it seems a while since i've blogged, and i've missed it. summer classes are hectic and demanding; and a summer cold-cum-asthma exacerbation has used up whatever energy i've had. i was looking forward to today as a self-proclaimed holiday during which i would catch up with the television show post, or maybe shakespeare, or maybe another thought i've taken notes on, the wonderful weed flowers on the tram track. but this morning at breakfast , while i was reading milan kundera's 'the book of laughter and forgetting,' i knew what today's post had to be.
i read 'the unbearable lightness of being' earlier this summer at the anonymous advice of some of my castle students, who in their evaluations suggested i teach that book in the section of european literature i devote to czech works, right before we have the class trip to prague. i was pretty underwhelmed by the book, which for my taste is often irritating and tiresome, with occasional bursts of moving and/or intriguing writing, but deciding to give kundera another try and see if there might be a shorter piece that would be useful for the class, I plunged into the odd combination of short stories and demi-essays that make up this 'novel,' as kundera calls it. i had the same reaction, but in reverse: moving and intriguing, with bits that are irritating and tiresome. i had planned to finish it and put it away until late fall, when i start preparing my spring castle classes.
But then i came across this wonderful section on the dead body. 'death has two faces,' he writes. 'one is nonbeing; the other is the terrifying material being that is the corpse.' because the mind can't really envision nonbeing, we see it as blue space, 'and there is nothing more beautiful and comforting than blue.' a few quotes and paraphrases from this section do little to convey its power, and i want to get on to the next part, the physical presence of the corpse. and that part is not beautiful. "one minute you are a human being protected by modesty--the sanctity of nudity and privacy--and the next you die and your body is suddenly up for grabs. Anyone can tear your clothes off, rip you open, inspect your insides, and--holding his nose to keep the stink away--stick you into the deepfreeze or the flames.' he illustrates this in part through his character, Tamina, who has watched her husband die, and through his own experience of his father's death. This reaction is, inevitably, the reaction of the living, both to their experience of another's dying and to the imagining of their own. Few of us could face these feelings and explore them as kundera does, but most of us, i think, have experienced them to some degree. The imaginings of one's own body after death is pretty scary, and we tend to run away from the thought as quickly as possible. we run away from death in general anyway, but the idea of oneself as corpse is so visual, so physically real, that it has its own component of horror. i still have that horror, as i had done for as long back as i knew there was such a thing as death, and i try not to see the body when i'm at an open-casket funeral. yet the last time i forced myself to look at a body, at the funeral of my uncle mick a few years ago, i found myself very peacefully bending down to kiss him goodbye. it didn't bother me at all. it didn't bother me because i knew--in the core of my being, i knew--that mick was there with us, but he wasn't in his body, which had lost its use to him.
I knew because my brother keith told me so, in october 1981, at his funeral.
until that day i had never seen a dead body. i was not expecting to then, as i walked into the funeral parlor. i had not considered that keith's wife, who is from equador, would arrange an open-casket funeral. so there i stood, staring at my brother's corpse, the first i had ever seen.
to understand the rest of this tale, you need to know a couple of things about keith. one is that he had always been a clown. most of my family have been jokers of one sort or another. none of us have been especially happy people, and we had all been, as my remaining brother, warren, and i, still are, wise-crackers. humor keeps us alive, or at least sane. keith was the silliest of us all; he had loud, high pitched laugh, and once something amused him, he never let it go, like a dog extracting every morsel of flavor from a long-used bone. he and his closest friend spent much of their time together spinning out a pun long past its origin, for minutes, half hours, hours at a time.
