“Is this fact or fiction?” That was always Tommy’s first question. Our writing group all wrote a little of both, and most often disguised one as the other.
“Good question. This is how it just came to me. It’s a monologue from Barry.” Barry had been a member of writing group until he died just before Christmas, almost a year ago. He wasn’t the oldest member of the group, but none of us had the actuarial tables on our side.
“Yikes!” said Marge. This is what Marge always said.
“Barry said all this to you? Poor man wasn’t ever much of a talker.” This was from Sally.
“No. No voices. It just came to me. Let’s call it fiction.” Nods all around meant that I could start reading. Sally picked up her knitting.
Being dead is not what I imagined. In fact, I always assumed that it was nothing at all, so it didn’t have to go much to be different than that. But even if you believe in an afterlife, I doubt you have exactly the right idea about it. It is not just that it takes a while for the shock of being dead to grab you, and not only do you change when you die, but things continue to change you – things that you left behind. I’ll come back to that.
You know more when you are dead. In fact, you know almost everything, which can be uncomfortable at first. But there is no way for the living to really understand, so I will just tell my story. That is one of the things that you know after you are dead. Only stories matter. Only stories teach anyone anything. So, here’s a story from a dead person. I don’t know if there is any way to get it to the living, but stories sometimes take on a life of their own, so maybe someone will hear it.
To start with, I somehow knew that I had died. I was still aware of things going on around me, but from a slight distance and in a detached frame of mind. I watched from the top of my wife’s piano as the EMT’s tried resurrection. There was some young clean-cut guy thumping on my hairy chest and all I could feel was sorry for him because I probably smelled so rank. No shower that morning and a very garlicky sausage grinder for lunch. Death doesn’t warn you when your naked old body is going to be put on public display. But it did not bother me, and I remember actually chuckling as the guy gave up and waved for the female EMT to try. They knew I was gone, but they had to put up a show and I appreciated the effort. I did feel bad for my wife, though, who was shaking like a leaf and clamming up like she does when she is really upset and about to lose it. And the longer I sat there, the worse I felt about poor Peggy – now a widow and looking pretty surprised about it. Once they loaded my corpse into the ambulance (still not telling Peggy that I was already dead), I floated around the house for a while and then went out through the door that had been left ajar and into a kind of plenary space where we newly dead spend most of our time.
“We” are myself and the spirits of people who are waiting for the next step. It appears that the spirit world is – at least initially – arranged into cohorts of people are waiting to get to the next level. Some just whiz through; you hardly see them before they graduate and disappear. Others have been here for a very long time. No one talks to each other, but somehow you begin to realize things – but not everything.
One of the things we do not know is where we go from here. As I said, some spirits seem to “move on.” We know why they go (more on that later) but not where they go. We do not mind that we do not know. Acceptance is one of the things that you learn when you are dead and for me it was a revelation. As living Barry, I never accepted anything.
We do know a whole lot about what went on with our lives both before we gave up our bodies and afterwards, and it is sometimes downright uncomfortable. For example, when I dropped dead, I was arguing with Peggy about the kids. Her kids. We were both on our second marriages, so we had my kids and her kids, except that they were all grown up and we didn’t see them that often. Amy, Peggy’s only daughter, had announced that she and her husband Sam and their five-year-old twins were coming to visit for a few days, and I was giving her a rough time about it. She really wanted to see them and most assuredly didn’t want to tell them they couldn’t come, so she was between a rock and… and me. Anyway, she fought back (which she doesn’t always), and I got angrier and now I’m gone, and Amy and Sam and the kindergarteners can come and stay as long as they want. And they did. Actually, all of Peggy’s kids showed up for the memorial service and were better-behaved than my crew. Anyway, I was dead wrong in that last argument with Peggy. That’s the kind of thing you know when you’re dead.
I realize now that there was very little I was right about. Strike that. What I realize now is that I was wrong to assume I was right about anything at all. What made me so sure I had all the answers? In my case, emotions bolstered with alcohol. Both are gone now. I know the truth and the truth is highly prized in the afterlife.
