I heard that line on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations and it stuck with me. It’s the final line of a poem called “Larson’s Holstein Bull,” about a young girl gored in a pasture. It really speaks to me — as in, it speaks lies to me.
Because unless we record our stories, Death steals those too.
In the last three months I’ve lost two loved ones — and countless stories. Their stories. And my own.
I’ve had massive writer’s block. I try to dive in. I try to ride the smallest wave of an idea. It fizzles and fails. I fizzle and fail.
And then there’s all the stories of theirs that I’ve lost.
My father’s stories, wrapped up in gullible goodness and bland bouillabaisse. He told fishy tales. Suspect ones, full of adult idealism and fairy tale naivete. If he were a character in a comic, neon bubbles would circle his words — citrus and magenta shades for his grandiose schemes and shooting star aspirations. Don Quixote tilting at windmills — so chivalrous and sometimes so sad. Folks took advantage of his inert, innate goodness. Neighbors took advantage. I wish I could remember the details. I’d hold them accountable for their sins. But I tuned him out, so I’m holding myself accountable.
And then there’s my aunt’s stories. Stories of her ER escapades; the trauma bay dramas. The bludgeonings, bullet wounds, foreign object removals. Those foreign object ones were my favorite of hers, and she had so many. The fellow arriving in an ambulance still sitting in his driver’s seat, impaled by tomato stakes. The fellow arriving with the ice pick through his brain, talking, animated; until he wasn’t. The naked sunbather wheeled in on a trifold vinyl lawn chair, his testicles entangled and swollen amongst a twisted nest of spaghetti tubing. I wish I could remember the specific details of those stories, her blue lilac eyes, so animated as she recounted them; until they weren’t. Until dementia dulled them. Her eyes and her stories. And the details were gone.
So many stories tuned out. The soundtracks of their lives, the background noise of ours. And now they’re gone… and I can’t remember.
Remembrance. It’s a motif in Hamlet that pairs with the theme of “What Happens After We Die.” Legacy. The Ghost, Hamlet’s father, begs him: Remember me. Hamlet begs Horatio, his most loyal confidante, to tell his story: Report me and my cause aright.
And that’s what I need to do too. I need to tell their stories. Report them and their cause aright. And mine too. Before it’s too late. Before it’s all lost forever, behind death’s door.
Because that Harrison poem’s FIRST line is a doozy too:
Damn. What a line. What a truth.
That Harrison poem speaks lies AND truths. Which is why it really, really speaks to me. Right now. At this moment. This moment where death’s doors have shut so recently on those I love so dearly. And because none of us is getting out of here alive. There is a door waiting, a doorknob made of flesh just waiting for the twist.
Morbid, I know. But then, Life is morbid. And what happens after we die is why Shakespeare wrote in the first place. And Spenser. And Keats. And any author, really. (Me too. That’s why I write too.) To tell our stories, and to be remembered.
But I have let my loved ones down. I should have listened more. I wish I’d listened more.
But I’m telling my story. Stories. All of them. And I’ll keep at it till I get them right, writer’s block be damned. It seems the devil really is in the details… but get behind me, Satan. I’m ready to dance.
Because the rest, as Shakespeare says, is silence.
And here’s that poem in its entirety, for those of you who want lies and truths to rattle you as well…
“Larson’s Holstein Bull,” by Jim Harrison
Death waits inside us for a door to open.
Death is patient as a dead cat.
Death is a doorknob made of flesh.
Death is that angelic farm girl
gored by the bull on her way home
from school, crossing the pasture
for a shortcut. In the seventh grade
she couldn’t read or write. She wasn’t a virgin.
She was “simpleminded,” we all said.
It was May, a time of lilacs and shooting stars.
She’s lived in my memory for sixty years.
Death steals everything except our stories.