I had breakfast today with an old friend of mine I hadn’t crossed paths with in a while. And by an “old friend”, I mean a guy like me in his seventies. We spoke of many things, including the evanescent quality of life, which reminded me of my dear friend and father-in-law, Billy. So I thought I’d post up something that I wrote about him after his death in 2014, a meditation on life …
… and its opposite …
Warning: Viewer discretion advised. This post discusses adult themes and content. Oh, not the usual adult themes we get on TV, like D: Suggestive Dialogue or V: Violence. Instead, it is a discussion of the following well-known wanted criminal:
I’ve been thinking a lot about death lately. My gorgeous ex-fiancee is a Family Nurse Practitioner, and she and I have been taking care of her 86-year-old father in his final illness. “Billy”, that’s what the rest of the guys in the band always called him, so that’s what I called him when I came to be friends and play music with him over the past four years. He was a jazz drummer his whole life and a very good one. Having had the honor of playing music with him myself, I can testify that he was a very skillful, fun, and inventive percussionist. But when he came out of the hospital back in February, he hung up his sticks and said that was it. His time with music was over. I knew then that his days were short. So we’ve been giving him all the love and support possible in the face of his approaching death.
Here in the developed world, we tend to distance ourselves from death. But in the third world, it is ever-present. The first dead man I ever saw who wasn’t rouged, perfumed, and embalmed was on a side street in Trench Town, a dirt-poor, less than fragrant, and more than turbulent suburb of Kingston, Jamaica. It was a strange scene.
Trench Town is not a good place to be at night. Even in the middle of a hot afternoon, it’s a place where you feel a need to take an occasional look over your shoulder. I was walking down the street, the only melanin-deficient guy in sight. (I hear that the new PC term is “melanin-challenged”, by the way, to avoid hurting people’s feelings by making them feel deficient … but then I’ve never been politically correct.)
In any case, halfway down the block, a man was lying in the gutter. At first, I thought he was just drunk and sleeping it off, until I got nearer and I saw he was lying in the proverbial pool of blood. I remember particularly the sound of the flies. I was reminded of when I used to kill and butcher cows and sheep and other animals out in the farmers’ fields for a living, and how fast the flies would appear. Seeing that man lying dead in a cloud of flies, in the middle of just another average city afternoon, was a shock to me. The cities I was accustomed to back then didn’t feature much in the way of dead bodies in the gutter. I was beyond surprised.
But the bigger shock was the reaction of the people in the street. By and large, it was ho, hum, another day in the life, step over his corpse and keep going, Many people looked once and didn’t give him a second glance. The public level of concern seemed to be on the order of “Is de tropics, mon, cover him up ‘fore he stinks”.
I realized then that in such places down at the bottom of the economic ladder, the death of a stranger is no big deal. Oh, I don’t mean that people don’t mourn or grieve their loved ones the way it happens in the industrialized countries. That’s the same everywhere. But in countries where death is more common, countries where most families have lost a child, countries where malaria or some other tropical fever takes away the young and otherwise healthy, everyone lives in much closer proximity and familiarity with death and the dead. Like the song says about a tropical murder,
Nobody talks about it no more, though it happened just a week ago. But people get by and people get high, in the tropics, they come and they go.
A decade later in the Solomon Islands, my good friend Willie died after a long wasting illness. Willie was a Solomon Islander who was loved by all, and in those fractious, jealous, contentious islands, that says a lot. There was no funeral home in the Solomons then, may not be one now. So family and friends do everything. Willie died in “Number 9”, which is rumored to be a hospital. In reality, it is a collection of buildings left over from World War II that vaguely resembles a hospital. From the curbside, that is. If you don’t focus too closely.
I went there as soon as I heard Willie had died. Up close, it’s an ancient, sad collection of sticky hot rooms baking in the sun, most without even fans to cool the patients. I was already sweating before I got inside.
When I went into the room, Willie’s wife was there, weeping. I joined her. We spoke for a bit. She had brought his clothes, she said, to dress him. She wept. I wept. She made no move to dress him. We sweated. We waited. Solomon Islanders are good at that.
After a while, I asked if she wanted help dressing him. Oh, yes, she said. I stood up, and walked over and lifted the sheet off his legs … ah, the legs that used to run had been replaced by bone and parchment. I lifted them up one by one. They were almost weightless. She and I slid them into his pants. Dressing dead people proved to be much harder than I would have thought. Perhaps unsurprisingly, their level of cooperation is quite low. I had the crazy urge to apologize to him for moving his legs. Finally, the pants were on. After that, it was easier. With his pants on, I could take off the sheet entirely. We put his shirt on. I’d been very close with him for two years. I’d never seen either the pants or the shirt before. My sense was that they were “Solomons new”, meaning bought from a Chinese store that imports used clothing by the bale. Willie looked good in his new outfit. I hugged his wife and left her to her sorrow. It was the first time I had ever touched a dead body.
