December 23, 1982. Pompano Beach, Florida. On US Federal Highway I “Adult Motels,” “Adult Films,” and Go-Gos advertising such star nudes as “Ms. Illinois” (the Backstage Club) and “Ms. Kansas” (the Centerfold)—though “Ms.” hardly seems appropriate in these bastions of male chauvinism. And what about “Wet T-Shirts” (the Playpen)? No matter how torrid the atmosphere, mightn’t someone catch cold?
An ad for the Baird-Case Funeral Homes in today’s Sun-Sentinel offers fifteen combinations of “sea burials and cremation.” The customer need only mail in a coupon, placing an “X” next to his/her preference. A “scatter at sea” with “viewing” and a “minimum casket” (knees tucked to chin?) costs $750, a “scatter at sea” without “viewing” and without casket, $625. “D’incroyables Florides,” as Rimbaud wrote.
December 25. Walking the beach this morning on the anniversary of V.’s birth does not help me to erase memories of the night of her death. The end was said to be “expected,” but is it possible to “expect” the instant transformation of a living person into a motionless image, and can anyone anticipate the beginning of an eternal separation? C.S. Lewis referred to death as “the slamming of the door in your face, and the sound of bolting on the inside.”
During that terrible night, September 16-17, the doctor arrived minutes after being notified, looking even more dour than he had in the afternoon, with black suit, black bag, and black expression. He entered the room without a word—not even “I am sorry,” though tears were streaming down our faces. When he curtly refused my request to close her eyes, a nurse did so a moment later. After the perfunctory ritual with the stethoscope, he retreated to the living room to write the death certificate (“consequence of a stroke”), then crept out.
Meanwhile the undertakers appeared as quickly as if they had been waiting in the next room. I kiss her forehead, her hair, her hands, and go out; after the first sight of the lifeless body, the worst shock is the view of the empty bed, where she had been lying for three months. I had gone to her at all hours, holding her hand, whispering in her ear, to which she would respond by opening her eyes and squeezing my hand. Day and night, I waited for the nurse’s knock on the wall, a signal that V. wanted to see me. Now the silence in the room will haunt me.
“I haven’t hope. I haven’t faith”: Betjeman’s poem speaks for me. “Soul,” “spirit,” the Buddhist idea of a continuity, a rebirth of minds not connected with a self—even if I understood and believed in these notions, they would not console me. The mind is unable, thinking about death, to imagine something other than life, and I want the resurrection of the person: her face, her smile, her eyes, her voice and accent, her gestures—the way she lighted a cigarette (she smoked until the last days, puffing rapidly, as if it might be the last time). The empty bed is terrible. As the Sudanese Dinka chant goes,
The sun is born, and dies, and comes again.
And the moon is born, and dies, and comes again.
And the stars are born, and die, and come again.
And man is born, and dies, and does not come again.
* * *
December 30. She was here in Pompano the night that we waited on the beach for the annual nesting of a herd of sea turtles. They are supposed to emerge from the surf, lay eggs (said to look like Ping-Pong balls and prized as an aphrodisiac), bury them in the sand, and put to sea again. A team of marine biologists was to have come to harvest the deposits, but neither tortoises nor scientists made an appearance, and we left wondering if this year’s “eggs” might have been filled with cocaine. Every night between eight and eleven, lights in the neighboring condominium have been switching on and off in code-like patterns, signals to a ship, we thought, for the reason that they were visible only on the ocean side. Since this stretch of coast is famed for drug smuggling, we decided to ask the “narcs” to investigate, but our call to the police was so unwelcome that our suspicions were aroused—and confirmed a few minutes later when the semaphoring stopped.
* * *
For the last three years, when V. approached my door, walking from her room to the front part of the house, R., the nurse, would call to me: “Look who’s here,” or “Someone is coming.” I would jump up from my desk by the window, run to the corridor, put my arms around V., and kiss her. She was always elegantly dressed and neatly groomed. Until the last three months, she went out every day, sometimes no further than the bench across the street, from which she would wave to me in my fourth-floor window. Twice a week she was driven to midtown stores and out into the country. In the last year of her life she flew to Florida four times, and once to London. But May 29 was the last time she left the city—for a visit to my sister’s in New Paltz. In June, V. attended my orchestra rehearsals with the New York City Ballet and waited for me in the car after the evening performances. At her last public appearance, for my June 15 Philharmonic concert, she was hailed by the audience in her front box.
Last spring, together one evening in the living room, I saw that she was lost in meditation and asked for her thoughts. “They are good ones for me, bad for you. It will be hard on you.”
I should be grateful for her death, should have considered it a blessing when the labored breathing stopped, and the relentless pumping of her left knee ended. The truth is that I would have let her pain continue in exchange for even a little more life.
