For Gore Vidal Eulogy Pretend I'm dead. Say something nice about me. --Trimalchio
I was not able to attend the services for Cousin Jerry but later heard about them from those who did. He had been HIV-positive for some years and had finally succumbed to cancer at the age of sixty. As friends, family, and colleagues from the school in Dallas where he had taught filed into a funeral home on a blistering day in June, they were greeted not with the usual organ playing hymns like "The Old Rugged Cross" but a recording of a piano with torch songs like "You Made Me Love You," Broadway standards like "Let Me Entertain You," and Noel Coward's "I'll See You Again," a song which acquired interesting overtones in that setting. Well before the service started, Jerry's cousins James and John Allen had already identified the pianist as none other than Jerry himself. John Allen is a piano technician, and the sound of Jerry's humble spinet was unmistakable. An accomplished pianist in his own right, his brother James concluded it must be Jerry because everything played was in C major, which he claimed was the only key Jerry knew. It was touching for the less musically informed to hear all the old songs. For quite a number of years, Jerry had often played and sung them and many others in bars and clubs and, in his heyday, was well known in the Dallas bar scene for his talent.
As the service got down to business, there were tributes from friends, students, and others, as well as some excellent gospel singing by colleagues from his South Dallas school. The memorial concluded with a eulogy, "To Jerry":
Reflecting about a life, Extraordinary, We must begin early, With a man like Jerry. From Lake Street in Jefferson, A small Texas town, To adulthood in Dallas, Where skyscrapers abound, From forests of cypress, And whispering pine, To concrete and mortar, Where roads intertwine, Back to October, of 39, For Robert and Texie, A second boy, right on time, Robert's younger brother, On whom providence smiled, Intelligence and wit, What a prodigious child.
Robert and Texie were Jerry's parents, and his older brother, Robert, was an outstanding scholar and athlete in college on whom providence certainly smiled.
Moving from family genealogy to the history of Jerry's hometown of Jefferson, the poem turns next to the education of Jerry:
While in school, A stylish dresser, Father's dry goods store, Relieving peer pressure, He developed in high school, In musicals and plays, Desire to perform, On Broadway. Through high school and college, He learned by osmosis, N'er cracking a book, Genius range the prognosis.
The eulogy praises Jerry as self-taught both in music and drawing, and he did have talent, even for teaching that most difficult of all age groups, junior high. He was by instinct a teacher. When I was in the first grade and no one in my family could bear to do it, he taught me how to ride a bicycle, in return for my mother's giving him lessons on how to play popular music, especially her way with W. C. Handy's "Saint Louis Blues."
As is customary in funeral eulogies, consolation for the loss of the departed comes to the fore and is the middle of the poem:
Then how do we compensate, At this bereavement time, By remembering that his talents, With our lives intertwined? Remembering that sense of humor, And contagious laugh, Poking fun at himself Should be on his epitaph. A celebration of life Was his last request, And we here assembled, To that do attest. Watching it all, About to end, One of life's treasures, A very good friend.
"To Jerry" makes no allusion anywhere to Christian doctrine. The sole reference to an afterlife are Secretary Seward's familiar words at the death of Abraham Lincoln:
Now he's crossed the horizon, And soaring above, Looking down on us, With that compassion and love. Once said of Lincoln's passing, After the Civil War, "Now he belongs to the ages", Forevermore.
Even with all his talents Jerry never made it to New York, but they do follow him into the hereafter. With that last consolation, the eulogy ends:
Down those halls, Will echo a refrain or two, Some of your music, But of course, impromptu, And on a prominent wall, In realms most high, Will hang one of your drawings, Framed by the sky. So goodbye Jerry, Dear old friend, You held it all together, 'Till the eventual end.
The sudden shift here to a direct address to Jerry is typical of ritual laments, but "To Jerry" resolves with an interesting complication. Some family members and colleagues finally realized that no one but Jerry could have composed this poem. This was in keeping with his character. He never suffered from lack of self-esteem. The logic of it was typical: since you can never be sure whether others will say all you want them to say, it makes sense to do the job yourself.
There is a long tradition of this kind of commemoration of the self, probably as old as the tradition of having others do it for you. In Gary Trudeau's comic strip, Doonesbury, in the early 1990s, the AIDS patient Andy videotapes his own memorial service. He knows his audience so well he can time zingers from the digital Great Beyond so they hit their targets exactly:
Hi everybody, and welcome to my memorial service! Before we get started I'd just like to acknowledge my physician, Dr. Rudy Klein. AIDS is a bitch, but this man never let up in trying to keep me alive! Take a bow, Rudy! If any of you are HIV-positive, I highly recommend Dr. Klein to you! He is the best, the absolute best .