One of the truths we learn is that spirits (I’m using that word because I don’t exactly know what I am – I have no wings because I have no body so I am certainly not an angel) can have no effect on the world they left. At least not in the layer where I seem to be residing. No guardian angels. No sign that old Clarence is down there anywhere helping a modern-day George bail out his savings and loan. We cannot affect what goes on below. I cannot tell Peggy where I hid the bankbook or give my kids advice. But the living can affect us. When people on earth think well of us, we gain a lot of prestige here in this layer of people who died in the winter of 2021. That being the case, everyone gets a positive jolt at the time of their funeral or memorial service. However, prestige is not what gets you to the next level.
Peggy had me cremated and I was glad about that. I visited my body a few times in the storage basement at the funeral home, but it wasn’t pleasant, and I will spare you the details. If my heap of flesh had been left for more poking and prodding and then buried to rot in a coffin, I would have had to stay away from it. You are physically completely detached after you die, but a kindly and protective feeling toward your own flesh is a pretty well-ingrained habit. In any case, they put my ashes in a small oak box, and everyone started to make plans to gather and pay their respects a couple of weeks later. Peggy’s daughter came right away to stay with her (temporarily minus the husband and the twins), and that was a good thing. Peggy needed someone to talk to.
My kids mostly called Peggy and wanted to hear over and over again exactly how it happened. Blow by blow. It was if they wanted to make sure that I was dead. I give Peggy credit – not one word about our argument or my shot of whiskey before lunch or the fact that I had refused to do anything to reduce my risks of the hereditary heart attack. (I was a year older than my father when he went and two years younger than my brother – neither of whom I have seen in the afterlife.) Peggy never said anything bad about me at all and said a good many very pleasant things. She slept with my old sweat suit laid out on the bed next to her, and Stella – our cat – burrowed into it as if she missed me too. Peggy dug out every picture she had of me and made a little shrine on the mantel with pictures and candles and my baseball glove. She started reading the mystery I had left half-finished, and she hates mysteries. She didn’t cry much, but she did sit looking out the window and spent hours telling her daughter Amy about all the fun things we did together and leaving out the rotten parts. Honestly, I think she completely forgot the bad times – and that is a lot of forgetting. You would have thought our honeymoon trip to Bermuda was sheer bliss from her telling of it – but she left out the part where I got drunk on the plane, lost my wallet, and made her so mad she stomped out of the hotel room and sat out on the beach until she got sun poisoning and had to stay in bed for days. And not for sex. I really think she forgot all that.
But the living do not see clearly. This fact is one of the first things you realize when you are dead. We often shake our heads at what the living do, how they see things. Certainly, we are not driven by any of the earthly passions in our state – no sex, no purpose for money and we don’t eat or sleep or work, so gluttony and sloth are not issues – but, even above all that, there is a clarity about being dead that frames the world in a different way. I started to say a rational way, but that is not quite right. We simply take in the information with no filters, no investments, no assumptions. For instance, I dropped in on the household of my oldest, Andy, and realized that he and Edie were more upset about the fact that they might not get their full inheritance from Peggy than they were that I would never again jiggle Marty and Jo-jo on my knees. And they were concerned about the aggravation of traveling to North Carolina for the funeral – how would they get there, where would they stay, who would pay for it? And, most importantly, who would take care of their dogs (two badly-behaved German Shepherds)? My death was a major inconvenience with an uncertain pay-off. I was a little surprised but could accept the truth of the way things were.
My younger son Charlie was very upset for a few hours and then approached the whole thing like a dentist’s appointment. He ascertained when he had to be in Wilton for the memorial service and the minimum acceptable duration of his stay and made reservations accordingly. And then Charlie dropped the whole thing until the day he got on the plane. Other than the guy he was dating (Charlie is gay) and his secretary, he never mentioned it to another soul. Very self-sufficient is my Charlie.