Tropical death plays no favorites, particularly in the Solomons. My friend Turk was in his forties, a local airline pilot. He went into Number 9 to have a doctor look at his hemorrhoids, and never came out … you learn to watch your step very carefully on small tropical islands, and in particular, do your best to never step into a “hospital”.
I was back in the US when my father died. My gorgeous ex-fiancee was his nurse in his final days. He refused an operation for his bladder cancer. Said he wouldn’t leave my beloved stepmother broke, and besides, he’d done everything he wanted to do. He’d been a well-known architect, made money, built the house he lived in, his kids all loved him, things were getting painful, there wasn’t much left to keep him here. Enough, he said. He didn’t want to go to the hospital, he wanted to die at home.
Sadly, bladder cancer is a painful way to die. When the pain got bad, he asked me to see if I could get some pills that he could take to end his life. He was in chronic intermittent but intense pain. I did not want to, but I had no choice, and I set out to do that.
And I would have said that I could have found the pills, because I’ve always known lots of people with strange proclivities. But for whatever reason, I was unable to find any downers. I looked for reds or any kind of barbiturates. I asked my friends in low places and I never got more than a couple of pills.
And so each time I saw my Dad again, and the pain was even worse, I had to confess that I had failed him. It was gut-wrenching, worse each time. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.
The night that he died, the gorgeous ex-fiancee and I went to his house. Again I had to tell him that I hadn’t found the pills… dear friends, he smiled and said what he’d said the other times, that it was OK. It broke my heart. I hugged him and turned away so he couldn’t see my face.
That night I found out how thin the line is between tragedy and comedy. I had brought my guitar because I knew Dad always loved to hear any of his kids play music. I sat on his bed. He was moaning as the waves of pain rolled over him. I sang for him the songs of his childhood that I knew he loved. I sang him the songs of my childhood that he used to sing to me, as he shifted restlessly and groaned in pain. Finally, I was weeping too hard to go on singing, but I kept playing the guitar for a bit. And then I broke down entirely, and the music stopped. I couldn’t play another chord.
He opened his eyes, and he smiled his smile that went so deep, and he said “Oh please, don’t stop playing … I swear I’m not moaning on account of your music!”
We both broke up laughing. I didn’t know I could laugh and weep at the same time. I don’t know how he could laugh and moan at the same time. He fell asleep without saying another word as I played and wept. It was the last thing he ever said to me. What can you do with a man like that?
I left at around ten that night and went home. The gorgeous ex-fiancee said she thought she should spend the night with him. I got up at four-thirty and went to my job, commercial fishing, trolling for salmon. Around noon, my dear lady called on the ship’s radio. I knew what the message was before I got to the microphone. I was glad I was on the ocean. We kept fishing, it calmed and soothed me. I was fishing with a long-time shipmate and fishing partner. He understood my silence.
My mom’s death, on the other hand, surprised everyone. When she knew she was dying of lung cancer, she wrote and asked me to come to see her. I was in the Solomon Islands at the time, but that’s not a request you can ignore. I flew to Sedona, Arizona, where she was parking the RV she’d lived in for four years by herself, traveling all around the US. She was 69 at the time. I found out something strange.
The main reason she wanted to see me was to find out whether I took my dad’s side of their ancient argument and whether, like him, I blamed her regarding their divorce thirty-four years earlier … go figure. She wanted absolution from me, or at least to know that I didn’t blame her for what happened, thirty plus years in the past.
I told her the truth, that I didn’t have a dog in their fight. I said that I used to think that one or the other of them had done wrong, and to be sure they had each caused the other one a lot of grief and sorrow, they had hurt each other deeply. But by then, I was old enough to know that both of them were just fools whose intentions were good, and that they had both striven in their own way to make it work. The fact that they couldn’t make it work was not important, I knew they’d both given it their best shot. She liked that, and she sent me on my way.
About a week later, she took a fistful of pills and was found dead in the morning. I was glad she found the pills somewhere, lung cancer’s not a good way to go. I was even gladder that she hadn’t asked me to find them for her. The family believed for years that I’d given her the pills because I’d visited just before her death, and they knew I’d tried to find pills for my dad. But I hadn’t given her anything but love and support, as best as I knew how, and at the end of the day, no one ever knew where she got the pills.
