“Maybe you never changed either, Elie,” said the skeleton. “Did you ever stop to consider that possibility?”
I wonder if he and I will ever come to the end of this chicken and egg debate. The man, if he were alive, would be 92 now, and still holding fast to his black and white still photo of an idea.
“Look, superficially you did change some things about yourself. Let’s stipulate to that. You express anger much less frequently, for example. On the surface, that’s a huge change, though, if you’re honest about it, your rage is just as quick to boil, you’ve just learned better ways not to express it every time. You can argue that you’ve changed yourself, and maybe your life is a bit better because you don’t explode as often, but on the inside, when you’re being fucked, in no matter how small a way, you’re instantly ready to lash out.”
That readiness to lash out is an inevitable part of being homo sapiens. We are frightened, threatened, fight-or-flight prey animals who have banded together in murderous, raping configurations to scramble, collectively, to the top of the food chain. Our viciousness as a species makes rats cringe. Learning to be outwardly mild, after decades of brutality, is no small feat for a human.
“OK, fine, if it makes you feel better to think that you’ve had this important self-change, I don’t see the harm. In a sense, you’re right. But that’s not the point I want to make today. You know, when you walked into that hospital room on State Road Seven where I was not long for this world, you seemed to be the only one who was ready for my death. I don’t mean that the way it might sound, not like you were happy about it, but you seemed psychically prepared somehow.
“I wasn’t able to really say much to mom, or your sister, or even my brother, who was button-holing doctors in the hall and asking if it was possible to get me a liver transplant even though the cancer was in its final stages and I was a day from death. It was like none of them were ready to get down to the serious talk we needed to have before I was gone, it was too painful for them. My brother was making feeble jokes, your sister had a hard time looking at me, mom was using all her strength not to cry.
“You were, I don’t know, present, looking at the situation squarely. It didn’t surprise me, really, but I noticed it. That’s why I told you you were the only one who knew what was going on. Go to the transcript and get that line you quote so often. Go ahead.
Here you go, from the transcript of that digital recording the last night of your life:
…So, it’s kind of a lifetime battle, I don’t know, I think now how much richer my life would have been if I hadn’t seen it as a battle—good versus evil.
I know we should have had this talk ten, fifteen years ago. I couldn’t reach that level because I was really thinking that it was going to be a battle and that there wasn’t any way I could make it into a dialogue, and that’s my fault. You’re supposed to have some fucking insight.
E: Well, I just wish we had a recording of that last dialogue, because it was a classic duel. I tried every way I knew to try to…
I understand that, look, I felt you reaching out but I couldn’t free up enough, you know, to tell you how much I love you. It’s not my style.
E: I know.
Elie, I need a little drink.
“When you put it like that, it’s very poignant shit. And when I was drinking that little sippy cup of water, you made the mistake of shutting off the digital recorder, which you told me could record more than 24 hours. I think of it now, the recording time of that little thing was more than the time that was left in my life. You didn’t flip it back on right away each time, so much of our talk is gone, the transcript is quite truncated. You caught maybe a third of it. Rookie mistake, not that anyone could blame you, coming from the analogue age where the instinct is to preserve tape. But that’s not the point.
“Maybe you didn’t really change that much, Elie. I mean, as a child you were always very sensitive. You were a generous kid with a basically decent character. I can’t blame you because you grew up in a war zone. You can’t blame yourself because your father was hunkered down across the table, in a trench, cluelessly lobbing grenades, snarling.
“My point is: maybe that nonjudgmental, thoughtful person at my deathbed was your original self. You hadn’t changed at all, just the sudden, dramatic circumstance of my rapidly approaching death brought that original nature back to the fore.”
Jesus, man, even when you wrap it in a compliment like that, I have to admire your relentlessness in hammering your point home.
“Look, my point is that maybe one’s original nature sometimes gets bent beyond recognition by the infernal banging of the world. So what you talk about as change is really just a reclaiming of what you were before your nature was distorted.”
I reflected the skeleton’s eyeless stare back at him.
“OK, look, I realize this sounds a little insane, ‘a distinction without a difference’, as your law profs used to say. In either case, change or reclaiming what is lost, there’s a lot of conscious work involved. I guess what I’m saying is that we were both lucky you came to the point in your life that you did when you got that call that I was close to death. I didn’t think there was a chance we’d be able to have a conversation, even at that point.”
Well, like you said, you felt me reaching out many times over the years. And, not to sound judgmental, God forbid, but in true sick bastard fashion you remained hard and rigid, implacable in your anger, until you had hours left to live. Funny how that was always phrased as my problem: being so fucking irrationally angry. Why would a pit bull puppy be angry about being whipped in the face or electrocuted every time Michael Vick bribed him with a treat?
“I feel your pain. Look, the same thing happened to me, obviously, not to make an excuse for the way I was. You are engaged in a probably futile effort to make sense of my life. As I was dying the only sense I could make of my own life is how fucked up I’d been, how badly misplaced my priorities were, how frankly stupid most of my high-minded methods were.
“I get that it’s your nature, Elie, and it’s one of those mysteries of life nobody can explain, you’re always seeking something beyond your grasp, beyond anyone’s. You no doubt style it as a struggle toward insight, but really? Those doomed eight year olds in Harlem got under your skin and you can’t separate their lives from America’s original unaddressed atrocity of slavery. That’s something too big for anyone to grapple with, but it doesn’t stop you from brooding over it, working for years to create an unfunded program for them that you had no prayer of really putting into action.
“Making sense of my life? What kind of project is that for a grown man? Making it your life’s work for what, eight months now? I mean, not to offend you, but: what the fuck?
“Who does this, Elie? I mean, a successful author sometimes writes a memoir of their father. Their agent can sell it because people are curious about how the personality of the father of so and so influenced the writer who came to write this or that beloved or troubling work. You, typically — and endearingly, I have to say– just skip over the successful writer step. It’s wonderful the way you just cut out the practical middle man. I mean, why let the impracticality or utter unlikeliness of the endeavor get in the way? You take that George Bernard Shaw quote literally, when it can really only be uttered meaningfully by people with a ton of money: “you see things; and you say ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say ‘Why not?'” You don’t realize Shaw put this line into the mouth of the Serpent in the Garden of Eden, not that it makes any difference one way or the other.
“Seriously, it’s gratifying that you are trying to do this, Elie, it really is, and, at the same time, it’s terrible. You need to get yourself a job, and go do it every day. This quest for– I don’t know what– will only lead you to more sorrow.”