Earl Banks lay in a hospital bed centered in the barren living room of his new apartment, dying. I would visit Earl, and his wife Mae, in the next few days after receiving a request from his nephew, Ed, a parishioner and friend. Ed arranged for Earl and Mae to be flown from their place in the West Virginia hill country to be closer to him. He wanted to offer them as much support as he could knowing Earl was said to be terminally ill. It was a typically generous gesture from their nephew who had retired from his position as Corporate Counsel to a major multinational firm. Now, in his mid-forties and wealthy, he was engaged in various far-flung creative projects and philanthropic endeavors, searching, so it seemed, for something new to feel passionate about. Before my visit, Ed explained to me that his uncle and aunt were hillbillies, poor, kind, hospitable, with a genuine love of mountain music. They were disinclined to accept his offer, but he insisted, wanting to ease concerns expressed around healthcare expenses and his hope that superior doctors could change the course of Earl’s disease. Even as he embraced his new life of supporting worthy causes, Ed was most animated doing what he knew best- being a tough lawyer. He despised bullies and instinctively responded with ferocity. I had witnessed his Dirty Harry that dwelt just below his big-heartedness. “Go ahead and make my day!” But mostly, Ed was shy, introverted, almost awkward, often stumbling for the right words to express affection, delight, and the acceptance of gratitude from those touched by his generosity. He habitually appeared uncomfortable with words of gratitude, blushing and embarrassed by expressions of gratefulness. Indeed, Ed’s request that I visit with his uncle and aunt seemed almost apologetic, concerned they were not members of the parish. I appreciated Ed’s concern but planned to visit Earl and Mae.
Mae greeted me warmly, inviting me to come in but quickly apologized for the single chair sitting in the corner of a mostly empty room. A blanket draped over its back and the few magazines on the floor beside it indicated it was the station from where she kept watch. Despite the sparsely furnished living room, she was quick to assure me they had everything they needed. They were comfortable. Earl lay quietly in the bed, oddly situated diagonally in the starkly empty room. Sounds ricocheted off the hard surfaces creating a bathroom-like echo- footsteps and voices unbuffered by drapes, carpets, and furnishings diminished the warmth of conversation our voices tinny and suggested it was all temporary. His eyes closed, Earl appeared asleep, the prongs of the oxygen line fixed in his nostrils and strung around the backs of his ears. Behind him, the tubing snaked down the hall to some unseen oxygen tank. With only the one chair, Mae was uneasy letting me stand if she sat, so we both refused the chair. Instead, we placed ourselves on each side of the hospital bed, our conversation evolving from small talk to Earl’s history as a marine, their life in West Virginia, and finally to his condition, pronounced terminal by his doctor. While Earl appeared to sleep throughout our visit, I never took this for granted, remaining careful with my words. “Most of the time he just sleeps”, she explained, and even when he wakes, he seems to keep his eyes shut his eyes closed and doesn’t say much.” Mae struggled somewhat to ask if I could assist when he died.
“Might someone from the church come visit when his time comes”, she wondered?
“I will, of course.”
Before leaving I asked if Mae would like me to say a prayer.
“Oh, yes,” she answered. “Please offer a pray for Earl.” I wanted to do this for her in a manner that would be meaningful, and the stereotype of Appalachian mountain folk, I possessed, loomed large suggesting the sterile and prescribed prayers of Episcopalians would be foreign to her. So, I cleared my mind of the prayers I knew and offered a spontaneous, and evangelical (read: long) Holy Ghoster prayer of which, I have to admit, I was quite proud. My pride was likely tainted since a pastor should be readily available for the spirit to give him the right words. Still, I gave myself credit for momentarily stepping out of the tradition in which I was steeped and into a world, frankly, strange to me. Thankfully, Mae didn’t offer me praise for the performance. Rather, she simply thanked me and expressed the hope that I would return soon.
A day or so later, Ed called to share his discovery of a collection of tape cassette recordings of old hill country musicians. He had purchased a boombox for Earl and Mae and asked if I would join him that afternoon for a visit. On the drive over, he was unable to contain his delight with his good fortune of having found these obscure old recordings. He pushed a cassette into the car’s player and the scratchy and tinny sounds of old recordings further boosted Ed’s momentary glee; a brief respite from the inevitable grief he was anticipating.