Later, when we were living again in Fiji, my daughter was about 12. One night, the matriarch of a Fijian family I worked with died. Her daughter, grand-daughter, and son-in-law all worked alongside me for the same company. I took my daughter to the wake, which was the very next day. Without embalmers, tropical funerals are never delayed long. It was late, there were only a few people still there. The night was warm and enfolding. In the back of the house was a wooden table. It was spread with a nice cloth. The matriarch lay in state on the table. The family welcomed us. We gave them our best wishes and condolences. I had told my daughter I wanted her to touch the dead woman. She caressed her shoulder. The mom saw it and smiled. I didn’t want my child to be the stranger to death that I had been. Touching a dead person makes it all real.
There’s an old tale about these matters, one that the Fijians understood without ever knowing the story. A man goes to a sage and asks him to write down a good luck charm. The sage gets out his inkstone and brush, grinds some ink, and on a crisp new sheet of rice paper, he writes something down, folds it up and gives it to the man. The man unfolds it and reads it. In exquisite calligraphic script it says:
The man can’t believe it. “What have you done! Did my enemies pay you? This is a curse on my entire family, it’s not a good luck charm!”
“Ah, no, that’s the best good luck charm I can give you,” the sage calmly replied. “If it happens in any other order, that is very bad luck …”
For me, the bad luck was that the first person I saw actually die was my sister Kristen. Well, half-sister, but us kids all decided among us early on that half- and step- were out, we were all brothers and sisters. She was about 50 at the time. She’d gone to the hospital to get some tests for intestinal discomfort, walked in the door, and passed out in the reception area. So they checked her, and after some quick tests they decided that they had to do an immediate exploratory operation to see what was wrong. Her mother, who was our beloved stepmother Virginia, and a bunch of us brothers and sisters and I all went immediately to the hospital, to be there when she woke up from the operation.
When the operation was over around noon, the surgeon called us all in. She started talking, and she only got partway through the explanation of the operation before she started crying. She said that a 6-foot section of my sister’s intestines had died, and that was too much of a loss for her to live. She said medicine was powerless. She said when they saw what it was and how bad it was, they immediately closed up and got out to prevent further harm. They did not know why part of her had died, but there was no human power that could save her. She had maybe 24 hours. That was it.
We were stunned. What now, we said. The doctor said my sister was out of the OR and that she would be waking up soon. She’d likely stay awake for maybe an hour or two, perhaps a few more. But then the pain would start, and so she would be on a morphine drip. After that, she’d be awake some but she would mostly sleep. I felt so bad for the doctor. She had all of her knowledge and all of her skills and tools, and here she was, totally powerless. I could see she was shaken, frustrated and sad.
So we were all there when Kristen woke up. Of course, she was glad and surprised to see us. She remembered passing out in the lobby. But she was still kind of groggy. So as she became more alert we mostly made small talk. We told her she’d had an operation. We hadn’t thought ahead about who would tell her the bad news, we didn’t have a plan or anything, the usual family deal. Finally, she asked what the doctor had said about the outcome of the operation, what they had found … silence.
After a long pause, one of my brothers stepped in. But he kind of danced around the subject. He is a lovely man and he did his best, but he described it in all kinds of generalities, words like “preparing for the end” and “short time” and “so sorry”, and “inevitable”, but nothing concrete. I could see he wasn’t getting through, my sister wasn’t following him.
Finally, I couldn’t stand her confusion. I said something like “Kristen, the doctors operated, but they can’t help you. They said that part of your intestines died, and there is nothing that they can do. They say that you will die within a day.”
“Can’t be”, she said after a bit of thought. “I feel fine.” She wouldn’t believe me. I repeated that she was certain to die within twenty-four hours, by far the saddest and most final news I’ve ever had to deliver in my life. She looked in my eyes. She didn’t like what she saw. She turned to Virginia. “Mom,” she said, “that’s not true, is it?”
Her mother had to do then what must assuredly be one of the most difficult things that a human being can do. She had to tell her darling, her joy, her only daughter, that she had only a day to live. Ah, my friends, I can only fervently wish that no one would ever, ever in their life have to say what she said to her daughter then—Oh, sweetheart, I’m so sorry. The doctors say you only have a day to live. It’s true.
I couldn’t bear watching Virginia say it. How could she bear the saying of it herself?
It can’t be true, my sister finally replied.
Yes, it is true, my stepmother said.
It is not true! said Kristen.
Yes, it is true!
Their voices had gradually raised until they were almost shouting, and all of us realized at about the same instant that it was a prototypical grade-school playground level argument, and we all laughed at the absurdity. When death is present in the room, our feelings simply overflow, and tragedy and comedy get all confused and mixed up.
