Death, Dying, Grief and Mourning

            "Death is always the same,
                               but each man dies in his own way."

Carson McCullers, Clock Without Hands, 1960


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in Western Literature

An Anthology by  Adrienne Nater

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Death, Dying, Grief, and Mourning

in Western Literature


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Harold Robbins, A Stone for Danny Fisher, 1951


Danny’s Death

Danny’s Death:

There was a blaze of light and I could feel the car soaring into the air. I drew a deep breath, bracing myself for the crash, but it never came.

Instead I was a kid on a van moving into a new neighborhood. I could hear the gravel crunching under the wheels. It was daylight, bright daylight, and I couldn’t understand it.

Something had gone wrong. Time had run off its track. My mind wrestled crazily with the thought. It couldn’t be true. Things like this just didn’t happen. I was back at the beginnings of memory.

Then it was gone and I felt the steering wheel shatter. One moment I was looking stupidly at my hands holding onto the remnants of a wheel that was no longer a wheel, and the next moment I was flying crazily into a looming, leering darkness.

Somewhere deep in the silent, noiseless dark, someone was calling my name. It echoed hollowly, metallically, in my mind, the syllables rolling toward me like waves in the sea.

"Dan—ny Fish—er. Dan—ny Fish—er." Over and over again I could hear the voice calling me. Somehow I knew that I mustn’t listen to its siren song. I mustn’t listen to its sound. I mustn’t even hear it in my mind. Desperately I fought against it. I pushed hard and closed my mind to its echo. A sudden pain rushed through me and I tensed in the excruciating agony.

The pain grew stronger and stronger, and yet it was not a physical thing that I was feeling. It was a vague disembodied pain that floated through me like the air I used to breathe.

The air I used to breathe. Used to breathe. Why did I think that? The pain filtered into me again and permeated my consciousness, and my question was forgotten. I could hear my voice screaming in the distance. Its shout of agony was ringing in my ears. Slowly I slipped back toward the darkness again.

"Dan—ny Fish—er, Dan—ny Fish—er." I could hear the strangely soothing voice again. It was soft and gentle and held within it the promise of rest and peace and relief from agony and yet I fought against it, with all the strength I had never used against anything before. Again the voice faded from my mind and the pain returned.

How sweet the taste of pain when all else is gone from your body. How you cling longingly to the agony that binds you to the earth. You breathe the pain as if it were the sweetest air; you drink the pain with all the thirsty fibres of your being. You long for the pain that lets you live.

It was roaring sweet and agonizingly pungent inside me. The pain I loved and held so close to me. I could hear my distant voice screaming in protest against it and I was happy in the feeling. Anxiously I reached for it with my hands but could not hold it; for once again it slipped from me and I was plunging into the quiet, restful dark.

The voice was very close to me now. I could feel it in my mind as once before I had felt the pain in my body. "Why do you fight me, Danny Fisher?" it asked reproachfully. "I only come to give you rest."

"I don’t want to rest!" I shouted against it. "I want to live!"

"But to live is to suffer, Danny Fisher." The voice was deep and warm and rich and comforting. "Surely you must know that by now."

"Then go away and let me suffer," I screamed. "I want to live. There are so many things I have to do!"

"What is there for you to do?" the voice asked quietly. "Remember what you said a few short minutes ago? The words you spoke to your father: ‘There’ll be no regrets. I’ve had about everything there is to be had in life. I’ll have no complaints, no kicks coming.’"

"But a man says many things he doesn’t mean, " I cried desperately. "I’ve got to live. Nellie said she couldn’t go on without me. My son needs me."

The voice was as wise and as tolerant as time. It echoed hollowly through my mind. "You don’t really believe that Danny Fisher, do you?" it asked quietly. "For surely you must know that life does not cease to exist in others for any man."

"Then I want to live for myself," I wept. "To feel the firm soft earth beneath my feet, to taste the sweetness in my wife’s body, to take pleasure in the growing of my son."

"But if you live, Danny Fisher," the voice said inexorably, you will have none of these things. The body you once inhabited is smashed beyond repair. You will not see, you will not feel, you will not taste. You will be a shell that remains a living organism, a constant burden and agony to those you love."

"But I want to live!" I screamed, fighting against the voice will all my might. Slowly I could feel the pain returning to my being.

I welcomed it as a woman would welcome a long-absent lover. I embraced it and let it enter me. I could feel the sweetly welcome agony flowing through as the blood would flow. Then suddenly there was a moment of pure clean light and I could see again.

I was looking at myself, torn and twisted and shapeless. Hands were reaching toward me, but they stopped, frozen in horror, at the sight of me. Was there nothing left of me that might bring joy to someone’s heart? I looked closely down at myself. My face was clean. It was calm and still. There was even the remnant of a smile upon my lips. I looked closer.

My eyelids were closed, but I could see behind them. The hollow sockets stared vacantly at me. I turned in horror from myself. The tears were running through my mind, washing away all the strange new hurt.

The pain began to slip from me again as the light grew dim and the dark returned. The voice was once more at the gateway to my mind.

"Now, Danny Fisher," it said sympathetically, "will you let me help you?"

I pushed the tears from my mind. All my life had been a matter of bargain. Now there was time for just one more. "Yes," I whispered, "I will let you help — if only you can make my body whole that my loved ones do not turn from me in horror."