The goateed Dr. Klein rises with great satisfaction, takes a bow, and starts to reply:
"Thanks, Andy. I'd just like to say ..." "Of course, he has to! His fees are obscene. Ha Ha Ha! Gotcha, Doc! "I want to thank you all for coming to my memorial service. Please don't get all competitive with your eulogies. This chapel has been booked for the whole day so there'll be plenty of time for everyone to do me justice."
Long before Doonesbury, the ex-slave Trimalchio in Petronius's Satyricon knows he will live on into the future, thanks to the ministrations of his best friend, the mason Habinnas. Trimalchio thinks it only right to pay as much attention as he can to the home he will inhabit forever. As he points out, we'll all be there a lot longer than we'll be here:
I'll see to it in my will that my grave is protected from damage after my death. I'll appoint one of my ex-slaves to act as custodian to chase off the people who might come and crap on my tomb. Also, I want you to carve me several ships with all sail crowded and a picture of myself sitting on the judge's bench in official dress with five gold rings on my fingers and handing out a sack of coins to the people. *
Trimalchio is not simply being vulgar. Tomb crapping was a real possibility, as an inscription from a Roman tombstone suggests:
Gaius Caecilius Florus, Freedman of Gaius and His Wife, Lived XVI Years and VII Months. May Anyone Who Pisses or Shits Here Suffer the Wrath of the Gods Above and the Gods Below.
There would be little need for this kind of notice in most American cemeteries, since they are usually not exposed to public traffic the way Roman tombs were.
Trimalchio has many other explicit instructions in minute detail: a sundial will be set up in the middle of the whole ensemble so that anyone who wants to find out what time of day it is will have to read Trimalchio's name at the same time, just as you would in Rome when you visit Augustus's sundial near the Altar of the Peace of Augustus. The culmination of Trimalchio's future plans is an epitaph that will tell every passerby what the departed wants him to know: he could have been a contender in Rome, but just chose not to bother:
HERE LIES GAIUS POMPEIUS TRIMALCHIO MAECENATIANUS VOTED IN ABSENTIA AN OFFICIAL OF THE IMPERIAL CULT. HE COULD HAVE BEEN REGISTERED IN ANY CATEGORY OF THE CIVIL SERVICE AT ROME BUT CHOSE OTHERWISE. PIOUS AND COURAGEOUS, A LOYAL FRIEND, HE DIED A MILLIONAIRE, THOUGH HE STARTED LIFE WITH NOTHING. LET IT BE SAID TO HIS ETERNAL CREDIT THAT HE NEVER LISTENED TO PHILOSOPHERS. PEACE TO HIM. FAREWELL.
Trimalchio's appropriation of two famous Roman names is characteristically over the top. His first name suggests he is a Greek-speaking slave from the east, Trimalchio being a Greco-Roman and Semitic hybrid that means something like "King Three Times Over" or "King (3)." After being freed by his former master, he names himself both politically, with Pompey, and artistically, with Maecenatianus (Maecenas-like, after the patron of Horace and Vergil).
A parallel even closer in culture and time to what Jerry perpetrates is one of Langston Hughes's stories about Jesse B. Simple, "An Auto-Obituary":
"I will now obituarize myself," said Simple at the bar. "I will cast flowers on my own grave before I am dead. And I will tell people how good I were, in case nobody else has the same feeling. Even if you are good in this life, when you are gone, most people think it is a good riddance. So, before I become dust to dust and ashes to ashes, I will light my own light--and not hide it under no bushel. My light will be lit now." "I believe you are well lit already," I said.
Simple presses on. He wants to hire a minister who can preach his funeral for him the way he wants it preached, and so his auto-obituary begins:
"Jesse B. Simple, born in Virginia, married twice for better or for worse--the first time for worse, the last time for good. Jesse B. Simple, he were a good man. He were raised good, lived good, did good, and died good." "Whereupon, in my coffin, I would say, 'Rev, you have lied good. Keep on!'"
The problem is, once you wind up an African-American minister to preach a funeral eulogy, it is not easy to know where the spirit is going to take him, still less so, to know how to stop him:
"But old Rev would keep on, because that sermon would be getting good to him by now: 'Though your sins be as scarlet, in heaven, I say, Jesse B. Simple, old earthly Simple, down-home Simple is whiter than snow. White! White! White! White! Oh, yes, you are whiter than snow!'"