I used to teach English at the nearby community college, retiring over six years ago. I had been there for thirty years – long since tenured and so uninterested in what went on outside my classroom that I had never even served as chairperson of the department and had to be hounded to serve on committees or to participate in interviews for new faculty members. (What did I care who taught in the classroom next to me?) I conveniently died right after the end of the spring semester, but there was a flurry of activity as the word got around and the department secretary was quite broken up – but not nearly so much as when her cat died a few weeks ago. Nice things were said by some and Mike, who was serving as chair, started making phone calls to cover my fall classes. Everyone wanted to know when the memorial service would be as they were about to leave for wherever they went in the summer, but when they found out, no one changed their plans.
Peggy and Amy planned my memorial service, and they did a good job. Peggy leaned on a friend of hers who is active in the local Unitarian Church to get a minister and use of the church and social hall. She asked various people to participate. Amy read scripture, Hilda from the college’s music department (who started teaching the same year as I did) played the piano and sang, Ed from the English Department read some of my favorite poems, and my sons gave eulogies. Andy’s talk was more emotional and focused on the early years, when I was still married to their mother. Edie did not show up for the funeral, but I heard Andy tell his brother that she couldn’t stop weeping when he told her I was gone. Who would have guessed? Charlie gave a pumped-up version of my academic career, but he did not have much to work with – a couple of interesting articles published in the early years when I was trying to get tenure (amazingly he made it sound like he had actually read them) and then thirty years trying to teach freshmen and sophomores that reading is something that doesn’t have to happen off a screen and is not always self-explanatory. I was an utter failure at it.
At least Charlie gave his speech in the past tense; Peggy still talks about me in the present as if I had just gone out for a beer. Even I get disconcerted by it, and her grandchildren are mystified. As she is baking cookies for them, she will say, “Pop loves Snickerdoodles. I always have to double this recipe because of Pop.” She has me almost believing that I could eat some of those Snickerdoodles. The truth is, I can’t even smell them. When I watch the living, it is like I am in some kind of dream. The colors aren’t even bright and there is no touch, smell, or taste. (We have no hands or noses or mouths!)
Six months after my memorial service, Peggy’s daughter arranged a blind date for her mother. I didn’t feel any jealousy; we have no passions here. But I was interested in how it turned out. He was pretty old and faded out as Peggy talked about me all through dinner. She asked after his dead wife, but he wasn’t interested in talking about dead spouses. Anyway, he never called back, and Peggy told her daughter Amy that it was just as well because she really wasn’t ready to enter into a relationship again.
In case I have not been clear, the most important thing the dead know is this: the truth about our lives has to be recognized before we can move on. And even though we don’t know where we’re going, moving on is highly prized, the only thing we long for. For instance, there are still some old politicians in this plenary holding pattern who are waiting for enough people to realize that they led their constituents into senseless wars. Terrible truths, but they have to be known before they can move on. Others wait for friends and children to acknowledge the impact of us on their lives. In my case, I think the only problem is Peggy. Most of the other people in my life have assessed me pretty clearly.
But in the last few days, even Peggy has started to realize what a bully I was. She told her friend Myrtle what a pleasure it was to watch whatever she wanted on television without anyone making fun of her. She finally packed up my clothes and sent my beer stein collection to my son, who promptly sold it on eBay. So I may be finding out what the next step is. I’m close.
The writing group was strangely silent as I ended. Maybe they were all worrying about what kinds of words I would put in their mouths if I outlived them.
“Yikes,” said Margery.
“Nice,” said Jane. “But more dialogue would have helped.” Jane always says this.
“It’s a monologue,” I reply. “I just didn’t put quotations marks around it.”
“It might help if you did,” said Tommy.
“If you insist everything Barry said was fiction, you’re sort of undermining his cause, aren’t you?” mused Sally, who had finally put down her knitting and was staring at the window where a cardinal had been banging at his reflection.