Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Dying of the Light

for K.H.

It had been more than a few years since I searched for you. I plugged your name into the search engine generating 43 million hits. “Remembering Karl and Marisa…Karl Heiss…Marisa Bauducco-Heiss…taken from us far too soon…fatal traffic accident…Olympia, Washington, October 3, 2008…11-year-old daughter, Aliana, suffered brain injury…6-year-old son, Alden, severe case of whiplash…southbound Subaru braked for slowing traffic, but lost control and went across the median, under the cable barrier and into northbound lanes. The car struck the semi-truck head on.” I slumped in my chair. We were best friends in college, you with your trumpet and me on piano. Then, we decided together that a music career wasn’t for us, so we switched to creative writing and English. The only recording session I did as a musician, you produced. You published one of my stories in your magazine.

Now, you are gone, dying with your wife on a lonely stretch of Interstate 5.

* * * *

“How are your blood sugar numbers?” the doctor asked me.

“They’ve been high lately. In the two hundreds.”

He looked up from writing his notes. “Why?”

“It’s my fault. I am not sticking with the program.”

“What can I do to help you?”

I felt my throat muscles tightening. “I am anxious all the time now. My body hurts, and I have constant headaches. I am worried about my financial situation, worried about the future.” My voice trailed off as I studied the floor of the exam room.

“You are not answering my question,” he insisted. “What can I do to help you? I am concerned about your decreased kidney function, your heart. You have to get your sugars under control.”

“Look, my mom died at 62 from diabetes, multiple sclerosis. I mean, I already have some of the complications she had, and they are irreversible. I don’t know if I can fight anymore.”

“Paul, this doesn’t have to end in death.”

Wrong, doc, I thought. It all ends in death. Everything ends in death.

* * * *

I can’t stop thinking about you, all day at work, Thursday, Friday, at home on the weekend. What went through your mind as you slid toward death on the highway? What did you feel? The articles all say you died instantly. What does that mean? You must have felt something. There is no way death is instantaneous. The heart would convulse one last time, even while being crushed. It would have taken a few seconds at least for the oxygen to leave your brain. Even people who are guillotined live a few seconds after the head is separated from the body.

And where are you now? Do you inhabit a different dimension? Are you in the house you built for your family in Idaho? Do you walk the highway where you died? Are you on the beach in Malibu where you grew up? At the bottom of the world in Argentina where your children now live with your wife’s family?

* * * *

Sister Joseph Adele Edwards, CSJ, died on Christmas day. We worked together for the last year and a half at the college. She had worked at Mount St. Mary’s for fifty years. English teacher, administrator, and in retirement, writing tutor at her desk near mine in the learning center. She called her writing students “customers,” and greeted them with a light in her eyes that belied her seventy-eight years. Only when she came to work and left for home did we see the thin, bird-like frame of her body, her fragility, her careful maneuvering around students and tables so she would not fall.

Then, late last school year, as spring was in full flower, she did fall. Her driving privileges were taken away, and she was moved to the convent on campus so she could receive medical supervision. From there, she began to decline. This past summer, she was diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and her physical abilities quickly deserted her. She came to the center in November to visit, and the staff had to carry her into the building. Her chin rested on her chest, and her hands were flattened out, the fingers curled at the tips. We crowded close to her to hear her thin voice. Her body had failed her, but in her eyes, we all saw her steely resolve. Sister Joseph Adele was a tough cookie. She would not go down without a fight.

A few days before Christmas, several of us went to see her. She was now under hospice care. She had stopped eating, and the decision had been made to give her intravenous fluids but not to insert a feeding tube. We talked to her, told her news and gossip, wished her a Merry Christmas. She wandered in and out of consciousness, sometimes appearing to register what we were saying, but other times drifting away. A few days later, while watching Mass on television, she died.

At her funeral, the Bishop read from the Gospel of Luke: “He said to his disciples, Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life and what you will eat, or about your body and what you will wear. For life is more than food and the body more than clothing. Notice the ravens: they do not sow or reap; they have neither storehouse nor barn, yet God feeds them. How much more important are you than birds! Can any of you by worrying add a moment to your lifespan? If even the smallest things are beyond your control, why are you anxious about the rest?”

