James has cancer. Catherine has cancer. Melvin has AIDS. Whom will I call, and get no answer? My old friends, my new friends who are old, or older, sixty, seventy, take pills before or after dinner. Arthritis scourges them. But irremediable night is farther away from them; they seem to hold it at bay better than the young-middle-aged whom something, or another something, kills before the chapter's finished, the play staged. The curtains stay down when the light fades. Morose, unanswerable, the list of thirty- and forty-year-old suicides (friends' lovers, friends' daughters) insists in its lengthening: something's wrong. The sixty-five-year-olds are splendid, vying with each other in work-hours and wit. They bring their generosity along, setting the tone, or not giving a shit. How well, or how eccentrically, they dress! Their anecdotes are to the point, or wide enough to make room for discrepancies. But their children are dying. Natalie died by gas in Montpeyroux. In San Francisco, Ralph died of lung cancer, AIDS years later, Lew wrote to me. Lew, who at forty-five, expected to be dead of drink, who, ten years on, wasn't, instead survived a gentle, bright, impatient younger man. (Cliché: he falls in love with younger men.) Natalie's father came, and Natalie, as if she never had been there, was gone. Michèle closed up their house (where she was born). She shrouded every glass inside — mirrors, photographs — with sheets, as Jews do, though she's not a Jew. James knows, he thinks, as much as he wants to. He's been working half-time since November. They made the diagnosis in July. Catherine is back in radiotherapy. Her schoolboy haircut, prematurely grey, now frames a face aging with other numbers: "stage two," "stage three" mean more than "fifty-one" and mean, precisely, nothing, which is why she stares at nothing: lawn chair, stone, bird, leaf; brusquely turns off the news. I hope they will be sixty in ten years and know I used their names as flares in a polluted atmosphere, as private reasons where reason obtains no quarter. Children in the streets still die in grandfathers' good wars. Pregnant women with AIDS, schoolgirls, crack whores, die faster than men do, in more pain, are more likely than men to die alone. What are our statistics, when I meet the lump in my breast, you phone the doctor to see if your test results came? The earth-black woman in the bed beside Lidia on the AIDS floor — deaf and blind: I want to know if, no, how, she died. The husband, who'd stopped visiting, returned? He brought the little boy, those nursery- school smiles taped on the walls? She traced her name on Lidia's face when one of them needed something. She learned some Braille that week. Most of the time, she slept. Nobody knew the baby's HIV status. Sleeping, awake, she wept. And I left her name behind. And Lidia, where's she who got her act so clean of rum and Salem Filters and cocaine after her passing husband passed it on? As soon as she knew she phoned and told her mother she had AIDS but no, she wouldn't come back to San Juan. Sipping café con leche with dessert, in a blue robe, thick hair in braids, she beamed: her life was on the right track, now. But the cysts hurt too much to sleep through the night. No one was promised a shapely life ending in a tutelary vision. No one was promised: if you're a genuinely irreplaceable grandmother or editor you will not need to be replaced. When I die, the death I face will more than likely be illogical: Alzheimer's or a milk truck: the absurd. The Talmud teaches we become impure when we die, profane dirt, once the word that spoke this life in us has been withdrawn, the letter taken from the envelope. If we believe the letter will be read, some curiosity, some hope come with knowing that we die. But this was another century in which we made death humanly obscene: Soweto El Salvador Kurdistan Armenia Shatila Baghdad Hanoi Auschwitz Each one, unique as our lives are, taints what's left with complicity, makes everyone living a survivor who will, or won't, bear witness for the dead. I can only bear witness for my own dead and dying, whom I've often failed: unanswered letters, unattempted phone calls, against these fictions. A fiction winds her watch in sunlight, cancer ticking bone to shards. A fiction looks at proofs of a too-hastily finished book that may be published before he goes blind. The old, who tell good stories, half expect that what's written in their chromosomes will come true, that history won't interject a virus or a siren or a sealed train to where age is irrelevant. The old rebbetzen at Ravensbruck died in the most wrong place, at the wrong time. What do the young know different? No partisans are waiting in the woods to welcome them. Siblings who stayed home count down doom. Revolution became a dinner party in a fast-food chain, a vendetta for an abscessed crime, a hard-on market for consumer goods. A living man reads a dead woman's book. She wrote it; then, he knows, she was turned in. For every partisan there are a million gratuitous deaths from hunger, all-American mass murders, small wars, the old diseases and the new. Who dies well? The privilege of asking doesn't have to do with age. For most of us no question what our deaths, our lives, mean. At the end, Catherine will know what she knew, and James will, and Melvin, and I, in no one's stories, as we are.
"Against Elegies," from Winter Numbers by Marilyn Hacker. Copyright © 1994 by Marilyn Hacker. Used by permission of the author and W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.