It must be hard, I thought, to be wealthy and powerful and yet so helpless. Ed was now in the business of making people’s lives better as a philanthropist, and yet here he was in a place where money and power meant nothing. We are all left searching for anything that might offer even a small joy to the dying; something that communicates genuine empathy to those bracing for loss.
The ride over to Earl and Mae’s was shared with fiddlers, guitars and twangy voices singing greats like “Who yer Primpin’ Fer?” and “Wiggle Worm Wiggle“. The two of us laughed at both the quaintness and magic of the music all the way to the apartment. Someone had carefully listed each of the songs and the performing artist on the on the cassette insert to me demonstrating their love for this music. Performers of these old-time favorites included Skeets McDonald, The Farmer Boys, Delbert Barker, Louvin Brothers, and The Westport Kids, which I brought to Ed’s attention sang a tune, entitled, “You Kain’t Take it With You”.
Mae was grateful for the visit and curious about the mysterious package inside the Fry’s Electronics bag Ed held. Earl lay still, eyes closed in his hospital bed the head of which was slightly inclined. It appeared nothing had changed. Earl was still sleeping, resting his eyes, in a coma, who could tell. But Mae did say he had moments when he seemed aware and would answer yes or no questions by squeezing her hand. Ed leaned down close to Earl to tell him about the music he brought for him to enjoy. Regrettably, Earl didn’t respond but undeterred, Ed unboxed the boombox, placed a tape in the slot, and pressed the play button. It was Peck Touchton singing, “Let Me Catch My Breath”.
“My heart has all gone crazy
And my head was in a spin
I know it wasn’t dignified
The state that I was in”
Peck was singing and when I looked at Earl, his eyes still closed but his fingers searching for a finding a tissue that lay on his blanket. Now clutching it, he raised his hand aloft and waving back and forth to the music, he began conducting Peck Touchton’s band wearing the hint of a smile. He did this for several more songs before he slipped back into sleep. No spoken words. Just the spectacle of Earl’s conducting captured all that needed to be communicated. The brief moments of music and old memories Ed made possible for Mae and Earl to share was enough. All of us emotionally spent, we stayed just a little while and left after Mae again asked if I would be there when his time came. I assured her I would, then prayed with the three of them a shorter prayer than my first, mindful of the weariness that hovered over the time spent.
Late that evening, or more accurately, very early the next day, my pager buzzed, rattled, and skittering across the surface of the dresser, fell to the floor. Mae had just left a voicemail letting me know that Earl had passed, that she was OK and the mortuary was coming to retrieve Earl’s body.
Earl was a veteran and therefore eligible for burial in a military cemetery. Plans were made to do so at Fort Rosecrans which sits near the tip of Point Loma in San Diego. The cemetery is both beautiful and alarming. The Pacific Ocean on one side and the San Diego Bay, overlooking the Navy Submarine Base, on the other, the sun shining and temperature almost perfect all the time. The startling part, as with all military burial grounds, is the sheer size and uniformity of simple white markers with such few words; name, branch of service, birth and death dates. A small number of visitors wander through the grounds stopping for a few moments to read the names and note the date of death. One can help wonder whether they saw combat- perhaps were killed in combat. 1943, 1967, 1950. World War II? Viet Nam? Korea? It is easy to create and romanticize some fantasized heroes’ death, but most simply did their duty and served for a time before returning to their previous lives like Earl, returning to their farms, their small towns, or to the hill country of West Virginia.
