≡ Menu

Notes on Love and Death

“What is it about? Like all Greek songs, about Love and Death.” — Melina Mercouri, Phaedra

“The Politics of life are easy. It’s the Poetics that are tough.”

I’m still working out what I meant when I wrote that. It’ll take me life plus 99 years.

The Poetics of life are much more persistent in their knocking at the door of your inner self than the Politics. Politics have their seasons, but the Poetics are our constant companions, waking and sleeping, thinking and dreaming. In a very real sense, since they run deeper than the Politics, the Poetics are the Politics’ power source. But what are the Poetics about? Simply put, they are “like all Greek songs, about love and death.”

I’ve done a dance or two with death over the years. I’ve found that he’s not very graceful and he always wants to lead.

Once, during a long-lost summer, I was the night driver for a hearse at a mortuary. In the wee small hours of the morning, I’d drive the on-duty mortician to pick up a man or a woman’s or a child’s body from wherever it had become just a body. In the hot California delta night I’d drive the mortician, both of us in Blues Brothers suits, to a hospital basement, a home bedroom, a city morgue, or, one time, to a shabby skid row hotel where the leaking wicker basket holding the suicide had to be held vertically in the creaking ancient elevator for all eight slow floors.

I’ve been alone in the waiting room with my mother when the surgeon, still drying his hands on a towel, walked through the door and said, “I’m sorry, Mrs. Van der Leun, but we just couldn’t stop the bleeding.”

I’ve stood in a room high above Central Park West where the only sound was a death rattle in an old man’s throat, and told the doctor on the telephone that there was really no reason to send the emergency resuscitation crew for the twelfth time in half as many months. I sat quietly holding the old man’s hand for around thirty minutes until his breathing stopped. Then I left that room, told my in-laws he was dead, and watched them mask their expressions of relief.

I’ve found my name carved into the stone monument at Battery Park that lists those that died at sea during the Second World War. I’ve found the names of two men I went to high school with carved on the Vietnam wall in Washington.

If I’d managed to keep one address book for my contemporaries since graduating from high school, it would, as they say, be beginning to fill up with dead people and that rate would increase.

I’ve stood on the Promenade on Brooklyn Heights and seen two towers fall and reduce thousands of people to ash and dust in what seemed like less time than it has taken you to read to this period.

I have sometimes, I confess, “been half in love with easeful death,” but no one living escapes that siren call. The trick there is to lash yourself to the mast of the day, pray, and somehow, through the grace of God, just sail on by.

By now, like many others of my age, I’ve seen death personally and professionally, retail and wholesale. There really is, when you move with it, nothing to love about the dance of death. The only response is, as Prufrock knew, to see “the eternal Footman hold my coat and snicker, and in short, I was afraid.”

So I know something — not a lot, but something — about that old Greek theme of death and it scares me about as much as it should scare, I imagine, any man. And, having now briefly been dead, the fear is perhaps less shrill but more persistent; a tempo of a fading drum heard far off, cast back over the horizon but still approaching.

What I know increasingly little about, and what really frightens me, is the other theme of the Greek songs, love. These days it seems that it will take more than a lifetime to figure love out.

Love frightens me because, unlike death, love cannot be understood. Love can only be given, gotten, taken or dropped. Like death, it would seem that, once discovered, there’s no end to it — or, to take Hemingway’s point of view, no good end to it since one way or another death will trump love — in this world at least.

Love is where the Poetics of life collide with the Politics. It’s a collision where the possibility having to call in the MedEvac helicopter and the coroner is always present; where wreckage is assured and survival never promised. Falling in love is, as a comedian noted, like buying a puppy. You are purchasing a tragedy.

No, that’s not quite right. Say rather you are purchasing a hybrid; a tragicomedy or a comic tragedy, since love always has, for those of us removed from its immediate drama, elements of the ridiculous, slices of the sublime, and not a few moments of boffo laughter at the shambling human animal.

Still, it would be nice if I could understand the nature of love and my absurd role in the love dramas of my life. If the joke, in the end, is on me it would be nice to be able to say that I “get it.”

Nice but not, I think, necessary. Even if I never get it, I do know one thing for certain about love, “I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”

First published 2009– added to and altered since.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Howard Nelson February 14, 2018, 5:41 AM

    GVdL, your last sentence is love itself.
    Love
    Above
    All
    Else.

  • rabbit tobacco February 14, 2018, 7:51 AM

    atom and eve

  • Terry February 14, 2018, 8:04 AM

    ‘Love’ is not to know. It is a tease and torment.

  • IP February 14, 2018, 8:52 AM

    I love this site. Thank you.

  • SteveS February 14, 2018, 12:23 PM

    I don’t know why, Gerard, but when I read your work the room often seems a bit dusty. Perhaps I need to change the furnace filter.

