Family Business by David Rattray

BOMB 11 Winter 1985
011 Winter 1985
​Wendel A. White 001

Wendel A. White, black and white photograph. All images ©1982 by Wendel A. White.

On January 10, 1980, Bob Metzger, the doctor who had been treating my brother Joshua for several years, called me on the phone and announced, “It’s the end of the road for Joshua.” Metzger had just seen the chemotherapy specialist, and the two were agreed there was nothing more to be done. Joshua was in a daze, unable to put two sentences together. There was too little oxygen and too much carbon dioxide in his blood. The mechanism in the lungs that regulates the balance of the two had been impaired by the spread of the disease. I mentioned that the last time I’d seen Joshua he seemed stoned. Metzger replied, “He is stoned. On excess CO2.” He went on to say that he and Joshua’s wife Ruth had taken it upon themselves to bring him to the hospital, adding, “He’s no longer competent.”

I had just finished reading the Aphorisms of Hippocrates, in which the following appears: “Those diseases that medicines do not cure are cured by the knife. Those that the knife does not cure are cured by fire. Those that fire does not cure must be considered incurable.”

After Metzger hung up, I took the Lexington Avenue subway uptown to the hospital. Joshua was sitting up in bed. Ruth sat next to him, holding his hand, an untouched suppertray on the ledge nearby. He greeted me in friendly fashion, then looked away. His expression was like that of a man by himself on a train, or in a waiting room. On his lower lip there was a faint line of what appeared to be dried blood. He moved a bit and cocked his head at an angle suggesting scorn, or disdain. As if he were looking down his nose at death. His nose, our nose. The two of us have the same nose, I once heard it called “patrician.” We inherited that nose from our Dad, but on Dad it had looked anything but patrician. In later years Dad’s nose had always reminded me of Jimmy Durante’s.

Joshua pushed his chin forward, cleared his throat, and started, “Ruth, I … ” She tried to get him to finish the sentence. What did you say? He waved the question aside, then said, “Nothing.” This happened several times. Ruth left the room. I leaned forward and asked, “You want to leave the hospital?” His eyes meeting mine narrowed with concentration, he replied, “Dan, I’m at the end of my rope. I’ve reached it.” Then he stared at the wall. I didn’t answer. Then I told of plans to visit my friend Ruthven in Georgia and mentioned Bartram’s classic Travels in Georgia and the Carolinas. Its report of subterranean rivers in Florida was the source of Coleridge’s Alph the Sacred River in “Kubla Khan.” Joshua replied that he had heard of the book but never read it, would however very much like to. The conversation proceeded, in bursts of lucid utterance followed by spells of apparently tranquil silence. I was put in mind of De Quincey’s phrase, “blank mementoes of powers extinct.”

Twice he got up and sat in the chair, then got back on the bed. There was a bustle at the door. The specialist walked in, with two junior colleagues, to say goodbye, as it turned out. A man in his mid-fifties—a very large balding head with small, pinched features, glasses, long, fat-fingered hands, a white smock and a soft, fluent voice. Shaking hands with me, he turned to Joshua and launched into a paragraph-long sentence, an obscurely euphemistic preamble. I wondered if he realized Joshua wouldn’t be capable of making sense of it. I imagined Pavlov pronouncing a farewell address to an animal in the lab. At last the doctor gave his blessing to our plan to return to Maidstone immediately. He phrased it in such a way as to exonerate himself of all responsibility if it turned out badly.

At that point an astonishing thing happened. Joshua pulled himself to his feet and made a speech that must have lasted nearly a. minute, thanking the doctor and his staff for their efforts and kind offer to let him stay on at the hospital. Having weighed it in his mind he had decided to go home and fix himself a martini, instead.

Making the most of this, the doctor suggested that the “conquering hero” could rely on such teammates as Ruth and myself to make him an excellent martini. Oh no, he said, he liked to mix his own. Then he sat back down. The doctor told us to have oxygen in Maidstone. That could be done through the local ambulance service. Joshua interrupted, “Daniel will call and arrange for all that.” Once again, he stood up, indicating that the visit was over, and shook the doctors’ hands, with appropriate pleasantries to each. When they had left, he lay back down, exhausted.

