Paul Auster commences “The Invention of Solitude” with a record of his fathers’s death. From a phone call he receives on a Sunday morning and since the very moment the phone begins to ring, he is sure a phone call at that hour can only carry bad news.
The weather is deceitful in the fall. Spring in appearance and winter at heart, like me as I was born on the second day of fall.
I was outside, on the balcony, checking up the Sunday morning to see how cold it was when I heard a siren not in the distant. The third-floor flat is about a 100 yards away from Mauriziano Hospital which makes it typical of the neighborhood to be echoed with siren; however, since I moved here, siren makes me anxious: precisely, since the Old Man replied to my greeting by saying: “It is a matter of days.”
His door was half-open as usual. I rang and heard Leandro’s steps towards the door on the parquet, then heard the man from his study at the end of the corridor, shouting “Come in!” At the entrance hall, there was a marble dresser with metal legs, above which a mirror was hanging with a golden frame. On the dresser lay the dog’s leash, a comb, a clothes brush and some sheets of paper. Across, right beside the bathroom door, was hanging a clay ornament, white with Leandro drawn on it. On the ornament it read: “A vigilant dog lives here.” Leandro would usually run back to the Old Man, before one had the chance to turn left in the corridor. The Old Man, having seen his return, would expect someone familiar. He would once again, more quietly, say “Come in!” Walking along the corridor, Leandro would be back with a ball in his mouth, calling to play. The Old Man would say: “Is that you? Have a seat!” Then we would sit down to chat. We were both hunchbacks, I would hump, so I could get the ball back from Leandro and throw it in the corridor again. He humped for all the seasons he had been through. I would ask him how he was. That day he said: “It is a matter of days.”
The sirens enclosed. It was not cold but I no longer wanted to get back in. The ambulances turned, stopped right at the front door of the building and some people with orange-reddish uniforms entered. With cycling shoes, not the most comfortable things to walk in, I ran to the staircase. I heard a voice saying “Third Floor.” It was an instant relief but only an instant as another voice responded: “No! Second!” Anxiety came back and drove me downstairs for a half-floor. A girl from the upper floors, who was going out, stopped over and asked: “Is that the landlord?” I nodded yes, then she asked the doctors “May I?” They opened way for her and she left. One of the neighbors who would often run the Old Man’s errands walked out of the house and, without an extra glimpse, walked down the stairs. After a couple of minutes he got back and went in just as before. Denis walked down the stairs in shorts and a sweatshirt, asking “Is that him?” I responded. One of the paramedics walked out of the flat. Denis and I enquired. She responded: “We’re not allowed to speak.”
My anxiety kept soaring. In the meanwhile, I was thinking why the death of an old man, whom I had met barely a month ago, would give me so much of anxiety. The anxiety which was rooted beyond his immense kindness. Neither since he would always enquire about the flaws of the new flat, nor since his generosity to get me those new bookshelves when he saw all the books I was unboxing; it was not because of our profound discussion about military policies of the US either. He was upset about the US arming a dictator against other countries and then removing him from power. When I told him about the origin of my name, he said: “I didn’t know Germanics had a commander by that name. One always gets to learn stuff.”
The man next door to the Old Man, dressed formally and carrying a few garbage bags, that were to be thrown away on his way, walked out and gaped at the sight of paramedics. He didn’t recognize me in the cycling outfit as well. When I greeted, he asked “Is it him?” And left.
Paramedics left, closing the door behind and climbing down the stairs. Denis and I looked at each other, I could see he was relieved as well. Suddenly, the door opened again and another paramedic walked out, asking the others to bring him a “coltrino.” When I asked, Denis did not know what “coltrino” was. I got back into my flat and changed to usual clothes.
Now writing the whole record, I figure that changing my cycling clothes was a symptom of an overwhelming anxiety. I had written to “her” that the Old Man was not feeling fine and while googling “coltrino”, I got back to the staircase. One of the paramedics was going back in the Old Man’s flat, holding a folded nylon bag. I told Denis that the bag was the “coltrino.” He asked about the use, which was to move the still patients. A sound from upstairs grabbed our attention; it was Denis’s roommate. “He is dead!” He said and showed his cellphone.
It was as if I expected it, as if the unconscious expectation took me back to my flat; as if the Old Man had made me expect it when he told me: “The contract can be renewed, although I won’t live to that day!” Or when he was talking about the dog, saying: “I did not want to get him, because I knew he would be hurt after me.” It was as if all the images passing through my eyes in those moments were the death scenes I have encountered in my life, from the very first one I can remember: a close family friend who was actually dad and mom’s childhood friend’s dad to my grandma whose last encounter I had missed. We weren’t closely-knit but I had felt the need to be there.
