The Dead and the Living
My great aunt LaVerne died. She was 98-1/2 years old. She broke her hip and then an infection set in, then she got pneumonia and died. My father calls pneumonia "the old person's friend," I guess because it's a relatively nonviolent way to end life. One of my few vivid memories of LaVerne is that she looked so much like her brothers Harry and Roy that when they got older you couldn't tell which was a man's face and which was a woman's. Just like in babies, there was no difference between masculine or feminine features. I was looking for something on death in Sharon Olds's "The Dead and the Living" but I found this instead.
Rite of Passage
As the guests arrive at my son's party
they gather in the living room --
short men, men in first grade
with smooth jaws and chins.
Hands in pockets, they stand around
jostling, jockeying for place, small fights
breaking out and calming. One says to another
How old are you? Six. I'm seven. So?
They eye each other, seeing themselves
tiny in the other's pupils. They clear their
throats a lot, a room of small bankers,
they fold their arms and frown. I could beat you
up, a seven says to a six,
the dark cake, round and heavy as a
turret, behind them on the table. My son,
freckles like specks of nutmeg on his cheeks,
chest narrow as the balsa keel of a
model boat, long hands
cool and thin as the day they guided him
out of me, speaks up as a host
for the sake of the group.
We could easily kill a two-year-old,
he says in a clear voice. The other
men agree, they clear their throats
like Generals, they relax and get down to
playing war, celebrating my son's life.