Death and Mumbling


I thought I might get some good ideas if I went down to the hospital.

I always have stayed away from hospitals. People died or were born. But now I thought I might get some idea if I went down to where it was all happening, the being born and the dying. Mostly the dying. It was the dying that interested me.

I sat on a bench in a sort of waiting room. I wanted to call it a green room; it wasn’t a place where the patients would wait to be called by the doctor; it was a place where the relatives would wait while the patient was in their room. It had a coffee bar, and comfortable couches, with trendy, muted colors on the walls and floor. Everything was clean and modern without being cold, a homogenized balancing act designed to keep everyone calm during their stressful time. It was a green room; patients were “guests”; their families were “guests” as well. Here was where the families would sit and be feted while they waited to be called out to perform, to smile and encourage or to don faces of appropriate mournfulness. The old ones would put on smiles, the young ones would look sad.

I think I went there because it seemed to me that it was the place richest in emotional impact. It reeked of spent emotions, and the emotions were made all the stronger, here in the green room, by the efforts at suppression–the muted walls and gourmet coffees and scones, the overstuffed loveseats and couches, as if those in grief should not be permitted to sit on benches or folding chairs. It absolutely reeked of hush and hidden feeling. It was worse than a church. It was worse than a highschool hallway. It was more universal, more basic, something even the children could comprehend.

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It was a funeral procession of the sort one sees in the smaller towns. The police cars escorted the hearse and the black funeral-house cars, slowly, with lights silently flashing. There was also a retarded man of the sort one sees in the smaller towns. Unlike his metropolitan counterparts, he was not seen passing his time at bus stops, nor was he institutionalized. He did not work as a janitor, or cashier at a thrift-store, or a factory. He appeared to have no job. Everybody knew him because he spent his time walking up and down the town’s sidewalks, pushing a shopping cart. Unlike the carts pushed by the homeless, his did not appear to contain the sum of his worldly possessions, or at any rate not the possessions one would think conducive to a life on the streets and under bridges. There were no clothes or bedroll. There was a blanket, but the sort–light, and blue, about two feet to a side and delicately fringed–in which one would wrap an infant. There was no food, no tightly knotted plastic bags. There was a radio and some odds and ends–I remember a baby doll and a radio, in particular. The baby doll was naked, with a gigantic head of blonde hair, who would occasionally ride in the child seat of the cart. The radio played loud sports and oldies. It was because of the radio that the man was frequently startled; people would come up behind him on the sidewalk, and he would not hear them until the very last moment. As they passed he would jump and burst out a garbled exclamation about not seeing them. The garbled explanation was the same, word for word, stutter for stutter, each time.

He was thought to live with his mother or and older sister. It would explain the lack of an apparent job, as well as the lack of apparent means in his cart with which to live alone.

Sometimes he rode a bicycle. He was permitted to ride it in the annual Fourth of July and Memorial Day parades, just as he was permitted to wander, unsuspected and unmonitored, through downtown and quiet suburbia alike, where children playing on the lawn would politely ignore him. He was riding his bicycle now, easily keeping up with the respectfully slow pace of the funeral procession. He was actually ahead of the hearse, between it and the front police car. Whenever they reached a stoplight, he would stop as well, putting one foot to the ground, propping himself up, and when the light changed, the hearse would wait while he forced his whole body into pushing the pedal down, slowly overcoming his inertia.

I followed. When we got to the cemetery, the retarded man had to get off his bike. The main entrance road was paved, but the parallel roads branching from it, turning the gravestones into members of neat grassy strips, was dirt. He pushed the bike over the rutted ground, slowing down the hearse and the cars that followed behind. The police car got a little ahead, until the driver realized what was happening. He idled in the dirt path until the bicycle caught up. The air was cold and the retarded man briefly disappeared in the cloud of exhaust and vapour that had formed at the rear of the police car.

In a short while, they reached the plot, with the hole for the casket already dug. While the minister read the eulogy, I watched, standing in the back. I had come to know this family from long observation at the hospital. The dead man had been in his forties. I wondered if, after the body died, the tumor continued to live for a little while. Perhaps those cells were even now multiplying, albeit slowly and more slowly, until they would grind to a halt along with the rest of him. Was the tumor really a separate thing, that it could do that, exulting in its victory, like the winner in combat jumping up and down on the corpse of his opponent?

I hoped no one would notice me. It was a fairly large group, about thirty in all, and I was wearing black like the rest. The immediate family would probably recognize me if they did notice: we had exchanged words over the months of the deceased’s decline; I had invented a backstory about my own aunt’s convalescence to explain my perennial presence.

The retarded man was also standing in the back, opposite me. He was about ten feet behind the tightly packed group of mourners. It had begun to rain, a terribly clichéd graveside drizzling rain, and the mourners were tightly packed under the funeral-home provided canopy. The retarded man stood in the rain, one arm wrapped around the other, which awkwardly pointed down. He constantly shifted on his feet, as if the sound of spattering rain had awakened his bladder in him and he was fighting its urgings. It was the same pose and motion I had seen him take outside the hospital. He sometimes came by when I was there, and I could observe him through the vast glass front of the building. The green room was made to be light and airy while still private, so it had been positioned in the lobby, to the side, but separated by zigzagging screens nine feet high, and a virtual ceiling had been suggested by lights that hung above the screens, a smattering of globes dropped from the real ceiling, high above. I could only see him if I stepped around the screens and stood in the narrow and bright space between them and the plate-glass window, in the avenue trod only by custodians and the more rambunctious children. The retarded man would pace back and forth outside, sometimes with his cart and sometimes not. If he did have it with him, he would stop periodically to arrange the items inside. Once or twice he stopped and looked at me. His pacings and circlings would become wider and wider, stretching into the parking lot, into the expectant mother slots, the hospital boardmembers slots, the grassy medians with picnic tables and cigarette cans, until he wandered off, to pursue an invisible track somewhere else in the town.

When the dirt was being dropped on the lowered coffin, cars began driving off, back to the funeral home, where they could be exchanged for brightly colored minivans and SUVs. A few stayed until the very end, when the steamroller arrived from some discrete corner of the yard and began flattening the mounded earth. I had wandered off in order to avoid being conspicuous, but had continued to watch from a nearby parallel road, standing next to a mausoleum, carved with a serene Christ in place of the center columns. The dead man’s sister and mother stayed until the end. I had lost sight of the retarded man in the dispersion, and now I walked down to the funeral home employees, who were disassembling the canopy.

“Why was that man here, the one on the bike?”

“Him?” said one. “He’s the dead guy’s brother.”

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This is the part where the Greek chorus comes on stage and says a word from our sponsors. Trying to force an idea out of an emotion just leads you to death. Even children understand dying, and Christ as caryatid suggests we don’t get it ourselves. This is all the meaning I can get out of it.