We talked for a while after that. Fortunately, none of us had much that was left unsaid with Kristen, we were always pretty honest with each other. She’d been a good kid and was a good woman, and we told her so. So we talked and even laughed some more. But all too soon, the pain from the operation started hitting her. Pretty soon, I couldn’t take it anymore, my heart wouldn’t bear it. In the afternoon, I left her with her mom and the others and went home.
But then in the early evening, my brother called. He said everyone had gone home but him. He said Virginia couldn’t stop weeping, she was beside herself, and another sister had taken her home. He said he had to leave, he needed to do some things and then go to work the next day.
Well, there was no way she was going to die alone. That was not on the list of options. So once again I drove the solitary miles and miles back to the hospital. When I got there she was sleeping. She woke once but didn’t say anything. She saw me, and it seemed to comfort her, or perhaps that was just my wishful thinking. Death was in the room. I stayed well to the side. Time slowed. I held her hand, and moistened her lips with ice water with the little pink lollipop sponges they use for that, and told her that she’d been a good sister to me and a good friend, and she had been, too. Around two in the morning, her breathing slowed, and then she slipped away.
I found out then that there is an odd kind of peace in being alone in a room with someone who has just died. After all the anguish and the turbulent emotions, after all the pain and suffering, the succeeding absolutely inalterable finality of her death obviated the need for any further struggle on anyone’s part. There was nothing more she could do. There was nothing more I could do. She was beyond my reach. Death had left the building, and with it, the need for wariness. I sat in the room with her for a while, and wept, and turned off my mind. The silence was so deep it was almost subsonic. If that silence of death had a color, it would be the darkest ebon, the deepest Elvis velvet black. I wrapped the silence around me and listened to my own breath, the only sound in the room.
Then after a while, I pressed the call button, and the doctor came and pronounced her dead.
The main thing that I have learned in all of my curious interactions with the dead and the dying has been to take Death as my advisor. I have learned that Death gives me better advice than anyone. When it comes to sage wisdom, I’ve found that Death beats all the books and advice columnists and psychologists and grief counselors and what all the authorities say. Whenever I’m all in a fluster about how bad things are at the moment, how everything’s going pear-shaped and I just can’t take it, at that time (if I have my wits about me) I’ll I look over my left shoulder and ask Death what he thinks about it all.
By this point, I know what he’ll say. He’ll say no, Willis, don’t worry about this penny-ante booshwa. That’s nothing, he tells me … I haven’t touched you yet …
All of us, myself assuredly included, tend to live as though we are immortal. We talk of wasting time as if we had it to waste, when it is our most precious possession and we have so little of it. Taking Death as my advisor cuts through that fatal illusion. He reminds me that my days are numbered, that I need to live every day to the fullest. He tells me to work and play and laugh and produce and treat each hour as though it were my last. He reminds me that I am at war, and I need to acknowledge that this might be my ultimate battle. And as such, it is imperative that I go forth to that battle in a warrior’s spirit of true abandon, holding nothing back.
Which brings me back to where I started this roundabout tale, back to William Alfred Schneider, my dear friend Billy, my fellow musician and father-in-law. I finally got to know him after they moved out here. The man was a jazz legend. He got his first gig playing drums in a St. Louis strip joint when he was a teenager in the 1940s, and never looked back. He was the drummer for Barbara Streisand at the Crystal Palace in St. Louis in the fifties, and was a fixture in the famed “Gaslight Square”. He played with Liberace. He said when “Lee”, as he called Liberace, went on a minimum no-frills tour, he took only two people—Billy, and Liberace’s ‘hairdresser’ … with Billy smiling his silly grin and slightly emphasizing the word ‘hairdresser’. Unusually for a man born in the 1920s, he didn’t care in the slightest what someone did in bed, as long as they could play good music and put on an entertaining show. But he was always ahead of his time.
Billy played with Frank Sinatra, and with Dave Brubeck. He toured with Roger Williams. In the 1950’s Billy was the drummer for “The Nervous Set”, starring the recently-deceased Larry Hagman as the lead singer. It was the first Broadway musical with a jazz quartet instead of an orchestra. Kenny Burrell was the guitarist. Among other innovations of that Broadway musical, Billy played the tympani along with his normal jazz drum kit, to fill out the sound. You can hear Billy’s understated musical style on the drums here. The musical is a masterpiece of late 1950’s angst, with lyrics that were hilarious in their own way then and now. The musical both celebrated and mocked the dawn of the “Beat Generation”. Billy said Jack Kerouac came to a performance. He was drunk and tried to force his way backstage, but they wouldn’t let him in. Billy’s stories went on and on …
He’d gone legally blind a couple of decades before, macular degeneration. But he was doing OK, still playing music, until his wife had a stroke. She was half-paralyzed and bedridden after that, which was hard on him, and he stopped playing. About four years before his death, my gorgeous ex-fiancee finally was able to talk them into moving to California from St. Louis so we could take care of them. She found a nursing home for her mom, and we found him a mobile home to buy in a nearby mobile home park… he laughed about that. He said it proved he wasn’t trailer trash, he lived in a mobile home.