The Rev is on a roll and cannot stop. He is enthusiastic in the literal sense of the Greek word--entheos, possessed by the god:
"'In God's mirror all are white,' says Rev, 'white wings, white robe, white face, white neck, white shoulders, white hips, white soul! Oh, precious soul of Jesse B., worth more than words can tell! Worth more than tongues can fabulate, worth more than speech can spatulate, than throat can throttle, than human mind can manipulate! This soul, this Jess B. of a soul! This simple soul, this Simple! Gone to glory, gone to his great reward of milk and honey, manna and time unending, and the fruit of the tree of eternity!'"
In vino veritas. Since this auto-obituary is taking place in a bar, its ending is not as explosive as the ending of Trimalchio's banquet, which rouses the whole Roman neighborlaood and brings the local fire brigade crashing into his dining room. All Simple's Reverend does is make a Freudian slip:
"'For Simple were born good! He were raised good! He lived good, did good, and lied--I mean died --good. Amen!'"
At Dartmouth mutual masturbation was regarded as going all the way. --Gore Vidal, Two Sisters
The reception of Jerry's tribute to himself was more muted. As John Allen said later, this was not the Jerry he knew. The same could be said about the characters he evokes from Petronius's Satyricon. We no sooner see one of them than we are drawn to another. For all his poetic striving for immortality, Jerry did not only make himself into a Trimalchio of East Dallas, a la Scott Fitzgerald's original conception of Jay Gatsby as the Trimalchio of East Egg. He was also a raconteur who could tell elaborate jokes reminiscent of an altogether different character in the Satyricon: not the wealthy Trimalchio, but the impoverished, wandering bard Eumolpus, whom Encolpius encounters shortly after he's fled the chaos of Trimalchio's banquet. Both Jerry and Eumolpus are better at telling jokes than they are at writing poetry.
Not that criticism would make any difference. Eumolpus is given to reciting his poems in public and is frequently chased away by volleys of stones from any bystanders who are unlucky enough to hear him. His poems on the Roman Civil War and the Fall of Troy have baffled modern scholars because they ought to be good--it's classical poetry, isn't it?--yet they seem curiously stale and stillborn, tedious but not horrible enough to be really enjoyable. Not even specialists read them for pleasure.
Eumolpus's jokes are another matter. When Encolpius meets this itinerant bard, the first thing he hears from him is not poetry, but stories about his stay in a wealthy man's house in the Greek city of Pergamum. He persuaded the wealthy parents of a beautiful ephebe that he would be the ideal tutor for their son:
Whenever the conversation at dinner happened to touch on pederasty, I affected to be so scandalized and protested so vigorously that my modesty was offended even by the mere mention of such things, that everyone, and especially the boy's mother, took me for some sort of philosophical saint.
Eumolpus is appointed the boy's tutor and moves in for the kill after a strenuous public holiday. A condensed, Reader's Digest version of his story would go something like this:
When the boy seems to be safely asleep, Eumolpus prays to Venus: "If I can kiss this boy and he doesn't notice it, tomorrow I'll give him a pair of doves." The boy is tempted, snores away, and Eumolpus steals several kisses. The next day he gives the boy the two doves. The next night he makes a little change in his prayer: "If I caress this boy's body with a free hand, I'll bring him a fine pair of fighting cocks tomorrow. But he must not feel anything at all." The boy snuggles closer and Eumolpus has a free hand everywhere, caressing "all but the supreme bliss." The next day he gives the boy the fighting cocks.
Anyone who has ever tried to figure out what to do in bed--or to analyze jokes--knows what happens next:
Eumolpus prays to all the gods to grant him the supreme pleasure, and in return he will bring the boy a splendid Macedonian stallion. The escalation in bribes is in perfect symmetry with the erotic symbolism of the gifts. Starting with doves, the birds of Venus, Eumolpus triumphs like a stallion and the next day goes about his business, giving the boy no more than a peck on the cheek: "Bewildered, he looked about everywhere, then threw his arms around my neck and said, 'Please, sir, where's the stallion?'"
Eumolpus's tales about the Boy of Pergamum are only half told, but I want to interrupt him for a moment for the sake of comparative literature with a transcription of one of Jerry's most popular stories. You might call it "The Pious Woman and the Parrot," or more simply, "The Parrot Joke."