the other thing is that in the year and three quarters of his illness, keith had developed a spiritual part of himself the rest of us never suspected was there. it was a large, undoctrined faith, that helped him a lot. it also helped me. i liked, still like, to send healing energy toward people, envisioned as it so often is in the form of white light. it's the kind of praying people do when they don't believe in a god but do believe in a something. and whatever else that does or doesn't do, it gives us the only power we have in the face of a loved one's dying. we can't perform surgery or administer chemo or do any of the things that might make someone better. but we can pray, we can send light, we can love. keith and i grew close around that. i found him a psychic healer who worked with him, i surrounded him with healing stones, i sent light whenever i wasn't doing something else. he hated his chemo treatments and tensed up when he had them, so the needle hurt when it went in. i asked him to tell me when he knew what time a treatment was scheduled , so i could stop whatever i was doing at that time and send light. he always called; i always worked around the time so i could send the light. and each time after that, he told me, that as soon as he'd start to tense up at the sight of the needle, he'd say to himself, 'it's okay, karen's sending light,' and the muscle would relax and the needle wouldn't hurt. nothing in my life has meant more to me than knowing i was able to do that one thing for him.
there was a church near his house. keith never rejected the church deliberately, as warren and i did; he was a fairly typical 'lapsed catholic' and so it seemed natural to him to go to that church for spiritual solace. i suppose he was looking for a priest, but he found a Brother, Brother Ronald, with whom he formed a deep, and deeply comforting, bond. when keith died, my father, agnostic as he was, tried to call a local priest who spoke at funerals, but no one answered the phone, and i was glad. i knew that was a sign--we didn't need a stranger priest, we needed the man who was so close to keith's spiritual life, and so brother ronald came for the funeral.
i wanted desperately to be there when brother ronald spoke; i thought it would be the most spiritual instant, the forces of faith connecting us to my brother. eventually, through all the odd partying quality of such gatherings, i had the most banal of human needs: i had to go to the bathroom. sitting on the toilet, in that absolutely graceless position, i started to sob and sat there sobbing and sobbing. the image of keith lying there in the coffin burned into my brain; he seemed to be there, on the door in front of me. I started talking out loud to him. 'i'm scared. i'm afraid i'll never sleep again,' i sobbed. 'i know you've left your body and you're not there anymore, but i'm so scared i'll always see you there, in my mind, for the rest of my life.'
so keith jumped up from the casket, stood on top of it, and began tap dancing. 'but seriously, folks,' he laughed in a sort of groucho marx voice, and grinned down at me. and i laughed back, we laughed together and i sobbed out, 'thank you, keithie,' and laughed again, because what would keith enjoy more than the sight of his big sister sobbing and laughing and peeing all at once?
when i left the ladies room, somebody came up to me, upset. 'we looked all over for you,' she said. 'brother ronald just gave his talk and we knew you wanted to be there!' i thanked her and tried to look sorry that i'd missed it; it was kind of her to care. how could i tell her that i really had been 'there,' at that moment when all keith's loved ones were surrounding his spirit, when all the things that we call prayer and love and communion were centering and mingling with him beyond his body?
i have never doubted that moment of seeing keith. had he come to me in a more traditional vision, solemnly announcing that he was at peace, i would have taken it for, at best, a metaphor from my own mind. keith didn't do those things. keith...tap-danced on coffins. it was very very funny, and the most spiritual experience of my life.
he has come to me since, when i've needed him, though never so dramatically. his signs have been more traditional and less intense. he came a few times in 1994, the year both my parents died, when i called to him that it was too much for warren and me alone and he had to help us. i have also strongly felt my father's presense once in a great while. but i've never had another experience like i had with keith at his funeral---maybe because i haven't needed it.
now, reading kundera's passages, it comes back to me very strongly. it pulls together some threads in my life--i still don't like thinking about my body being dead, but it doesn't bother too much. i have willed my body to the harvard medical school, as a sensible sort of recycling which will also leave whoever gets stuck with my death the least trouble and expense. friends have found the idea horrifying, reminding me of what some medical students do with the corpses they work on. i don't mind that. if my corpse can help someone learn medical skills, i'm happy. if it allows some laughter to relieve the grimness of their studies, so much the better. i'm fairly sure that if i am aware after my death of what goes on with my body i'll be there with keith, and we'll giggle together---'but seriously, folks.....'