  • rabbit tobacco February 14, 2018, 3:18 PM

    love between the ugly is the most beautiful love of all/todd rundgren

  • Biff February 17, 2018, 5:59 PM

    Well, of course you fear death, much more than most people do. Everything you’ve said and done since 9/11, when your mind broke, your delicate personality shattered, and your universal disdain turned into universal rage and hate, proves that.

  • Vanderleun February 17, 2018, 6:17 PM

    A real man wouldn’t hide behind a mask, boy.

  • Mike Seyle July 2, 2021, 3:17 PM

    We do hide behind masks. I have a dead nephew, blown up in Iraq 3 days before Christmas a long time ago. His brother just signed up with NG. Their mom is broken. When I learned today that every time the live one gets a letter, his drill sergeant makes him do 10 pushups, I determined to send him two a day to help build his upper body. My wife found out, said “You can’t do that to the boy,” and since I sleep with her and not him, I tore up the letter. The mask I wear is one separating me from my nephew, to have peace with my wife.

  • Joan of Argghh! July 2, 2021, 3:35 PM

    I always pray to God that we could have more poets in the pulpit. I have known but a few. The theologians have all the answers, uh-huh, but the poets can’t fake it with membership in a God-club. They feel after Him in their pain, and like Job, demand a face-to-face with Him. Nothing less will suffice. That one look at His face is the thing that Love brings them to.

    Meanwhile, have you read Nightbirde’s blogs?

  • Joan of Argghh! July 2, 2021, 3:44 PM

    Last year, at the beginning of the pandemic, my only child died twice on the ER gurney. His wife at his side all the way to the hospital watching the brutal stabs and hearing ribs being cracked and savaged in desperate attempts to revive him from a massive double embolism.

    He tells me now, because he can talk about it, that at one point in the flatline he was in a big house with a stairway leading up to what seemed to be lovely music and happy voices and was greatly desiring to ascend the stairway to find the beautiful things waiting there, the friends and laughter and joy, but he was too much attached to his wife, his soul-mate, his first and only love, the only woman he’d given himself to, so he refused to go. He was not ready to leave her.

    Love is stronger than Death.

  • Vanderleun July 2, 2021, 4:01 PM

    “Meanwhile, have you read Nightbirde’s blogs?”

    I have now and I thank you.

  • Mike Seyle July 2, 2021, 4:01 PM

    Thank you, Joan of Argghh, for that. It gives me hope.

  • gwbnyc July 2, 2021, 4:04 PM

    “I’ve found the names of two men I went to high school with carved on the Vietnam wall in Washington.”

    “The boy from up the street” times five.

  • Anonymous July 2, 2021, 9:11 PM

    “I’ve found the names of two men I went to high school with carved on the Vietnam wall in Washington.”

    I have as well. And my home town was only a population of 2500 souls. One man was my next door neighbor. A brilliant student and human being. Adopted by an older couple who were destroyed by their loss.

    The second man who was close to my family was one of my brother Tim’s closest friends. Exactly six months to the day after arrival in Country he died in an ambush. Marine. Only child. Destroyed his parents lives.

    The total combat death count for our town was around fifteen during Vietnam.

  • Terry July 2, 2021, 9:14 PM

    Not Anonymous above. I got choked up and clicked SUBMIT too soon.

  • Annie Rose July 3, 2021, 7:02 AM

    Shakespeare said it best:
    SONNET 116-
    Let me not to the marriage of true minds
    Admit impediments. Love is not love
    Which alters when it alteration finds,
    Or bends with the remover to remove:
    O no; it is an ever-fixed mark,
    That looks on tempests, and is never shaken;
    It is the star to every wandering bark,
    Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
    Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
    Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
    Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
    But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
    If this be error and upon me proved,
    I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

    For another take on the tortures and rewards of love, I suggest reading Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensability, or watching the Kate Winslet movie version. It explores many shades of love lost and love found; love between a parent/ child, between friends and siblings, between a man and a woman. Having been with my love for 43 years, I can say that there is nothing so comforting, maddening, or thrilling than a long, deep, and abiding love. Grab onto happiness with both hands and do not seek out the grim reaper with the corner of your eye. He is there waiting. Let him wait.

  • BroKen July 3, 2021, 7:15 AM

    Thanks again, Gerard. Been thinking a lot about this lately:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tFGs7HP15d4

  • jd July 3, 2021, 8:43 AM

    BroKen (Intriguing title),

    Thank you for the link. First time I’ve cried outside of church in years.

  • James ONeil July 3, 2021, 9:03 AM

    At eighty plus, I appreciate more and more the way Swinburne put it in P’s. garden;
    From too much love of living,
    From hope and fear set free,
    We thank with brief thanksgiving
    Whatever gods may be
    That no life lives for ever;
    That dead men rise up never;
    That even the weariest river
    Winds somewhere safe to sea.

