Why am I talking about Ivan Ilych again? It’s because of all those flags I set up over a month ago. This is . . . this is the series of blog posts I thought of on 9/11. Which I am writing now (timely, no?)
And it’s because Chris and I have been debating whether or not to have a deathbed scene in our movie. We’re thinking no.
The reasons for a deathbed scene are obvious — and exemplified by my students’ reactions to Ivan Ilych. People want a deathbed scene. In a movie, or a story, about a guy who’s dying, people expect a deathbed scene. Not only do people want a deathbed scene…they want that scene to play out a certain way. They want the characters to say certain things. They want the dying person to say that he’s had a good life. That everything is going to be okay. They want it recorded and they want some meaningful stuff to go down. They want to hear the last words. And a deathbed scene like the one in Ivan Ilych isn’t good enough. It’s good enough for Tolstoy and it’s good enough for Ivan and it’s good enough for God. But we don’t think it’s good enough for us.
I shouldn’t be surprised by my students’ disappointment. We have been taught to expect a deathbed scene. Movies have taught us. And life has taught us that we should hear, we should see, we should know everything. We live in the age of YouTube and Facebook and Twitter, and we expect to have an audience and to be an audience. We can keep tabs on everyone and publish our every passing thought if we want to:
Eating homemade tomato bisque. Yum!
Finally got some laundry started. Now to tackle the grocery store!
At work. Blah.
Is it even possible that our last words, our last moment, could slip by unnoticed? Unrecorded? Without ceremony? Is it possible that our parents could slip past us without an announcement? That our best friend could leave without warning? That a tree of life could fall when no one is around to hear it go?
(These are rhetorical questions.)
And there’s something in us, too…something good…that wants closure. That wants to wrap everything up. Wants to have a final soliloquy. Wants to receive a blessing. Wants to give a blessing. Wants to leave a legacy.
This is why we spend our lives practicing bequeathing. We hand down our clothes to younger siblings or cousins. We spend a lot of time in politics talking about what kind of country we’re going to leave our children — and we don’t only mean it metaphorically. Toy Story 3 is an entire movie about passing down a legacy…and nobody dies. We leave class gifts, inscribed with plaques to ourselves, and write last wills and testaments when we’re getting ready to graduate from high school.
We bequeath things that are not transferable.
I leave Stacy my sense of humor and my love of life.
We bequeath things that are not wanted.
I leave Josh my knack for getting on Ms. Erickson’s nerves.
We bequeath things that were never ours to begin with. We bequeath our borrowed things.
I leave Jennifer my spot in the lunch room and my favorite bench, right beside the art building.
All of this is normal and natural and lovely. So, I’m not saying that deathbed scenes make for a bad story. I am saying that they’re tricky. I am saying that they’re easy to get wrong. And, mostly, I’m saying that they’re not the only story.
Where were you when you last saw your dad? Your mom? Your spouse? Your brother or sister or best friend? Did you get a deathbed scene? Did you get last words that you knew were last words? Did you get your blessing?
Or were you taken by surprise? Did you get to the deathbed only to find that medicine or sickness or pain or mental clouding kept you from getting your blessing?
I began thinking of all this on 9/11.
When I read the last line of Peggy Noonan’s 9/11 column: “You’ve got to be loyal to pain sometimes to be loyal to the glory that came out of it.”
When I watched the coverage of the 10-year anniversary. Watched the 13-year-old son of Todd Beamer, the man who said “Let’s Roll!” just before United 93 crashed, speak at a ceremony in Washington.
And I thought: Imagine that. Imagine being the son of the man who said “Let’s Roll!” That is huge. That is some kind of legacy and some kind of last words from some kind of deathbed.
You see? I am not against last words or deathbeds. I am glad this son has his father’s last words. I am glad our country has his father’s last words. I am appropriately awestruck. But still. I can’t help thinking of Ivan Ilych. If the connection had gotten fuzzy. If the call center operator had dropped the call. If we had never heard “Let’s Roll!” Would Todd Beamer have been any less heroic?
And I can’t help thinking of my dad — who died alone, in his sleep, on 11/11, not 9/11. Who died after a fight of years, who displayed courage for years, not moments. I don’t have his last words. I don’t have his deathbed scene. And, since his death was just another local tragedy, no one has ever told me to be loyal to my pain. Some people have told me it’s time to move on. Some people have told me that my dad wouldn’t have wanted me to be so stuck. And I can’t even explain…I can’t even begin to explain…how unstuck I actually am. That this is the least stuck I’ve been in years.
But the question remains — deathbed or no deathbed? Last words or no last words? Blessing or no blessing? Jacob or Esau?
I say no deathbed. I say Esau. I know he isn’t the audience favorite. I know he sold his birthright. His initial blessing. But he got it eventually. And there’s something beautiful about the long road to redemption.
Continue to PART THREE