Friday, April 9, 2010

Too Late to Die (Really) Young

“What’s the name of the street?” I asked, twirling my spaghetti.

Keith took a deep breath, twisted his mouth in thought, then said: “Hamilton.”

I took a deep breath. “No,” I said. “Hamilton is the street we live on now.”

“It begins with an H,” he said.

“That’s not good enough,” I replied. “There are lots of streets that begin with an H.”

“I don’t know,” he finally admitted.

“Harvard Avenue. Harvard,” I exhaled. “If you leave me at the wrong one, I’ll haunt you forever.”

I’d issued this pop quiz to my husband many times over the years. And always, always, he failed. So I told my closest friends and my brother—and I put in my living will—that I wanted my ashes to be spread where Harvard Avenue meets the boardwalk in my hometown of Ventnor, New Jersey, the town just south of Atlantic City.

Why cremation? I’m claustrophobic, I’d joked. But I wanted to sail into the salt air, then hang there for a moment before mingling with the sand on the beach where I once built castles, where I played Truth or Dare with my friends, where I got drunk on Ripple and high on cheap weed. Where I touched boys and let them touch me. I learned who I was on the Harvard Avenue beach. And though I’d been as happy or happier since those days, where I entered life was where I wanted to enter eternity.

I used to think about my death a lot—a preoccupation with the end of my life that had been with me all my life. I was about five when I first saw on television A Night to Remember, about the sinking of the Titanic. As the black-and-white images flashed in the darkness of our den, I imagined myself there on the sloping deck. The film made such an impression on me that for weeks afterward, in my nightly bath, I’d recreate the last scene, pushing the bow of my toy boat into the sudsy water, forcing the stern up high, then pulling it slowly beneath the surface while humming “Nearer My God to Thee.” I’ll know I’m dying, I’d think. It won’t come suddenly—it will be a slow slide.

Over and over I read Jo’s poem to her dead sister Beth in "Little Women": With one last look, one loving sigh, on the breast where she drew her first breath, she quietly drew her last…. Yes, I will die quietly and tragically young like Beth, I thought.

But I outlived Beth and made it to 1972: the year I sat in the back of the Margate Theater and watched lovely Jenny die for the fifth or sixth time. I’d already read "Love Story" about 15 times (though I wasn’t as obsessed as Roxy Kaplan, who’d memorized the entire text and walked around school asking people if they wanted to know what was on page 47…or 68…or…). Still, there isn’t a 45- to- 100-year-old-woman who doesn’t know by heart the beginning of the story: What can you say about a twenty-four-year-old girl who died…? I will die quietly and beautifully young, I thought. Eleven years later, in the months before my twenty-fifth birthday, I was so convinced I wouldn’t survive the year that I didn’t buy any new clothes.

My library at home was filled with titles that had “the Light” in them: Waiting for…, Dancing into…, Embraced by . “You’re morbid,” my husband would say. “You need to talk to someone.”
“Or maybe you’re an old soul,” my friend Sharon offered. “You’ve been through death so many times, you’re like a weary commuter who recognizes there’s always the next connection just down the track.” Okay, I’ll accept that, I thought. And I wanted to make sure that when the doors opened for me and I stepped out, my husband would know what to do.

But then some years ago, after a routine abdominal surgery, I developed a blockage—on a holiday weekend. My doc was in the Hamptons, and the residents were afraid to bother him until they knew it was absolutely necessary. Around 2 in the morning, it became absolutely necessary. My vital signs plummeted. As they were rushing me on the gurney to the operating room in the wee hours of a Sunday morning, I wasn’t waiting or dancing or ready to embrace anything. I was scared. I wanted to get back to my money-pit house and my mess of an office where I worked from home at a job I hated and my perfect-mommy neighbor who entertained 30 kids in her yard every afternoon while I was trying to work at the job I hated. I did go home—to a husband, whom I came to see couldn’t remember the name of my final resting place because he couldn’t care less about my life. I finally did see a light I hadn’t been searching for, and we divorced.

So am I still bent on cremation someday? Well, depending on how one interprets Jewish law (and I’ve read conflicting reports on this topic), I’ll be ineligible for planting
anyway because I will have altered—vandalized—my body, which is a sin against Our Creator. You see, in two years I plan on getting a tattoo to celebrate my 50th birthday.

If I live so long.

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