  • julie July 3, 2021, 12:21 PM

    Joan, thanks for sharing that. There is every reason to hope.

    Last fall, a man I know was dying of cancer. In his last couple of weeks, he was constantly visited by family members who had passed. His family also had a very elderly dog. While the man was in the hospital, the dog’s health grew worse and worse and they had to put the dog to sleep. He knew nothing about it. The next day, in his hospital room he said, “who let the dog in here!?”

    She had to leave a little early, so she could be there waiting for him. It was so hard to lose him, but there was great comfort in seeing through his eyes that there is a place prepared for us, and through God’s grace we will see him and our loved ones again.

  • jwm July 3, 2021, 4:45 PM

    Thank you, both Joan, and Julie.
    Interesting transition from cats, to love and death. Cats teach us both. Bruce Charlton writes about heaven very frequently, but he always falls short of speculating on what heaven is actually like. Of course, it is a thing that none of us can possibly know. I seldom post over there, but I’m always tempted to ask about the “Rainbow Bridge” story. (Short version, and spoiler: our pets go to heaven, and they are the very first ones to greet us when we arrive there.)
    It’s a sappy, and sentimental little story that never fails to put a lump in your throat.
    But the little story does touch on something profound. We cannot really conceive of heaven except in terms of life here on earth. The thought of being re-united with those we’ve lost gets more and more poignant, as we begin to feel the hard truth of our own mortality. And the heaven we conceive is always something less than earth. It’s always : “Just like this, only without _____.”

    Many years ago, I took the Third Step Prayer for real, with one hundred percent sincerity, nothing withheld. Within four years of that I lost pretty much everything I had worked for. The cool apartment, the Harley, the X-rated chick, the “friends” I had, and the teaching career, gone. Then the creative burn, gone, then a heart attack, and all the money, gone.
    And this last year we’ve all seen the end of the world as we knew it.
    I almost feel guilty saying this, but once I shut down all the media feed, except for a few sites on-line, it caused me to focus on the world as it exists within the confines of my property lines- one more tract home in suburban So Cal. That world is abundant with beauty and love. The hedge we put in, and the gazebo in the back, make the yard a little sanctuary. I am working the stone, the creative burn is back, and my days are full. I have been blessed with as close to a perfect marriage as a man could ask for. Twenty one years, and I’m still stupid in love with my wife. My bicycle gang is extended family. For a few, it’s the only family they have. I love these guys. And the cats.
    It’s all so very precious. I wonder that heaven could be better. and yet.
    I’m like the little dog in the burning cafe. “This is fine.”
    We’ve recently lost family friends. Others are, well, let’s just say, close. The cats are old, and Mary and I are both slowing down.
    When we’re in our prime, we talk about death in the same way a pre-pubescent kid hears a dirty joke. The kid laughs, but he really doesn’t get it. We’re past the puberty of Death. Now we get the joke, and it’s serious.
    Welcome to the “Any Day Now Club.”
    Cherish each one.

    JWM

  • Mike Seyle July 3, 2021, 5:03 PM

    My wife knows I’m interested in whatever happens after death, so some years ago bought “Dying Well” by Ira Byock for me. It was a good, comforting read. I watched dad communicate, for only about 45 seconds, with someone on the other side a few days before his death. The people who comment here mean a lot to me, activated by Gerard, who must be a genius.

  • H (science denier) July 3, 2021, 6:35 PM

    Because names on The Wall have already been mentioned, there are names on those slabs that I was in Viet Nam with.

    So. Why those particular clods and promontories, and not, for example, you, or me.

    Puts a whole different spin on “therefore send not to ask for whom the bell tolls” doesn’t it?

  • julie July 3, 2021, 9:57 PM

    JWM said, “Many years ago, I took the Third Step Prayer for real, with one hundred percent sincerity, nothing withheld.”

    Oof, yes – that step is a doozy. Whether as part of AA, or simply as the realization that He Is, and it’s personal. It changes everything, and often things fall apart. And yet somehow, humbled and battered and having nothing left but to trust in Him, we carry on, and what we have becomes a little, beautiful sanctuary in a big ugly world.

    I don’t know what will happen this week or next week or in the days to come. I do know that so far, He has kept every promise and answered the prayers of my heart – even if sometimes the answer is not what I want to hear.

    Every day, we have this day, and our daily bread. It is enough.

  • Joan of Argghh! July 7, 2021, 6:05 PM

    JWM writes:
    “When we’re in our prime, we talk about death in the same way a pre-pubescent kid hears a dirty joke. The kid laughs, but he really doesn’t get it. We’re past the puberty of Death. Now we get the joke, and it’s serious.”
    Damn, that’s good. It’s serious, but I’m still buying green bananas.