Archive for January, 2010

The History of Death Part I or He Came on Sparrow’s Wings

Posted in Autobiographical, Parole Plaza with tags , , , , on January 31, 2010 by smpiv

I

 Like most people I’ve crossed paths with death on his eternal rounds several times.

 He’s  most often unrecognizable and then, usually, in the guise of something recognizable as anything but death.

In one instance he came within feet of smashing my small trainer disguised as a shiny, oil streaked Lockheed Lodestar. 

“Ventura tower four echo alpha downwind south for landing.”

“Four echo alpha your number three to land.”

 “Four echo alpha.”

Now on final, zipping along at 80mph and 800 feet my windscreen is filled with the underbelly of the twin.  It was so close I could see the rivets and oil streaming along the engine nacelles.  You would think that the radial engines of the Lockheed would drown out the sound of the 100hp Lycoming, but as soon as I caught sight of plane out of the corner of my eye all went silent and into slow motion.

The next sound was the flat affectation of the tower.

“Twin you almost hit the trainer.”

“Sorry,” was the reply of the twin.

Another time he visited in the form of a tanker truck on the Santa Monica Freeway.

My friend Steve and I had been to LA in search of a stereo for his SS396 El Camino.  I can’t remember why we had to go all the way into LA for the radio, but there we were.

The box with the stereo sat between us and in one of those dim moments we both began to open the box to look at Steve’s purchase–both of us.  Can’t really say how long we were at it, but we finally looked at one another as our eyes both asked the same question–who’s driving?

When we looked ahead a crate had dropped off a truck in front of us.  Again total silence and super-slomo this time.  I looked in the passenger side mirror to see the oncoming grill of a Mack Tractor Trailer.  Am I sure?  Very.

Of course this is all happening in fractions of seconds, but for me I remember seeing the truck in the mirror, thinking I had better pull my arm in from the open window and that it was a good thing that Steve was left handed because he would naturally turn left.  Not true, he went right and shockingly close to the truck.

By this time the cab is moving past and I’m staring at the Mack bulldog thinking that I always liked  their logo.  Then various fasteners, the bolts on the wheels spinning at a surprisingly slow pace, my reflection in the chrome of the tanker and then the woosh of the freeway filling my ears again.
“Wow!  We’re lucky we didn’t hit that crate in the road,” I said as calmly as “I’ll have fries with my burger, please.” 

“What?  We ran right over top of it, didn’t you hear it?”

“Sorry.  I didn’t.”

 In our modern age I suppose the large mechanical disguises are probably the most common.  But, truthfully, for me death’s most personal visit had nothing to do with me at all or a modern conveyance.

 II

 My grandmother, Mimi, was diagnosed with cancer sometime in 1977–I think.  My family tends to approach anything serious with a stiff-upper-lip attitude, so whether I was told or pieced it together from scraps of conversation, I’m not sure.

 In any case there it was, a death sentence. 

I was adrift.  I had no idea what to do and, initially, how to act.  I spent many moments close to tears if for no other reason than I didn’t know what to do or how to feel.  This would be my first experience with a close family member dying–my stiff upper lip quavered quite a bit. 

I was scared for my grandmother and sad for my impending loss.  The confusion was compounded by my Mimi’s stoic, unaffected approach to it all.

She continued to get up early to percolate the coffee, fix breakfast and to get the younger ones off to Club.  Tuesdays were still spent with her friends in the Art room above the store.  It was all so normal, was I the only one that knew the end was near, that death already knew her address and didn’t need a bus, or plane, or ferocious storm to take her off to her final reckoning?

One of the things my Mimi and I enjoyed was shopping for clothes.  She liked to dress me up, get me out of my jeans and t-shirts.  I liked the attention and the clothes.  Our favorite destination was Woodies in Parole Plaza outside Annapolis.  Britts and Sears were there as well, but Woodies was the place to go.  I think for my grandmother it reminded her of taking my Uncle Joe and mother  to Woodies in downtown DC in its heyday.

This Woodies was a two story department store that towered over the rest of Parole.  It made the rest of the stores and shops look inadequate.  We arrived with me at the helm of my grandmother’s ’67 Chevy Malibu, replete with plastic on the seats that made it feel like a very tacky living room on wheels.

The plastic was hell in hot weather and with a lack of AC you were several rings down into hell before you realized that you were completely stuck to the plastic.  I spent a particularly brutal drive through Death Valley stuck to those seats.

As I ran to the other side of the car to open her door I was hit full in the face with the reality of the situation.  This would probably be, and it was, the last time I would shop with my Mimi–it makes me well up even now to think about it.  But this was a special day.

It was one of those August days that was still hot but the winds of November were starting to move through, the sky was shockingly blue and the clouds super puffy and white.  Clear, clear, clear–the distance coming forward.

I turned to Mimi to say something, anything, nothing I can remember.  She had a beatific smile on her face, a light I had never seen in her eyes, and an outward calm that was frightening.  As I took it all in a sparrow alit on her shoulder and looked my grandmother in the eye and she at the sparrow.

Something was said at that moment, but not to me.  And then the bird was gone and with it all my worries, all my concerns for my Mimi.  My grandmother was utterly at peace with her fate and after that so was I.

III

Now that I’m on the downside of life’s bell curve my mind wonders at my ultimate demise.  How will I handle it?  Will I put my family at ease, at least a grandchild?  And I guess I’m sorry I wasn’t privy to my grandmother’s conversation with the sparrow, although I’m sure I wasn’t meant to.

And as my default poet Dylan Thomas said, “And death shall have no dominion.”

God bless you all and good night.