“What do you think about death?”
“Are you afraid of dying?”
“Do you believe in life after death?”
These are questions people insist on asking me these days. Why is it? What’s the matter with everyone? Where is it all leading to? Time was when the mention of death did not affect me. I wasn’t personally acquainted with any dead people. The word death to me simply conjured up images of a Hammer House of Horror films, scenes of overgrown graveyards, decaying headstones and epitaphs etched in flowery script or a spidery illustration to an Hilaire Belloc poem or, somewhat more romantically, of Gray’s Elegy in a Country Churchyard.
Now, suddenly, everyone is talking about death. At dining tables, in drawing rooms, in the back seats of taxis, in doctors’ waiting rooms, under the dryer at the beauty salon and, even, while pounding the treadmill at the gym “deathtalk” is fast-becoming the “in” conversation. The mortality rate in international circles is more popular now than the divorce rate in Las Vegas. All over the front pages, the TV talk shows and the gossip columns, death, it seems, is never far from peoples’ minds. Some spend hours pouring over obituaries, discussing them, pontificating over death’s hidden meaning and deciding how they will be reincarnated once it happens to them.
Then they will reread the obituaries, just in case they missed the announcement that some distant relative or friend had passed on. And if they do discover that some poor bastard they know, or think they know, has shoveled off his mortal coil prematurely, they will dine out on it for weeks. Yes, gossip, they seem to love that. And have you noticed they always want to be first to break the grisly news, to revel in all the gory details?
“Did you know so-and-so died the other day? Oh, you didn’t? Well, let me tell you. It was like this…”
Recently I overheard a one-sided conversation in a hotel coffee shop in Manila. It was between two American women. They were obviously delighted at being reacquainted again after several months apart. The conversation went roughly like this.
“Oh darling, so sorry to keep you waiting. I haven’t? Oh, good. They were so slow at the beauty parlour. My God, they’ve ruined my hair for good this time! I can’t go out like this, I’ll die. It’s so great to see you again, Mildred. How long has it been? I could have died and you never would have known. Did you know my sister, Dorothy? No? Well, poor dear, she passed away. Years of cancer, you know. She was so brave. Just three days ago. I still can’t believe it. Oh, God, I feel terrible. Herbie says it’s the heat here in this damn country, it’s killing me, I swear. Herbie says I’ll get used to it after a while. But it sure feels like I’m dying. I really don’t know how you cope with it, dear, you look so fresh. Don’t you feel like curling up and dying sometimes? Well, I guess you’ve always been the type to stick things out. How long have you been here now? Two years, is it? My God, I would have died long ago if I were you, I really would.
Yes, I’ll have a BLT with extra mayo and a chocolate malted. I know that’s going to kill my diet but what the hell! I’ve been dying of hunger all day. It’s the air conditioning, you know – makes me ravenous. How’s the family? Any more deaths lately? Two? Oh, that’s too bad! Who was it this time? Not that adorable father of yours, I hope? It was? Oh, I am sorry, how unfortunate, he was such a darling man. How did it happen? My God, if they do my hair again like this I swear I’ll kill them. I told them a semi-perm – and look what they’ve done! What did you say, dear? In the bathtub? Too bad!
My family? Why, they’re just fine, thanks. You remember Mabel though? Did you hear she died last month? Tragic it was. In a car with her two boys. It was instant, of course, for her and her youngest. The other one’s still critical, you know.
Her husband? Fred? He didn’t take it too well. Very upset, poor man, you can imagine. Committed suicide. Honestly, I ask you. But poor Mabel…I nearly died when I saw the pictures of her. Mutilated she was – and, remember, she was such a beautiful woman, didn’t you think? No? Well, perhaps you’re right. Of course she never wore enough make up. And she had no taste whatsoever. But she was beautiful. Well some people thought so anyway. Herbie thought so. Absolutely unrecognizable she was.
That reminds me, dear, you know Alice’s husband, Jack? He has cancer too, you know. Nobody told you? Well I heard it’s terminal. The lymph glands, you know. Maybe one year, or two at the most. Of course Alice is such a sweet soul and she’s taking this terribly well. As well as can be expected under the circumstances. I felt very sorry for her, the poor woman. She doesn’t have any children, you know. So she’ll be all alone. No relatives either. I took out to lunch at the Four Seasons the other day. Poor dear she started crying halfway through the soup. Then she told me about the diagnosis. Well I am her best friend, you know. Waiter! Get me a packet of Marlboros. Sorry, dear, I’ll just die if I don’t have a cigarette. You don’t mind, do you?
