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Michael Dahlie

Last Words From
a Camelback Sofa

Richard's mustache had always looked ridiculous, and I insisted on having it shaved despite the hysterical protests of Richard's sister, Elaine. "Shave it," I said to the man who called himself the dresser, and then I told Elaine that she ought to mind her own business and that it was too late to just show up and start telling everyone what to do.

"But why now?" Elaine said. "Richard has had a mustache all his life and now you want to shave it?"

"It was one of Richard's dying wishes," I said, which, although not true, was a convincing argument and upon hearing it the dresser turned on his electric razor.

"But his mustache makes him look so distinguished," Elaine said, which is exactly what she and everyone else said on the first day of visitation when Richard was celebrated as a brilliant man and a distinguished professor. It made me sick to see Richard honored as a brilliant man and a distinguished professor, which is exactly why I wanted to shave his mustache, because it was clearly a source of his distinction, as Elaine's fury demonstrated.

"What will people say when they see him today without his mustache after they saw him yesterday with his mustache?" Elaine said.

I told her that I would announce that it was Richard's dying wish that on the first day of visitation he would have his mustache and that on the second day he would not. This sort of confusion and irreverence, I was sure, would have made Richard extremely happy because he hated the people who were at his funeral. I knew this because in his dying breath he said to me that he hated absolutely everybody, which, of course, in my mind, actually did distinguish him as brilliant. Richard was brilliant to have thought of having his dying words be, "I hate absolutely everybody." It was a unique event in the history of death.

But while I would say that Richard was brilliant, I would never say, like so many of the respect-payers and family well-wishers at the funeral, that he was a brilliant professor or a brilliant man. Richard was brilliant, and I might even celebrate his brilliance, but I would never celebrate his brilliance as a professor or as a so-called man. Richard was not a brilliant professor. He was a worthless professor, and he hated his students so much that he supplied them with false information and bad advice at every opportunity. "I have no reason to hate them," he once said to me as we ate lunch at King's Diner. "Some of them are quite intelligent. But I hate them and I have always hated them, which is precisely why my career as a professor has been so worthless."

And Richard was not a brilliant man. He was a fool of a man. As Richard used to say, "As a man, I am a failure. I am nothing but a fool when it comes to being a man." Nevertheless, people insisted on saying that he was a brilliant man and a brilliant professor, which he was not, which is why I shaved his mustache.

"But it's his own funeral and I can't even recognize him," Elaine said when the dresser had finished.

"It was his dying wish not to be recognized at his own funeral," I said, nodding at the dresser, who nodded back.

Of course, it was not Richard's dying wish not to be recognized at his own funeral, but it was his dying wish that I be in charge of his funeral and do whatever I thought necessary to ensure that the ceremony befitted his character and his memory. While it was not Richard's dying wish not to be recognized at his own funeral, I was sure that he would have thought it was a good idea had I suggested it while he was still alive, and I imagined him at King's Diner laughing about the scandal that such a dying wish would provoke and how his sister would object. Richard's sister was the type of person who could not see the humor of funerals, the absurdity of funerals, the scandalous nature of funerals.

"Funerals are scandalous," Richard once said to me at King's Diner, and although he did not elaborate on this idea, I could not help agreeing.

Elaine saw Richard's funeral as a solemn occasion while I saw it as a humorous occasion, an occasion that was nothing but a ritualistic expression of platitudes about nothing but which the respect-payers and family well-wishers believed no one could deny. I, however, spent the first day of visitation categorically denying everything anyone said. I took special pleasure in denying the platitudes of Richard's sister, whom I could not help hating.

On the first day of the visitation she said, "Life is so precious, so sweet."

I said, "On the contrary, life is worthless and bitter."

She said, "At least he went peacefully."

I said, "On the contrary, he had been dying for years and awoke every day in a fit of death-terror."

She said, "Life is so short."

I said, "On the contrary, life is so long," which, I have to admit, I believe with zealous passion. "Life is long," I said. "Life is an eighty- or ninety-year process of losing everything you care about and being beaten down by an inevitable future of misfortune and pain and at the end of this eighty- or ninety-year process, as your last act, as your final deed, you do the very thing that you spent your life hating, the very thing that caused you so much misery. You spend eighty or ninety years hating death and then you finally succumb to it. There is no resistance. In the end you have no choice but to comply with the very thing that has ruined your life and the lives of those you care about. Life is long," I said, "and this is what Richard also believed."