The grave has been dug. A mound of dirt beside it masked with astro turf. The family and a few guests sit in a line of canvass chairs before the grave. Young Marines in their crisp uniforms cut a memorable picture as they march in lockstep carrying the flag draped casket to the grave. As I conducted the burial rites, the striking contrast between Earl, the common man, and the blend of formality and solemnity that marked the event was inescapable. As intended, it communicated respect and the honor, dignity, and thanks due the common man. The burial rite concluded, the Officer in Charge issues a not quite discernable command directed to the Rifle Detail. They raise their rifles, aiming them toward the water and fire three volleys startling the guests seated before the casket. Again, a command, “order arms” and rifles are lowered in elegant and precise unison. There is moment of silence, followed by the woeful sound of ‘Taps’ played from somewhere unseen. I tried to discreetly determine the location of the bugler and finally spotted the lone Marine standing under a tree apart from us all playing the sound so powerfully associated with endings and grief. With great solemnity, the flag is lifted from the casket by the color guard and folded for presentation to Mae. The officer snaps a salute before Mae, then lowers his arm ever so slowly returning it to his side. The officer turns and faces right returning to the other members of the detail.
The service now over, I return to my car and see the Marines chatting and laughing with one another, kidding around, before they get in their vehicles to leave. I know this is the detail to which they are assigned but they never betray the reality that it is simply a job. That they are barely old enough to have a beer is a stark contrast with the serious and solemn demeanor they conveyed only moments earlier. I will attend a brief reception at Ed’s, listen to stories about Earl that temporarily ease the pain of Mae’s loss. There will be promises of prayers and calls to ‘check in on her’ made. I will wish her well and Ed will arrange for her return home.
He wishes he could have done more, Ed does. I understand. I tell him I will always remember Earl close to death, on a bed in the middle of that vacant room conducting Peck Touchton, ironically singing, “Let Me Catch My Breath” waving a Kleenex in time to the music he loved. It was enough.
A Footnote on the Common Man
There comes a point in the preparation of a story, an essay, an article when the author must determine when it is complete. It is complete, but I cannot resist the urge to add what I will call a footnote. I have been sitting before my computer screen and pondering all this against the background of the regular sounds of the city. For some reason I hear it all more distinctly than usual. The white noise of a nearby highway becomes a mosaic of unique and disparate sounds- a big rig downshifts; the sudden guttural moan of the diesel causes me to speculate- is he exiting? Someone has pressed the gas pedal to the floor; powerful performance car, I speculate. Yes, I think, a menacing Camaro with dark tinted windows. Exasperated by the slow pace of the vehicle before him the impatient driver whisks into a small opening in the line of cars, to pass. A siren in the distance grows louder then fades as it passes; a helicopter hovers somewhere near but out of sight monitoring traffic or engaged in some police action? I wonder.
In the disassembling of sounds that are largely ignored and create the background noise for our common lives, I wonder about the details that make up a story, a picture a painting, a symphony. As we move closer so the detail becomes more discernable, it is difficult to determine how it contributes to the whole. But as we pull back and away from the detail, it becomes more obscure as the whole reveals itself as a work of art, a piece of music and so on.
The small dab of yellow paint may seem insignificant to one who gazes on a Whistler masterpiece but the artist knows it will be the lantern in the tower sillouetted in the evening sky.
I am pondering the title of this piece, borrowed from Aaron Copeland’s brief but celebrated composition of the same name. The regal brass fanfare, punctuated by the thunderous beat of kettle drums and crashing cymbals conjures images of the arrival of a royal entourage. But Copeland invites us to consider the nobility of the Common Man. I suspect he used the word common to denote both what we share in common as well as what is prevalent, widespread, and the opposite of rare. We are, all of us, common insofar as we are bound to one another by the commonality of our birth and our death. Our commonality also extends to the limited time between those two events- what we do between our beginning and our ending. We endure, create families, work, strive to succeed or merely survive. Earl is a detail, as are we. I knew little of his life except he eked out a living in the hills of West Virginia, served in the Marine Corps, loved hill country music, was a fair buckdancer, and died, again, just as we all do. He was the common man. His burial captured, for me, the paradox that characterizes the life we all live; how it is at once noble and common. Living life is a noble act in and of itself and deserves to be recognized as such, especially as it comes to an end. There is nothing common at all about the life one lives. Yet we are common in what we all share… we are born, we live for a short while, and we die; that we do this as common but noble folk makes plain that nothing short of a fanfare is well-deserved.