With the bedside phone I called Carol to tell her I was going out to Maidstone. Ruth and I then left, to take a cab downtown to pick up her car where she had parked it on Ninth Street. As we passed, on our way out, through the ward where Joshua lay, there was a commotion around one of the beds, where a black man with all sorts of tubes in his arms and down his throat seemed to be going into death throes, and a stout woman in her Sunday best, who could have been his wife or sister, groaned and sobbed loudly, her face buried in a pillow that had been left on the bedside ledge. The thought crossed my mind that something similar was about to happen in our house, quite soon, the sooner the better, no doubt.

Downtown on Hudson Street, Ruth parked in front of the Parisienne Deli, and while she got sandwiches for us I went upstairs where Carol had packed a bag for me. As I left, Carol pressed a 20 in my hand. On our way back uptown, Ruth told of an unsuccessful attempt to persuade Bob Metzger to write a Miltown prescription. I urged her to stay off drugs, they would only make what was happening seem even worse than it was. She said she knew that was probably so, but there were times when the pain of it was so unbearable she craved anything that would give even a few minutes relief. She recalled an ex-neighbor who had, as she put it, “grinned from ear to ear” and laughed at her husband’s funeral, smashed on tranquilizers. She didn’t want that to happen.

On our arrival at the hospital, I sat in the driver’s seat, the motor running, because we had to park in the NO STANDING space directly in front of the door. The guards there, West Indians, tried to prevent Ruth from entering. She made a fuss. I could see her gesticulating on the other side of the glass wall, 50 feet away. At last, one of them picked up a phone, and after a further delay of several minutes she was admitted.

Next, Joshua was downstairs, being pushed in a wheelchair through the lobby to the door. At the street he stood up from the chair and, after pausing to thank the nurse’s aid, a good-looking woman, walked to the car, waving aside offers of assistance.

Stopping at a red light in Harlem, en route to the bridge, we watched a group of men crowding round an ashcan with a fire inside. Ruth wondered whether they were cooking something, or just staying warm. “Don’t ask,” came Joshua’s voice from the back seat, where we had imagined him already asleep.

Going over the bridge and the long causeway that rolls down from it parallel to the river, Joshua sat up straight and gazed at New York and its lights. The volume on the radio went up, and Bach’s Chaconne filled the car like a movie soundtrack, the kind of music that has often brought tears to my eyes, but under the present circumstances I was simply annoyed and hated it.

Soon we were passing Kennedy. Joshua was asleep. Arriving in Maidstone two hours later, we were greeted in the clear icy darkness by my sister Florrie and the two teenagers, Daniel and Peter, Joshua’s sons. I glanced up at the sky. The first stars I’d seen in months and they were all out.

Joshua walked the short little sidewalk to the house. That walk was installed when they still had the 1938 Chevy, just before the War, over a previous mudtrack. Daniel and Peter brought in the luggage. While they helped Joshua get settled, I went back to the kitchen and stepped out onto the screened porch where we’d had many a summertime breakfast and supper, the screening doubled waist-high with child-proof “elephant wire,” as Dad called it. We never used that porch in winter except to store Christmas turkeys and hams after the fact, making it a spot for midnight raids by the teenagers we were. I stood there, leaving the kitchen door ajar. It opened softly and Florrie was there next to me. I spent the next ten minutes hugging her as she sobbed, repeating over and over something Joshua had just said to her. I couldn’t understand what Florrie was saying. It occured to me that she was drunk.

Back inside, Joshua was sitting up in bed. He was in the same state as at the hospital, except that he had developed a wheeze and his breathing had become somewhat more labored. I concentrated on petting the cat that had jumped up on the bed, making him purr. I asked Joshua, “Is he the kind to purr and then scratch?” “Yes indeed,” he replied. Ruth and Florrie frequently paused from what they were doing, to come past the bed and kiss him or squeeze his hand. He liked that, and smiled every time. I wondered if there would be a blowup between the two women. Things were strained between them at the best of times.

I suggested to Ruth it would be a good idea for me to go home to Bendigo Road with Florrie. She agreed enthusiastically. She sent us off with admonitions to drive safely. “She must have thought I was smashed,” said Florrie 15 minutes later, under a night sky ablaze with planets and constellations, adding, “She was right. I am smashed.”

We talked for a couple of hours in the kitchen. Although on the wagon, I drank a can of beer. The words with Joshua that Florrie had sobbed out to me earlier had been a whispered, conspiratorial exchange, as she remembered it. She had asked him, “Josh, are you tired, really tired?” and he had replied, “Yes I am.” Yes, “Clear as a bell,” she said again and again.