I stared at the high, beamed ceiling of the church. I thought of the dead; so many have gone before. Where are they now? Many of the people around me at Sister’s funeral were looking at their own mortality. I was looking at my own mortality. Not knowing what happens when we die has preoccupied me for months, and I was no closer to any answers. Of course, how could there be an answer.

Sister Joseph Adele touched so many lives—students, teachers, community members. They shared their stories of her. I kept thinking about the last time I saw her. Next to her bed, on the window ledge, were pictures of her parents in Texas, her beloved San Antonio Spurs basketball team, her early days of pre-Vatican II religious life wearing the full habit. She was both a Texan and a Californian. On that ledge her entire life could be traced, and lining the floor underneath were boxes of papers and books, a lifetime of work in an academic institution. Where would all that life go now?

At the end of the funeral Mass, the small choir sang the Irish Blessing. It was my grandmother’s favorite prayer. “May the road rise up to meet you. May the wind be ever at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face. May the rain fall soft upon your fields. And until we meet again, may God hold you in the hollow of his hand.” Sister Joseph Adele, my grandmother, my mother—I suddenly felt aware of all of history, all of the dead, the past, present and future colliding and losing their boundaries and lines becoming blurred.

* * * *

Do you remember that recording session? It was a demo tape for a middle-aged guy who wanted a second career as a lounge singer. He sounded like Jim Morrison of the Doors. He was not purposely imitating Jim Morrison of the Doors. He wanted to be Frank Sinatra. The cassette tape of the session is in a box in storage now.

When we were young writers starting out, you decided to avoid the slush pile and start your own magazine: Hippo Magazine. Typed and edited on an early desktop computer, you printed it up at Kinko’s or someplace and put together a mailing list. I have the issue with my story in it: “Vernal and Summerly ish, 1990.” I page through it and hear your voice in the words. Inside the front cover, you handwrote to me: “Hello, Paul. Hippo’s here and Karl is elsewhere. More info later. All the best, Karl.”

I turn to the “Hippeople” section, your authors’ bios. For me, you wrote: “Paul L. Martin—Northridge, CA. Paul teaches at a Catholic elementary school where he spends his time stunning the nuns by actually inspiring the children to think about life and—sometimes—even God!”

I always wanted you to be a teacher. I wanted to teach alongside you, because I knew you would have been great at it. You would have inspired me and your students. But you were still finding yourself and your trajectory through life. You lived everything on your own terms, never compromising. I wish I could talk to you now. To be honest, I feel a little lost, jagged, bruised. Things have changed so much, and I am no longer sure of the path.

I cannot see the type in the magazine anymore. The colors run and fade, the light grows dim.

* * * *

My father called me the other night. We have not spoken or seen each other for a few years now. We make a date for the next evening to get together. When I arrive at the house where I used to live, I find that he has remodeled it, added a bathroom and family room, expanded the kitchen. It looks nothing like the house of my memory, and the feeling is disorienting. My father is bent and twisted, and struggles to walk across the room. Years spent in a physically destructive and demanding job have taken their toll. He looks so much older than his 71 years.

When we speak, his syntax is as twisted as his body. He struggles to find words, loses his train of thought, stutters. I am frustrated because I cannot even guess what he is trying to say to help him out. As we move through the evening, I am quite sure he has had a stroke. In his words as I decipher them, I still hear a bit of the passive-aggressive behavior I have recognized in the past. He tells me that all of his brothers, sisters, cousins, and friends got together for his seventieth birthday. I, his eldest son, was absent. I don’t say anything, but I think about all the birthdays I have had where he did not acknowledge the date. I think about all the things that have happened in my life in recent years of which he did not take part. I needed a father, and he was absent. A relationship between a father and son runs both ways. I was never the son he wanted, and I was certainly the child he understood the least. In the same breath I am sorry about that and angry. I love him, even though he can be ignorant and narrow minded. I love him for working seven days a week for most of my life to support his family, to keep his kids in Catholic schools. I love him because he was once strong. I love him because he is my father. I recognize him in some of my habits, my movements, my life. But we will never be close because he cannot deal with my emotions, my intensity, my need for a life of the mind. I don’t follow sports. I don’t work in a factory with my hands. Inadvertently, I sometimes make him feel inadequate or unintelligent. Yet he has called on me when he needs someone to parse the language of his retirement accounts, or when he needed to redraft his will after my mother died.

