|NOTES GOING UNDERGROUND|
by Joram Piatigorsky Ladies and gentleman, thank you for inviting me – an ordinary man who, like most, thinks himself special but knows he isn’t – to deliver my own eulogy at my funeral. It has taken much soul searching whether or not to accept your invitation. I asked myself, why should I, or anyone, deliver a eulogy at my funeral? Why not just say, “Good-bye,” and let it go at that? Does a life need an explanation? I still am who I was. Dying hasn’t changed my status or anything else. I had nothing to do with my birth, so I can’t explain that. I came and now I’m leaving, just like any squirrel in the garden that was born and will die. There’s always another squirrel. Anyway, who would believe a eulogy to myself? Praise would be taken as self-promotion and belittling myself would be considered false modesty. Isn’t that what you thought when I called myself an ordinary man?
Death has always been considered an abrupt process, like crossing a line from living flesh to dead meat. A person was either alive or dead, never both at the same time, like I am now. Due to modern technology, the final stages of death can be digitized and captured in slow motion. This lets me talk to you during a suspended state of being partially alive and partially dead simultaneously, as my remaining life seeps into my corpse in the lovely coffin by my side. I have a grace period while leaking life but still breathing air to reminisce – size up my life – as my corpse receives my death in preparation for burial. It’s not physically painful and I don’t like it, but it is what it is: we’re born slowly and die slowly. We have tapered ends, so to speak. Only when my entire life has passed – in today’s lingo, has downloaded – into my corpse will I fade out and go underground.
I first was exposed to gradual death at college in a physiology course when I decapitated a turtle to study its heart. Not only did the heart continue beating for hours, but the headless body of the turtle continued walking for some time! It made me wonder whether the bodiless head was still seeing or thinking for a while, or whatever turtles did with their brains, and if so, for how long?
What a disturbing notion for us humans: a guillotined head still thinking in a basket!
I asked a friend for advice on what I might say at my eulogy. “Tell them about a few of your career contributions and recognitions, and the love and support you received from family and friends, like me,” he advised. Then he suggested some nonsense that I talk about being a down-to-earth regular guy who roots for the local sports teams and likes to eat desserts before entrees. I have an incurable sweet tooth. He also added a stupid joke that I can’t even remember. I guess he thought I should appear like a successful mensch, everybody’s good guy. But, is that really me? A mensch who tried his best? That seems as lame as describing me as “nice.” Yuk! Why not include that I rescued a puppy from the pound once?
Getting to the essence of a human being – of me in this case – giving a eulogy that’s honest and worthwhile – is impossible due to the many contradictions, inconsistencies and conflicts in anyone’s life. Moreover, we all, including me, have suppressed ghosts begging to get out of our skin, playing havoc with our psyches, and like it or not, are silent partners of our complex identity. I’ve pondered at length to understand who defines my identity: me or others (“us” or “them”)? It’s both, I think, which creates a conundrum. If I give my own eulogy, how others perceive me – my “them” identity – will be absent; if someone else gives my eulogy, my view – my “us” identity – will be lost.
So, here’s my plan, even if imperfect. I will tell a story, a true story involving several sides of myself (cryptic perhaps), and let you draw your own conclusions. Keep in mind that we’re more than one person, and you’ll appreciate how slippery identity is and how incomplete eulogies really are. A man of middle age and medium height, an average looking man, a life-long bachelor, was walking down the street in tattered clothes and a light green jacket in Chicago on a gray afternoon in January. The wind chill was in the teens and piles of dirty snow lined the street. This gentleman – and I call him a gentleman because of his gender, not style – lived in a poorly furnished, one room apartment in a shabby section of town. His prized possession was a rust colored ceramic vase, the only present he ever received from his alcoholic father. I know nothing about his mother. A broken piece resulting from an accident had been glued back carelessly on the vase in its original position. He had lost track of both of his divorced parents. He supported himself by doing odd jobs and holding temporary positions from which he was usually fired because of his inability to be punctual. He was a sorrowful case. This drab January was a low point because one of his employers who occasionally paid him to take the trash to the dump had just died.
As he was ambling down the street feeling sorry for himself his eyes struck gold! The corner of what appeared to be genuine U.S. currency was protruding from a small mound of icy snow surrounding a lamppost. He leaned over and pulled it out. Yes! $20! Christmas was over for the rest of the world, but it had just started for him. He rubbed the bill with his thumb and index finger as if to assure it was real, put it in his pocket, skipped a step or two, took it out and used it to wipe his forehead, a gesture that gave it a pleasurable physical presence. He had suddenly transformed to a larger, more important person, a man with sharp eyes able to grasp opportunity and could now afford a warm cup of hot chocolate with a doughnut and have change left over.I know I’m rambling a bit, but I have always tended to drag things out. It’s who I am, and it’s not easy to give one’s own eulogy.
Where was I?
Oh, yes, this pitiful, lonely person was cold and hungry, yet on top of the world; he had just changed from a pauper to a man with $20 in his pocket.
