Sometimes I think that death is just the beginning of a great sadness. I don’t intend to imply that my death will be a sad occurrence to the ones who will notice it (make no mistake, I desire nothing else than to be forgotten, to pass away unnoticed), they will make their own mind about it and I won’t be able to sway them one way or another. Sure, life is sad sometimes, but unlike happiness, sadness is rarely sustainable and one finds little justification or approval in cultivating it. That is, if one is looking for justification or approval, which almost invariably one is.
The statement above might seem conflicted, but I assure you life is full of contradiction, as many a street corner philosopher will hurry to confirm with a smirk. That has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that you might have met me on a street corner, smirking while I shove confirmation in defenseless ears. But the statement, conflicted as it is, is provable. All the dead people I met seemed sad. A sadness that was both enviable and absolute, undiluted by hope and the seemingly limitless time the living have to turn the sadness around.
Take last week, for instance. I met the sad seventeen year old boy with cerebral palsy who had died in my intensive care unit two months before. He was striding with the overconfidence that sad dead people often parade through the alleys of Ladywell park, almost as if he wanted to reinforce the strange stereotype of a ghost haunting the place of his last torments in life. He was, I assure you, completely unaware of the vicinity of the place that served to both end and liberate him. I know this because he did not recognize me and behaved as if I was just another ghost in the park.
The dead, when they come for a visit, are always grave, no pun intended. I interpret this as sadness but there may be other feelings underneath, or simply no feeling, and therefore gravitas springs forth instead, freedom from feelings does not make one happy or sad or any other way or maybe there is a feeling that takes root when all feeling is gone, like a resistant species of mold colonising a Petri dish after all other molds died off under the assault of antifungals.
Take Mr Aldea, for instance. He strode in at irregular intervals to meet my grandfather, at night of course, and they always retreated somewhere out of sight and talked, I presumed, since I could not see them. I was always playing around the sunlit yard in front of the house, even if he was always coming at night, and it was always summer, regardless of the time of year. I would hear the squeak of the spring in the metal gate’s knob and then, a couple of seconds later, the clang of the gate closing. The thuja trees grew thick back then, as they do now in the place where all this comes together, and one had to walk carefully between their branches and avoid getting stuck forever in their web together with the sparrow nests and the caterpillars.
After negotiating the boundary of the thujas his steps would ring closer and closer until he turned the corner and entered the driveway leading to the yard proper. I could see him then, tall, slightly stooped, with a head full of white hair (no, dead people do not look young, they look exactly as I remember them from when they were alive), taking slow, deliberate steps with a thoughtful expression, on could equally call it grave and I have previously done so, and now as then the pun is not intended, these are just vagaries of speech, coincidences, the license words give away without, perhaps, intending to.
He was wearing boots, in the middle of summer this may strike you as odd but it made sense to me since he was coming from far away, how far I could not tell and he did not tell either and the few words he spared me were never an account of distances walked. But it feels like the world of the living and the world of the dead must be separated by some species of metaphysical distance, which one can, metaphysically or otherwise, walk and the walk requires sturdy footwear so the boots did not seem out of place. Sometimes they were Wellington boots, streaked with mud, but I could not tell if the mud was of this world or the next, as I said earlier it was always a sunny summer day when he came so maybe it was raining on the other side, or maybe there was a bust water pipe up the street on ours and the sidewalks were muddy.
He walked slightly bent over, his head turned down, nothing out of character, he had been a geologist in life and that is what geologists do, isn’t it, watch the ground, sometimes they bend and pick up a stone, wipe it clean, take it to a lab and do tests on it, I am making this all up now since I have no idea what the daily routine of geologists is, what I am trying to convey is the simple fact that I expected him to have this posture and he never disappointed me. He looked up from underneath his fringe, smiled at me and nodded when I said good afternoon Mr Aldea but seldom spoke. My grandfather always came out of the house at this point and they would shake hands and walk into the house together, for a glass of something, wine or some fruity alcohol my grandfather made from whatever fresh fruit was available in the garden and the white alcohol he distilled himself, also from fruit, this fruit fermented in a plastic barrel at the bottom of the garage. They moved inside in silence, my grandfather first, leading the other man, there was a sense that it was all important, pre-arranged, this was to be a serious grown up discussion I was not to be part of, which suited me just fine since the day was warm and sunny and summer is a time to be outside in the sun, and not around old men talking at the kitchen table in the shadows.
