Mortality Sandwich

Dear Reader,

I wrote Mortality Sandwich 27 years ago. And a great deal has changed in my life since that time. Many of my forward-looking fears have borne fruit. And many blessings I did not anticipate have graced me with an altogether different harvest. The truth is that herein is truth. And I will let the truth speak for itself. I hope it speaks to you. And you can hear with availability what it says to you. That is my prayer.


He woke and moved from room to room in the dark unsure where to begin. He decided to walk down the driveway to get the morning paper and then decided he wouldn’t. He snagged his son’s two-month old sport’s magazine and went into the bathroom. His back muscles twitched and then relaxed. The electric wall heater gained its glow mimicking a dawn he did not observe.

He began to read about batting averages that were by now higher or lower and crucial games whose fate had already been resolved. He looked at pictures of young men filled with the elasticity to stretch their bodies floating over chalk lines in huge stadiums. He looked down at the bell of his own widening body, felt nothing, and was pleased with the absence of self judgment.

The telephone rang in the kitchen. The day surged at the starting gate. When he surfaced, he discovered his son playing a video game with body English and curses. He found his wife balanced on one foot in a yoga posture. He went into his daughter’s room, lay down on the floor to do sit-ups, and listened while she ran through a litany of continents and meridians, reviewed civilizations which had flourished and passed, studied for a test that meant everything, and would soon mean nothing leaving only the scar of its tension disguised as learning.

His wife made the lunches. He made breakfast. By eight the kids were gone and his wife on a morning hike in the foothills behind their home. He was alone. He had been up for two and a-half-hours.

Clothes, flung like abandoned moments, lay randomly fractured and dismembered in piles and over chairs. His children, only a breath ago, so incredibly present with the noise of their possessions and plans, now seemed hauntingly absent. The vacancy sawed at him, the quiet a chilling harbinger of an advancing army of silence, a shuddering perspective of old age.

He put up the periscope a few years and could see that the daughter who never got off the phone would not call. The son who wanted to wrestle would be bound up with days too fat with excitement for a father who wanted to reminisce. He could see the sand of fatherhood slipping between his fingers. His stare fell unconsciously to his feet, his mind’s eye half expecting to see a puddle of grains.

In the kitchen, a cartoon strip and his children’s school pictures were pinned with letters from a magnetic alphabet to the refrigerator door.

The cartoon’s first frame was of a woman who has grown exasperated while speaking with her mother on the phone. The cartoon’s last frame is of the woman’s husband asking his wife if she notices that she now speaks to her parents and her children in the same voice. “Well,” demands the wife, “what does that mean?” “It means, don’t die,” answers the husband. “Everyone is counting on you!”

He opened the refrigerator, stared into the cold cavern, and shut the door without taking anything.

He was the eldest of three sons. His father was dying. His mother was dying trying to take care of his father. There was nothing he and his father could not talk about, but his father could no longer talk. Muted in every way but his awareness; the illness even now threw its voiced horror without moving his father’s lips.

He’s parents’ friends were also dying. Their circle was shrinking. The adults who jump jerkily in home movies from the fifties were disappearing. It was as if an alien force has landed and was sucking up the generation he had counted on to be the doorstop between himself and the inevitable.

He checked the time. He thought about taking a run but was worried about his knees. He tried to figure how he was going to see his father before work and get home before the kids were asleep.

He promised himself he was not going to feel pressed. Like a drunk on unsteady ground, he promised himself he would be okay if he could just get things to stop spinning. That he could cope if he could only get others to wait while he dropped into a sprinter’s stance so that they all might begin again, together.

He resolved to focus on having all the time he needed. “I have a wonderful life,” he heard himself repeating. “I have a wonderful life.”

In the wash of weekends that had sailed away, he remembered one Sunday when he sat in the shade with friends drinking shots of gold tequila from pale green glasses. He remembered feeling sage and loose and telling his friends that their circle’s only concern was whether they could find enough wrong with their lives to give context to their good fortune.

His friends laughed. And he felt clever. But over time his cleverness had also sailed away, taking with it his conviction of opinion, his capacity for reducing life to masculine one-liners that confronted the darkness and got him through the night.

He showered. He massaged his scalp with a gel that supposedly made the shafts of hair thicker. He was told it would add body and cover what the lady who cut his hair called “classic male pattern baldness.”

He’s wife told him she thought he would look good bald. He wondered if she simply didn’t think that bald men had less of a tendency to stray.

The thought made him laugh. He wondered who went looking for sex on a used car lot. He felt rusted and dented, no longer the kind of vehicle that drew “ahhhs.”  He felt he was instead reliable. But he found reliability a strange pride to a man who was so recently young.

He tried to cradle himself with the traditional “you-ought-to-be-grateful” checklist. My wife loves me. My children are healthy. My business is prospering. He could feel the tangible embrace of what was once only expectation.

What then is my beef, he wondered?  Why am I fighting this baseline sadness?

He folded his arms across his chest in the hope he would take himself seriously. He repeated questions from tired self-interrogations and heard answers he knew were only that.

The truth was, he was not lacking for insight. The burden of insight is the lunacy of knowing, and he knew what was wrong.

He was in an argument of character, of character in coping. This is the bitch of the double-bind. And, he was caught. He was caught between being a good son and a good father. He was trapped in a mortality sandwich, squeezed by time and for time. And, the pressure was building.

He was also late. He shoved the cushion the chiropractor had given him into the cavity at the back of the driver’s seat. He adjusted the rear-view mirror and caught himself in a smile without humor.

Memory may be the gentlest of truths, he thought, but the past is not distorted. Neither for that matter is the future. Everybody knows what is finally in store. You get thrown in one door and thrown out the other. What perplexed him was how he was going to get through the day.

Then he remembered his meditation. “I have a wonderful life. I have a wonderful life,” he heard himself saying, as his car began down the driveway and accelerated over the morning paper.

Noah benShea Copyright 1989 All Rights Reserved

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