Dedicated to my friend Dr. Jon Rothenberg. In his last minutes he asked me to hold a vigil for him; somehow, I heard him.
At Woodlawn I Heard the dead cry
I shook the softening chalk of my bones
Saying, Snail, snail glister me forward,
Bird, soft-sigh me home,
Worm, be with me.
This is my hard time.
On the evening of Friday May 7, 2010 I was riding a commuter bus from Manhattan where I work to Nyack where I live. There was nothing extraordinary about the evening. The workweek was over and I was headed home and then to dinner at a friend’s house with my wife and son.
In the town of Piermont, about 4 miles south of Nyack, just as the bus was about to pull away from a stop, I was overcome by an irresistible urge to get off the bus. For a second I resisted: “why,” I asked myself, “would I get off the bus 4 miles from my stop, and moreover when I was expected for dinner at a friend’s in 45 minutes?” Logic was useless, I felt utterly compelled, and called for the driver to wait. I gathered my things and, all-of-a-sudden discombobulated but as if watching myself from above, hurried off the bus.
It was as if I were under a spell: I needed to escape the bus. I wasn’t spooked in the sense that I feared the bus was about to crash, but I did feel that somehow I was trying to change my destiny. Or, maybe more precisely, alter the flow of events in time.
I got off the bus and walked into a restaurant just across the street from the bus stop, sat at the bar and ordered a glass of wine. I asked the bartender if the restaurant had fish. He said the only fish on the menu was a cod appetizer. I ordered it without opening the menu and asked for some bread.
Other than ordering from the bartender I spoke to no one, and I drank my wine and ate my fish and bread as if somehow it mattered. When I finished the wine and fish I paid my bill and walked a few hundred yards to the edge of the Hudson River. I stood strangely still and looked across the water for at least 10 minutes. I had no idea why I was doing any of this.
My cell phone rang. It was my wife wondering why I had not arrived at home. “I can’t explain it,” I said. “I felt compelled to get off the bus, drink a glass of wine, eat a fish appetizer, and look out over the river. I’m in the T & R Marina in Piermont. Come get me.”
My wife came, picked me up, and drove us to our friend’s house.
At dinner my cell phone rang. I looked at the caller ID, hesitated for a second because it seemed rude to take a call, moreover a call from someone I know well but am not particularly close to, but then I answered.
The caller told me that a man dear to me had just died. She went on to tell me that his closest friends were gathering in his hospital room to keep vigil. I was unable to focus on her words.
I hung-up the phone and sat very still. My host looked at me and asked what the call was. “My friend Jon just died.”
Twenty minutes later a close friend called.
“Where are you?”
“I’m in Nyack, at Janna’s house.” I think my friend heard something in my voice, something that told him I was paralyzed.
“We are meeting at the hospital.” He told me the name of the hospital in Manhattan and the room number and then he said: “Leave now. I’ll see you there.”
When I pieced the timelines together I discovered that when I got off the bus my friend Jon was in extremis; he died either while I was in the restaurant or while I was looking at the water.
In February 1978 my grandfather died. As we were making preparations for the post-funeral meal my grandmother said “the meal needs three things: fish, wine and bread.”