back to Five Willows Literary Review main site

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Among the Dead and the Living --- story by George Held

 Among the Dead and the Living
It is disconcerting to be too much among the dead. I say this not as a medical person or a mortician but rather as a senior citizen, an old man, who has of late attended one funeral too many. You see, my old friends and classmates are dying—of heart failure, lung cancer, cerebral hemorrhage, Alzheimer’s. Naturally, one hopes to be spared as long as possible, as long, at least, as health holds out. But till the end, one necessarily encounters the dead more often than one would like.
            I am standing outside this church because my dear neighbor John Flanders is about to receive a memorial Mass or, rather, his parish priest will celebrate John’s life with a funeral Mass. Though I am not a Catholic—I’m a skeptic—I shall attend. I want to honor John and his wife and children, who are inside the church and whom I have known and liked for decades.
            I have already seen John laid out at the funeral parlor, and, yes, he looked hideously artificial, with too much rouge and lipstick. Cosmetics looked especially grotesque on John, a plain-spoken authentic man and a skilled roofer. Prodigiously strong from carrying hundred-pound loads of tiles and tar buckets up a ladder to the roof, he was gardening when he suffered a tick bite that infected him with babesiosis, a malaria-like illness. After three debilitating weeks in the hospital, infused with the latest drugs, he died.
            Reading John’s obituary underscored how many in those columns are now younger than I am at 82. On the one hand, it’s just a number; on the other hand, it makes the math of remaining
 life plainer. If I die at an age that’s an average of my parent’s ages at death, I have only 5 years left. Of course, I could die today from a stroke or a heart attack or a fall, or I could last another 10 or 15 years. Mere numbers.
            I’d like to stay among the living, while honoring the dead, like John Flanders. Even his grandchildren are here today. I will have no survivors. I just have a living will, to request no heroic measures to keep me alive in severely diminished capacity, and to express my desire to remain uncosmeticized for viewing. Not that there’s anyone left to view me. Yes, I have a living will and, so far, if you’ll pardon the jest, the will to go on living.
            But please excuse me. The usher is about to close the church doors, and I must go inside for the service, and then to the cemetery, to say goodbye to John and hello to the rest of life.