She had jumped to the conclusion that he wanted us to give him an over- dose of something. When I was a kid, the newspaper term for this was “mercy killing.” Maybe it still is. I didn’t think Florrie was right. That is, I didn’t think Joshua was sufficiently alert to nuances to have caught the drift of that question, “Are you really tired?” On the other hand, the bond between my brother and sister was so close, it was conceivable that the faculty to communicate on unspoken levels had remained intact, despite his present state. Florrie’s ideas about this were based mainly on past events, however. In the first nights at the hospital long ago, after Grandma fell down her basement stairs with a stroke and cracked her skull, Florrie had had the opportunity to “pull the plug” and failed to do so. Grandma had lingered on another year, wretched and half-crazed. As Florrie said, “What little brains she had left went sour on her.”

Then there was the story of Aunt Flo. Florrie and Grandma spent a lot of time together a few years before Grandma’s accident, and despite a gap of 50 years the two women became close friends. Grandma was Uncle Dan’s first nurse at age 20 when he opened his medical practice in 1901. When Aunt Flo, her sister, was dying, sometime in the mid-’50s, Uncle Dan eased Flo out on morphine, according to Grandma. She watched him giving Flo progressively bigger injections. Nobody ever said anything about it at the time. Grandma told Florrie the story by way of a request for herself, should the need ever arise, so Florrie felt that she had let her grandmother down.

At this point, I told Florrie that Bob Metzger had given Ruth a bottle of morphine. Florrie said she thought that was a cop-out on his own responsibility toward Joshua, not only as his physician but as his friend. She asked if “it” could be put in Joshua’s food. I said it was well nigh impossible to administer a lethal dose of morphine orally, especially to a person who wasn’t eating or drinking much of anything. Besides, it tastes nasty. It works only if injected, preferably in a vein. “Nonsense,” Florrie interrupted. “Can you picture Ruth there, filling up the syringe?” I suggested we forget about the morphine. Nature would take its course.

The next morning I took the train back to New York, to work, and after work a judo class. I couldn’t keep my mind on it. My reflexes were slow. At supper with Carol, I felt uncomfortably distant. Ever since this began, I was spending much more time away from Carol than I had been expecting or wanting to. Also, impending death has a way of making her even more circumspect and reserved than she was ordinarily.

The next day was a Saturday. I learned from a telephone conversation with Florrie that Joshua’s state was unchanged. I decided to take the 7:58 AM train Sunday, to spend the day with him in Maidstone.

11 White 2 Body

During the train ride, I tried to summon up my earliest memories of him. 1939. I was three, he was seven. He got to go to the World’s Fair. I stayed home. They told me the fair was west, like the setting sun. I started, crosslots, through the fields, heading west, meaning to go the whole way on foot. I remember the vermillion disk, the sun in the trees.

In 1942, first year of the war and of victory gardens, our mother served as den mother to a group of Cub Scouts including Joshua. I wanted to be a cub, too. They told me I was under age. I crashed the meetings anyhow, only to be led away in tears. I tried to join them outdoors, after the meetings, but there too I was excluded. From this time on, I was an embarrassment. One day I made a scene in front of the other cubs and hit Joshua with a hatchet. He shouted furiously. I was told the Cain and Abel story. I imagined I had indeed attempted to murder my brother, being only one year short of the age of criminal responsibility as set forth by canon law.

Meanwhile, Grandpa Hedges showed his preference for Joshua, maybe because he was a redhead like himself when young, but more especially because he exhibited a knack for boat and water lore. By the time he was ten or 11, Grandpa was taking him out on seine-hauling and gunning expeditions. Joshua was already an apt pupil, a useful companion.

Another episode paralleled my attempt to walk from Maidstone to the World’s Fair. This happened when I was seven or eight. I was awakened in the middle of the night by a commotion in the next room, Joshua’s room, as he got up to leave for Grandpa’s house on Daniels Lane. It must have been three in the morning. They were to join a gunning party at Napeague. Lying there in the dark, I couldn’t bear it. I got up, put on my warmest clothes, and walked through the rainy night to Daniels Lane. They were already out in the barn, loading the trunk of Grandpa’s 1936 Dodge coupe with shotguns, decoys, and other gear. There were several other people, men and boys, present. My entrance created a sensation, and much laughter. Joshua flushed with anger. I don’t recall Grandpa’s reaction, but he couldn’t have been too pleased. I was taken home, where my parents gave me a lecture about how I couldn’t go because I wasn’t old enough. I was made to promise never to do it again. I never did. By the time I reached the age Joshua was on the morning of that scene, our grandfather was already dying.