We sit in his remodeled house and talk about what has happened in our lives over the years since we last spoke. He asks after my health, but I do not tell him what the doctor has told me. I don’t think he wants to know, not because he does not care, but because after burying his mother and father, his two brothers, his wife, he does not want to contemplate burying his son. We stay with safer subjects—remembering when I delivered the newspaper, our various neighbors over the years, and the latest good news from other family members. As I leave the house that does not resemble the house of my memories, he insists that we must talk more, go to dinner soon, and keep in touch. In his voice I hear a note of panic; he means what he says and is afraid I won’t keep to my part of the bargain, that I will disappear back into my life and he will not hear from me again. He does not have to worry. Even though he is not the father I need, and I am not the son to whom he can relate, I will not let anymore years go by without contact. Even though I struggle to understand his words as he fails to understand who I am, I will work to keep our connection, because years fly away like birds in winter, and he is my father.

* * * *

Do you remember when we took that logic class together? You tried to teach me, but I could not comprehend the readings. “If A is B and B is C, A must equal C.” Sure. Right. We used to study in the cafeteria on the top floor of that building. I was thick headed, and some of my answers made you laugh.

Karl, you were the better musician. You were the better writer. You were just better. I do remember only one time when I could help you. Do you remember when you broke up with the girl you were seeing, and out of anger, you put your hand through a plate glass store window? The cuts on your hand and arm severed the nerves and left you unable to play your trumpet and guitar as effectively. We talked about your anger. You told me you did not think you’d fall in love again, a young man’s retort in the face of rejection. I am glad you found Marisa. Although I never met her, I am sure she made you happy. And I am relieved that you died together. If the next life is one where we can be with those we love, it must have been some comfort to arrive there together. But of course, this is only conjecture. We really do not know what happens when we die, although the poets, saints and philosophers try to teach us something of their theories of the other side.

This is where my burning questions live, Karl. Where do we go when we die? Could you ever be at peace knowing your son will grow up without you, or that your daughter is severely brain damaged? Were you able to let go of what was and move on? I don’t think I could. What bothers me more is that here in this life, I long to talk to you again, or to hug my grandmother, or to tell my mother I did love her, even though we rarely found common ground in the last years of her life. You, and they, are elsewhere, and I miss all of you and regret the lost years. I should have tried to contact you. I should have done so many things, and I didn’t, and that is the tragedy of middle age: realizing there are things you should have done and now you have lost the opportunity to do them.

* * * *

During my lunch breaks at the college, I often go to sit in the chapel on campus. It is cool and quiet there, and I can close my eyes and meditate. Sometimes I see my grandmother kneeling in a pew ahead of me, her head bowed and the veil covering her hair. She does not turn to look at me, but I know she is aware that I am there. In the side aisle, I often see my mother, standing and looking at me. She does not smile, but I know she recognizes me. Both figures fade in and out of my reality, like a distant radio signal.

Through the open doors of the chapel, I can hear the voices of students—laughing, teasing, sharing gossip. They have years ahead of them, stretching to infinity. They firmly believe they will never die, and they cannot wait to seize the world and make it their own. I cannot teach them the way life has strict borders, the way that the years flash by. To understand the finite nature of existence one must live it. So it is a paradox that human beings do not recognize the limitations of their years until they approach the end. Then, as Dylan Thomas wrote, they rage against the dying of the light.

I come back to life in the darkness of the chapel. Somewhere in the distance, a door slams in the wind. I stand, straighten myself out, and walk out into the brilliant light of January. As I make my way down the steps, I see Santa Monica Bay, the water like glass. I feel the wind on my face. The sky is an intense, forever blue. For now, the light is clean, strong, and true.

As night follows day, I know that existence is transitory, and that death is the end of life. Questions cannot always be answered, but that does not mean we should ever stop searching. I will look for those I have lost in the faces of those I meet. I will listen for their voices in the wind. I will continue to question this life, even though the answers may never come. That is something with which we all must live until the day we pass “into that good night.”


  1. Posts like this are why I continue to read your blog, Mr. Martin. This was beautifully poignant. I hope you're doing well.

    Best wishes,

  2. And I am honored that you take the time to read my work, Shahe. How's the college prospects coming along? Happy New Year, and know that I miss you and all your classmates. Take care, and give my best regards to your family.


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