One day a pious woman went into a pet shop and saw a parrot in a cage for sale for $1.98. She asked the owner of the shop why it was so inexpensive, and the owner said, "Just say hello to it and you'll see why. It used to belong to a sailor." So she said "Hello there," and the parrot replied "AWK! To hell with you!" The pious woman found the price irresistible and was sure she could train the parrot to talk better. So she took the parrot home and set its cage up in the living room and said, "There now, Parrot, welcome to this godly home." And the parrot replied, "ARWK! Damn!" "I'll cure you of that right now," she said. She covered the parrot's cage with a cloth and it was in the dark for the rest of the day. This was OK by the parrot. The next day she took the cloth off the cage and the parrot looked at her expectantly. "Well, Mr. Parrot, what do you have to say for yourself today?" Without missing a beat the parrot replied, "ARWK! Hell-hole!" Incensed, the pious woman snatched up the cage with the parrot in it and took it into the hall closet and slammed the door shut. The parrot looked around and didn't find the spot all that bad. On the third day the pious woman went to the closet, got the parrot out and said to it, "Well, parrot, what do you think now? This is a holy house and you will behave, or else. What do you have to say to me now"? By this point the parrot was desperately trying to figure out what this crazy woman wanted him to say. But all he could work with was what he'd been taught by the sailor, so he said, "ARWK! Shit-hole!" The pious woman was astonished, then enraged. "You'll learn, or else!" she cried. She grabbed the cage, stalked downstairs to the basement of her house, opened the top of her freezer, dropped the parrot and his cage into it, and slammed the door. The parrot looked around and knew right away he this wasn't the place for him. His little breath was frosting. Then in the dim light (for the freezer had a dim light) he saw a Thanksgiving turkey sparkling in the gloom, frozen hard as a rock. "ARWK!" the parrot said. "You musta said FUCK!"
Eumolpus's and Jerry's stories work in a similar way, with a steady rise on the one hand of sexual exploration and, on the other, with an escalation from everyday expletives like damn and hell to messier ones, ending in what used to be known as the F-word.
But Eumolpus leaves the consummation of his desires to his audience's imagination: "Filling my hands with his milk-white skin, I bound my lips to his, and with one supreme effort, fulfilled my every dream." What did he do?
Following the lead of the most austere modern authority on ancient homosexuality, Sir Kenneth Dover, we might imagine that Eumolpus copulates with the boy intercrurally (between the thighs). According to Dover and other students of the subject, intercrural sex was a way for same-sex partners in, say, ancient Athens to get together without breaching whatever protocols happened to be in force concerning same-sex actions. No penetration, no problem. This view of ancient sexual practice seems curiously innocent. Might not intercrural sex risk slipping into something more penetrating, given the proximities in play? In any case, intercrural, rather than anal, sex is the copulation of choice for classicists who have written in the shadow of Dover about ancient, high-end sexual encounters between males of the same social class in antiquity. Prostitutes are another matter; with sex for pay all bets are off, whatever the gender of the partners. These same authorities note that intercruralism was also popular at universities like Oxford and Princeton in their all-male days.
Another of Jerry's favorite jokes, and one like the "Parrot Joke" in technique, concerns the travails of a sergeant in the army in charge of meeting the new recruits reporting for duty:
"Hello, son. Tell me where you are from and what kind of work you did before you joined this man's Army."
"Well, Sergeant, I come from Atlanta and I'm a coke-sacker."
The sergeant did a double take. "You're a what?"
"What's a coke-saker?"
"It's simple. I work in the Coca Cola factory and when the six-packs of Coke come down the assembly line, I'm the guy that puts them into sacks for shipment. So I guess that makes me a coke-sacker."
The sergeant shook his head and motioned him onwards, then greeted the next young recruit with the same question.
"Well, Sergeant, I'm from California and I'm a cork-socker."
"What?!" exclaimed the sergeant. "Will you please tell me what that is?"
"It's simple. I work in a winery and when the filled bottles of wine come along on the conveyor belt I'm the guy with the hammer who socks the cork into the bottle. So I'm a cork-socker, right?"
The sergeant was sure he'd heard everything, but then the next recruit walked in. So the sergeant asked him the same question, and he said, "Hi, Sarge. I'm from Boston and I'm a sock-tucker."
The sergeant was beside himself and demanded to know what the hell a "sock-tucker" could be.
"That's easy, Sergeant. I work in a sock factory in Boston and when the pairs of socks come down the assembly line I'm the guy who tucks each pair into its package, so I guess that makes me a sock-tucker."
At this point the sergeant was beginning to lose it, so when the next recruit walked in he fixed him in the eyes with a hard stare and said, "Listen, Buddy, if you're a coke-sacker, a cork-socker, or a sock-tucker, you can get the hell outta here right now!"
"Don't worry, Sergeant, I'm the real thing."
This joke has been known to make less verbal listeners resentful for its virtuosity, since it requires fast pacing and presence of mind to deliver accurately the cadenza of "coke-sacker," "cork-socker," and "sock-tucker." The structure of the joke is at once like the "Parrot Joke," and in another way its opposite. We never hear the four-letter word we expect to, which looms at the end like an obscene tetragrammaton, a name that-cannot-be-uttered, and definitely not YHWH.