The train raced past a parking lot in Babylon in which stood a hundred orange school buses. My thoughts drifted back to a conversation with Carol in New York City. She had remarked that there was anger in my voice when I spoke about Florrie’s going to pieces at Joshua’s homecoming three days before. According to her, I had sounded a heavily disapproving note. She said it was as if I were more than a bit frightened to see my big sister acting like a child. I ought to look at the situation from Florrie’s standpoint. Joshua was Florrie’s little brother, and it might well frighten her to be watching him die. I ought to bear in mind that unlike myself Florrie had been in the firing line for a long time with Joshua’s illness. I should go easy on her and consider that this whole thing was likely to stir up a lot of unexpected feelings in all of the nearest and dearest, including me. So, she concluded, “You had better keep an eye on yourself.” When she said that, I remembered something that had happened at the time of Joshua’s first operation, seven years earlier, when they removed the kidney that was the original site of the cancer. I wrote to the surgeon and offered myself as a transplant donor but was turned down for some reason relating to immune reactions. Carol was horrified when I told her about that letter. “There is only one person in the world,” she said, “just one I’d do that for, and that is you.”

 

At the Maidstone house I found a crowd of people, including Dorothy, a college friend of Ruth’s, who had come up from Washington, DC, to stay and assist. The boys were in and out of the house. In the middle of the day, Daniel climbed to the top of the 40-foot pine tree behind the house and looked at the ocean with binoculars. Descending, he told me he had been able to see a mile of beach between Main Beach and the bluff at the end of Egypt Lane. I went inside and told Joshua about Daniel’s exploit. “Knew it could be done,” he whispered in reply.

Sitting with him became unbearable. He was rarely altogether conscious and that only for seconds at a time. Mostly he stared blankly, at the same time groaning, muttering to himself, and wheezing. It seemed to be getting harder for him to breathe. I considered the abyss between the actual reality on the one hand and our everyday talk on the other. Confronted with the reality, there is little we can say. Art and literature may prepare us for many of the great experiences—love, for example. But there is nothing in art or literature to prepare us for death.

Florrie entered the room and asked me to go pick out some music for the stereo, preferably Mozart. He would like that. I chose a Mozart piano concerto. At one point during the first movement, Ruth leaned forward close to Joshua’s face. He smiled and puckered his lips for a kiss.

Things are said and done at a deathbed that would seem bizarre, or inappropriate, under any other circumstances. An instance of this was enacted by Florrie who after disappearing for a couple of hours returned with a piece of fresh seaweed from Cartwright Bay. With this she wet Joshua’s lips. He thanked her, and said it tasted good.

The night before, Ruth and Florrie had discussed the impending funeral. Ruth opposed cremation, although Joshua had once mentioned wanting it. At one point in the conversation, she suggested a memorial service for family and friends at Bendigo Beach, to be concluded with a fireworks display. Florrie talked her out of that.

In the middle of the night, Joshua said to Ruth, “I am lacking.” This cryptic statement she took to be a self-reproach for not being “strong” to the end.

Later in the day he woke up briefly. I told him I had read his latest column for the Maidstone Sun. Written barely two weeks earlier and now in galley proofs, it told of a crazy man who had recently walked into the Southampton police station brandishing a shotgun. Surprisingly, the cops had managed to subdue him without injury to anyone. I congratulated Joshua on the column, assuring him that it was a marvelous piece of writing. In reply he chuckled self-deprecatingly, “Yeah, that was really something …” I couldn’t tell how much of this was automatic, reflex-action affability and how much of it represented real presence of mind. He was making sense only in response to things said to him, but seemed to have lost the power to initiate, to say something on his own. Early that afternoon, he had said to Ruth, “Leave me alone.” In the context, he might just as well have intended to say, “Don’t leave me alone.” Whichever was meant, Ruth broke down and cried, at which he seemed momentarily to focus on her distress and said, “Hush, hush!”

