When my wife and I are dressed and healthy, her body temperature registers eight-tenths of a degree colder than my ordinary one of 98.6. She shivers in any weather below seventy degrees. Occasionally, in central Pennsylvania, she wears gloves in May and September. It’s not much use joking about how she’s farther from fever, how sweaters become her, how her jackets are stylish and smart. Or, if I feel the need to use a bit of trivia I picked up from the local PBS station during halftime of a football game, to bring up the Thomsonians, who believed all sickness was caused by a deficiency in body heat, claiming that every disease could be cured by a medicinal steam bath.
It’s something to consider because three months past ninety, my father is wrapped in two late-August sweaters, the furnace growling in his delirious house where each plant has wilted like his short-term memory and his stove, for the past year, has been covered by signs that say NO in large letters to lower the probability of fire. My wife and I have driven the two hundred miles to Pittsburgh the day after our own discussion of aging to meet with a woman who specializes in Elder Law, the legalese of wills and trusts for the future distribution of whatever assets we have, the talk turning to assisted living, comas, and long-term vegetative states while air conditioning chilled my wife to putting on the jacket she carries, even in the heart of summer, for overcooled rooms.
Afterwards, walking outside to the surprise of warmth, she didn’t remove her jacket. “How could you stand it?” she said.
“She made everything seem hypothetical,” I said. “It was like we were talking about somebody else who was going to fall apart and die.”
My wife hugged herself in the late afternoon sun. “I mean the cold,” she said. “It was absolutely freezing in there.”
“The face seemed to warm up suddenly, sparkle returned to the eyes.” So wrote a scientist named Robert Cornish in a report to the University of California in 1933. He was working on a way to revive the dead by strapping them to a seesaw and rapidly teeter-tottering the corpses in order to circulate their blood.
He and his assistants had spent a long time at this primitive CPR, working the seesaw as if they were attempting to draw water from a long-unprimed pump. At least once, according to Cornish’s report, their persistence brought a bit of color to the face of a recent heart-attack victim before it reverted to ashen.
Cornish needed to perfect his technique, but human bodies were hard to come by. He began to work with dogs, personally killing fox terriers and naming each of those freshly dead dogs Lazarus, in reference to the optimism of the New Testament story. When some of those dogs breathed again, reviving for an hour or two before dying a second time, he was sure he was on to something.
Better yet, Lazarus IV and V lived for a few months. Newspapers reported the story. There was enough excitement and curiosity about his work that a movie was made in Hollywood that spliced in five minutes of footage of Cornish and his dogs. Lazarus IV and V, however, were blind and brain-damaged, inspiring, according to the newspaper stories, “terror in the ordinary dogs they met.”*
Within one of those annotated lists featuring “famous last words” is the final one spoken by Dr. Joseph Green, a nineteenth-century English surgeon. Upon taking his own pulse, he managed, according to The New Book of Lists, to say “Stopped” before he died.
My father, by the end of September, has been moved to a facility for the nearly dead. He has a room with a door that doesn’t lock, and the first time my wife and I visit he is wrapped in a flannel shirt and one of those sweaters from August, both buttoned to his throat while the heat hums from three baseboards on a warm fall afternoon.
My wife places her jacket on a chair. My father, nearly deaf, guesses at what we say. “That’s good,” he comments from time to time, imagining, I’m nearly certain, that we’re telling him about how well we’re doing or what our children have accomplished. “Nothing much going on here,” he says at last, but he has begun to take his pulse every ten minutes or so as if he expects to hear, like that dying English doctor, the moment it will stop.
Finally, I tell him he’s been in this building before, that he and I visited years ago because he had made a significant gift to the foundation that operates this facility. “That’s good,” he says, reaching for his wrist, and I lean close to say, “Let me show you something special” before I wheel him to the elevator that takes us one floor below to where the chapel is located.
He doesn’t react to the brief journey. My wife helps me navigate his chair between a set of pews in the chapel, and I wheel him to the window he purchased fifteen years ago, a stained-glass mural in memory of my mother who, at that time, was already more than five years dead.
He doesn’t recognize anything even when I set him inches from the plaque that states his name and hers. I ask him to read, but despite this prompt, he doesn’t seem to understand. My wife, who stands nearby, bends down and reads the words aloud, shouting into his ear.
“How about that?” my father says. “It’s for Ruthy.”
“Yes,” I say, “you paid for it.”
“How come I’ve never seen this?” he says, and I wish I’d brought along the photograph of him standing beside the window the day it was unveiled.
