And What Can Really Be Controlled in Life?

On approach to Boston
July 23, 2012

From the unpublished collection: New (Zealand) Enthusiasms

And what can really be controlled in life?

I remember with a surprising eruption of emotion a man named Carl, a patient at UIC hospital. We talked about the things he would do to regain his strength, such as lifting weights – and then he asked me if I would come to his funeral. 

[My thoughts ran ahead, how would I know when he was dead? He had AIDS and a CD4 count of zero. How could I say I would attend his funeral, as a medical student, could I attend a patient’s funeral? What could I do? What should I say?]

I said, “yes,” what else could I humanly say?

[This has always bothered me, because I didn’t think I had any intention to go to Carl’s funeral. Sure there were the practicalities – I could tell him how to reach me, but how would he reach me if he was dead? It seemed a paradox, but on some level I felt dishonest to say “yes” but I could not possibly say “no,” not just because of social niceties – what do those matter when talking about death? But he and I were “having a moment,” we were two souls in a difficult situation – his infinitely more difficult than mine, but to me, mine was still kind of difficult]. 

I did nothing other than be who I was. Perhaps, though there is a different way to look at it, a different way of looking at truth and honesty. He and I were having a human conversation about hope and recovery and perhaps this allowed him to face the fact that he would soon die – and in that shift from life to death, he wanted to honor and continue that connection we had, he invited me to honor his death, to be connected with him and his journey.  

I recently heard the oft-repeated statement:

“We are born alone and we die alone.”

And, it struck me, for the first time, as completely untrue.

First off, we are not born in a test tube in an automated factory, but rather in quite close connection to another human being, generally surrounded by other human beings. 

Secondly, we can be physically, psychologically, perhaps even spiritually with others. At that moment, Carl and I were together in a moment in the flow of time – both of our lives were suddenly together. 

Is he still here with me in some way?

Was I there with him at his death?

Am I with him now in this moment?

It is only now.

It is only now,
some 20 years later that
what I thought was a lie,
“yes, I will come to your funeral,” 
was perhaps the truth,
“yes, I will come to your funeral,
I am with you here,
and I am saying 
and I am thinking of you,
remembering you,
remembering your surprisingly intimate request
to attend your funeral.
Two people who hardly knew each other,
for some reason you asked me [who was mostly bumbling, uncertain, insecure, and repeatedly apologizing for causing you pain as I stuck needles into your veins and drained away small allotments of your precious, laboring blood] you asked me to your funeral and despite the panicky protestations of my thoughts, 
my mouth said

and now,
I am descending on a plane, wearing a shirt and tie,
trying not to cry in public
as I begin to descend – that is to understand – 
something that I still do not fully understand.
I am on my way to a wedding
and in some real way I am just now getting to your funeral.

Streaks of rain
across the window
like a vibrantly flat-lining EKG
race across the window
as we descend.