Friday, November 11, 2016

The Deserted City

Imagine that you are living in a modern, bustling city with a population in the hundreds of thousands and you wake up one morning to discover that everyone in the city has mysteriously vanished, as if, while you were sound asleep, every single resident of the city had been vacated or evacuated for reasons that are unknown to you.

Just before he died of tuberculosis in January 1950, George Orwell confided in a letter to a friend that he was having recurring dreams of finding himself alone in a deserted city. Fearless to the end, and without knowing that his own death was imminent, Orwell self-diagnosed the dream as a fear of death. 

Something like this nightmare scenario was enacted in a movie I remember seeing when I was ten or eleven years old called The World, the Flesh and the Devil, which was made in 1959. It was a quite direct presentation of the consequences of a worldwide nuclear war. A mine inspector named Ralph Burton (played by Harry Belafonte) is down a mine in Pennsylvania when there is a cave-in and he is pinned, unconscious, under a beam. When he revives, he hears workers digging him out. But after a few days the sounds suddenly stop. After Ralph manages to dig himself out, he discovers that everything is inexplicably deserted. He finds newspapers with headlines describing a worldwide nuclear catastrophe - not from atomic explosions but a poison cloud that circled the earth for several days, wiping out all forms of life. (Quite implausibly, there are no bodies to be found anywhere.) 

Ralph drives to New York City looking for some sign of life, but finds the city deserted. It was this point in the movie that I remember most vividly: images of the empty streets of Manhattan and Ralph despondently searching for someone, anyone. He manages to get power restored to a high rise building, taking up residence in the penthouse. He brings a department store mannequin to his flat, names him Snodgrass (he pronounces it "Snuffgrass") and has conversations with him. Just when he seems to be cracking up from his solitude, he throws Snodgrass off his penthouse balcony. When the mannequin hits the pavement below, Ralph hears a woman's scream. A toothsome blonde (thank you, Hollywood) named Sarah, played by the eternally toothsome Inger Stevens, had been following him and was afraid that Ralph had jumped to his death. 

The injection of an interracial love story might have been ballsy in 1959, but, for me, the movie veered off course thenceforth. Things get even sillier when another man (white Mel Ferrer) shows up before Ralph and Sarah can surmount the racial divide and the film ends with the promise of a menage a trois, the three human survivors walking hand in hand away from the camera and the film closing with the title The Beginning. But the only reason that The World, the Flesh and the Devil has stayed for so long in my memory is due the startling pictures of a city forever stilled by a man-made catastrophe. A soundless, strangely alluring abandoned stage - civilization's end.

I don't dream of deserted cities, but it has become a compelling image for me since the death of my sister two weeks ago. The world feels somehow like it has collapsed. It has grown colder, like the time of year. Familiar places are less recognizable. Where the presence of my sister was, where the promise of Family once stood, there is now vacant space. I have lost all interest in Alaska, where she was living. Its natural wonders, its enormous open spaces, under the drifting snow of oncoming winter, a winter now endless, have lost all their allure. And since she has been cremated, she will have no resting place there to be visited some day, some flowers to leave on the ground - sweets to the sweet.

Even the people among whom I live (a girlfriend, her daughter) seem less familiar than they did. Their sympathy and support have helped me over the shock of losing my sister, but there is a point at which their continuing to live, going about their undisrupted lives, becomes intrusive - an affront to the prevailing sadness. Instead of morning greetings and coffee and breakfast, I feel that there should be lowered voices and muffled footsteps. the cat should be prevented from mewing with a saucer of milk, the television on but the sound turned low. 

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Turn Off the Lights

On October 10 I published "A Sad Year" on this blog, descanting on all the terrible events that this year had by then inflicted on my family and I. Incredibly, impossibly, eighteen days later one more crushing blow fell.

I watched Jimmy Fallon the other day and Patton Oswalt spoke about how, since the death of his wife last April, grief now catches him unexpectedly at the oddest moments. He was updating an app and he thought about how his wife's apps will never be updated and he found himself weeping.

The British have a saying that accounts for the sudden chill one sometimes feels when a certain thought or memory catches one unawares: A ghost just walked over my grave. It's the same feeling Basho felt when, barefoot in his home, he steps on his dead wife's comb. An existential murmur, an intimation of mortality.

Thomas Hardy's late poems inspired by the death of his wife seem fixated on someone who is no longer there:


I marked when the weather changed,
And the panes began to quake,
And the winds rose up and ranged,
That night, lying half-awake.

Dead leaves blew into my room,
And alighted upon my bed,
And a tree declared to the gloom
Its sorrow that they were shed.

One leaf of them touched my hand,
And I thought that it was you
There stood as you used to stand,
And saying at last you knew!

(?) 1913

This is all that I know for now. It was on the morning of Thursday, October 27 in Anchorage, Alaska that her friend found my sister dead. It was early in the morning on Friday, October 28 on my island in the Philippines. When I arrived here from the States I created a chart showing the time in every time zone relative to the Philippines. When it was 8pm Eastern Savings Time on Thursday in New York City, it was 8am on Friday on my island. And Anchorage is four hours behind New York, so it was 4pm. Her friend did the only thing she could think of doing - she called 9-1-1. I was already awake and online, but her friend didn't send me an email and a message on Facebook until 1pm on Friday (5am my time).