The nurse who was with her at 3:15 AM says she turned to her left side and died looking at an icon that she herself had made in Russia when she was a girl, and which hung on the wall above and behind her head. The icon story is important to R., who adds that, immediately after the death, I.S., in the photograph of him next to the bed, “looked happier.”
Until the last days, V. recognized R., and when I entered the room the day before her death, V. almost shouted my name. Yet the doctor’s argument against the use of artificial life-sustaining procedures is that she had recently shown no sign of recognizing him. But she never recognized him! And how can he disregard the varying experiences of those who have been with her all the time, and fail to perceive that she could be different according to the hour of the day and night? After more than thirtyfour years with her, I knew that she was still too much alive to justify his proposal for an abject surrender, and, on the fifteenth, I insisted that she be given intravenous feeding, at least for a trial period. He sabotaged this by ordering only a single bottle for the early evening and nothing for the night. Naturally she was weaker the next day, and, in an excruciating decision, I consented to cutting the lifeline. (I felt that R. agreed with me, this once, but a nurse never opposes a doctor.)
Death is inevitable now and must come soon. I sit by the bedside all evening, crying in the dark, except for the flickering light of the nurses’ soundless television screen. I.S. died in this same room, in the same kind of hospital bed, and even facing the same way. At 1:30, I take pills to try to sleep. An hour later, I come back and hold her hands for a while. Then, at 3:15, R. calls me: “You had better come!” “Is it over?” “Yes.” The forehead and cheeks are still warm, and the silver hair lies behind her on the pillow. When the nurses begin their business of preparing the body, removing her pink woollen socks, I take them, recalling, with a jab, how I used to help her put them on and pull her galoshes over them before she went out in winter.
* * *
She was in Pompano in October 1981, on the day the gulls returned. Another return, this one gruesome: the body of a girl was washed ashore just south of our beach. A two-seater stunt plane, flying at low altitude, had plunged into the sea about a mile offshore and in view of scores of bathers. Helicopters and boats had sped to the scene, but no trace of the plane was found. Not long after, the bodies of thirty-nine drowned Haitian refugees were discovered on the sand in front of the wealthiest homes in the area, as if to propitiate Mammon and for a few hours despoil the playgrounds of the rich. “J’ai heurté, savez-vous, d’incroyables Florides.”
* * *
Before dawn, on September 12, 1982, a Roman Catholic priest, at R.’s request, administered extreme unction. I do not believe that this viaticum-passport-passing meant anything to V., except possibly the confirmation that she was dying: but, then, I cannot imagine a God for whom the last rites would make any difference. Also, I keep remembering that, in January 1971, she herself decided to spare Stravinsky the sight of a cleric, knowing that it would hasten his death.
R. also arranged for the Russian rites, given the next day by an Orthodox priest who warned me that he would not perform them unless the dying woman was fully conscious. The ceremony took place, nevertheless, and the Russian prayers clearly terrified V., who stared intently at the priest for a few minutes, then slept while he anointed her forehead, feet, palms of the hands, and pressed the silver cross to her lips (Svadebka: “And we kiss now the silver cross”). Since he was not wearing clerical garments, she may have supposed him to be another doctor. Still, to hear Otche Nash intoned in her mother tongue at a time when she knew herself to be gravely ill must have alarmed her. The room was hot—“Zharka, zharka,” she would have said—and the priest continually mopped his brow.
At 6:30, on the eve of the death, the therapist arrived and, with scarcely believable insensitivity, proceeded to exercise the leg of the semiconscious patient—until I told him to collect his check and leave. Yet V. had been fond of him earlier in the summer, especially when he had helped her from her bed to a chair and, on that glorious day, the high point of the last three months, wheeled her into the dining room, where we applauded her. She smiled, perhaps believing that she would be outside again, taking her rides, as I had been assuring her day after depressing day. A week later, when I said the same thing, tears rolled down her cheeks.
* * *
December 31. New Year’s Eve. A year ago we had a party for her in this room overlooking the ocean. She wore the pink dress in which she was buried.
January 2, 1983. I still wake at 3:15 and see myself going to her room. Now I dread sleeping or, rather, dread the waking, the “Where am I?” and then the realization.
For the first time in my life I have come to understand the desire to turn to spiritualism, even to table-tapping, in the hope of a vision, or the sound of the voice. For I cannot see her face in my imagination, and photographs preserve only one aspect: the whole is unrecapturable. I avoid looking at recent photographs of her, but not those of ten or twenty years ago. The very old woman is the one I so sorely miss, far more than the younger one.
* * *
The first music I happened to hear since her death was Stravinsky’s Orpheus, which was also the first music I heard with her, at the New York City Ballet rehearsals in the wonderful month of April 1948. Although this score had not attracted me in the intervening years, it moves me again now as much as anything Stravinsky ever wrote—perhaps because Orpheus is the most human myth. Stravinsky expresses the supreme moment of death with silence. But his Orpheus is fortunate: the Bacchantes soon kill him.
