So here I am. September 1. Living an Indian Summer.
There’s a smell in the air right now – the back-to-school smell of leaves and flowers heated by late morning sun. Even if I haven’t stepped foot into a classroom in years, September 1 still feels like the beginning of something. A journey. A mission. A better understanding.
I’ve been spending an unhealthy amount of time listening to Haim’s Days Are Gone album, not only because every track is a poppy summer anthem, but because so many of their songs speak of memory, vulnerability, renewal, and strength. I’ll be sad to lose them to my usual mix of moody autumn tracks.
All this to say that I’ve written a personal essay – the first in quite a while, and one that was a joy to write. I’ve found that my short story writing lacks a lot of the humor that comes naturally in my personal writing, and now was the time for a bit of funny.
I’ll return to other projects soon, very soon, as my UCLA short story course begins October 1. The thought of having my writing reviewed, crushed, torn, plucked with tweezers is exciting to me, and I can’t wait to be the older student who takes the best notes and always has a loud opinion about something. Can’t. Wait.
Enn-eee-way, enjoy dear readers!
My dad is patiently waiting for Zsa Zsa Gabor to die. I informed him recently about the passing of NBC news man and Saturday Night Live announcer Don Pardo, and received the following text:
“No no not my don pardo why not zsa zsa.”
Celebrity deaths come in threes. Now I know that’s probably untrue, but the way my dad and I play it, that’s the way it falls.
We have a game.
It must have started when I was in high school, since Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II, and Katherine Hepburn were still among the living. We challenged each other to guess who would die first – “Dope” (Reagan, named so because of his War on Drugs, not because of the Alzheimer’s), “Pope” (because, well, he was the Pope), and “Poop” (as in Hepburn’s warbly ‘Ya old poop!’ from On Golden Pond). When one of them made the news for a bout of pneumonia or a nasty fall, we’d hold our breath. There was a brief time when the three of them hung in the air like delicate mobiles, dancing joyfully above our heads in defiance of our morbid challenge. Then, the cards began to fall.
I suppose it would have been in poor taste to feel triumph, so we measured it with a bit of shame and regret. But no sooner had had the pope’s waxy corpse been removed from viewing that we devised the challenge of who could text the news of a celebrity death first. My dad usually gets me on this, since he wakes up early for his job as a mailman and will hear of the overnight croakings on NPR. Sometimes I get lucky and hear about one on Twitter before the radio can report it. But sometimes, like Michael Jackson or Robin Williams, the death is so shocking or profound that neither of us feel the need to speak of it. And without fail, these deaths always seem to come in threes, and we can’t rest easy until the last one earns the bucket on their bucket list.
Which brings me to Zsa Zsa. So mesmerized, aghast, incredulous my dad has been over her will to live. She’s been on our “death watch” for at least ten years, and there have been many times when we could have sworn we felt an unexplained chill in the air that could only be her far-reaching death rattle. Instead, my dad has seen a parade of his favorite old-time actors and notables sent to their Green Acres, taking with them a bevy of childhood memories. We’ve agreed to a mutual suicide pact in the event that Ms. Gabor outlives Abe Vigoda, whose mortality has been the butt of jokes for decades.
I find it strange that my dad and I deal with celebrity death in such a flippant way. Because I am so utterly terrified of losing my parents. I have been sensitive to their mortality since I was very young. I recall an incident when I was six years old in which my mother shared with me a heart-shaped frame that held a picture of us when I was two. I, in her arms, staring with wonder at the camera – she, head tilted toward my chubby shoulder, smiling with so much love that hearts might burst from between her teeth. I would stare at the picture on my bedside table and weep well into the night, mourning the end of a childhood just begun, and already painfully aware that my mom would one day be gone.
About a year ago I received a fat envelope in the mail from my parents. I ripped into it, half-hoping that it contained my share of a long-lost relative’s inheritance. Instead I found a copy of my parent’s will. It was simple and straightforward – lots of “in the event of’s.” The kind of will that a couple with few assets and lots of love would execute.