As he strolled, he noticed shops that he had previously ignored. A shiny $35 Timex wristwatch in a display window caught his attention. Well, that was for a king, not for him, but perhaps someday…who knows? If he could find $20, he might find $100 another time. He started kicking the snow heaps hoping that more money would tumble out.
What an optimist, driven by pipedreams.
But there was a problem. Alone the idea that $20 could grow to a larger sum made it feel lighter in his pocket. It suddenly became less money, and he was less happy. Apparently $20 was not even enough to keep track of time; that cost $35.
Poor man. He allowed a little success to balloon into greed.
The city streetlights clicked on as dusk descended. Darts of frigid air pierced his exposed face with each gust. He pulled his jacket tight around his neck and slid his frozen chest deeper into the garment when he heard a low-grade shuffling sound behind him. He turned and saw a man perilously thin – eyes bland, oversized ragged pants held up with a tattered rope, and filthy, bare toes protruding through holes in his shoes.
“Gotta a dime?” croaked this pathetic bag of bones as he extended a frail arm with palm upturned.
Our newly-rich gentleman stared at the miserable excuse for a man.
“Gotta dime, even a nickel?” the beggar repeated.
“I have no loose change,” came the honest response. Despite his defects, he was impeccably honest.
Our gentleman with $20, now looking like a success story by comparison, noticed that the beggar’s blue fingertips trembled, and that his ring finger was a useless amputated stub. The beggar produced a phlegm-rattling cough, and pink saliva dribbled from the corners of his mouth.
Now, here’s the interesting part. Our hero, if that’s what he could be called, reached into his pocket, pulled out the $20, kissed it and placed it into the beggar’s outstretched hand.
“God bless you,” said the beggar, without looking at the amount, and he proceeded slowly down the street crunching the $20 bill in his hand.Was this a noble act of charity? No. I knew the gentleman from high school. His name was Tim. Even as a teenager, Tim was always his own worst enemy. I remember when he ran for senior class president, craving the prestige, the power and the satisfaction of winning. What did he do? He voted for his opponent, and not because she was pretty or that he thought she was more qualified than he was. He felt voting for himself was self-indulgent, impolite, improper. He wanted it too much. Talk of a loser. That Tim gave away his $20 was entirely consistent for him.
By the way, he lost the election, by one vote!I ran into Tim once not long ago when I was at a scientific conference in Chicago. I had gone for a walk, got lost and entered a cheap diner to ask directions. There he was, sitting with a some cruddy-looking guy. Imagine the scene. Two lowly flops in a God-forsaken dump having afternoon tea: one was destitute, no doubt a homeless, pathetic man who seemed too far gone to know that he was in such bad shape. The other, Tim, was struggling to stay afloat, no steady job, no family ties, no ambitions. The best thing one could say of Tim was that he didn’t smell too bad. That one certainly couldn’t say about the other guy.
It had been years since I had last seen Tim and so I focused on him trying to remember exactly what he looked like in high school to make sure that I was correct, that he was in fact Tim. The two men seemed oblivious to their surroundings and neither noticed me. Tim was doing all the talking, and the other guy occasionally responded with “uh-hum,” or “yep,” or “suren’uff.”
In the middle of a sentence, Tim turned his head in my direction and barked, “Whadaya starin’ at, buddy?”
I stammered, “Err, nothing…sorry, I mean…Tim…is that you?”
“Howd’ya know my name?” He looked startled.
“Yes, you are Tim, aren’t you?” I said, amazed that I had remembered correctly.
“Yeah. Who r’you?”
After I told him that I recognized him from high school, he just gazed at me with his mouth gaping, advertising his brownish, crooked teeth, and didn’t say a word. That’s when I discovered how long a minute can be.
Tim blanched, developed a nervous tick in his right eyelid, which kept fluttering. He ran his fingers through his greasy hair and said, “My god, it’s true. Yes, I recognize you. You’re just a little more wrinkled and pudgier.”
I didn’t mind the wrinkles, but pudgier was another matter.
Tim’s voice changed, became deeper, more self-conscious, the vernacular disappeared, his eyes darted here, there, everywhere. He avoided looking directly at me.
“I’m so ashamed,” he said.
I didn’t know how to answer, so I reached out and touched him on the shoulder. His head tilted a notch towards my hand, his face relaxed, as if a great battle was over.
“Reckon I’ll be movin’ on,” said the other guy. He got up and left without another word.
An indifferent waiter drying beer mugs stood behind the seedy looking counter lined with empty stools fixed to the stained wooden floor. There were no pictures on the walls, no tablecloths, no flowers or decorations of any kind. The olive-green paint was peeling off the walls, which had numerous gashes. Floor lamps standing in the corners on either side of the front door accounted for the dim light. There were no windows and the stale air had an odor of burning grease.
It was a closed environment, secluded in its own way, as was a posh country club. You were a member or an outcast. Yet, I thought, even in this dismal scene lacking charm or purpose or any class whatsoever, Tim, downtrodden and pathetic, was as human and vulnerable as I or the King of England.
