The Game Is On
The drug cartel’s hit man in the film, No Country for Old Men, is a powerful and mythical evocation of Death. He brings to mind a similar characterization in Bergman’s film, The Seventh Seal. In both movies, Death loves to engage his victims before consummation, sometimes with game-playing, sometimes with droll and very dark humor. He loves playing the game, even though he knows he will ultimately win. In The Seventh Seal, he agrees to the knight’s delaying tactic, a game of chess. In No Country, he plays a game of chance with the convenience store proprietor. The proprietor correctly calls the coin toss, but all he wins is a reprieve – or in Death’s word, “Everything.”
As a young man I was fascinated by allegorical treatments of death, but not much threatened by them. It was only a movie, a novel, a poem. I was well-buffered by the actuary’s tables. But now I am in my mid-70s on a trail blazed with abandoned body parts. The bell tolls, the game is on.
Chess is an apt metaphor. The player requires new strategies to compensate for each lost attribute. Death is a relentless adversary.
* * *
My mother was an extraordinarily calm and gentle woman. I know precisely the times she got angry, and even then her anger may have been acting (but very good acting). Those angry times were when she had to impose corporal punishment on a bad little boy. Corporal punishment was a popular and acceptable corrective in those times.
Our house was heated by a wood furnace in the basement, which was reached by a set of stairs that descended from the kitchen. Whenever I committed a punishable offense, Mom would angrily but silently go to the kitchen and descend the stairs. My heart filled with terror as my body, against all will and common sense, was pulled by unseen forces into the kitchen. Before she got to the last step of her descent, I was already bawling and pleading, “No, Mom! No!”
In the basement she went to the woodpile and selected a piece of kindling. “Richard James LeBlond, you get down here right now.” Normally calling me Dick, it was the only time she ever used my formal and middle names, the courtroom judge about to administer sentence. “You get down here right now or else.” I didn’t know what “or else” was, but I knew it was better not to know. So I would start down the stairs slowly, my legs heavy with reluctance. When I got to the basement floor (a journey that in retrospect seems more painful than the ass-whomping) she put her hand on my shoulder and turned my body into position.
“Get your hands out of the way or I will hit them too.” Her intention was to improve my behavior, and it worked.
But now that she is gone, along with some of my improvement (and the few body parts), I am learning that her lesson has another use. I am able to willfully descend the stairs unaided towards that doctor standing there with a piece of kindling in his hand, in the form of a flesh probe or its consequence, a biopsy result. (The difference here is that the punishment from aging is gratuitous rather than corrective.)
It was a late November afternoon when I returned home from the second thyroid biopsy, at the beginning of that dreadful interval between summation and verdict. Leaf-fall had exposed the dark trunks of the trees towering above the house. They looked more sullen than gaunt. The lives of deciduous trees continue unnoticed beneath the seasonal subterfuge. Maybe they trick Death into missing an appointment.
Home is comfort’s bastion, but the biopsy had exposed its fragility. I allowed a momentary return of foreboding, and then, in a surge of life force, decided to do some yard work in preparation for spring. Right then and there, in the dawning dusk. Death of course will win, but for a while at least, it can be out-played.