Saturday, November 1, 2008

On Death and Toilets

The funeral home is becoming visible again. All summer, it was obscured by the haze of green that settled over my kitchen window. But the trees are stripping down, now. The big walnut tree that maddens the squirrels stands nearly naked, and the sugar maples are slinking out of their coats. There's no longer much of anything between the windowpane and the row of hearses but air.

I'd forgotten, you see, that I lived cheek to jowl with all that death. Or rather, I'd forgotten that I lived so close to all that life: almost every Friday, many Saturdays, and the odd Tuesday, the parking lot of the funeral home fills up with cars. People in suits stumble into the building and then out again. They stand in the parking lot blinking in the evening light, blowing their noses and having conversations and surreptitiously checking out other folks' cars. Living by a funeral home teaches you that death is terrifying not because it is strange, but because it isn't.

The depressed and the overly literary (should these even be separate categories?) go a step further: they argue that we're dead all the time. In her essay "Sketch of the Past," Virginia Woolf asserts that we spend most of our lives, in effect, not living. It is only during a few scattered "moments of being," those scarce epiphinal seconds when the world stands up and slaps us in the face, that we are alive at all.

I used to think this was a load of semi-liquid horse hooey. This was because I never experienced any moments of being that couldn't be chalked up to indigestion. Yesterday, though, things changed. Miles from the funeral home, in a bathroom stall in a beat-up public school building scheduled to close within the year, I looked up. I'd been using the same bathroom for three months, but this was the first time I'd noticed that the tops of the bathroom stalls were garlanded with enormous fake purple flowers. Sure, I'd laid eyes on them. But I'd never seen them, never looked up at them and thought: oh, hey, look, there are some enormous fake purple flowers hanging over the toilet.

There were, in fact, enormous fake purple flowers hanging over the toilet.

It was the kind of small, stupid crease in the universe, the kind of startling perceptual origami, that would make Woolf proud. Or at least self-satisfied. Except she's long dead, and I'm the one standing with my hand pressed to the glass, watching the hearse pull in and out and in.

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