about to graduate from a prestigious law school.
But maybe all you can do is work with what you have.
Which means: work with the wounded, maimed, and at times partial life that remains. If you’re anything like Eric, you don’t strut and fret so much as walk very carefully and look at someone else when you don’t remember the words of your play or even remember what happened 5 minutes ago.
“I don’t have much short term memory,” Eric told me after his performance. “But it’s ok, I remember a lot, all things considered.”
I think about Eric’s play and how it made me feel better. Perhaps artistic creation can give the living something. Perhaps that’s what Camus was writing about. And maybe this communion happens among the living, rather than between the living and the dead. When we talk about the dead people we love, and when we try to manifest the qualities and ideas that they cared about. Maybe that’s how we do them the most justice. And how we make them – to the extent we can – alive.
Can we bring them back? No. But perhaps we can bring who they were forward.
What about those Jewish angels?
Perhaps angels exist, but I can’t see them. On the other hand, maybe as we attend to others with the values we have learned from our ancestors – old and young – we become agents of their energy.
Is there even a God? To be honest, I don’t know any more.
But goodness exists. Theda and Jackson were good – albeit in VERY different ways.
So if goodness exists, maybe God does. And maybe something after death exists too.
I don’t know. I’m just glad Eric is still with us.
And that we are here too.
About the author:
Stephanie Barbé Hammer is a 4-time Pushcart Prize nominee in short fiction, nonfiction and poetry. Her prose poem chapbook Sex with Buildings appeared in 2012, her full length collection, How Formal? was published in 2014, and her novel The Puppet Turners of Narrow Interior was published with Urban Farmhouse Press in March 2015. Stephanie teaches at conferences, libraries, writers associations as well as online, and divides her time between Coupeville, WA, and Los Angeles, CA, with her husband, interfaith blogger Larry Behrendt.