He visited his wife in the nursing home almost every single day until her death a couple of years ago. She was the envy of the place to have a husband like that, all the poor souls in the nursing home who got one or two visits a year were jealous of her. I think he was atoning for previous misdeeds, the man was a jazz musician, and by all accounts a tomcat … but atone he assuredly did, and impeccably. When she needed him, really needed him, he was by her side every day. The only way we could keep him from going was to tell him we’d go ourselves, and we did, week after week, to give him some days off. He paid off all of his debts to his wife with true devotion.
Right up to the end his mind never weakened, and curiously, he was one of the few people with whom I could discuss my climate research. You have to understand that I’m a long way out of the loop compared to many climate researchers. They typically have some circle of peers around them with whom they can discuss their ideas about the climate—other researchers, professors, graduate students, mentors, people from other departments and fields, they work and publish in teams and groups and can bounce ideas off each other.
I do all of my research alone. Around here, I had Billy and one other guy to talk to, neither one a climate scientist but both interested intelligent layman, and that was it. So it was always a pleasure to read my work to him. He had me read each piece out loud and then asked good questions. And we always had the music.
But his kidneys finally betrayed him. His last public appearance was a few months before his death, a couple of half-hour sets. He was as good as ever. Almost blind and nearly deaf even with his hearing aids, he never missed a beat. But then he was hospitalized, and they had to re-inflate him with a cartload of IV fluids and such. His other daughter came out from Tennessee, she was a huge help during and after his hospitalization. But then, of course, she had to go back to work. She left with our profound thanks.
When Billy came out of the hospital, he told me he wasn’t going to play any more music. I said, you mean not play any more music in public? No, he said, he was done with music… my heart sank. He’d said the same thing when his wife had her stroke, and he didn’t play any music at all for a couple of years back then.
But when he’d first moved to California and still wasn’t playing, I knew that if I could get him to play again, he’d live much longer. So when he’d first moved out west, I just kept bugging him to play … and finally, he gave in. We started to play a bit. I put my keyboard, amplifier, bass, microphone, and guitar at his place so he could rock out anytime I or one of his friends was there. But he was kind of half-hearted about it, like he hadn’t made up his mind to get back into it.
And then he met some local musicians, and one of them told him that an old drum student of Billy’s from 50 years ago named George Marsh was now a music professor at the local university. Well, that put the cat among the pigeons. Just the rumor of George Marsh did what I couldn’t do. Billy immediately started seriously practicing, hours every day—Billy Schneider wasn’t going to have his student show up and find his old teacher unable to play the drums, oh, no, that wasn’t on.
And so by the time George Marsh (who is now in his seventies and still teaching) made it over to his house, Billy was seriously playing his drums again and had his old chops back. And for the next four years, he played a lot, both with me and with various combinations of other musician friends in his house, as well as playing various gigs again in public as he’d done for so long. He played with a floating jazz group at a local restaurant, you’ve never seen a man so happy as when the band clicked.
Here’s a curious story about how what goes around comes around. Billy met a friend of mine who’s up to his ears in Haitian drumming. So Billy started trading lessons with him, showing him jazz drumming in exchange for being taught something about Haitian drumming. Here’s the crazy part. My friend was taught Haitian drumming by a man named Kendrick. Kendrick was a very good drummer with sticks as well, in part because at the start of his drumming career he’d once spent six months on the waiting list to finally become for several years a student of George Marsh… who was, of course, taught drums by Billy himself—and so the circle was complete. Billy taught George who taught Kendrick who taught Jim who taught Billy … music and life are funny that way, he reaped what he had sown.
So when Billy announced he was hanging up his sticks, my heart sank. I knew his time was short … not good news. Curiously, he told me that in some ways it was a great relief because the music had always been a burden for him. I understood what he meant. I’m a musician, but not like him. I never practiced, even when I was making my living playing music. I just played and played and played. Oh, sometimes I’d play one song over and over for three hours, but I never called it practice. You’re doing the same thing but from a very different point of view of music. I hate to practice, and I love to play, despite the fact that they’re the same. In my opinion, they call it “playing music” for a reason—because it’s not ever supposed to be work or practice. My aim is to play music like children play their games, for the simple joy of the sound and the passion of creating something stirring and moving and lovely.