Last summer I kept consoling my mom, trying to convince her not to tragedize death, but in the Old Man’s case I did feel it was a tragedy but the protagonist wasn’t him. It was me to have lost company.
I remembered Seneca’s famous letter to Marcia where he says: “The deceased have nothing to do with boiling rivers, dark dungeons, and endless darkness. These are the imaginations of the poets .” I kept thinking that what makes death difficult is the space where it’s refered to but nothing is found. The difficulty was in a door that would no longer be left half-open; the abandoned stairlift that was used by the old man to climb the stairs and was going to be left idle on the second floor; the note he left us on the board ending with “as for the heating, whenever you have a minute of time, please drop by!”
Two days have gone by. I haven’t written a single word. As I laid the pen down on Sunday evening, I started drinking bourbon and it was by midnight when a bottle was flat. On Monday morning, as I still felt the hangover, I recounted the previous day’s drama to some people I met. Grief and wonder would load every single one.
Monday evening on my return home, I met the Old Man’s daughter and paid condolences. She invited me to pay a visit to Him. He was lying down, eyes shut, hands crossed, face livid, body scrunched but dressed up as ever. As expected, Leandro was nowhere to be seen. I am still having difficulty understanding whether the occasion was difficult per sé or it was the first encounter with his daughter in such an occasion that augmented the hardship. That evening, while thinking about death, surviving, mourning, solitude, melancholy, and tens of other things, I fell asleep on the couch. In the middle of the night, I woke up to the siren again but then I remembered that siren would no longer be a concern to me, at least for the time being, and I can put it off among thousands of other noises that corrode our ears and minds every day. I got up from the couch and headed for bed.
On Tuesday, I set my Wednesday classes to leave some spare hours so as to attend the funeral.
Apparently, Denis’s roommate had called the neighbor who ran the Old Man’s errands. We were still being speechless when the guy from my next door showed up and asked: “Is the landlord dead?” We confirmed. “When is the funeral?” Denis gave him a hard look, I responded: “The doctors are still in.”
Wednesday was my first occasion to attend a funeral here; I had been to the cemetery before, though. I got there half an hour in advance. A hearse was parked outside at the entry, people gathering around of whom I knew none. The daughter, the son-in-law, the grand-children were not there. I tried to look for someone to enquire. On a bulletin board, I found a list of those to be buried that day, with names, dates of birth and death: twenty-three which seemed a lot to me. Mostly born in 1920s or early 1930s, the youngest one 1966. It was still early and actually in that half hour three other funerals were being held: two were to be cremated. The Old Man still due, that was why I had not met a familiar face around the hearse.
It was one of the few events to start on time. The priest gave a short preach at the entry and left. We were greeted and thanked by the daughter and the son-in-law and then walked down the way till the mausoleum. Made of cement, with the two side walls checkered with pieces of glass, a bell hanging right above the full-glass door, the door leading to some stairs that in turn would go under the ground thus opening into a space where according to the daughter was the burial site of the Old Man’s son and mother, too. The daughter told the participants that the Old Man has not been buried in the best position but this was inevitable as he had desired to be buried beside his mom. There was an enormous wreath of flower, on a ribbon it read: “From all those who love you.”
I passed to stand by the maintenance man, the one in charge of pulling jobs in the building, who was in a deep grief, weeping painfully. Auster, in the same book, writes: “when a person tells you they are supposed to go to Jerusalem, you probably feel happy; however, if a character in a story tells you that, you start to find the bonds with previous events, the probable synthesis with the upcoming events, try to understand the psychological motives that drive the person to going there, nowadays the political reasons etc.” Long story short, you feel that in a story, the details are set in a way all serving one another. Nevertheless, the maintenance man, without any effort to serve any details of this current story you’re reading, said: “He asked me three weeks ago to prepare the tomb. I told Him it was early, but He said it’s time.” The maintenance man was, as well, the herald of the most pleasant news of the passed days. “He esteemed you highly.”
As I had come to the Old Man’s acquaintance, apparently he had decided to think more about death. Maybe to an extent that the others would notice it: the maintenance man, his dog, neighbors, me. A sort of following de Montaigne, trying to reconcile death, to consider it probable anywhere, to think of it anytime, to expect it anyhow, as if whatever that happened to us could lead to death, as if it could be the day after any day that goes by.
It has been planned that, just as the old times when we kept the Old Man posted about our problems and needs, all exigences be left in his mailbox so the maintenance man would handle them; just as the Old Man would have.
When I returned home from the funeral I saw the stairlift: no longer at the Old Man’s door, it had come down to the ground floor; as if the Old Man was sitting there, by his mailbox, waiting for our letters.