I have a cold. Which is to say, a cold has me. It has crept among my cells with little cats feet, infiltrated me with viral toxins. I am sobered, more convinced than ever of my own mortality, not to mention age. What else can one say about the strange and sudden draining of the human body’s essential forces? This is the second cold I have had in short order. I don’t get colds.
My Tuesday volunteer Paul has arrived on a Thursday. It is the sort of change that Proust’s indolent characters could have spent 50 pages anticipating and 50 more recounting, such is the pace of my life. Which turns out to be the topic of today’s brunch conversation. We seem to have hit a stride in terms of meal location. They are getting used to us at the local crêperie, and today we sit in the actual sun. Spring’s gusty days have given way to this, unexpected warmth and calm. As for me, the viral presence brings cold and calm. The sun feels good. I am just ill enough to have the occasional swoon in between my latté and gallette. No matter. I am automated after all, and hitting the tilt switch on my wheelchair, pleasantly recline into the morning. The sun. I decide it is making vitamin D, not melanoma. When I tilt back into action, Paul and I resume our discourse.
Life has given each of us the time to enjoy it, that is the gist. To me, this is newfound riches. I’m not yet comfortable with a life of regular Social Security and unfettered time. Paul’s workday at a local nonprofit gives him freedom. We are, I decide, nonproductive people who produce quite well, thank you very much. I drain my latté. The virus has drained my solar plexus. Time to head home.
And finally watch the DVD that has been sitting on my coffee table for weeks. Paul wants to see it. I am happily reading Edward St. Aubyn and feel inclined in that direction. But I just confessed to Paul over brunch that I feel guilty opening books during the day, the workday. So, what the hell, why not a film? No one has to know. And if someone discovers me watching my 50-inch plasma screen in the middle of a beautiful day, I will deny it.
A friend loaned me Departures. Japanese. An Academy award for best ‘foreign’ film. Okay, let it roll. Love and death. Connection and loss. Strange to see so much of my recent experience, but gratifying to feel it articulated. The film’s hero encounters a horrifying death early in the plot, comes home and tries to wash his hands, then grabs his wife’s hands. He clasps her body, then pulls away her clothes, desperate to maximize available skin. I know this feeling. Only incidentally a prelude to sex, the visceral need is solace, comfort and pain-obliterating connection. Good that I know this feeling, because what I don’t know…without watching this film…is that it’s okay. How needy am I? How desperate am I for solace? We all need mothering, and those of us who have been shorted in the experience, don’t have much sense of appropriateness or of proportion.
Need. It’s okay, it’s normal. So is dying, but this is easy to say and infinitely complex to experience. This film portrays many deaths. Each is equally blank and final. It is the families and their responses that differ, the many ways in which death reveals life. Jealousy, quiet joy, bitter accusations, peace, honor, intense grief, warm appreciation…all the mourners at all the ‘departures’ in the film react as they do. Death strips away constraints, pretense. People show themselves. Revealing what is beautiful and ugly.
Then, there is the past. The film’s protagonist has been cheated of a childhood. He knows it and can’t forget. As the film unfolds, death makes him remember, and more fully. Dying sharpens the outlines, life becomes stark…and more comprehensible. Bringing me back to St. Aubyn. There is a gross injustice at the heart of his Trilogy, the first novel of which I’m reading. And for the first time ever it finally dawned on me that I cannot get through such passages without stopping and musing in a certain direction. Revenge fantasies. I simply have to imagine how the wronged character gets his payback. Which definitely interrupts the flow, halts the plot, sending me into my own stuff and away from…the real story which is always about something else. As for my story….
Anger at being shot. Anger at my sick parents. Payback. Which a friend in a writers’ group quietly observed to me, years ago, doesn’t happen. Payback, it turns out, is a feeling, not an event. Revenge fantasies are a sop to grief and hurt…and they are fantasies. Remarkable how they can occupy my brain, however. In the summation that is death, something more balanced, more human, can emerge. Another message from this film.
It is Saturday now. My cold is getting better. Am I getting better? Perhaps. Or perhaps not. Either way, there is something of cold consciousness, that light flirtation with death, worth hanging onto.