I carried on playing but time seemed to pass so quickly and their meetings always ended abruptly almost as soon as they started. Mr Aldea left by unknown means, I just knew he had gone, no shuffling steps on the driveway, no squeak of the gate’s knob or bang when it was finally closed, no words from my grandfather, how about that Aldea fellow, i was not yet wise enough to give opinions on such things anyway. My grandmother was never around in these memories, maybe she was at the market, she did all the shopping and she still does, now that my grandfather has passed away as well, no change there, this is not a new task for her to take on, others are but I will not go through all of them now.
I remember the day Mr Aldea died, my grandfather had taken me out for a ride in his old car, it was the end of spring, a cloudy day, and when we reached home my grandmother came to open the gate so we could get into the yard without stepping out of the car. She came around the car before we had gone in, stopped by my grandfather’s side, his window was rolled down, and she said, in a hushed voice, Aldea died. My grandfather just looked down and nodded, then looked up, squinting, his hands useless on the wheel, kneading the worn out black plastic cover. This took only a second or so and then he nodded again and drove the car over the threshold, in silence. We drove down slowly past the thujas, the front entrance of the house, the long wall facing North East which only had a small round window which was never open, and reached the inner courtyard. I got out and ran into the house to wash my hands, it was lunch time and I could smell the food already. I don’t know what my grandfather did. He may or may not have stayed in the car a while longer, but knowing him he probably put the car in the garage, got out and went to wash his hands since it was lunchtime and he could smell the food already.
I could find out precisely the date he died, either from his headstone or from my grandmothers’ notes about the deaths on our street, she had kept them ever since they started living there, although she was not indiscriminate about recording death and said she only put in the people who were, in some way or another, close, such as relatives and friends, but at that time pretty much everyone living on that street was a relative or friend, things have changed nowadays and recording the death of friends does not take more space than recording the death of your household appliances, people live without people now, here as everywhere.
Mr Aldea fell on his own sword, as the saying goes, that is to say he died of his own hand, both expressions inaccurate and hopeless, he did not have a sword to fall on and even if he did that would have been unnecessary and messy and only fit for soldiers who refuse to surrender and instead make fools of themselves. Neither did he die of injuries caused by his own hand, not directly, it was not his hand that strangled him but the noose he hung, using said hand, in his garage, so his hand’s guilt is on par with his other hand’s, or the rope’s, or the guilt attributable to the garage beam. But such is the way of words, you say he died of his own hand and everyone knows instantly his hand must have been guided by his mind and thus the death was not accidental, but one need not look for murderers, the police officer only shows up to notice the death, as confirmed by the doctor, and write his report showing there was no foul play, as murder is lovingly called in movies.
The doctor as well, after placing his well-trained fingers on the wrist of the presumed deceased and his stethoscope on his chest, perhaps under the very eyes, teary or not, of those left behind, will then count to sixty while listening and feeling intently for what the medical profession calls signs of life, that is a pulse or some regular sounds resounding in the cavity that may at one point have contained a soul, which nobody could ever prove. That life can be reduced to so little, an invisible movement in the wrist or the soft beat of a drum, should come as no surprise these days when everything is reduced to its essential components.
Those sixty seconds are not always necessary, it is immediately obvious the person is dead, the relatives have called the priest and the funeral home already and usually they are not even doctors but they can tell, without the benefit of those long, dry years spent on university benches or around dissection tables, their loved one is gone. The doctor is there only for the convenience of the state who has grown suspicious of its citizens faking their disappearances to escape the tax system. The law defies reason, as laws do, and until the doctor comes to assess the situation the state insists that your husband is alive, maybe deep asleep, maybe sulking like a child and refusing to cooperate, maybe in a state of rebellion against the state itself, impossible to say until someone versed in these dissimulation techniques can put their fingers on the truth and count for sixty seconds or less, nobody is timing the timer, the doctor is at least at liberty to take liberties in interpreting time while being true to the essential truth which is that life has fled the body and nobody can ask where it has gone since the question is irrelevant and there are more important things to do.