My father stares at the window for a minute, and then, without taking his eyes off it, he begins to reminisce about my long-dead mother. He settles on listing old gifts he bought for her—a set of pearl earrings, a Sunday-dress, and a piano, all of them things that my sister helped him pick out.
He doesn’t mention the one time he asked me to help him: in late November, for their fifteenth anniversary, the gift of wax fruit he’d somehow set his heart upon. “Each piece will last and last,” is how he put it. I was eleven years old and didn’t ask him to reconsider his choice. I thought the fruit looked real, the colors blended to look just short of ripe, as if, when he arranged them in the wooden bowl that sat on our kitchen table the following day, they would be perfect.
My father handled the apples and pears; he hefted the peaches, bananas, and bunched purple grapes. He seemed to be weighing them. Finally, he made a small pile of assorted wax fruit on the department store’s countertop, estimating, I thought, the size of our kitchen’s wooden bowl that was usually full of opened envelopes and advertising circulars that featured store coupons my mother intended to use.
The next afternoon, while my mother was changing clothes after church, he dumped all of the paper out of the bowl and placed the mess on the dining-room table. With his right hand, he swept his breakfast sweet-roll crumbs into his left and shook them into the wastebasket. He ran hot water into the stained coffee mug he used for a week between washings, a habit, he’d told me once, that he believed was his gift to my mother because reusing it reduced the number of dishes she had to scrub every day.
Finally, he spread that wax fruit out like a set of trophies. The grapes were the last to go into the arrangement, lying on top, the overhead light reflecting off their surfaces. “Isn’t this a pretty picture, Gary?” he said when he’d finished. I heard my mother coming down the hall. Before she entered the kitchen, he added, “Just think. They’ll look beautiful forever.”
For a year or two, just after that wax-fruit anniversary, I was fascinated by pretending to be dead. “Soon enough, your time will come,” my mother said, catching me holding my breath in front of the sweep hand for seconds on my bedroom clock radio. “Kid stuff,” she said. “You should know better.”
After that, I was more careful about my secret pastime, one that moved past simple breath-holding. In a library book, I studied what the mystics did to appear as if they’d stopped their hearts, shutting down the pulse with a block of wood under the armpit, pressure that worked like a tourniquet. I kept the book in my desk at school, but I mastered that technique well enough to simulate a stilled heart. I laid fingers to my wrist as I died, coming back again and again to the excitement of briefly muffling one part of my autonomic system, dying in my room, or better, among trees in the game lands near our house, lying down where somebody, someday, might discover me. I stared at the path I’d taken to whatever small clearing I’d chosen, imagining hikers who would turn curious or eager or absolutely afraid, everything so still for seconds that I believed in the power of leaving and returning, the comfort of being sprawled like the nearly drowned, doing CPR on the self, taking that first great gasp and bringing my heart’s beat back after someone laid fingertips to my wrist, holding them there in wonder.
In the early nineteenth century, there were scientists who demonstrated how electricity seemed to reanimate a dead body. Executed criminals were often used, their faces twitching, an eye opening, an arm or a leg jerking when a powerful battery was connected to particular muscles. There was enough publicity about these demonstrations that’s it’s nearly certain Mary Shelley was aware of them. So Dr. Frankenstein, with the advantages of her fiction, was able to reanimate the dead, standing over the body like a glorious thunderhead, in love with choice.
The second time my wife and I visit the nursing home, I notice that my father has no pictures of my mother in his room, which means I have two more pictures of her in my house than he displays. “Do you want a picture of Mom?” I ask, and he shakes his head.
“It won’t bring her back,” he says, for once not saying “That’s good,” and when I show him the wedding announcement I’ve discovered between the pages of a book about the national parks he had sitting out in his living room, he can recite all four paragraphs from the local weekly newspaper. “Thanksgiving, 1941,” he says. “Dorothy Seitz, maid-of-honor. Ruth Lang, given by her brother Karl. Mildred Van Wegan (née Lang) attended from Michigan. The Reverend Blair Claney officiated.”
How many times had he read that notice in the twenty years since she’d died? “We had the long weekend for our honeymoon,” he says. “And a week after that, the war.”
It’s nearly Halloween by now, and the children of the nursing-home staff wear costumes and go from room to room to do an indoor trick-or-treat. My father, because he can’t hear or he doesn’t read the facility’s weekly newsletters, doesn’t understand, so he has no candy on hand. Regardless, he seems fascinated by the princesses and vampires. “Remember Frankenstein?” he says. “I saw it in the theater as a boy. Boris Karloff. That was scary for a boy my age. And then he was in all those movies about trying to raise the dead.”