"Richard believed no such thing," Elaine said and then stormed off because she knew that she did not know Richard from any other dead person, while I was Richard's closest friend and the only person that could speak about him with any authority and the only person with him when he died. That was the conclusive fact. When you are with someone when he dies, you are a complete authority on that person just as I was a complete authority on Richard.

But not only was I with him when he died, I was the only one with him when he died. I sat up with Richard night after night for months waiting for death. Night after night we waited for death in his study, he lying on his camelback sofa and I sitting in his butterfly-wing chair. I moved back and forth from his butterfly-wing chair to his bed while Richard always stayed on his camelback sofa, waiting for death to come as I attended to his life. Richard prepared for his death while I attended to his life which was, in fact, very easy because Richard, despite his pain and his endless symptoms, wanted nothing but bread and soup. Of course, Richard required endless conversation, but this was hardly a burden since this is what Richard had always required and was also what I enjoyed providing and would have provided even if he were well.

"I have several things that I need to say before I die," Richard always said from his camelback sofa. "And it is of vital importance that I say every one of these things," he always said, although I do not remember him once indicating to me that he was expressing one of his vital last thoughts. In fact, all our conversations proceeded as they always did except for the moment that he expressed his dying words, which were unique and clearly designed to be a last statement. "I hate absolutely everybody," he said and then he died just like that, just as "everybody" was being enunciated, just as his last breath was exiting his larynx one last time, just as his last breath was exiting his larynx into sounding the "deee" at the end of "everybody," he died. And then he was dead, stone dead, beyond resuscitation and furiously resisting life as furiously as he used to resist death. There is only one thing more stubborn than a man resisting death and that is a dead man resisting life, which, while there is no screaming and clawing, a dead man can always do.

And I laughed when he died, his last breath finishing his final words, which were that he hated everybody. What could be funnier, I thought; what could be more fitting for Richard's brilliance or for his man-foolishness. "I hate absolutely everybody," he said, and so he did hate everybody, which was why his last words were so funny and why I laughed so hard when he died, because it was a death more funny than any death that I could imagine, and I only regretted that Richard was not alive anymore so that I could show him how much I appreciated what he said. And the regret that Richard could not hear me laughing at his death made me realize what, in fact, had happened, and I realized that there is not one thing funny about life, not one, because life is long and bitter, it is worthless and terrible, and its only redeeming aspect is that it appears to be better than being dead. Although as I looked at Richard I doubted whether being dead was worse than being aliveónot that he looked better off than I was, but being alive at that moment was torment, despite Richard's funny last words, which I decided to repeat to Elaine as we stood with the dresser looking at Richard's mustacheless face. For no reason I decided to tell Elaine Richard's last words. I just said them because I knew that they would upset her, because I knew that they would scandalize her.

"Would you like to know Richard's last words?" I said.

Elaine was silent.

"He said that he hated absolutely everybody," I said. "That's it. That's all he said. He said that he hated absolutely everybody. How's that for last words? You don't hear that too often, do you, Elaine?"

"And do you think you were excluded from the category of everybody?" she said snidely.

I responded by saying that I was sure I was included in his general hatred for everybody because it had always been Richard's opinion that all human beings were disgusting, including himself.

"I am disgusted by all of humanity," he once said at King's, "and when I say that I am disgusted by all of humanity I also mean to say that I am disgusted by myself. In fact, I am most disgusted by myself."

I had no doubt that I was included in Richard's general hatred for everybody. But because he had a general hatred for humanity, it did not follow that he did not hate some people more than others. To have a general hatred for humanity does not imply that you do not also have specific hatreds for specific human beings and this is what I told Elaine, and following this I told her that Richard always referred to her as the shrew, his shrew-sister. And then she said that he always referred to me as his "depressing but unfortunately necessary friend, tolerable only because I was necessary and reliable," to which I responded by saying that she was insane and only jealous of the fact that Richard had no respect for her but had only the greatest respect for me and that while I was, no doubt, included in his general hatred for humanity, he was specifically fond of me while he specifically hated her. In fact, as I pointed out to Elaine, he said that he valued my friendship even at the very end of his life. He did not say with his dying breath that he valued my friendship, but that morning, the morning before the evening that he died, he said very specifically that he valued my friendship.