I had finished my daily exercise at 10:30am on Saturday morning and my step-daughter told me it was my turn to go online. As soon as the wifi on my tablet activated, I got the email notification. I was surprised that my sister's friend, who hadn't communicated with me since March, when my sister was in hospital, was reaching out to me. But I thought nothing more of it until I went upstairs to my bedroom and laid down. Just as I was about to touch the icon to open the email, I froze. I knew that there had to be something wrong - otherwise she wouldn't have sent me an email. As soon as I opened it and read the first few lines, I couldn't read any more: "hey Danny, with great regret and sadness comes some very bad news...your sister, Liza has passed away....." The time stamp was Saturday at 5:12am, which means she sent it at 1:12pm Friday. So she had probably got my sister's landlord to let her in (he had to do the same thing in March) and discovered her dead on Thursday morning.

The EMTs responded, along with the police to take down the details for a death certificate. I don't yet know what they entered as the cause of death. I was awake in the wee hours because the speed of the internet is fastest when everyone is asleep. But I didn't know until later that morning what had happened 5,500 miles away in Anchorage. That's the distance "as the crow flies" between where I live and where she lived.

Here is what I have surmised this past week, not knowing my sister's official cause of death. Despite her friend's suggestion that her death was probably accidental - that she somehow made the wrong combination of her meds, and until I'm informed of a different conclusion, I think that she probably took an overdose.

I know all about the general reluctance of people to draw such a conclusion - even in their own heart of hearts. But I think that arriving at such a conclusion - and speaking openly about it - is one of the ways we can show our respect for the dead. Besides, it's too late for bullshit. Drawing a veil over a person's last moments, their final minutes and seconds of consciousness - especially when they have come, in their desperation, to such a conclusion - is a terrible disservice. Instead of dying by accident, their death is purposeful and carries with it the ultimate rebuke to the living.

She threatened to do it once before. In 2010, living on the same Philippine island, I received an email from my sister in which she told me that she was going to take an overdose of sleeping pills, that she loved me, and said goodbye. I didn't have wifi at home then. I had to use an internet cafe every so many days. I didn't read her email until three days after she sent it. By phone and at ridiculous expense I contacted my brother first (who assured me that my sister wasn't serious) and then Anchorage P.D. I was cut off twice while I related to the dispatcher my sister's name and address. By the time I called back a second time, the dispatcher told me that a patrol had already stopped by my sister's apartment and that she was well. I explained to my brother that even if she wasn't serious about taking her own life, even if her gesture was nothing but a "cry for help," someone needed to answer, if only to let her know that someone cared.

Living in Anchorage is expensive. A one-bedroom apartment costs more than $800 a month. My sister's profession - medical transcription - is being outsourced and outmoded by automation. At 65, her health was failing but she was finally eligible for Medicare. Her income had been reduced to the Social Security checks she got every month. Since the likelihood of getting myself to Alaska was a dim prospect, I offered to take her into my home here in the Philippines. Her monthly Social Security check would translate into a king's ransom, I told her. But she told me it was impossible. She would have to sell everything she owned and buy a plane ticket, which was simply too much for her to pull off in her condition.

By early October, I hadn't heard from her for more than a month. Since calling her was beyond my means (my only cellphone no longer has a charger), I enlisted my Facebook friends for help. After finally reaching her voicemail, one of my friends left her a message to contact me. The next day she responded on Facebook that she had had another health scare but that she was OK. A few days later, she posted the following on my Facebook timeline: 
"Oct 21 9:14pm Listening to Last Train Home by Pat Metheny, looking outside my second storey window watching the first snow of the season, and an indescribable peace fills me. I remember watching the first snow the year Danny joined me in my house in Alaska, and all the times we'd sit in the great room and watch it snow, watch it snow. Such an incredible feeling knowing my favorite person in the world was with me and I wasn't alone. I love you Danny and wish you were here with me right now. Hot chocolate, a real fire going, music, and us. Bibbit."

A week after she posted this on Facebook, my sister was dead. When someone so close to you dies, it forces you to examine everything you said to them in their last days. Last June she emailed me in a fatalistic mood. To spite her, I sent her Philip Larkin's poem "Aubade":


I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

The mind blanks at the glare.  Not in remorse
- The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused – nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always.  Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels.  Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear – no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink.  Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others.  Being brave
Let’s no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,
Yet can’t escape.  One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

I wanted to confront her with what Philip Larkin described so succinctly: death as a blunt fact. Her response, however, was typical: "That was unusual. Where do you find these things, Danny?

Almost four years ago on this blog I wrote a tribute to my sister [see Dear Sister] and I included the speech from the end of Tennessee Williams' play The Glass Menagerie. But I omitted the last telling line from the speech in which Tom says goodbye to his sister Laura. Here, now, is the complete speech. (I included Williams' stage directions.)

TOM: I didn't go to the moon, I went much further - for time is the longest distance between places. Not long after that I was fired for writing a poem on the lid of a shoebox. I left Saint Louis. I descended the step of this fire-escape for a last time and followed, from then on, in my father's footsteps, attempting to find in motion what was lost in space - I travelled around a great deal. The cities swept about me like dead leaves, leaves that were brightly coloured but torn away from the branches.
I would have stopped, but I was pursued by something.
It always came upon me unawares, taking me altogether by surprise. Perhaps it was a familiar bit of music. Perhaps it was only a piece of transparent glass. Perhaps I am walking along a street at night, in some strange city, before I have found companions. I pass the lighted window of a shop where perfume is sold. The window is filled with pieces of coloured glass, tiny transparent bottles in delicate colours, like bits of a shattered rainbow.
Then all at once my sister touches my shoulder. I turn around and look into her eyes ...
Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be!
I reach for a cigarette, I cross the street, I run into the movies or a bar, I buy a drink, I speak to the nearest stranger - anything that can blow your candles out!

[ LAURA bends over the candles. ]

- for nowadays the world is lit by lightning! Blow out your candles, Laura - and so good-bye.

[ She blows the candles out. ]

Goodbye, dear sister.