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
"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
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
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
"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 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
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
"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
"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