The music I miss the most is V.’s very quiet singing. In my twenty-three years with Stravinsky, she sang only one melody in his presence, a mushroom gatherers’ song from her childhood which he notated from her in one of his sketch-books. After his death, she regularly sang several such songs, especially “Cheezhik” and “Fontanka.” If the chatter at dinner bored her, she would sometimes break in with one of these tunes. Her singing was tape-recorded by R., but I could not bear to listen to it. During the final months, she did not sing at all.
* * *
V. was not in Florida during Hurricane David, but I called her every hour or so in New York, describing how windows were shuttered and storefronts crisscrossed with tape and battened with plywood; how the supermarket shelves were stripped; and how, when the winds began to gust, we crossed the drawbridge to our apartment, fearing to be stranded on the mainland by an electrical “outage” and to find our elevator service inoperative. “Oh my goodness,” she would say.
I also told her that residents of low-lying areas were evacuated to high schools, that animals from one zoo were transferred to another one on slightly higher ground, and that women in the ninth month of pregnancy were instructed to go to hospitals (since the sudden drop in barometric pressure could induce labor). But the worst of the experience was in the anticipation, the noise of rattling metal shutters, the falling and bumping of objects, the sirens of the police and fire departments, the electrical wires crackling on the ground like fireworks, the sight of boats in the canals loosened from moorings and tossing in the waves. After David, many months elapsed before V. returned to Florida.
* * *
At 7:00 AM, September 17, 1982, I receive a representative from the funeral home who happens to be the same man who flew to Italy with us and with Stravinsky’s casket during the night of April 12-13, 1971. At 6:00 PM we go to a small chapel—next to the one where Stravinsky’s casket had lain—where V.’s body is covered with my blanket of red roses. A young man and woman, dressed in jeans, stumble through the only prayer in Russian, as the priest shakes his censer. One line in the prayers is unbearably poignant: “Thy servant, Vera, who has fallen asleep.”
The Monday morning service begins with Stravinsky’s Three Sacred Choruses, reviving memories of his funeral. Father Gregory, a noble figure, begins by saying: “Vera Stravinsky’s passing is that of an era, the civilization of pre-1917 Russia.” He explains the meaning of the service and its use of Old Slavonic, then sings antiphons with five superb choristers. After this, each of us kneels by the casket.
Leaving New York in the late afternoon, we change planes the next morning in Paris en route to Venice. The magic city is mercifully invisible in a thick haze, and, another piece of good luck, the only available hotel rooms are on the Lido, for me a no-man’s land without memories. The service is to be at S. Giorgio dei Greci at 10:00 AM on the twenty-second. Stepping from a motoscafo directly to the canal entrance to the church, I am happy to see close friends. A Stravinskian irony: the casket has not arrived, and V. will be late for her funeral. When the water hearse finally comes, gondolier pallbearers carry the casket to a black and gold carpet, marked by four tall candles, at the center of the church. Behind the iconostasis, the archimandrite dons his black headdress, with drape flowing down the back of his red and gold cassock. Listening to the florid alleluias, the archaic, oriental chant, and the Kyrie Eleison echoed by the sepulchral-voiced old man who participated in Panikheda services for Stravinsky, I think of standing next to V. on this same spot.
From St. George of the Greeks we pass the Church of Saints John and Paul, the scene of I.S.’s funeral; V.’s death has brought his death back to “life.” At the dock on San Michele, the casket is lifted to a wagon and wheeled to the entrance of the Reparto Ortodosso, past the pointer marked “Igor Stravinsky.” Here all is familiar, the tall, dark cypresses, the old tombstones, and the gravel paths, all except the sight of the newly dug earth. The graveside ceremony is brief, the casket quickly but creakingly lowered, and I sprinkle a handful of earth over the length of the coffin. Now she and I.S. are together—and only a few feet from Diaghilev, who introduced them to each other fifty-one years ago.
* * *
Back in New York, I enter the house filled with the absence of V., into whose room I am drawn, nevertheless, to talk to her just as I did all summer.
On V.’s name day, a letter from Robert Fizdale:
Arthur [Gold] and I have always felt it was one of the great privileges of our lives to be able to feel that we were friends of the Stravinskys. You enjoyed that privilege more profoundly than anyone they ever knew. Each of them gave us the feeling that it was a privilege for them to have you in their lives. Vera Arturovna was one of the most beautiful women who ever lived. She was not only born beautiful, but she inspired beauty, created beauty, and lived to make the lives of those around her more beautiful.
* * *
Walking the cold winter sand of Florida, I want to believe Joseph Conrad’s line: “Life…will close upon a sorrow like the sea upon a dead body, no matter how much love has gone to the bottom.”