Eumolpus's second story about the boy of Pergamum builds on the first, only this time he has become the stallion. True, failure to bring the promised gift causes the boy to break off all contact, but he eventually makes it back into bed with him. Once again all good things come in threes. To resume Petronius's elegant prose with Reader's Digest brevity:
The boy threatens him, "Go back to sleep or I'll tell my father." Eumolpus persists and without much trouble has his way with him. The boy reproaches him for his faithlessness, then says, "Just to show you I'm not like you, you can do it again if you want." And so Eumolpus does, to his supreme satisfaction, and falls asleep. "With all the passive ardor of his age" the boy jostles him awake and asks, "Don't you want to do it again? "Eumolpus is delighted but this time it takes a great deal of panting and sweating to consummate the deed. In less than an hour the boy pinches Eumolpus awake and asks "Why don't we do it again?" Eumolpus turns on him angrily and throws his words back at him: "Go back to sleep or I'll tell your father!" We can almost certainly rule out intercrural sex here. Sexologists like Masters and Johnson have shown that the thighs may function well as a preliminary means of arousal, but when it comes to pleasuring the passive, as well as the active, partner in any combination of genders and roles, nothing beats an orifice and a sexual organ--or at least its substitute. If New York subway ads are any guide ("Don't Let Impotence Ruin Your Marriage"), Eumolpus's valiant effort to achieve orgasm for the third time in one night also reflects the well-known difficulty older men have in achieving multiple orgasms, sometimes even in reaching one; in this respect, his story is more than a little boastful and (possibly) a come-on to the young Greek Encolpius who hears it. For his part, the boy of Pergamum is pretty clearly the willing partner in anal sex. He is not in love with Eumolpus, but he loves what Eumolpus does. Can you imagine anyone would have an insatiable appetite for an older man returning again and again to ejaculate between your thighs? What's in it for the thigh-person besides messy cleanups? The erotic potential of anal sex is, by contrast, well documented. If nothing else, the prospect of it works well even today as a fantasy in the imagination of Mediterranean men and others whose sense of themselves requires them to play the dominant role in sex, whatever the position. Realism I write of living men, The things they say and do, Of every human act Admitted to be true. --Encolpius, or Petronius himself
In late December 1997, Jerry began a journal after he had recovered from his first bout with cancer and was surviving kidney failure through dialysis. This was passed around members of his family and finally given to me. Cousin James said I would find it very interesting. The beginning seemed to promise just a more prayerful read than his eulogy to himself, so I didn't go past the first entry of what he called his Gratitude Journal for quite some time:
What am I grateful for? I am grateful for every day I have without pain. I am grateful for my home, my dogs, my job and my supportive friends and family. I am grateful that I have maintained a sense of humor and a positive outlook. I am grateful for those who have and are praying for me. I believe God heard the prayer and answered them. I am thankful I have developed a closer relationship with God. I have tried to mend my ways, help myself, be more concerned for others, quit drinking, and to Him I send All the praise! Thank you, Lord.
With several long breaks due to overwhelming illness, Jerry kept at it, writing several times a week in a fluent cursive script. (At one point, he claims to have been the only art teacher in the Dallas schools who taught calligraphy and, in fact, taught an all-volunteer class of twenty-five junior-high students.)
If Jerry's journal is easy to read, at many points it doesn't make for pleasant reading. Toward the end he leaves no doubt that we are hearing from Jerry the way it really was, at least for him. This uncensored account brings to mind something else in Jerry that is as suggestive of Petronius as the auto-obituarizing of Trimalchio or the artful jokes of Eumolpus, what for want of a better word I would call his realism. Uninhibited in so many other ways, he would write an equally frank account of what it is like to die from cancer.
In Mimesis, his classic book about representations of reality in Western literature, Erich Auerbach praises the Satyricon for the way it conveys the sense that we are reading the unmediated words and actions of people as they might actually be. At the same time, he argues that Petronius's depiction of reality was limited to a comic version of human beings of lower class, which as he notes is not at all the case when we see people of comparably modest social standing treated directly and without a trace of condescension in the Christian gospels. Auerbach's reading is most persuasive about the language of Trimalchio and other freed slaves at his banquet; there you really do see the transformation of classical Latin into what would become the vulgate of later antiquity and the early middle ages, as well as the beginning of the Romance languages deriving from Latin. Petronius comes as close to giving us a transcript of the way people in antiquity actually spoke and wrote as the inscriptions and graffiti of Pompeii.
