Not to get all Beckett on you, but life itself is a cursed thing, fated to end before all promise is fulfilled.
-- Charles Isherwood, “Alone on This Stage: Redgraves,” New York Times (March 22, 2009), “Week in Review”
I can die now.
-- Edson Arantes de Nascimento
In 1977 I heard him say it. Pelé had won everything there was to win in the beautiful game; had come out of retirement to play for three years in New York City; had won the North American championship; and now, as he retired for good, America was giving him back to Brazil, as his old team and his new one played a “friendly” match. He played the first half for Cosmos of New York. At the half he changed jerseys and blessed the crowd, surrounded by eighty thousand people who loved him. He would finish the game for Santos of São Paulo, and teammates would carry him around the stadium as he waved flags of both countries.
“I can die now.” It means I have everything I want, there’s nothing unresolved, this is my happy ending, if God would only take me now I’d have no quarrel. The trouble is, you don’t die now. You’re blessed if you ever get to say it, but saying it blows ripples on the perfect surface: life starts up again and you must die some other time, minutes or decades later, your happy end receding into memory. Timing is everything, and the flowers came too early.
It makes no sense how Natasha Richardson died. We don’t know how much she had of what she wanted, but when we think about her end, we know we wanted more: she was only forty-five years old, descended from the Redgraves, an honored English family of actors, in a country that knows how to honor actors. Her mother is Vanessa, and her grandfather was Michael, whom as a youth I saw tear up a West End stage with Ralph Richardson (not, alas, a relation of Natasha’s) in The Rivals.
It makes no sense, could not be anticipated. A fall that no one thought was serious. From that point on it sounds like my father’s death: terrible headache, collapse, coma, brain-death. But my father was eighty years old. It’s not supposed to happen now. We’re supposed to know it’s coming: if not from age, then course of sickness, or some occasion when she chooses mortal risk, on the face of a mountain perhaps, or on a barricade, or giving birth. Not flopping on a beginner’s ski-slope. It’s bad story-telling.
A. E. Housman wrote of an athlete who died young: “Now you will not swell the rout/Of lads that wore their honors out.” But there are alternatives. Though younger rivals who compared themselves to Pelé are already their own desecration, Pelé himself lives as an honored old man, ambassador of futbol, thirty-two years after saying that God could take him. So it’s possible, though difficult, to live and wear your honors well. And for some the honors are still to come: early death is for them the ultimate indignity. They will never be ready. Michael Redgrave’s grandchild won’t wear her honors out; but some of her honors, it seems, were yet to come. She never put them on. We grieve at the wreck of our hopes for her, and yet we do not know her hopes. She did not have what we wanted her to have – a glorious middle age and dowagerhood, under our eyes. She was never Dame Natasha. But did she have what she wanted? Had she said she could die now?
In hospice we learn that no one knows the time. It’s not like in the movies; not even doctors know. “Within twenty-four hours,” said a doctor last week. We called the priest. The family gathered. The granddaughter held her expiring grandma in her arms. The sacraments were read. Oil was placed on her forehead and palms. The priest and I prayed. A perfect scene. Then my shift was over. Two days later, she still lingered. All these years now, and I still have never seen a person die. They elude us, the rascals.
Goethe thought that if we picked the time we would lose our souls. The moment when Faust will say Stay, fleeting moment, you are enough, is the moment when Mephistopheles will seize him. That was the deal.
Not to worry though. It’s not so easy. Try it. Try to pick your moment. It flies before your index finger.
Now. . . . No, now. . . . No . . . then.