At suppertime, Florrie brought in a chowder she had made from some Cartwright Bay mussels. Joshua declined to touch it. A bit later, Ruth gave him a few spoonfuls of ice cream. Shortly after that, she had a telephone conversation with Bob Metzger in New York. He told her not to feed Joshua anymore, and not to give him much to drink, either, because it would only lead to pain later on. At the same time, he warned Ruth that there was a possibility of seizures. Seizures were always a possibility in uremic poisoning, which was bound to set in, or, to be more precise, had already set in. Sitting alone with Joshua after the conversation with Bob Metzger, I noticed a solitary tear streaming down his cheek. He was flushed, breathing with difficulty, staring at me, and groaning. I put my hand on his shoulder and squeezed. Whether he knew what was going on, I couldn’t say.

11 White 3 Body

The end didn’t come until the next day, sometime between six and seven in the evening, and I wasn’t there, having gone back to New York. A few minutes after five, on my way out to a judo class, I spoke with Florrie on the phone and she told me Ruth had just noticed a change. Joshua’s pulse had sunk very low, and he was getting cold. She still expected him to last through the night. However, when I came home from judo, Florrie called to say Joshua was dead. During the hour following our previous conversation, he had sunk steadily lower until very cold and breathing hardly at all. Finally, they could feel no pulse. All at once, the color drained out of his cheeks, which had been flushed with the effort of breathing. There were two or three more breaths. “But,” Florrie added, “those were mere reflex actions. He was already dead, I am convinced of that …” His eyes remained open, as they had been for hours. Ruth couldn’t bear it. Suddenly she said, “Joshua, close your eyes!” Then she turned to Florrie and said, “Close his eyes. I can’t stand to see his eyes like that.” Florrie put her hand across his eyes, with the thumb and forefinger pressing his brows, merely covering them without making any attempt to push down the lids. She kept her hand there a minute, at the same time trying to soothe Ruth. At length, Ruth turned away and Florrie lifted her hand to glance at Joshua’s eyes, wondering how she was going to go about closing them. To her amazement they were closed. Had he heard Ruth at the last instant and closed them himself? This seemed unlikely. Florrie speculated that the closing of Joshua’s eyes represented yet another “reflex.” Or, possibly, the warmth of her hand had somehow caused them to close.

It occurred to me that even while dying, Joshua’s waking and sleeping hours, as well as his rising and falling phases of vitality, coincided with the day-night cycle. He always slept at night and stayed awake by day. Even that last day, his final glimmerings were in the morning and at midday. All that day a passage from the Bible rang in my mind: “And Joshua said, ‘Sun, stand thou still at Gibeon, and thou Moon in the valley of Aijalon.’” And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed. And there was no day like that before or since.”

The terminal plunge into deep sleep coincided with the coming of night. This is what Hippocrates says about the actual instant of death:

The boundary of death is passed when the heat of the soul has risen above the navel to the part above the diaphragm, and all moisture has been burned up. When lungs and heart have cast out the moisture of the heat that collects in the places attacked by disease, there passes away all at once the breath of the heat, wherefrom the individual was originally constituted, out into the universe again, partly through the flesh and partly through the breathing organs in the head, whence we call it the “breath of life.” And the soul, leaving the tabernacle of the body, gives up the cold, mortal image to bile, blood, phlegm, and flesh.

In the above there is more than a hint of transcendence, I feel. As the Commentary points out, it is an obscure passage, but the gist seems to be that the warm life of the individual gets reabsorbed at death into the warmth of the cosmos. Over that last week I had observed the entire process closely, and there was nothing about any ofiIt that could be described as “transcendent,” with one possible exception, a little incident that was later described to me. A fellow Naval officer stopped in to say hello, or rather goodbye, to Joshua a day or so before the end. This man had taught him how to fly, in a Navy training plane, in the sky over the Pacific and the San Diego base. His presence in the sickroom triggered luminous memories, and for some minutes Joshua talked nonstop in what everyone except the man who had taught him to fly took for delirium. He imagined the two of them were flying in a perfectly cloudless sky and began ticking off the main features and landmarks of the vista several thousand feet below, the islands on the horizon to the west, the brown coastline of Baja California, and so forth. For a few seconds there was something like exuberance in his voice. It had the ring of the 22 year old he had been at the time of the actual experience.