The Gratitude Journal also let Jerry reflect more about himself in ways he couldn't manage in a eulogy to himself:
I wanted to see "Titanic." I really wished for a male friend to see it with. It occurred to me last night that my only friends are women. That is okay, but I miss a male friend--Richard, David and Bill are gone. I have no male friends left, except for James, and our lives are so different and he lives so far away--across town. I need to meet or cultivate some new friendships, but I don't know where to meet men I would have common interests with, except for the bars. I don't have any interest in the bars--so what am I to do? Is it wrong for me to pray that God would send me a friend? Where would I meet them? I never thought I would have this problem ... I'm not saying "poor me," I'm just wondering how I can change the situation. My whole view of the world, my life, and my values have changed a lot. I want more quality in my life--not sex and frivolous relationships. I really don't want to associate with gay organizations, but where else am I going to meet men with whom I can share my interests--music, art, love of home, and good food? I live in hope that I will meet someone with whom I can share life and have some fun times with. Postscript : "Titanic" was wonderful! I saw it alone.
Later, between complaints about sluggish, ungrateful students, the same lament recurs on Valentine's Day:
I wish I had someone special in my life--I would really like to know LOVE. I don't think I've really experienced it in all my life. That is sad to me--never to have really loved and been loved by the person I loved--why?
Jerry was a dedicated teacher to his students in his junior high school in South Dallas, where nearly all were black, Hispanic, and Korean, but while he is careful to record to which "minority" they belonged to if they weren't white, he didn't seem to let his upbringing in the segregated East Texas of the '40s and '50s interfere with his dedication to them: "Their energy is overwhelming! It really is a shock to one's system--the screaming, back-talking, hollering, over-active hormones make for a den of noise and frayed nerves." He also had good collegial relationships with black colleagues, some of whom would sing gospel at his memorial service.
Then I came to this passage toward the end of the first year of his journal:
The Grammys were a real disappointment--again too Black for my liking. I'm reminded of a racist poem I wrote once: Nigger shit, Nigger shit Where will it end? In darkest Africa Where it all began. It gets more so all the time. Negro crap forced upon the white society which is so different from the Blacks--as day and night. They insist on being obnoxious, disgusting, and revolting in almost every way. They make no attempt to assimilate into the white world but insist instead in dragging us down to their level, which in my opinion is sub-standard at best. There are some exceptions, but too few, I feel.
In writing this, Jerry was a child of his time, one that even with Barack Obama's election is still with us. For Jerry, as for white Southerners 150 years before in the age of Frederick Douglass, it was perfectly possible to profess the most pious Christian beliefs, yet never see how racial hatred contradicts that Christian piety. It's a problem Jerry seems to have recognized and struggled with. His journal becomes a confessional on the point. In a later sequence of two days, at the same time he is venting, he realizes he's performing the same service for someone else that his journal is performing for him:
Friday. I wish I could get past the block I have against what black people think is talent. It is so alien to anything I have ever been taught or have learned to appreciate in my life. I do like their gospel music, be it unorthodox or not. It still has some musical merit. I just hate that our young white people and Hispanic people are sucked in to their tasteless, babbling and inane attempts at real music. Saturday: rainy, cold. Venita here to clean my house. Wonderful! She is so funny and kind of sad too. Her life is so hard. She works hard and her daughter gives her such grief. We talk about it every time she is here. I suppose I am someone who is remote enough to her situation that I can listen and advise in an objective way. I'm thankful to have her clean for me and if it helps her to vent her anger and frustration to me, then I'm happy to be able to help her in that way.
That same day he returns to his journal's theme of gratitude, in an entry that suggests how ambivalent he was about race. He was prejudiced, and he knew it, but if a black student liked what he liked, he was genuinely pleased:
I am grateful for one of my Black girl students who brought her CD of classical music for me to listen to. I am happiest when I am allowed to really teach something. I know and see that the student really "got" it.
By now I was comfortably settled into agreeably ambivalent musings about Jerry. And then I turned a page and finally learned what James had meant when he said I would find Jerry's journal "interesting." For two consecutive days I myself became the subject under discussion:
Sunday and Jimmy Tatum will be in town today. He asked or suggested that maybe I could cook dinner. So I think I will cook fried chicken, mashed potatoes, purple hull peas, salad, biscuits and gravy.
How nice, I thought. Jerry was always a good cook, with food better than anything Trimalchio's hapless guests are served:
Later : Jimmy came. He said he enjoyed the meal, but I wonder. He got absolutely plowed drunk on rum and coke. I didn't drink so I guess I noticed his drunkenness more than I would have if I were drinking too. Rum is deadly. We had a fairly good visit.