"I don't know how I would have managed without you," he said from the camelback sofa while I sat on the butterfly-wing chair.

"Of course, I have few needs," he said, "but I could never have endured the loneliness, the lack of companionship in the face of death, in the throes of my death-terror." And I said nothing in response, mostly because it was impossible to say that he was welcome to my companionship because the fact of the matter is that human beings offer each other companionship not out of generosity but out of mutual need and just as he needed comfort in the throes of his death-terror, so too did I need comfort in the throes of my death-terror which, although less dramatic because I did not have cancer, was nevertheless intense and would not have gone away by not offering companionship to Richard, a dying man. In fact, the only time my death-terror was alleviated was when I was with Richard waiting for his death. It was more than a companionship, in fact a partnership, a partnership in the midst of a common experience, a common fear, which was the fear of death, a death-terror, which we experienced simultaneously and together. And it wouldn't surprise me if Richard did say that he tolerated me only because I was necessary because, at root, that's all human relationships are, necessary partnerships in the face of death. We tolerate each other only because to face the things that human beings have to face alone is more intolerable than facing them with other human beings. So, to extend Richard's last words, "I hate absolutely everybody," the second part of his thought could be conceived as, "but I hate the idea of facing death alone even more," which was an idea that Richard maintained his entire life and which was the essence of our friendship. And this is why I was able to laugh at his last words because they were so true and said at such a moment of truth that they were unbearably funny. They were unbearably funny until I understood that I could not show Richard how unbearably funny his words were because he was dead, which is why the night of his death was such torment and why I wept for hours after he died.

And I wept so hard that I didn't have the strength to make the appropriate phone calls or to take the appropriate steps that one takes after someone has died. I wept for hours after Richard uttered his hilarious last words. I wept uncontrollably after laughing uncontrollably to the point that I could not make so much as one phone call for twenty hours after Richard died, which, as the police later informed me, was not the appropriate thing to do.

"And how does one find out the appropriate thing to do in the instance of someone's death?" I asked the policeman who had told me that I had done the wrong thing. Was I supposed to stop my weeping because it was not the appropriate thing and make the phone call because it was appropriate? I could do nothing, nothing at all, to say nothing of the appropriate thing, which I definitely could not do because I had no strength to do anything but weep, which was not the appropriate thing, which is exactly what Elaine accused me of when she said, "It's absurd to shave someone's mustache after they're dead. Your jokes are completely inappropriate."

"Inappropriate seems to be everyone's favorite word these days," I said, exhausted by Elaine's nagging and exhausted by my attempts to explain the importance of shaving Richard's mustache and exhausted by my confusion over the very concept of funerals, which I could not understand at all. The necessity of shaving Richard's mustache was the only thing clear to me, and I could not understand why it met so much resistance, although, to my satisfaction, the dresser did it without hesitation, which just shows that he is a professional and a man of ability and a man who understood that shaving Richard's mustache was not a joke.

"Not a joke," I said to Elaine, "not a joke," and then, to my embarrassment, I began to weep again as though weeping for twenty hours straight was not enough. For Elaine, watching me weep was the last straw and the moment of intolerability when she decided that she did not want to face me anymore.

"For goodness sake," she said and then stormed out of the room, embarrassed for me but not one bit sorry for what she had caused.

"For goodness sake," she said, unable to respond to my embarrassing emotions and unable to understand them because, for her, a funeral was a sanctimonious event while, for me, it was an insane event, and while she could not see the humor in a funeral, I saw funerals as nothing but humorous. And as she stormed out screaming "for goodness sake," I wept harder for no reason other than the fact that I felt like I understood nothing, and as I wept the dresser stared at me, but I could not control myself and all I thought was that there is not one thing funny about life. Life is completely serious, I thought, and I could not bear to continue with the funeral, which was the height of insanity and comedy, but I had no choice, as the dresser understood, which he indicated to me by leaving me alone as I wept and by respecting my wishes to shave Richard's mustache, which was the only thing that I could think to do given the situation and the burdens that I had to endure and the pain that I had to suffer and the endless weeping that came relentlessly for days after Richard had died.

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