By JEFF PICKELL
“I decline to accept the end of man.”
The new situation in the Middle East had me plenty depressed before I learned last week that Mark Miller, my father’s best friend, had dropped dead, of nebulous causes, leaving behind his wife and teenage daughter.
It was easy enough to hide from the fighting in Israel and Lebanon, to sleep from dusk to dawn, to watch the same movie over and over, to read the same book, to wiggle my toes atop a bed of myopic routine. But the loss of a kind, thoughtful loved one, such as Mark, and so suddenly, was enough to jar me from this, and I had a period of immense feeling.
It was like the terrible things of the world sat at the base of my brain, like feathers and dust—every thought jostled them, they crashed and collided, built momentum off each other, filled my head with the unbearable noise of hurt.
I was in a funk—one causes the other. It happens sometimes.
As my mother and I sliced through Detroit’s downriver suburbs Saturday morning, bound for Grosse Ile and a funeral that was something of an extended family reunion, I found myself silently mouthing the words at the top of this column.
William Faulkner spoke them during his acceptance of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1950. Advising that the Cold War had planted in young people a fear of the end of time, he implored listeners to forget this terror—forcibly—for such a terror leads us to look over the problems of the human heart.
Instead, we should focus on the struggle of man’s soul, of his spirit in turmoil, he said—these are the only issues worth our writing. Dwelling on death—actual, metaphorical, sensational and otherwise—is a sign that death has won, he said. That man is here and that he has made it this long is a sign we have prevailed over death, that we will continue to prevail over it, he said.
But as we sped past the colossal, abandoned steel plant in downtown Trenton, as I nudged with my shoe the kinked carcass of a snake near the bank of the Detroit River, as I stepped into the church and glimpsed the prostrate profile of a man I had always admired, it was hard to believe Mr. Faulkner.
I’m not wise. It has been said that young men should not utter maxims, so I won’t. But I also won’t be untrue and act as if my thoughts and actions are tempered with experience, act as if I don’t feel miserable and passionate and inconsequential and angry and euphoric sometimes.
Sometimes I want to hug everyone. Sometimes I want to scream at the sky. Sometimes I want a bowl of soup.
Last Saturday, in that sanctum, crowded with Mark’s friends—auto workers doubtlessly as worried about their jobs as Mark was, the desperate crew of a foundering vessel, fighting in turbulent tides—I wanted to decline to accept the end of man.
But I don’t even really know what that means.
“It will get better, won’t it?” I asked mom on our way back to Highland.
I don’t remember her reply. I don’t believe I was looking for one.
I went back to Trenton that night to bid my friend Joe, who’s leaving for Thailand, farewell. My friend Dolley was there. My friend Emo was there. My friend Kyle was there.
In the morning, we ate leftover pot stickers and argued about Neil Young.
I drove home, listening to the same episode of A Prairie Home Companion I heard on the way out. At one point, a tire on the car in front of me blew out and I swerved into the next lane to avoid the debris.
Darla the dog was waiting in her cage in mom’s room. After she piddled, we watched “You’ve Got Mail” on TV. I made a salami sandwich and cut it into halves. The smell of salami drives Darla up the wall. She slapped her paws into my thighs as I ate.
Finally, Jamie got home from work and we set off for the theater, where we watched “Clerks II.” We laughed and bumped elbows and stayed until the credits were over.
Afterward, I folded my laundry and left for Morenci. I listened to John Updike talk about his new novel, then listened to a piece about Emily Dickinson’s poem “Because I Could Not Stop for Death, He Kindly Stopped for Me.” I listened to a documentary about the redistribution of land in Africa and India.
I set my laundry on the desk at the top of the stairs. I had a glass of water. I realized I had forgotten my toothpaste in the back seat of my car, but was too tired to fetch it.
I laid myself down and closed my eyes. I wiggled my toes.- July 26, 2006