I recall that I was apprehensive about visiting Jerry and was worried about what someone I'd known all my life who was fighting cancer and other afflictions would be like. I hadn't seen him for a long time, and since I was going to spend the night there, the only way to get through it, I reckoned, was to drink and keep drinking. The evening turned out fine, so far as I could tell, though all Jerry had in the house to drink was some leftover rum, which gave me a fearful hangover. The next day's entry proved to be much more enlightening, a frank and unvarnished report not just of what I did, but of what he and James thought of me:
Got up and went to work as usual, but worried about leaving Jimmy in the house alone. He has a history of being a walking, lumbering disaster. However, to my big surprise, he left the house in pretty good shape--even did a decent job of making up his bed. The bathroom is intact--only used one towel! He wasn't all that bad--just about knocked the glass off the coffee table with his foot twice! I really am not all that comfortable with him in my house, after the tales James has told me of his destruction of James's house and belongings. Oh well, he is a long-term childhood friend and we don't see him real often.
To my regret, I didn't read Jerry's journal until some time after James himself died. We could have had an interesting discussion.
As it was, I really couldn't argue with any of this. I visited Jerry again some two years later, when I learned that his cancer had returned and that it was terminal. I did this with difficulty, since I had been in a swimming accident and was wearing a neck brace that made travel difficult in Dallas, a city with such limited public transportation that taxis can be few and far between. Doubtless by then he had lots of other things on his mind besides me, since his journal makes no mention of this visit. I do recall that Jerry said to me that, maybe thanks to my own temporary disability, I would be more considerate of others, if for no other reason than because I wanted them to be considerate of me. (Jerry never hesitated to pass judgment if he thought you needed it.) At least I was no walking, lumbering disaster this time. As James said to Jerry after I'd seen him on the same visit, "Jimmy is a changed woman." Give or take allowance for Southern camp language, so I was.
But I was also walking and lumbering through Jerry's world yet again, and the Petronian parallel was inescapable. It was if I was one of Eumolpus's heirs that we hear about toward the end of the fragments of the Satyricon, feasting on his remains. At his death, Eumolpus says, those who want to receive an inheritance from him will have to slice up his body into little pieces and swallow them down in the presence of the whole city. Eumolpus's last will and testament makes for a memorable moment toward the end of Fellini's Satyricon. To say that I read the rest of Jerry's journal without scholarly detachment would be an understatement.
Inspired by a TV interview with Christopher Reeves in early May of one year, Jerry then made no entry in his journal until three months later, and resumed by noting the irony: he went from pitying Reeves and admiring his courage in fighting near total paralysis, to suffering something similar himself. One weekend he was shopping in a grocery store, and suddenly, a terrible pain shot down his right leg. He eventually made it to a hospital, where it was learned he had serious spinal disc degeneration. At first reluctant to operate because of his frail condition, his surgeon eventually had to. This intervention stopped the pain, but his legs lost all movement from the knees down. He would be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life:
I am frustrated that I can't do things I used to do without thinking about them. I have had days of depression, thoughts of taking my life have been strong: how to do it and make sure it does the job--no vegetative state, sure death. I still feel that way. I am not enjoying my life, inconveniencing my brother and friends to get me here and there. Even if I could drive my car, the wheel chair is a real bitch to deal with.
In short order, he learned to drive a hand-operated car and pulled out of this depression. He could afford to retire. In addition to making therapy and dialysis easier to manage, though, it also emptied the hours of the day. "I feel like I am just existing without much purpose. I wish God would show me the direction I need to take."
God proceeded to do just that, with results closer to Tolstoy's harrowing Death of Ivan Ilych than the Satyricon. After suffering unbearable pain from a disease that sounds like cancer, Ilych in his final hours realizes that he has lived only for himself and not for others, and then his suffering ends, and he dies. It all begins with a seemingly trivial bruise to his side when he is hanging curtains in his apartment. Given his own experience, Jerry was more alert to what might be happening to him:
For about a month now I've had a sore tongue, throat and ear on my right side. I thought it was just an ulcer and would go away, but it hasn't. I was referred to an eye, ear nose and throat doctor. He felt around my mouth and detected a "mass" under my tongue. An MRI confirmed that I do indeed have a "mass" under my tongue. The doctor said it (the mass) took in part of my voice box and that being the case, surgery to remove the mass would result in the removal of my voice box and the lymph nodes under my tongue. He will biopsy the mass. I am resolved that if it is a return of cancer, I will not have my voice box removed and I will not take chemotherapy again. I told the doctor I might consider radiation. That is almost as bad as chemo, but not quite as debilitating. At any case, if it is the return of cancer, I think I just will let nature take its course. If I stopped dialysis, I would die within a month, sooner or later.