“It’s a wish that’s always with us,” I say, but he doesn’t hear.
“Remember Frankenstein?” he says again. “I saw it in the theater as a boy. Boris Karloff. That was scary for a boy my age. And then he was in all those movies about trying to raise the dead.”
I consider showing him the wedding notice again.
Nearly twenty-one years ago, after my mother died at home, my father told me, “Your mother didn’t want a hospital. She’d just seen her sister in misery with the tubes and machines and all that coming to nothing.”
This week, when we talked on the phone, my sister has told me that his chart says Resuscitate where a choice is asked for. Thirteen years ago, nearly eight years after my mother died, my father’s heart was stopped during bypass surgery. For a year, each time I visited, he showed me his scar. “The things they can do,” he said. Within the next few years, his brother and sister died of cancer. “There has to be a limit on miracles,” he said at the time. “Maybe it’s one for each family.”
When we get home, I look up Boris Karloff’s films. Sure enough, there are some that sound as if they repeat the plot of a doctor trying to raise the dead. The Man They Could Not Hang and The Man with Nine Lives, for two. The plots feature grave robbing and secret serums for curing cancer and providing eternal youth. The common denominator is Boris Karloff as the mad scientist, not the reanimated body.
“I never would have thought,” my father frequently said after my mother died, meaning that he would outlive her.
“I thought I’d be with Ruthy by now,” he repeated once he passed seventy-five, and he described an afterlife that seemed to be so much a physical continuation, I thought he expected to play golf and tend a garden forever, having time to master the sport he’d taken up in his sixties, enjoying fresh vegetables for a billion meals. By the time he was past eighty, I suspected that he worried about finding himself revived as the decrepit man he was becoming.
In 1964, when I was a freshman in college, a scientist named James McConnell published the results of his experiments with flatworms. Flatworms were stupid, difficult to teach, but he’d rehearsed them until the brightest reacted to light, learning its link to a simple shock that McConnell supplied. He pulled aside the best of those slow learners and halved those pupils to see whether their heads or tails, both of which survived, could exceed the coin flip of chance. And later, when they were completely regenerated, he doubled those gifted students again into dozens of nervous worms, ones that quivered as soon as the light flashed to prophesize the imminence of pain. They were learning, it seemed, to anticipate the agony of an artificial sunrise and the relief of darkness. Finally, eager to discover whether learning could be physically passed from one generation to another, he fed those that had mastered the simple association of light with pain to those without such training. The success he began to claim was that what one worm had learned could be transferred to another by a regulated cannibalism.
Here, he declared, was the possibility of outrunning the slow meander of evolution. He saw the future of humanity in the precocious curling of worms, memory a matter of gorging to omniscience. There were people who, after hearing of his experiment, dreamed of their children feeding upon them, how their fear and love and knowledge would be passed on to their children, keeping them, in one sense, alive.
“Pretty soon,” my father began to say at eighty-five, “I’ll be the only one who remembers the old days.” He told me his “growing up” stories over and over until it seemed as if he was feeding me his memory. I was a willing listener. I didn’t tell him that this was my version of revival, passing through the memories of future generations.
In November, I read that another new oldest living person has been certified, beginning her bout with the condensed celebrity of age. As always, the biography opens with the frequencies of cigarettes, beer, and deep-fried dinners. Nobody mentions those faraway villagers who once helped to sell yogurt based on its connection to longevity. The rustic-looking peasants in the television commercials were seen enjoying yogurt while the announcer claimed most of them were over one hundred years old and that some of them were one hundred and twenty or more.
I think of Joice Heth, the slave who nursed George Washington, yet lived to be displayed by P. T. Barnum at 161. Her secret, Barnum explained, was thinness, just forty-six pounds on her ancient frame, as if fasting, not yogurt, was the best defense against death.
My father, at ninety, is approaching half his former weight of 210 pounds. No matter what’s served, he cleans his plate; he craves a nightly snack. He hoards the cookies and candy he refused for more than eighty years, making himself sick with overeating in his nursing-home room.
And now, after more than eight decades of devotion to his church, he says nothing about eternal life, not even the back-lot pearly gates set piece of childhood. He says less and less, his sentences shrinking like cheap trousers until, during this visit, we share the long conversation of the unsaid, rehearsing the future.