But Billy was old-school. For him, there was practice, and there was performing. Billy had always driven himself to practice, a minimum of three hours a day until the day he quit. It was why he was so good. And now, he said, he was just tired to the bone. He didn’t want to practice like that anymore… and if he couldn’t practice three hours a day, he wouldn’t play at all.
I told him that was OK by me. I told him he’d played music for people all his life, and all they’d had to do was sit back and listen. I said that now I could return the favor. I’d play, and all he had to do was listen. He laughed, he liked that plan. We joked about him being my captive audience. And so when I visited over the following weeks, I played for him the tunes that he and I had played together as he lay back in his easy chair. We talked about everything, including his impending death.
His health got worse and worse. The doctors said that he was a candidate for dialysis. But like my father, he refused treatment. His music was done, he said, and he’d had enough of being old and blind and deaf and most of all, he was just so tired. The only medical treatment he said he wanted was a morphine drip if things got bad.
For a while, he could still take care of himself. We begged him to come live with us, but he was fiercely independent. His proud warrior’s spirit refused to let him leave his mobile home even after he began to fail. So about two weeks before his death, the gorgeous ex-fiancee and I moved in with him in shifts, with her there one night and me there the next. He was mostly sleeping. His voice grew less clear, with gaps in the words.
I was reminded of times in the past when some friend and I were talking on our fishing boat radios, and my friend was in a boat going over the horizon. As the boat moved farther away, my friend’s words became indistinct, with static and gaps like Billy’s words, and both of us saying, Do you copy, do you read me, over? … I could see Billy was frustrated that his body wouldn’t obey him. It wasn’t that his mind couldn’t form the words. It was just that he was sailing over the horizon, and slowly getting too far away to send back final communications to those of us left behind on the shore…
When the pain got bad, his loving, ever-patient nurse, my dear wife, got him a prescription for morphine … and although we couldn’t give him the IV drip, we dripped it into his mouth, just a bit from time to time like he’d wanted. I think the fear of the pain was worse than the pain itself, and the morphine eased both his body and his mind.
On a Friday night, we could see that he was nearing the end. I went down to his place, and my dear lady went home to feed the cat and get some sleep. It was proper. She had been at my father’s bedside when he died, and on that night long ago I had gone home. So it was right that she should go home that night. After she left, I put on some of Billy’s recordings from back in the day, the soundtrack from “The Nervous Set”, recordings he’d done with other musicians. I held his hand and stroked his head. I sang to him. I told him he’d been a good husband and father, although neither one was strictly true. But like my own mom and dad, he’d done his best with the poor interpersonal tools that were to hand in the 40’s and 50’s, and that’s all I could ask.
When I could feel his death approaching, I made myself small and turned sideways. I’m very careful when Death is in the room. First off, if you look at that joker’s eye-sockets, you can tell right away that his vision isn’t of the finest. Plus, his record isn’t that sterling either. It’s because he grew up outdoors, that’s my theory at least, where there’s plenty of room to swing a scythe. As a result, too often he’s been known to misunderestimate the distances involved inside a house, so his scythe bumps the refrigerator on the backswing or something, and as a result, the blade hits the wrong man, and boom—Dick Nixon lives to be 117 years old, and some good guy ends up dying young.
And although these days I’m mostly out of danger in that regard, being neither that young nor that good, I did not want to get mistaken for Billy right about then.
But Death found the right man, in my opinion at least, and probably in Billy’s opinion as well, and he died around nine o’clock. His breath went out, and it never came back. I leaned over and kissed his cooling forehead. His other daughter later said that for years, he’d had an evening gig, and the second set always started at 9:20 … that made sense. Much as he would have liked to stay and talk to me, he had to leave, the boys were headed back to the bandstand, Barbara Striesand was already on stage, the next set was about to start …
So I turned off his old recordings, and once again, I found myself sitting alone in a silent room with someone I’d just watched die. Again I wept. And again I took solace in the profundity of the silence, and in the soothing fact that there was nothing pressing anymore, no urgency, nothing he needed to do, nothing I could do for him.
Then, when the time of silence was over, I went to do the necessary tasks. But of course, as I have learned in my life, death often brings both tragedy and farce, and this was no exception. Earlier in the day, I’d called the mortuary, to see what the procedure was for them to pick up his body. The Mortuary Lady said they couldn’t pick him up without a Death Certificate. OK, I said, how do I get one of those? Oh, she said, you can’t do it, his doctor has to sign it.