After a moment of silence, Tim put his arms around my neck, nestled his head on my left shoulder, and cried. I felt him tremble, and his grip tightened. The waiter looked at us with a peculiar expression and went into the kitchen, leaving us alone in this miserable, stinking hole.
Tim kept repeating over and over again, “It’s not my fault, it’s not my fault, it’s not my fault.”
Tim had said he was ashamed, and he was, I’m sure, but it was I who should have been ashamed, but I wasn’t.
Why should I have been ashamed?
Well, unfortunate, defeated Tim, a friend from high school, most certainly a good man in need of comforting, was crying on my shoulder, begging for sympathy and understanding, and what did I do? Nothing. What was going through my mind? I’m almost too ashamed to say, but, what the heck, I sense the download is nearing the end, so it’s my last chance to confess. Fact is fact, and it’s no different than a stone in the ground. I was thinking that Tim was dribbling snot on my new Alpaca wool sweater.
“Now, now, Tim, it’s okay, really. We all have hard times now and then.”
We don’t all have hard times anything like that. I never did. What do I know? What right did I have to empathize? It may have been true in general, but it was dishonest coming from me. If anything, I blamed Tim for being such a loser.
“It’s good to see you again, Tim,” I said, another falsehood. I was thinking, “How can I get out of this?”
Just as suddenly as Tim broke down, he released his stronghold around my neck (he should have been a wrestler) and said, “Hey buddy, let’s have a cup of something hot and catch up.”
“S…ure,” I answered, but I wanted out.
We ordered coffee (I paid) and I briefly recapped my life – research scientist, married, a couple of kids, grandkids. I was sketchy. I didn’t want him to feel bad, which was presumptuous because, apart from his appearance, I had no idea what his life had been like and, anyway, I was no hero.
Then I lied again, well, I distorted the truth is more like it. I told him that I did research on hearing in earthworms, which I never had done. I worked on eyes.
“Hearing in earthworms? Do they hear?” he asked, suddenly displaying curiosity,
“Maybe,’ I answered. “I’m trying to figure that out. Who knows? If earthworms can hear, at least in an earthworm kind of way, my work may help deaf people someday. Big industry, deafness.”
Why did I say that nonsense and fantasy and imply that I cared about industry, which I didn’t? I had modified my image to appear differently than I am. Since I didn’t know much about ears or earthworms or industry, I knew I wouldn’t be able to say much (I tend to talk too much), and then I could get back to the hotel sooner. I wanted to see a basketball game on TV and work on my lecture for the meeting the next day.
Tim told me of his drab life, the disappearance of his parents, how his one and only girlfriend left him, how he had dropped out of community college, how he’d given away his $20, and so on. I was hardly listening and wondering how to get out of there. Finally, I told him that I had another appointment, still another lie. He sagged a bit, like a worn drape. I felt guilty not to spend more time with him, or maybe even take him to dinner. I was selfish.
“Will we get a chance to see each other again?” he asked.
That simple question has haunted me all these years.
“Will we see each other again?” he repeated, looking earnest.
So simple, so sad, so lonely. Tim gave away his prized $20 to a miserable beggar, and I lied to have some more time to myself.
“Sure,” I said. “Let’s keep in touch.”
He gave me his phone number, but never asked for mine. I called him once a few months later and received a recorded message that his telephone was temporarily disconnected. Temporarily, that’s important; yet, I never called again. I did think about him from time to time, even worried about him, as I did about other people and causes I neglected. I collected lists of things I never accomplished, humongous lists of lost opportunities, too focused on myself to follow up. I collected absences and lived in my own head. And now, it’s too late to make amends…
Wait! Why should I apologize for what I didn’t do? What I did do made sense from my perspective – that’s another eulogy – so apologizing for past behavior would be denying who I was. That doesn’t work. I was who I was.
Did I say another eulogy? Isn’t that what I implied earlier? There’s never one eulogy or one story or one interpretation. There’s “us” and “them”. We are many people wrapped together, and we are even present in part in other people. I trust you to understand the eulogy I chose to tell, the story I told, the person, or persons, I am, in part, and was, sometimes.
Excuse me, I must sit down. My back hurts, my legs ache, my feet are numb. I’m tired, very, very tired. This must be the end…yes, it’s getting darker…the lid is closing…I’m sure you can’t hear me anymore…I’m going underground, with my notes and everything I learned along the way.
There’s always another squirrel. About the Author:During his 50-year career at the National Institutes of Health, Joram Piatigorsky has published some 300 scientific articles and a book, Gene Sharing and Evolution (Harvard University Press, 2007), lectured worldwide, received numerous research awards, including the prestigious Helen Keller Prize for vision research, served on scientific editorial boards, advisory boards and funding panels, and trained a generation of scientists. Presently an emeritus scientist, he collects Inuit art, is on the Board of Directors of The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, blogs (JoramP.com), and has published a series of personal essays in the journal Lived Experience and a novel, Jellyfish Have Eyes (IPBooks, 2014). He has two sons, five grandchildren, and lives with his wife in Bethesda, Maryland. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
Home Nonfiction NOTES GOING UNDERGROUND By Joram Piatigorsky