What It's Like To Be Dead

Buechner is imagining a conversation with his dead Grandmother Naya.

Naya is knitting a sock and has her knitting face on-her eyebrows slightly raised, her lips pressed tight.

"You've already set sail," I say. "What can you tell me about it?"

She glances at me over the top of her spectacles and lets her needles come to rest.

"My poor, ignorant boy", she says, "don't you know better than to ask a question like that when I'm turning a heel?"

The ball of wool falls off her lap and rolls toward me across the green carpet. I pick it up and put it on her lap again.

She says, "When somebody once asked your Uncle Jim if some friend or other had passed away, he answered in his inimitable fashion by saying, 'Passed away? Good God, he's dead,' and I know just how he felt. I always thought 'passed away' was a silly way of putting it, like calling the water closet a powder room-or calling it a water closet for that matter-and I am here to tell you that it is also very misleading."

She says, "It is the world that passes away," and flutters one hand delicately through the air to show the manner of its passing. Her sapphire ring glitters in the sun.

"When I used to lie there in that shadowy little room Mrs. Royal gave me in her establishment that looked out onto the garden, with your blessed mother or Ruth dropping by every day or so to keep me abreast of the local gossip at Missildine's, where everybody used to congregate for a Coke after picking up the mail and Miss Capps would read the picture postcards over your shoulder, I could feel the world gradually slowing down more and more until one night, after that charming nurse whose name I regret to say I've forgotten turned out the light and was getting ready to go home, I realized it was finally slow enough for me to get off, and that is just what I proceeded to do. It was rather like getting off a streetcar before it has quite come to a stop-a little jolt when my foot first struck the pavement, and then the world clanged its bell and went rattling off down the tracks without me. Myrtle, that was her name unfortunately, but what a comfort she was."

She closes her eyes and is silent while she tries to summon up the scrap of poetry she is after. Then with one slender finger she taps out the meter on the arm of her chair as she recites it with her eyes still closed.

"And when, 0 Saki, you shall pass

Among the guests star-scattered on the grass,

And in your joyous errand reach the spot

Where I made one, turn down an empty glass.

"A lovely, sad thought," she says, "but for me there really wasn't any sadness. I felt nothing so much as astonishment. I had lived so many years by then that I was sure the only thing that could ever finish me off would be a violent death of some kind-a smashup on that corkscrew road to Asheville perhaps or a bolt of lightning. So then when it finally happened right there in my bed with the night light on and that nice nurse standing by, nothing could have been more peaceful, and I was astonished."

"I was sitting upstairs at my desk in Exeter when I got the news," I say, "and I remember leaning forward and resting my head on top of the typewriter and seeing my tears trickle down into the keys."

"That was a fitting tribute from a young man of literary aspirations," she says.

I say, "That was almost forty years ago, and I doubt if a single day has gone by without my missing you."

"Ours was a marriage made in Heaven," she says. "I loved to talk, and you loved to listen. Even when you were a little boy in a red beret, you would sit there with your eyes round as saucers while I rattled on."

"Tell me about wherever you are now," I say. "Rattle on about what it's like to be dead."