That's what Jerry said to me the last time I saw him: if the pain got to be unbearable, "I'm outta here." People say this, he later recognized, and then they don't do it. He tried holistic therapy, hoping it would reduce the size of the tumor make it possible to eat again, but it didn't work:
I am getting my ducks in a row, planning my memorial service, writing my obituary, and my cremation. I just pray I can hang in long enough to have some quality days before the end.
A month later, and the concept of quality time has vanished:
O Lord, I hurt so badly. My tongue is swollen. I have a hard time pronouncing words. I'm spitting up blood--fresh blood as it is bright red. Places in my mouth feel like clotted blood. My throat feels so closed it is hard to swallow, painful to swallow. Please, Lord, I'm not asking for a cure. I merely want some relief from the pain so I can sleep. Oh God, please help me. My tongue is so swollen I'm gnawing at it with my jaw teeth. I'm spitting up blood. My mouth is too moist--I drool. It is embarrassing to me to be around people. I feel like a leper. It is disgusting. I don't want to over-dose on the pain pills and yet, I am tempted to double up on medication just to be free of this awful pain. My ear aches so badly I can hardly stand my ear against the pillow. Please, give me some relief form the pain, please. I have had more than my share of horrible pain--my lower back, now the cancer in my mouth and neck. Why am I having to go through such suffering? Why? Amen.
The entries begin to sound like the doubting and suffering of the book of Job. And there is something more than biblical here too. Like Trimalchio, Jerry had never listened to a philosopher, but what he goes through now has turned him into one:
Sometimes I feel like God is determined to make me feel every kind of disability before he takes me home. I wonder, why? What good is to come from these awful experiences? Who is to benefit from this suffering? Why should I keep trying to cope with each ailment when I am only slapped down again? If I could understand the answer to these questions, maybe I would make it easier to accept.
So far as realism goes, this account of real life, more precisely, of the gradual loss of it, surpasses any fiction about sickrooms I have read:
I have washed my mouth out several times today followed by a great deal of spitting up blood. I have looked in the mirror at my tongue. It looks horrible!!! Some of the blood is old clotted blood, followed by a great deal of bright red blood. My tongue looks like it is ground, partially cooked ground meat.
Since my trip to see him, I had tried to keep up with Jerry by telephone, but at this point his tongue and throat were so swollen that it was impossible for him to say anything intelligible. I would just talk to him for a few minutes or so, then give up the one-way conversation for that day:
I really dread these eventualities. I don't know why I have come to such a dreadful end to my life. Why couldn't it have just been sudden? Why couldn't I have been able to just get out of this life simply? The decision to stop dialysis and just wait for the end to come is not an easy one to make. I think when you get right down to it, we all want to live or maybe fear dying. I think it is a basic instinct. Something one cannot control.
The following was written just short of two months before he would die. His elegant handwriting has begun to disintegrate, just as he has:
Today I woke up spitting up copious amounts of blood. I really was alarmed. I went through two large boxes of tissues just loaded with blood. I called the Hospice Nursing Care. They were here by 9:30 am. They took over the place. So far, I am enjoying having the nurse (Betty) here. She is a pretty black lady. She cleaned up my bathroom and has done a washer-load of dirty towels, etc. The next nurse, Jan, had some rather somber news. She said I was in a latter stage of this illness and I might just have a couple of weeks or a couple of months. It is hard to say, but bottom line, the bleeding is not a good sign. I could literally choke to death or become asphyxiated in my sleep on blood clots. I have coughed up some clots that looked like a chunk of bloody flesh. Awful! Anyway, I may be leaving here sooner than I thought. It's OK. I just have so many unfinished things I wanted to do. Well, maybe I'll come back in another life and be able to finish what I started in this life. Nice thought anyway.
There was a Have A Nice Day face at the end of this entry.
Jerry ends three weeks before he died with questions and thoughts of his brother and family:
I wonder what it will be like after I die. Will I still be able to look at and enjoy earthly things? Will I be able to look in on people? My dog, little Shug? When we die, is that truly the end of everything? I don't know, but it will have to be better than this.
When I had last seen him some months before, he was headed out the door to drive to therapy or dialysis, and I started tearing up. He saw this and was quite firm, just as he had been when he was teaching me how to ride a bike: "No crying or carrying on, now. I'm glad you came down." Then he was gone, and I heard the car start up and leave his garage, and that was the last I saw of Jerry. After his death, his body was cremated and the ashes buried in the family cemetery plot. There he sums himself up for the last time:
Jerry Leon Williams October 6, 1939 June 15, 2000 He loved Peace and Harmony in All Things. His Passions Were Art, Music and Dance.
* All quotations are from William Arrowsmith's translation (1959).
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|Date:||Jan 1, 2010|
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