You know my son, Herbie Jr.? He’s in a really bad way at the moment. Perhaps you remember that girl, what’s her name now? Sherry someone, I believe. She was quite sweet really. Well, he was going with her for a while and then they decided to get married last Christmas. I told him, of course, he’s far too young to get married. He’s only twenty-six, you know! But such a dear, dear boy. Well she, whatever-her-name-was, Sherry or something…well she died the other day. They don’t know what it was yet. Leukemia, maybe. I always thought she looked tubercular myself. An unhealthy looking girl, you know what I mean? I mean there was something about her. It was probably her eyes. You can always detect it in their eyes, can’t you? I noticed it immediately. But Junior wouldn’t listen to me. He’s heartbroken, of course, dear boy. It was a terrible shock for him. I wanted him to come over here with us, to get away for a while, but he refused. He can be very ungrateful at times. Care for a cigarette?
Oh, that’s right, I knew there was something else I had to tell you. It’s Herbie’s aunt, poor Elizabeth. She was so fond of you, you know. Yes, I did say, ‘was’. She passed away last week. She followed her husband after just one month. She put up with him until the end and then she had no time to enjoy life without him! Such bad luck some people have. You don’t know what agonies that woman went through as far as he was concerned. He treated her like dirt. We were all quite relieved for her when he finally passed away. We’d been wishing it for years actually. Nobody liked him – and she was such a saint! How she put up with him, I’ll never know. Well, he died a month ago from malaria. They’d spent some time in Africa, you know… on safari. Anyway he caught malaria while he was there and he was so bad they had to charter a plane to bring him back. He was in a coma when they arrived in New York and he died in the hospital. She sat with him the whole time, not moving from his side. She didn’t even sleep. Of course I hated to tell her she was wasting her time. I could see the end was near and he’d never regain consciousness.
I was there when she felt his heart had stopped beating and called a nurse. It was such an awful sight really, poor dear woman. And she was so calm. Then she kept repeating what a wonderful man he was. Really, I don’t know. And then she, herself, popped off last week, just like that! Last week! Too bad. I would have wanted to stay for the funeral but everything was just too pressing. You know our annual world trip and all the arrangements we’d made, we couldn’t possibly change them at the last minute. Although Herbie foolishly tried to insist we did. He kept saying, ‘well, she is my aunt, my last living relative, you know!’. Of course I managed to dissuade him.
My God, can’t they afford another air conditioner in here? I’m dying from this heat.
What did you say, dear? Oh, Herbie, He’s gone to collect my new dress. I fell in love with it. It’s so beautiful, you’ll die when you see it. Of course it’s the colour I fell in love with. That deep red, it’s very good for my complexion, you know. Red has always suited me. I really can’t wear those pale colours they make me look as if I’m dying of consumption. But that’s a really lovely dress you have on, Mildred. Did you get it here? Really? I must get one. Is it expensive? When I was told the price of mine I almost fainted. I was shattered, honestly. I could have died a thousand deaths. Well, of course, it was Herbie who nearly died when I presented him with the bill. You should have seen his face! I couldn’t help laughing! I asked him who had passed away!! But he didn’t find that very funny! I ask you, what a husband! No sense of humour!
Well I guess I should be used to that by now. I’ve lived with him for thirty years. I don’t know how I’ve stood it, really I don’t. But Herbie always said he’d die if I left him. He’s so helpless, you know. Can’t do a thing for himself. I don’t know why I married him, really I don’t. I can’t think of one good reason.
Well dear, it was so nice talking to you. I think I’ll have to rush back to the beauty parlour and have them redo my hair. I’m going to die of heat under that dryer again. But if I don’t go back I shall look so ghastly tonight I shall die of embarrassment. I must see you before I leave. What dear? Oh, in two days. We must chat again, it’s been lovely. Waiter! The check! What time is it? Four o’clock? Where the hell is Herbie? He said he’d be here at four o’clock with my new dress. My God, I’ll murder that man if he keeps me waiting. Goodbye dear, take care of yourself.”
As she sashays past my table, she savagely kills her cigarette in my ashtray. Her eyes meet mine for a second. And I overhear her whispers to herself. “My God that woman’s a mouse. Never said a word the whole time. But then she’s always been like that. My God, I’d probably die of shock if she ever opened her mouth to speak!”