Shall I be dignified? Shall I be vain?
Shall I refuse chemotherapy, take pills instead?
No, I cannot imagine I will have the strength
to take my life in later years.
So, accustomed as I am to shame,
I shall drool and disinherit children.
I shall poop in my bed and cry like a child.
Nurses will attend. Doctors will frown.
Why won't I die, they wonder.
Why do I cling screaming to miserable life?
And my poor children! Forcing my grandchildren to stand
trembling by my soiled bed, in tears,
smacked upside the head for asking,
Why are the sheets yellow?
Do I really want flowers?
When can they have my comic books?
Their parents will shake their heads,
frightened by my humiliation,
too dignified to look at me.
They will promise themselves they'll be different.
Perhaps they will be.
And perhaps I will, too.
Maybe, when I'm old and forgetful,
I shall stand under a falling flowerpot
or ride my bicycle in city traffic
or bungee-jump or parachute or water-ski.
I could become one of those strange accidents
you read about: Ninety-Year-Old Man
Para-Sails Into Shark.
Already I eat meatloaf with buttered potatoes.
I watch TV for months on end,
drinking beer after beer, and then
I litter the floor with bug food.
As I age, my habits worsen.
Soon I'll smoke two packs a night.
When I die, they'll find ding-dongs
on my breakfast tray and donuts on my dinner plate,
ants in the lounge chair with me,
eating my fingertips and snacking off my plate.
Oh, but I don't trust fate to take me
in the comfort of my own home.
I live in fear of collapsing from a heart attack
in public, embarrassed,
afraid to say anything to the people next to me,
keeling over in the corner booth at the diner,
my face falling into my plate
of cold spaghetti noodles.
Children will point me out to their mothers
and a dozen volunteers will step forward
to whack on my chest.
It's all so sudden; it always is.
One minute a woman's complaining about her garden.
Next, she's lying in it, breathing the topsoil.
I've seen the bodies fall.
If it happens to me, those worms in my mouth,
what will they write on my tombstone?
Will they bury me at all
or will my wife burn me to ash for a jar?
There's no dignity in an urn on the mantle;
it's a fate my uncle used to crack jokes about.
Now he sits next to his own uncle
and his wife cleans them both with a grin.
No one gets respect from being dead.
Everyone will continue to say things about me
that they've always said.
Death itself pays no respect.
There are too many of us.
It may have come for J. Alfred as a coachman,
like dying was some goddamn tourist ride,
but I know I won't rate personal attention.
Death will come as a bus driver.
I'll cram in with forty other impoverished souls.
We will be asked for exact change.
Perhaps Death will demand I give up my seat
to the child with moist, brown eyes
and stand the rest of the way to hell.
How could I refuse? I shall hold the hand-rail and sigh.
Will I actually get into hell or heaven?
I can't imagine it; I've done nothing particularly bad or good.
Most likely, I'll have an apartment in the suburbs.
That's where I'll feel at home, commuting to the afterlife
every morning on the hellbound train.
We'll all stand there in our good suits and dresses,
the clothes we were buried in, holding the seat-backs.
No use in drinking coffee, though I shall miss it.
Although there will be nothing to do except talk,
the others, like me, will say nothing.
We shall stand, timidly clearing our throats,
embarrassed and oppressed by the silence throughout eternity.
If I get into heaven
(now, if I can go, so can you,
and nearly everyone else,
and what will that make heaven like?)
I'll have to take a cut in salary.
I'll find a spot on a work program,
maybe janitor or street cleaner.
I'll follow the saints around, praying for them to drop something.
They'll be hundreds of us, well, billions,
standing around, chatting about past lives,
half-heartedly sweeping streets that no one litters.
Hell would be living my life over again
minus the good moments.
Fire and brimstone would be trite. Silly.
The devils probably roll their eyes
at those who still expect it.
No, the good times made life worthwhile
and the bad times I try not to think about.
I tried not to think about them even when
they were happening to me.
Death will come as a shock.
As the first trilobite died, it said, "What?"
and as the last mammoth felt a flint-tipped spear, it wondered,
"Can this be happening?"
Everything dies. Everyone dies
yet it's still a shock when it happens.
Charlemagne died; Herman Hesse died; my grandfather died.
My mother. My father. Me, too.
I’m coming along
to discover nothingness, most likely.
But we can hope and anyway
what if every bee has a soul,
every tree, every flower, every potato bug?
(My soul would make a competent potato bug.)
Perhaps at judgment day there is a holdup,
a delay, a line so long there are dinosaurs at the front.
I will spend most of eternity
playing pinochle with grannies who cheat
plus there will be an order for the mandatory two weeks
of pain or bliss toward the end,
like a summer vacation or a trip to the health spa.
But I hope Death comes for me late.
I do not believe, as others have said,
that Death is punctual.
The angel has missed me several times already
when I went out to meet it
and later tried to drop by, unexpected and unwelcome.
Death is slow on its feet;
I always slip out the back door.
I think it only catches people when they're drowsy
or, sometimes, finds them in moments of distraction
while they drive behind the cement mixer,
coffee in one hand, reading material in the other.
I think the Reaper drives distracted,
and likes it when we do, too, the lazy bastard,
probably digs beat poetry,
likes to play the bongos
but can’t quite keep rhythm.
In a game, Death fumbles the cards,
spills the seven of diamonds,
stoops to gather it,
and drops a driver’s license.
Someday a bus will pull up to the curb.
The Driver won’t care if I step on
but of course I will
and I’ll look at the other faces and know.
This is it, the last ride.
I'll take off my jacket,
find a comfy seat, briefcase on my lap.
There's an inside pocket to my blazer
where I keep a pack of cards.
People wonder why I live for the moment
but not urgently.
I'm not too busy to hug friends or to drink
or to talk over a game of cards.
That’s because we’re all going to the same place
plus, like in this extended moment
that we're calling a life,
we need something to do while we wait.