Saturday, December 24, 2011

Conversations with the Dead

"Conversations with the dead are never satisfactory.  The dead are not very interested in what you tell them and usually don't have much to say."

When I first read that passage back around 1986, I was 27, and there were no dead in my life.  Shortly thereafter, leukemia took Chris, a fourteen-year-old student of mine; my Grandmother Thelma would soon begin to recede from us into a world of ghosts, reaching a day five years later when she didn't recognize me or my mother, but she spoke to my Dad by name about all the others present to her in the empty room -- her late mother, and some little girls..  Twenty years after that, one year after Dad's unexpected death, all the grownups of my childhood are gone except for Mom and her brother-in-law, my Uncle Jack.

Back then, I was reading Frederick Buechner's four novels collected as a tetralogy called THE BOOK OF BEBB  (Atheneum 1984). It nominally concerns a preacher named Leo Bebb, but really its concern is everything there is. I kid you not.  This morning, haunted by a dream of Dad, leafing through just four pages of the novel as I tried to locate this passage, my eyes ran across evocative references to Christmas Eve, aliens, adultery, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein and the Wolfman, Native American mythology, cheap motels, Episcopal funeral rites ("Lord, [make it so] that the bones that you have broken may rejoice"), Noel Coward comedies,  blacks in the South, the coming of the Kingdom, King Lear, and opera.  Oh, yeah:  yoga, gin, and mistakes in child-rearing.

So now that I read Buechner with some experience, it's still true.  The passage continues,
Death is apparently as much of a rat race as life is, and they've got other things on their minds.  I don't picture them sitting around in chairs like the cemetery scene in Our Town or cooling their heels in God's outer office singing Bach.  As much as I can picture them at all, I picture them hurrying someplace like the White Rabbit in Alice.  They don't even stop when you speak to them, just look back at you over their shoulders maybe.  I could dimly picture [my sister] Miriam looking back at me as I spoke.  (p. 188)
So, in my dream, Dad takes a seat on a picnic table up the street from our old family house, and he's watching my mother working alone in our old front yard.  His eyes meet mine, he knows I can see him, and I know that she cannot.  He carries a box of Dunkin' Donuts, and he raises a half-eaten donut to acknowledge my presence, but that's all he does.   I tell him she needs him, and he just waves away the comment as superfluous and kind of annoying.  He doesn't move or draw her attention, and now I'm the one who's kind of annoyed.  I tell her he's there, and she calls out, and she approaches the picnic table, but she can't see him.  He doesn't move.  So I tell her, "He's always with you, on the inside."

The dream, as Buechner suggests, blurs the boundaries between this world and one that we don't normally perceive.  It's all part of continuum, death being only one landmark on the way.  Though we can support each other, we all travel alone. 

This brings to mind a spectacle in the same novel, one of several examples of what would be called a "set piece" in a play or movie -- kind of like the Cyd Charisse fantasy number that interrupts Singing in the Rain for ten minutes.  Here it's the story of what happens to a wizened old wealthy Indian named Herman Redpath when he wakes up from death to find himself young again, and vigorous, but also alone on the edge of a vast plain.  Naked, except for items thrown in his coffin at the funeral, Redpath must travel to the horizon.  We're told the story in a letter left by Lucille Bebb, who is relaying what her husband Leo told her (pp. 219-227).

No message, here, except that the Book of Bebb should be added on to the Bible after the Book of Revelation. (For my more extensive reflection on Buechner, go to "Comedy, Fairy Tale, Tragedy: My Favorite Fiction")


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