There is a way of moving through life in which what happens becomes a foreground so overwhelming that nothing else is noticed. One moves from moment to moment, reading one’s life as narrative only. The background, all those elements that belong to the senses, are blotted out.
Yesterday was the funeral. I can tell about it, narrate the events. I can point to the oddities. That the setup for a traditional funeral, the folding chairs, the dais, the lectern, were all ignored, or perhaps rejected by the mourners. That her eldest son stood throughout on nearby gravestones. That the eulogy began, “she was a tough old broad,” and devolved to a retelling of old hurts and angers.
But all that is sterile, intellectual. It has neither color nor feeling. The sky is neither blue nor overcast (it was in fact blue). There are no sounds, no smells, no understanding or awareness. I don’t believe this is a case of life lived in the moment. I think it is a problem of life lived as a narrative.
This happened and then that happened. She said, he said. It is the equivalent of a genre novel, say a mystery, in which all of the elements of fiction that create a full-bodied literary experience are sacrificed to plot. It may be a darn good read, but there is no life to the thing once The End is reached.
On the other hand, there is that state of heightened awareness. It wasn’t that things suddenly had great significance, but that time stretched enough for me to see and hear and think and take note. It seems to me that this is the truth of living in the moment.
To live life as a narrative requires two things: the ability to observe, to remain intellectually alert no matter how provocative or evocative the situation. I stand in the midst of this family who have come to bury their mother, a woman with whom I have had a relationship as mother-in-law for over fifteen years, a woman who’s life has touched me in a way I cannot even articulate, but which has resulted in the only strong, organic, consistent writing I’ve done in years. Not seven months ago, I buried my own mother, the woman who was the linchpin of my life.
Yet here that day is what I observe: the oldest son has chosen, unconsciously I’m sure, to stand on the gravestones of someone else’s father. I know this because the Mason’s emblem is prominent in my mind, while I could kick myself for not registering the dead man’s name, birth and death dates. What telling details they would make for my narrative. (Here I must stop and ask myself what narrative I was creating that day: funerals of the rural non-Jew? Repressed sons? Disappointed women?) There is a solitary pot of flowers, baby calla lilies, sent to the funeral home by whom no one is sure or seems to care. One stem has been broken, and the bloom flops like a broken wing. (This detail now makes me want to cry, and I see that my narrative has much to do with the thing in my mother-in-law that has always touched me: what I read, when I create her narrative, as the supremely disappointing life of a woman at the hands of the four men she lived with, three her sons, two of whom are standing now at her graveside).
The sons are awkward in this situation. They have chosen not to have clergy (“Ma wasn’t much for ceremony”) and so it is all up to them to create whatever eulogy they intend their mother to have. “She was a tough old broad,” says the eldest.
“Yeah, she sure was,” says the youngest.
“But she had a hard life to contend with,” says the daughter-in-law.
There are few others at the graveside. Two grandchildren, out of five. A second daughter-in law who is already burnt yellow from the liver cancer that will kill her in two months. A former daughter-in-law whose attendance was not required, or even perhaps desired. She injects the single note of religion into the affair, some talk about Jesus and about the hereafter. She seems to go on forever, although it was probably only a minute or two. The eldest son scuffs his heel on the edge of the gravestone he stood on. The younger looks blank, and his left nostril flicks up ever so slightly, almost imperceptibly. The grandchildren merely look embarrassed. This was not a family of religious note, and even the short sermon was, it seems, inappropriate. When it was over, there was a palpable feeling of relief, and a chorus of muttered “amen…yes, indeed…amen.”