The day before the funeral found me still in New York. At a gallery on Fifty-seventh Street there was an opening that I wanted to attend, a show titled “ADS” by Les Levine. My friend Giancarlo agreed to meet me there at 6:00. A few moments after his arrival, I ran into Michael Codrescu, the author of an article on my brother-in-law’s paintings that appears in the Akademie der Künste catalogue I had just finished translating. We decided to go over to the Parsons. As we moved out of the crowd of art world people, down an elevator, and into the noisy street, to thread our way single-file through a sort of catwalk on the edge of a construction site, Michael said he had just heard that my brother had died. He went on to talk about a book titled The Meaning of Illness, by the psychiatrist Georg Groddeck, who viewed cancer as a psychosomatic syndrome, a view of the matter that he, Codrescu, also considered to be correct. I wondered whether he was saying all that to make me feel bad, or because unusually insensitive, or perhaps out of honest conviction.

I decided to leave New York immediately for Napeague. I spent the night in the room where I always stay, on the second story of Florrie’s house, overlooking Cartwright Bay. The room is bitter cold in winter. I love it anyway. I wrapped up to the ears in blue bedsheets and three blankets.

Over breakfast, my brother-in-law Harold went over my translation of the German introduction to his new catalogue. There were minor points to be cleared up. Florrie was annoyed to see us, her husband and her brother, occupied with a catalogue on the day of our brother’s funeral. Not very annoyed. Just a bit. Harold said, “Do you remember what we were doing the week Anne Hedges McCormick died, and the day of her funeral?” “Yes,” I replied, “The day Mom died we were working on my American translation of your Lehmbruck Museum catalogue.” “Right,” Harold said, “I wondered if you had noticed the coincidence.” I had in fact imagined I was the only one to notice it.

 

When we got to Maidstone, I was told that they wanted me to read a poem by John Hall Wheelock at graveside. I went to the Sun building, got out the Wheelock books, and took them into Joshua’s private office there. I found a ten-line poem titled “Silence.”

Back at the house, the pinewood coffin had a wreath, made by Florrie the day before, of seven white roses, three daisies, some baby’s breath, and pine boughs laid on top of it. I was one of the pallbearers. We actually carried the coffin, a plain box made by a carpenter friend of Joshua’s only three days earlier, four times. From the house to the hearse. From the street to the church door. Then after the service, from the church steps back to the hearse. And finally at the cemetery, from the hearse to the grave. The pallbearers at either end of the coffin lifted it on carrying sticks. Those in the middle steadied it with their hands. Going down the aisle and coming out, we marched with it mounted on a stainless steel frame with wheels, our hands on the coffin lid. Ruth and the boys, together with Florrie, marched immediately behind us. At the church door I noticed the 16 year old Daniel Hedges McCormick behind me, almost at my elbow, weeping bitterly.

In the street, once the coffin was inside the hearse, various people came up to kiss and shake hands. It was a fairly warm day for January. A light rain was falling. I noticed a tremor in my face and hands. I wondered if this was the spectacle people had come for. A middle-aged woman, heavily made up, with blue eyeshadow and lavender lipstick, introduced herself as Joshua’s highschool classmate who, in the Senior Variety Night Revue, had sung, or rather, lip-synched to a record, as I still vividly remembered, “I can’t give you nothing but love, ba-by …” That would have been in 1948. She had no way of knowing it, but her rendition of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” had haunted me for 20 years. I wouldn’t know why, it was just one of those things.

Bob Metzger and his friend Pat interrupted this colloquy to ask if they could “hitch a ride” with me to the cemetery. I led them over to Harold’s car, where the three of us sat in the back seat, awkwardly jammed together. I had thought there would be two in front, but in the end it was only Harold, driving as if he were our chauffeur. Bob Metzger and Pat held hands all the way to the cemetery. My thoughts flashed back to a summer day six months earlier, on a picnic with Joshua at (or as older people including Grandpa used to say, “on”) Montauk, when Metzger and Pat and I went skinny-dipping in the bay, much to the amusement of the others.

As the car swung into the cemetery, I glanced at the names on the stones nearest the road. It seemed that every one was a family name well known to me. Arriving at the grave, we placed the coffin on a contraption with straps to lower it into the hole, which was in the center of a square of Astroturf. Several baskets of funeral wreaths surrounded the coffin. The crowd looked expectantly at me. Before I had a chance to start reading the poem, Peter caught my attention and asked me to remove the flowers from in front of the coffin. “They look horrible,” he said. They did look horrible. I moved them. Then I turned and faced the crowd. After a long silence I shouted, “I’m going to read a poem by John Hall Wheelock … ‘Silence’ …” I wondered if anybody in the crowd thought I was calling for silence. Mortified at the thought of the pointlessness of what I was doing, I read off the poem in a voice big enough to be heard by all of the several hundred persons present.

