My father, a perplexing man, like so many of us, read the New York Times obituaries every day. He’d come into the kitchen holding the paper and announce to my mother, “Maurice Tannenbaum, tote” which meant “dead”. Then he’d read a few bits from the dead man’s obit.
It sometimes seemed to me he was reading the death notices each day to confirm that he wasn’t among the dead himself. I sometimes think of his obituary reading habit in relation to something I caught myself doing in a library once — searching for my name on the spines of books on the shelves. It would have been impossible to find a book by me in the library, because none has ever been published, but I absentmindedly scanned the W shelf nonetheless.
“I’m sure I’m not the first to point out that you seem to be a bit insane,” said the skeleton of my father, lifting his head slightly in his eternal dirt bed.
Nor will you be the last, pops.
“I’m wondering about the book of your life, now that mine, gigantically bloated like a dead body kept in warm water for a long time, is largely written and languishing… festering, if you prefer…” the skeleton turned his head, with that maniacal smile they all have. “You know, it’s a deep question: how do you summarize somebody, make their emotional life into a coherent story? We are largely incoherent creatures, Elie, and making sense of a life is essentially a labor of the imagination, painting a convincing picture that people can recognize as uniquely human in a way they care about, in a way that relates to their lived experience. But truly, what the fuck?”
When you died your brother gave me a 500 word obituary he’d written and printed out and told me to contact the Times and arrange to have it published. (A year or two ago, after Sekhnet located the print-out, I posted that obituary here.) At the time the long obit, and the demand that I call the Times and have it printed, both struck me as absurd. In hindsight I realize it was a pretty good piece of work by my uncle and that there was nothing unreasonable, outside of my uncle’s overbearing and oblivious style, in his asking me to arrange to have the Times print it.
“Well, my brother could have seen that you were organizing the funeral and writing my eulogy, and basically taking care of everything else, so he could have contacted the Times, but as you say, it wasn’t his style.”
The question of style might hold the key to the biographer’s art.
“And the ingestion of gaseous foods might hold the key to the biographer’s fart,” said the skeleton absently.
Sometimes I wonder why I drag you into this.
“It’s a fair thing to ask yourself, Elie,” the skeleton revolved his head 360 degrees, a new trick he’d discovered, very disquieting.
I started off thinking how you, a man who read the obituaries religiously, as we say, never had one himself. There was no obituary of you ever published, that I am aware of.
“Are you blaming me? Don’t forget, I was dead already, so, I have to plead, I don’t know– I couldn’t have done it since I was already dead?”
Nah, of course not. I was just wondering about my inaction in the days after you died, why I didn’t get the obituary printed somewhere.
“Well, in fairness to you, it was probably related to your general inaction, your decided predilection for inactivity — how long is it since you broke that tooth and made a note to call the dentist? Two weeks, three weeks? I mean, don’t be hard on yourself, man, you are inactive about many things,” the skeleton turned to watch the lazy arcs of two turkey vultures.
“Elie, I realize you’re feeling listless and lifeless today, I get that, I really do– you could hardly feel more listless and lifeless than I do, after all, but could you leave the fucking turkey vultures out of it today?”
One turkey vulture seemed to turn to the other in mid-air as if to say “watch this” and then deposited a long stream of vulture shit on to my father’s side of the headstone my mother had picked out for them.
“Nice,” said the skeleton, doing his best to smirk, as he turned on to his side and seemed to sink back into his grave.