How Will I Know When You Die?

How Will I Know When You Die?

No. No. No.

A friend asked me if I’ve given my son a list of people to call when I die. And right then I felt the future running away with me so fast I could hardly catch my breath.

“No.”

“Why not?”

I told her he’d never do it. “He’d get mad if I even approached the subject.”

“How do you know?”

How do I know? He hardly talks to me as it is, much less about an uncomfortable subject.

“It’s a hard job—to call around to strangers and tell them their friend has died. Think of the responses—the oh-no’s! and the demand for details. No. He wouldn’t do it.”

“Well, how will I find out?” pleaded my friend.

There’s that future again, coaxing me to live in it, whispering that it’s my responsibility to inform my friends when I die.

I’m drawn to a passage in Pascal’s Pensees: “We never keep to the present…we anticipate the future as if we found it too slow in coming and were trying to hurry it up,” He writes about our failure to live in the present, “we think how we are going to arrange things over which we have no control…” So, no. I’m not going to try to control what happens to me after I die, other than keeping my end-of-days papers in order. I’m happier owning this moment and this moment and this moment. I’ll let time future govern itself.

On the Sunday after All Saints Day, November 1, my church recites the names of those members who’ve died the past year. This year there were more people on the list I knew. I mean, I knew them. Not just their names. I knew them. After the service, as I sat alone in my pew listening to the organ postlude, I popped open my iPhone. I read an account about two women who guarded the dead body of one of the synagogue victims in Pittsburgh so that, in keeping with Jewish custom, the person would never be alone. I had descended into the grace of solitude, a still point, wondering if Jews believe the soul lives beyond the body when I heard someone call my name.

“Hi Regan,” came the voice of my pastor, Shannon Kershner. I looked up to see we were the only two people left in the church after the All Saints Service. She had just delivered a sermon on John, 11:35: Jesus wept. It’s the shortest verse in the Bible. Pastor Shannon reminded us Jesus cried over the death of his friend, Lazarus, joining in the collective grief of his community.

“Are you ok?” she asked.

“No,” I answered. “The dead.”

“Yes.”

She knew.

 

Ozzy the Arhat by Regan Burke

 

Do the dead always visit us in the morning? I wake up listening for the click-clacking tap-dancing, rat-a-tat across my hardened floors. Ozzy had well-padded soles, wide feet and solid toenails meant to root out rats and badgers from their earthen dens. No Scottie-level potted plants ever made it past the first day, neither inside nor on my third-floor balcony. His diggers instinctively, fanatically worked their way into the soil to get to something, anything that proved his worth, duty done. Satisfied with nothing more than a dirty nose and paws, he gave me a message: don’t worry, I’ll protect you from any danger, man or beast.

At the Takashi Murakami exhibit in Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, I wondered aloud to my 20-year-old grandson, CJ Kelly, why the artist painted so many colorful frogs at the feet of the arhats. CJ mindfully revealed those are the arhats’ toenails, not frogs. Ah, toenails. Murakami’s arhats are Buddhist spirits who hesitate between two worlds, the physical and the not, to comfort suffering earthly beings. His bulbous toenails are a tribute to the noble path of those enlightened ones whose feet are moving them through their death and decay. The parade of toenails is Murakami’s day-glo gratitude for arhats who stop along the way to ease our sorrows.

Murakami called his Chicago exhibit, The Octopus Eats His Own Leg, based on an ancient Japanese adage that an octopus eats its own decrepit limb to save itself from death rot. A new leg grows back, the octopus is healed and lives a long and healthy life.

In the exhibit, the 33-foot-long painting, 100 Arhats, has 1,000 intricately painted toenails. I misinterpreted the toe protectors, thought they were frogs. After all, how could toenails mean so much to anyone but me? I harbor an unspoken repulsion of human toenails. Summer sandals expose these keratin plates sitting atop ugly toes that hardly ever match each other—some curled under, some straight, some turned outward, some inward—all on the same foot.  Toenails are often fungus-rotted discolored thick globs that women hide with colorful paint instead of covering with cool shoes. God clearly missed the boat in his design of the human toe apparatus.

But Ozzy’s coal-black, perfectly formed, hardy toenails witchy-curled out of his all-business paws, ever-ready for the hunt, the prowl. At rest, his legs stretched out before him showing off his toenails as if he’d just had a pedicure.

His body turned in on him overnight. Like the octopus, his system ate up his dying kidneys and liver but left a beleaguered heart that had to be put to rest. I now have my own arhat who will walk me through the sound of silent, unseen toenails until the hard margins at the edges of grief fade into the path.

murakami_portrait
Takashi Murakami in front of his epic work “The 500 Arhats.” (Courtesy MCA Chicago)

 

The Russians: What’s the Worst That Could Happen?

The Russians: What’s the Worst That Could Happen?

I was three years old in 1949 when the Soviet Union started the Cold War by detonating their first atomic bomb, blockading Berlin and pushing their way into Poland and Eastern Europe. The voices I heard swirling above my toddler head at cocktail hour told me the Russians wanted to rule the world and they were coming for us.

By the time I entered the first grade in 1952, the US government had created the National Civil Defense Administration and devised a plan to protect people from incoming A-bombs. Teachers were required to conduct air raid drills, shouting, “Drop!” and school children dropped under their desks, fell over their knees and covered their heads. The nuns at my schools added the instruction to recite Hail Marys aloud while on the floor. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen. 

As first, second and third graders, my two sisters and I made our own breakfasts and school lunches because my mother’s alcohol intake rendered her unconscious in the mornings. We often gathered around her bed trying to figure out if she was alive. Holy Mary, Mother of God… One of us would place a finger under her nostrils to feel her breath until, with one exhale, she confirmed the worst that could happen hadn’t—and we’d be off to knock on neighbors’ doors scrounging rides to school.

At seven, I didn’t understand the difference between a drill and the real event so I went to my death every time I huddled under that desk. “This is it,” I’d pray, “this is the day I’m going to see Jesus.” I believed Mary would grab me in her arms like she did baby Jesus and take me to heaven. Why did we practice so desperately to avoid such ecstasy?

By the time third grade rolled around, I got used to not dying under the desk. Images of children who lived after their exposure to the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki appeared on our small black and white television and I began to realize why those air raid drills were so ominous — there were worse things than death.

Our parochial school teachers taught us Communists were going to hell because they prevented Catholics from going to Mass, which was one of the worst things that could ever happen. Words from the TV news — Stalin, USSR, Iron Curtain, the Red Army, the Berlin Airlift, NATO, the CIA — put worry on my parents’ faces and terrified me.

Throughout my childhood, I had reasons to think the worst was going to happen every day. But the worst never happened and over time these early worst-that-could-happen fears immunized me against pessimistic eruptions the way a bout of the measles inoculates against future outbreaks of inflamed skin . For instance, my mother’s alcoholic dementia killed her at 70, but it was not the worst thing to happen, rather relief to her and to those around her.

Today’s words —Trump, FBI, emoluments, North Korea, hacking, Putin, charter schools and my old friend Russia — needle me with foreboding, but history is on my side. After all, what’s the worst that could happen?