Mmmm … but what if his doctor is out of town? Because, you know, he is out of town. Until Monday. And Billy will likely die before then.
Well, she said, after he dies you should call the County Coroner. They will send a doctor over to sign the certificate. They always handle that. It’s not a problem
So I did … but being a skeptical fellow, I did it right then, I didn’t wait until afterward. I told the nice Coroner Lady the situation. She said oh, no, we don’t handle dead people at home in bed. You should call the Sheriff’s Department. They always handle that. It’s not a problem, call them.
So I did, right then. But the nice Sheriff Lady said they didn’t deal with dead people at home in bed. She said just call the emergency number 9-1-1. They always handle that. It’s not a problem … I guess not many people die at home with their family anymore. I called 9-1-1, they were clueless. They said call my doctor. Eventually, my doctor said just call the local police. They’ll know what to do. So after I’d sat in the silence in his bedroom for a while, I did that very thing.
However, the nice Police Lady said that unfortunately, his passing had to be classified as an “Unattended Death”, all capitalized and everything, because there was no doctor present. Again I was reminded of the difference between the first and the third world. What we call “an Unattended Death” they call “a death”—the presence of a doctor is a rarity, and absolutely not a necessity. In any case, the nice Police Lady said that she was sorry, but since his doctor was out of town, they’d have to send a detective out to investigate the Unattended Death for signs of foul play … plus of course, the Emergency Medical Technicians had to come out to make sure he wasn’t still alive.
The mind works strangely at such times. I was tempted to say that it was clear that he wasn’t pining for the fjords, and that I took “didn’t breathe for the last fifteen minutes” as kind of a clue to his general state of animation, but I forbore … I could see that I was now just a pawn in the bureaucratic machinery. I had entered the zone where it didn’t matter what I said or did.
The detective turned out to be a pleasant young man. Clearly, however, he was hoping that this would turn out to be the crime of the century, that I’d just snuffed Howard Hughes or something. He came in, and first thing, we had to fill out some paperwork. I figured he’d want to see the body first, but no, it’s the government. Paperwork first, last, and in between—it’s the way we render modern death sterile and unthreatening.
While we were doing that, the EMT wagon arrived. Now, Billy lived in an “Over 55-Year-Olds” mobile home park. So I’d told the nice Police Lady if they left the lights and sirens on they’d be dealing with more than one dead old geezer, the noise and lights would be sure to cause at least one coronary. So the EMT wagon came in silently and the EMT went into the bedroom to see the body. He came out and told us that Billy was really most sincerely dead. He had a whole other set of paperwork, which I signed, and he gave his condolences and left. But of course, he couldn’t sign the Death Certificate, so I’m not sure what his purpose was.
After the paperwork was done, the Detective said he wanted to see the “scene”. He did manage not to call it a “crime scene”. We went into the bedroom. He took out his camera and said he was sorry, but by law, he had to take pictures for the record. I said I understood. He asked me to take the covers off of Billy’s body. I could see that he was disappointed to find out that it was just an ancient dead man weighing about 80 pounds, call it 35 kg, with pipe stem legs and sunken eyes, and not a crime victim of any kind. So the Detective took his pictures. And knowing that it made absolutely no sense, I put the covers back on Billy and tucked them in around him because it was night time, and I didn’t want him to be cold. We are truly bizarre creatures, we humans …
Then the Detective asked if I had a measuring tape. He said he had to measure the distance of the body from the walls of the room for his sketch of the scene, but he didn’t have a tape … I got a tape measure. Somewhere in there, it seems the gears in my mind had stripped entirely, and I found myself wandering around the bedroom, numbly measuring how far it was from the walls to Billy’s body while the detective wrote down the numbers. Life is endlessly strange. Somewhere in the bowels of the local Police Department there is an official “Unaccompanied Death” form with a sketch on it showing that William A. Schneider aged 86 died approximately nine feet from the south bedroom wall of his mobile home, and about seven feet from the east bedroom wall …
When all that was done, all the measurements and pictures taken, all the papers signed, I asked the Detective if now the mortuary folks could pick him up.
The Detective said no, first I had to get the Death Certificate.
I wanted to pound my head against the wall, but I was afraid I wouldn’t feel a thing if I did. It was that kind of evening. So I told the Detective the whole story, about the Mortuary Lady, and the County Coroner Lady, and the Sheriff Lady, and the Police Lady, the 9-1-1 call, and my Doctor’s advice, and he took pity on me. He called his boss, and she called someone she knew at the Coroners Office. In about five minutes she called him back and said OK, Billy could be moved, the doctor could sign off when he returned on Monday.