I dropped to the floor and called my mom, sobbing. I asked how she could have done something so cruel, to send something so sensitive without warning. It was at that point that she calmly informed me that she had, in fact, told me she was sending it during Happy Hour at a beachside bar the last time they visited.
“Oh,” I said sheepishly. I must have washed down that memory with too many mai tais. But I did inform her that there was a reason it was called “Happy Hour” and not “Have a sobering conversation about my last will and testament Hour.”
The fear of my parents’ death was just a part of my preoccupation with death in general. While I’ve had my share of personal and financial struggles over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is an acute, heart-drop-to-your stomach fear that strikes twenty-something women who have little else for which to feel profound grief. I thought about it daily. My anxieties about work and home life manifested themselves in scenarios about a tragic death, how people would react to the news, who would come to the funeral. I was like a teen fantasizing about her dream wedding, except replace the flames of love with the flames of a crematorium. I hoped that in my final moments I’d rage, rage against the dying of the light, that I’d act how Susan Sontag was rumored to in her final moments – asking to be lied to, to be told she would live.
The modern world hasn’t made it easy to understand death. Celebrities have a formaldehyde sheen of immortality that tells us we needn’t fear death – it can be averted with a clever roux of Botox, personal trainers and feigned confidence. I wish an entertainment magazine would spell it out with honesty. One with ten glossy pages of “Stars: They’re Just Like Us!” that included graphic photographs of celebrity corpses in various stages of decomposition alongside dull shots of them pushing shopping carts with no make-up or shoving hamburgers in their mouths.
On the flip side, the TV show Six Feet Under made the inevitable a little more palatable with its deranged tale of a living family. There are now Death Salons that cater to the hipster who’s curious about death but not quite ready to commit to black lipstick. Comedian Maria Bamford made me realize that my obsessive thoughts weren’t by any means unique. Zombies in TV and movies assure us that death is only the beginning of body fluid leakage. We can all rest easy that most of us will live past the age of 30, mum won’t get polio, and pa won’t drop dead plowing the field – but these assurances spur a need to be reminded that anything could happen.
All this left me thinking that I faced two choices: to quietly obsess over death and go mad doing so, or deny it with fervor and act surprised when it pounced on me. A hopeless circling of the drain.
Then a series of events changed things. First, my grandmother passed away. I heard the news while riding high at a Vegas casino, and there’s something about your mom softly saying “she’s gone” over the phone that makes you never look at Blackjack the same way again. Then, my personal life began to fall apart so spectacularly that to go into detail would take another thousand words. And to top it all with a big fat cherry, my cat got cancer. Even the tiniest of creatures can get the Big C.
In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion says that “Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant.” She is referring to the sudden death of her husband, who is one minute drinking scotch and the next face-down on the kitchen table. I feel like I’ve always had this strange ability to feel the electricity that splits the air just as an ordinary moment becomes significant. But these events in my life came like a sudden blow to the head that brings with it shock, then fear, then clarity. Amid all this upheaval, something unexpected happened – these things filled the six-foot deep holes of my mind. These were real crises, not dark inventions. These were challenges I could face in the real world, not made-up scenarios that ran roughshod across my psyche.
Death was under my nose, but I couldn’t smell it.
But this is not a feel-good story about how life showed death the door. These challenges did not cure me of obsessive thoughts. But they made me confident that I can stand defiantly in front of coming storms. Because there’s a lot of life to live between “now” and “then.” There is also a lot to lose.
I work at a museum, and the walls are filled with the hearts and souls of artists. I have the sneaking suspicion that they feared death as we all do, but used paintbrushes to understand what they could not conquer. So whenever I type a word, begin a story, tell an elaborate tale to friends, I think about the creation of meaning that makes death just a bit player in a much larger show. I think about dancing skeletons, orange marigolds, Mozart’s Requiem, the slightly sweet scent of death.
I like to believe that the game my dad and I share is healthy. That it is a regular reminder of mortality with a shot of levity. If my dad can be entertained by the game, then I can be too. But I know it means so much more than either of us acknowledge. And I know, if all goes according to life’s plan, that he will be gone before I am. The game will be over forever. But for now, we’ve got our eyes set on Zsa Zsa.