As soon as I finished, Mr. Richards, the funeral director, pressed a button on the contraption, and the coffin was automatically lowered into the ground. This happened with excruciating slowness. We stood there until the coffin disappeared. Then everyone dispersed, and we returned to the house, where a large crowd was given food and drink.

Among the guests was a very old black man who had come uninvited. He had worked at the Napeague fish factory, he explained, at a time when our grandfather Captain Joshua Hedges used to bring little Josh to the dock and buy him a Peter Paul Mound from the company store. Also, the man had had a lot of trouble paying his water bills. So, knowing Captain Hedges was President of the Water Company, he had approached him to ask for more time to pay the bill. Captain Hedges had said that he would speak to Miss Garrupie and get it taken care of. And, would you believe it, the man never got another bill from the Water Company. All thanks to Captain Josh, Captain Hedges that is. So today he had thought he would come by and pay his respects. As I listened, Florrie kept the man’s glass filled with bourbon and ginger.

Still on the wagon, I didn’t take a drop of alcohol. Just about everyone else did. At one point an old woman walked up and informed me that I was “a dramatically romantic-looking man.” The carpenter who had made Joshua’s coffin came over and asked me, in front of Ruth and several others, if I was a black sheep. Ruth said, “Oh no, he is ‘The Count,’ the romantic aristocrat, the poet.” After a couple of hours, I rode back to New York with Jane Poe, a granddaughter of Uncle Dan Hedges.

That night I had two dreams about Joshua. In one of them I was an old man living alone at the Hotel Chelsea. It turned out that Joshua was not dead at all, but had remained the same age he was when we first thought him dead, 47. I visited him in a loft in Soho, which he was sharing with a young woman I had never met. Joshua was a forever youthful-looking 47, whereas I had gone on aging and was now much older than him. He and his Soho girlfriend invited me to stay for a drink. I complained of the rigors of living at the Chelsea. In the other dream I opened a new rock and roll album and discovered that the lyrics were by John Hall Wheelock. One of the songs was titled “Silence.”

A month or so after the events I have just described, one sunny weekend in February, I spent a couple of days at Napeague with Florrie. On Sunday afternoon, we went on a hike over the meadows, into the woods and through a swamp, out to a beach near Islay. From there we walked back to her house along the edge of a Cartwright Bay half-frozen like the Arctic Ocean in summer, brightly roiling under a high wind. In the woods, however, there had been no wind, but great patches of sunlight in amongst the scrub oak and pines. We were looking for a bottle dump. We found plenty of bottles but not a single good old one. As we searched among the half-buried bottles, Florrie told me a bit about the last week before they had realized Joshua was dying. She mentioned that he had found a pretty little medicine bottle out in the Northwest Woods, while looking for a tree just before Christmas. He had been so out of breath he could barely walk. At one point he had sat down to rest on a bank of frozen moss. It was there that his hand had happened to alight on the little medicine bottle. It now stands on the mantelpiece in the Maidstone house.

I asked Florrie exactly when it was that she had become aware of Joshua’s final decline. She said no special time, he’d simply started sleeping more and more, really an inordinate number of hours every night, with long naps during the day. Ice cream sodas or milkshakes were his only nourishment for weeks. Apart from that, he had no appetite. During the last week before he died he probably ate nothing at all, save for an occasional spoonful of ice cream. On our way out of the woods, we bushwhacked through a frozen swamp. Neither of us had any idea of where we really were, but that didn’t seem to make any difference. As we pushed forward, Florrie told me how Harold had once panicked, or nearly panicked, when they got lost in the woods near the Maidstone airport. It had started to rain, night was coming on, and Harold was scared. Florrie and I are similar in one respect and different from most other people. Neither of us has ever been afraid of getting lost in the woods.

11 White 4 Body

Wendel A. White, black and white photograph. All images © 1982 by Wendel A. White.

To The Blue Wall by David Rattray
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Originally published in

BOMB 11, Winter 1985

Ralph Humphrey, John Jesurun, art by Amanda Means, David Salle, Julian Schnabel, Eric Fischl, Jackson Pollack, writing by Luc Sante, Kimiko Hahn, Tim Dlugos, and more.

Read the issue
011 Winter 1985