Death and
The Sailor

Part I
Recently, as I lay dying, in St. Vincent's hospital, of viral pneumonia, the head medico came in with a few students to take my pulse, look into my eyes, and ask me how I was doing. I replied, "If I felt any better, they would have to lay me in the grave."

I liked the sound of that, and now, ever since I got out of the hospital --- I recovered --- I think a lot about being "laid in the grave." I don't see this as morbid, and I hope you don't either. In ten, or fifteen, or the most, thirty years, family and friends, I hope, without much to-do, will be laying me tenderly in the grave.

Rather than being sad, it has more to do with me being near the seventh decade of my life and thinking (naturally) about my natural future --- about the weeks, hours, days all visibly shrinking away into shadows. Let's not call it morbid, let's call it realistic.

I read the obituaries every day in the Times, looking first at the dates of birth so I can check them against my own. Then I look to see how they died. Embolism and prostate cancer seem to be the favorites this year. Five years ago, it was AIDS and renal failure.

When I go to sleep at night, I often find myself thinking the word, "Death." I'll be mulling the ins and outs of the previous day, and my life, and the word will just pop into my head. I then try to envision myself in what the folk song referred to as the "cold, cold ground."

I also think on those who are in charge of taking us out of here. I find myself hoping that when they come for me, they won't make a mess of it. I definitely do not want to offend my grandchildren when they come into the bedroom --- as they often do --- to yank open the beige curtains to wake me and, jump up and down on the bed. It would be a trauma for both of us, I fear, if they were to find me moveless, mouth ajar, brain on its way to its last and most interesting vacation.

I want my body --- which has been kind enough to stick with me through thick and thin all these many years --- not be too ghoulish when they blow the trumpet. Blood and other excrescences not permitted. I want it (and me) to be sent on our way with aplomb. After all, I think of myself as a card-carrying member of the upper class, and we have historically departed (from home, from country, from this vale of tears) with grace and dignity.

Since I am in this somewhat morbid frame of mind today I want you to know I stand in awe of people who have the energy and wit to perform death-defying feats, feats of reckless courage, long before they have to be prepared like me to be shipped off. I am thinking now of the anonymous sailor we --- my family and I --- met in the back seat of our 1942 Cadillac limousine a year or so before the end of the Second World War.

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