So the Detective told me the body could go, and he gave his condolences. He was sincere and kind and professional throughout, and I thanked him for that. I said I knew he had to do what he had done, and I was glad it was him that had done it. When he left I went back inside and called the mortuary. Well, that’s not exactly true. First I got out Billy’s little bottle and put myself on a morphine drip or two … it was that kind of night. Then I called the mortuary.
Soon, the folks from the mortuary arrived. They brought a gurney. The mobile home was tight quarters. They had to stand the gurney on end to get it around the hall corners to his bedroom. I couldn’t figure out how they would get him out, there was nowhere near enough room. They wrapped him in a white shroud and put him on the gurney. Then they started lashing him on, with three webbed belts. I left the bedroom and sat down in the living room to wait.
When they came out of the bedroom, I found out that the gurney folded down, and it had wheels on one end, so they could use it like a hand truck. They came breezing out of the bedroom, wheeling him on what looked just like a hand truck, wrapped in white in a standing position. Their sudden appearance was so bizarre, they were moving fairly fast, or perhaps I was moving fairly slow, but in any case, they looked for all the world like demented museum curators on the Discovery Channel merrily rolling one of the mummies to a new display location …
I must confess, I broke out laughing at the sudden appearance of Billy disguised as a mummy on wheels in some museum. The attendants looked at me strangely, but I suppose they’d seen all kinds of grief, so they just keep wheeling the mummy on out to the van. Yeah, I know, I’m likely going to hell for laughing right then, but bizarrely my first thought had been, “I gotta tell Billy about this”, and he would have enjoyed it, too. He was a rascal and a gentleman and a rogue, crabby and thoughtlessly hard on the women in his family who loved him nonetheless, a wonderful musician and a bad family man who somehow managed to successfully raise a couple great girls to productive adulthood, and always someone with a deep sense of humor and a profound enjoyment of the ridiculous, inane, outré things of this world. He’d have cracked up at the mummy rolling by.
My old shipmate, the one I was fishing with when I heard of my father’s passing thirty years before, remarked on Billy’s death, “We don’t grieve for him. We grieve for our own loss, that he’s no longer around to laugh with us.”
Anyhow, that’s why my mind has been revisiting the topic of death. I have no great insights gained from all of this, except to keep listening to Death’s excellent advice, and to keep the gas pedal firmly pressed to the floor. Oh, and what George Marsh told me. He said he’d been meaning to get over to see Billy again, he’d been invited, but this and that had gotten in the way, time went by, and now Billy was dead … he said he wasn’t ever going to let that happen again if he could help it. A valuable lesson indeed.
After Billy’s death, I went for some long walks on the cliffs overlooking the ocean with my gorgeous ex-fiancee, and we let the immensity of the water and the insistent wind and the endless waves wash away the sorrow and the struggle of the last few months. We had fished commercially together, we both are children of the waves. And to our great joy, we saw a whale spouting far out in the vasty deeps—there is no better balm for the heart than untamed wildness.
I give my good lady immense props for her role in all of this. She has been the captain of our family ship since the first day, I was just the crew. And having skippered my share of boats, I assure you that crewman is by far the easier job. Crewmen sleep well at night, while the skipper tosses and turns and considers tomorrow. Billy was not always nice or kind to her or her sister, but they both bore up under it without complaint to him. She simply kept supporting him and her mother in every way they wanted and needed, from before the time they moved out here until their deaths. I told that wonderful woman that she was the perfect daughter, that she did everything they needed and more, and that she had done it with style and with a warm and open heart. She has my profound admiration and undying thanks for her unwavering support of both of our parents in their extremity.
And my conclusion from all of this? The message is simple.
Hold your family and friends close, remember to taste the strawberries, play your own music whatever that might mean to you, and do what you love … because the night is never far away.
Best regards, and thanks for coming on the journey. Everyone grieves differently. This time around, writing seems to be part of how I do it. Tonight, the midnight moon is nearly full, with a single band of altostratus on one side of the sky and a hint of rain in the air. The coyotes are mumbling to each other on the far ridge, the saw-whet owl is sharpening his lethal blade. The intoxicating smell of the lemon tree in the yard lies thick on the dark air. The moonlit forest around my house is alive with unseen eyes, predator and prey alike, hidden death on all sides for rabbits and mice … stay well, dear friends, life is far too short.
William A. “Billy” Schneider
Jazz drummer extraordinaire
He lived and died surrounded by his music
and loved by his family and friends.
Sleep well, my dear companion.