Monday, March 8, 2010

Why Death Has Lost Its Charm for Me

To my surprise, I found myself explaining in a meeting the other day why I have such a "bubbly and effervescent" personality. I didn't mean to launch into the soliloquy; it just came out. Most of my life I have been asked why I do not smile, why I seem so angry and gloomy all the time, why I seem so sad. I have been asked these questions so often for so long that I only reply with jokes. But it is the truth, I know, and there does not seem to be anything I can do about it.

Yet in this meeting, which involved some seven or eight colleagues and was about a television series whose main character helps people escape from dangerous cults, I felt quite spontaneously and without intending to, the need to answer. The reason was, in part, I said, that I was an altar boy in Catholic school in Philadelphia in the Fifties and Sixties. I was the best of the altar boys, the most saintly and dutiful, and for this I was rewarded by the priests and nuns by being put on the funeral team. Odd as that may sound, there was a logic to it, for it was only at funerals that we altar boys were likely to be tipped. Serving wakes and funerals was our only way of making a little money for ice cream, or for the wonderful water ices that the Italian vendors sold in the summer in Cobbs Creek Park, near where I lived.

But what it meant, I went on, was that between the ages of nine and fifteen, I saw two dead bodies every week. Every Tuesday and Thursday night I stood over open caskets, grasping a golden candle stick, and gazed down at the waxen faces of the dead, stark still and silent as they, for hours at a time. And then every Saturday afternoon I served a funeral mass, with all its melancholy and morbid ritual, accompanied by a faltering soprano who sang the direful hymns.

I remember distinctly, one Saturday in sixth grade, when I was serving a funeral mass with Tommy Schwartzman, one of my classmates and friends. Not a particularly brilliant boy, he was a good, solid kid whom everybody liked. And then, during that mass, I saw him begin to cry. A tough, West Philly twelve-year-old who had attended almost as many wakes and funeral as I - he suddenly and without warning, burst into tears. Why? I wondered. Was the deceased a relative of his? And then I realized that if it were, he would be in the pews with the family and not on the altar with me. To this day I do not know the reason why Tommy Schwartzman cried, except that, perhaps like veteran soldiers after years of war, his spirit could not take any more abuse. His childhood could not absorb any more death.

I did absorb it, though of all of us I think I was the brightest and most sensitive, the boy with the deepest feelings and most active imagination. The priests and nuns must have known that, and yet they exposed me week after week to death, to more corpses than a medical student sees, immersed me in the rites and trappings of mortality, and thought... what? That it would have no effect on me?

Well, it did. I stopped smiling, stopped focusing on life and became obsessed with death. A child, in the wellspring of his innocence and youth, I became an acolyte of death. And that experience has remained with me ever since, etched in my expression. Just yesterday, when I was walking from the parking lot to the gym, a young woman called to me from her car, "Smile! It' won't hurt." Many times in my life I have had this experience - when strangers call to my attention the fact that my face is a mask of grimness, habitually, without my even realizing it. It is a specter that has haunted me my whole life.

I used to take a morbid pride in it. I was the one who understood the full meaning of mortality, while others pranced their ways through life, grinning and vapid. I alone felt the weight of death, carried it on my shoulders, embodied it in my very posture and demeanor. I thought this gave me what is now called gravitas - a seriousness and heaviness that implies ponderous thought. And that sense, wrongheaded as it was, gave me pleasure. Yes, thanks to the Catholic Church, the idea of death gave me pleasure as a child.

For that is what the Church taught us little children: That it is better to be dead than alive, that life is nothing but a prelude to death, that your purpose on earth is to prepare yourself for your leaving of it. I was thinking this morning that the Catholic Church is a dangerous cult - a cult of death, which does not spare even its most vulnerable members the crushing weight of impending mortality followed by the menace of eternal doom.

As I spoke in the meeting, I began to feel myself becoming more heated and more emotional. "Someone should have gotten me out of there," I heard myself say. "That kind of thing should never happen to a child. Someone should have cared enough to help me escape." But no one did. I nearly cried, but, of course, being a professional, I checked myself. Yet the experience of that outburst shook me. And though I tried to cover by saying that having freed myself, I understand the meaning of the show viscerally and very much want to write it, I was not convinced. I am still there, still on that funeral team, still frocking myself in a black cassock and white surplice embroidered with black crosses, and clutching up my gilded candlestick. I am still that funereal child, caught in that cult of death.

But lately I am finding that death is losing its charm for me. I would like to shake off its stench, I would like to smile and to enjoy my life or what is left of it. I would like to feel alive, without the barrel of instantaneous extinction pointed at my heart. I would like to laugh easily and happily, to relax the knotted muscles of my face, which bears a permanent frown, and talk casually and congenially with people, even with strangers whom I might encounter once and never see again.

But I cannot. When death has gripped your heart at the age of nine, and held it in its gelid grasp for six years unrelenting, through childhood and puberty and teenage turmoil, it remains there, its fingers curled around that most sensitive of organs (yes, the heart is the most sensitive), and you can never escape. All that you can hope is that someone, some day, will care enough, not to free you, but make that first and vital gesture toward your freeing of yourself - that someone will care enough to understand.