"I can do that," the voice replied quietly.

Somehow I knew that it would be done and that there had been no need for me to ask. "Then help me, please," I begged, "and I will be content."

There was a sudden loving warmth around me. "Rest then, Danny Fisher," the voice said softly. "Give yourself up to the quiet, peaceful dark and do not be afraid, It’s just like going to sleep."

I reached out confidently toward the dark. It was a friendly, loving kind of dark and in it I found warmth and love of all I ever knew. It was just like going to sleep.

The dark rolled around me in gentle swirling clouds. The memory of pain was dim and far distant now, and soon even the memory had gone. Now I knew why I had never known peace before.

I was content.

Danny’s Dead:

Chapter One

There are many ways to get to Mount Zion Cemetery. You can go by automobile, through the many beautiful parkways of Long Island, or by subway, bus or trolley. There are many ways to get to Mount Zion Cemetery, but during this week there is no way that is not crushed and crowded with people.

"Why should this be so?" you ask, for in the full flush of life there is something frightening about going to a cemetery — except at certain times. But this week, the week before the High Holy Days, is one of these times. For this is the week that Lord God Jehovah calls His angels about Him and opens before them the Book of Life. And your name is inscribed on one of these pages. Written on that page will be your fate for the coming year.

For these six days the book will remain open and you will have the opportunity to prove that you are deserving of His kindness. During these six days you devote yourself to acts of charity and devotion. One of these acts is the annual visit to the dead.

And to make sure that your visit to the departed will be noted and the proper credit given, you will pick up a small stone from the earth beneath your feet and place it on the monument so that the Recording Angel will see it when he comes through the cemetery each night.

You meet at the time appointed under an archway of white stone. The words MOUNT ZION CEMETERY are etched into the stone over your head. There are six of you. You look awkwardly at one another and words come stiffly to your lips. You are all here. As if by secret agreement, without a word, you all begin to move at once and pass beneath the archway.

On your right is the caretaker’s building; on your left, the record office. In this office, listed by plot number and burial society, are the present addresses of many people who have walked this earth with you and many who have walked this earth before your time. You do not stop to this of this, for to you, all except me belong to yesterday.

You walk up a long road searching for a certain path. At last you see its white numbers on a black disk. You turn up the path, your eyes reading the names of the burial societies over each plot section. The name you have been looking for is now visible to you, polished black lettering on gray stone. You enter the plot.

A small old man with a white tobacco-stained mustache and beard hurries forward to meet you. He smiles tentatively, while his fingers toy with a small badge on his lapel. It is the prayer-reader for the burial society. He will say your prayers in Hebrew for you, for such has been the custom for many years.

You murmur a name. He nods his head in birdlike acquiescence; he knows the grave you seek. He turns, and you follow him, stepping carefully over other graves, for space is a premium here. He stops and points an old, shaking hand. You nod your head, it is the grave you seek, and he steps back.

An airplane drones overhead, going to a landing at a nearby airport, but you do not look up. You are reading the words on the monument. Peace and quiet come over you. The tensions of the day fall from your body. You raise your eyes and nod slightly at the prayer-reader.

He steps forward again and stands in front of you. He asks your names, so that he may include them in his prayer. One by one you answer him.

My mother.

My father.

My sister.

My sister’s husband.

My wife.

My son.

His prayer is a singsong, unintelligible gibberish of words that echoes monotonously among the graves. But you are not listening to him. You are filled with memories of me, and to each of you I am a different person.

At last the prayer is done, the prayer-reader paid and gone to seek his duty elsewhere. You look around on the ground beneath you for some small stone. Carefully you hold it in your hand and, like the other, one at a time, step forward toward the monument.

Through the cold and snow of winter and the sun and rain of summer have been close to me since last you were here together, your thoughts are again as they were then. I am strong in each of your memories, except one.

To my mother I am a frightened child, huddling close to her bosom, seeking safety in her arms.

To my father I am a difficult son, whose love was hard to meet, yet strong as mine for him.

To my sister I am the bright young brother, whose daring was the cause of love and fear.

To my sister’s husband I am the friend who shared the common hope of glory.

To my wife I am the lover, who, beside her in the night, worshiped her at the shrine of passion and joined her in a child.

To my son — to my son I know not what I am, for he knew me not.

There are five stones lying on my grave and still, my son, you stand there wondering. To all the others I am real, but not to you. Then why must you stand here and mourn someone you never knew?

In your heart there is the tiny hard core of a child’s resentment. For I have failed you. You have never made those boasts that children wont to make: "My daddy is the strongest," or the smartest, or the kindest, or the most loving. You have listened in bitter silence, with a growing frustration, while others have said these things to you.

Do not resent nor condemn me, my son. Withhold your judgment, if you can, and hear the story of your father. I was human, hence fallible and weak. And though in my lifetime I made many mistakes and failed many people, I would not willingly fail you. Listen to me, I beg you, listen to me, O my son, and learn of your father.

Come back with me to the beginning, to the very beginning. For we who have been of one flesh, of one blood, and of one heart are now come together in one memory.




Adrienne Nater, 2008

©© 2008 Adrienne Nater. All rights reserved.