For a few years, the headless woman was a staple at the county fair. Justina, she was named one summer, and the pitch man claimed she’d lost her head in a faraway Egyptian train wreck. One year her name was Tiffany, who’d been decapitated when her speeding car ran under a truck. The last one I saw in person was Britt, the bikini girl, beheaded by a shark, so lucky, like the others, to die near a doctor who could save her.
Impossible, I said, by that time in junior high school, but just after I spoke, Britt shuddered, letting me know she was suddenly cold. “What she deserves, dressed like that,” my mother observed. Britt’s alien silhouette was shadowed on the wall behind us, a threat of flexible tubing twisting up like new plumbing from her sliced, scarf-covered throat.
No matter their names, by then I understood that those women’s headless bodies were always going to be young and sexy, preserved for study as if research was driven by lust. The old and the heavy were left headless; nobody repaired boys who were reckless, a thing to consider. “Those women aren’t angels,” my mother cautioned. “Don’t you forget that.”
Which was fine with me. By that September, I was an eighth-grade smirker who wouldn’t admit that all I wanted was a brainless whore who knew only what touched her—my fingertips and tongue, my lips and warm breath. Right then I was wishing that if there were miracles, I’d rather have my body saved than my soul.
Sometimes there are verifiable revivals. It was claimed, recently, that an eighty-one-year-old man in Chile woke up in his coffin. Sitting up, dressed in his finest suit, he asked for a drink of water before rejoining his family.
Astonishing. Although it wasn’t long until the even more recent case of a two-year-old boy in Brazil who sat up in his coffin, asked his father for a drink of water, and then lay down and died again.
Sometimes, however, revival comes carrying the direct consequence of loss:
My student, years ago, was tagged incorrectly after an auto accident, his parents discovering the dead body of his friend when they were asked to verify his identity. Eventually, they were escorted to a private room so that the parents of the other young man, just arriving with anxiety and joy, would not cross their path. “Inconceivable” was how a colleague put it when we heard how they had to be told that a mistake had been made, the mother and father guided, at last, to confirm what everyone now understood to be the truth.
And sometimes revival can be extraordinarily terrible. Primo Levy tells this tale: During his days in a Nazi concentration camp, he was assigned to dispose of bodies after a gassing. On one of those occasions, a girl rose from the dead tangle of the gassed, and his work crew was saddened past despair because there was never charity in the camp, all of them knowing she would be returned to the gas, unbearably understanding what was coming, her resurrection so dreadful it would madden the living.
Some animals have returned from the dead, resurrected after a century extinct like the Cebu Flowerpecker or Jordan’s Courser, both of them sighted and confirmed by the radar of science.
It’s the work of Thomas, such confirmations, as close as laying fingertips to wounds. Consider the naturalist on Fiji who searched for Macgillivray’s Petrel; consider his optimism as he set out to lure the lost from extinction’s deep privacy. He spent a year sounding its call like a prayer against absence until one morning the long-missing bird flew into his head as if he were the object of desire.
Consider, too, how to present that news, breathlessly beginning, “Listen.” What’s next to say? Each thick history of belief is crammed with illustrations that depict the loneliness of the single sighting, the man, recently, who claimed he had seen the Ivory-billed Woodpecker sixty years after its case was closed tight by science. Without corroboration, he’s become the prophet for improbability, someone with a camera who sits still and loves the silence of expectation while every faint flutter of color turns into the promise that phantoms whisper.
During the 1950s, a Soviet surgeon named Vladimir Demikhov sewed the heads of puppies onto full-grown dogs. Both heads were alive. The puppies even lapped milk with their tongues, though it ran from their severed throats. This is how we will be revived one day, he said, meaning with the hearts and lungs of others. Tissue rejection killed those dogs in a month or less.
Those puppies must have wondered why the milk dribbled out behind them. Their heads remind me of old dolls, the way their rubber faces, always with their one expression of breast hunger, could be squeezed loose from their pink, sexless bodies.
Those full-grown dogs, on the other hand, must have been aggravated every moment by the nuisance of a second, useless head.
I’ve made a list of the times I might have died, yet, as my mother always said, “Lived to tell about it”:
Pneumonia—four bouts, each one relieved by antibiotics.
Being a passenger in a car driven by drunks or speeders—a good many times before the age of twenty-two, surviving each trip unscathed and discovering, months or years later, that several of those drivers eventually killed themselves behind the wheel.
Falling asleep while driving—not me, but the man who’d picked me up as I hitchhiked, a corn field fortunately level with the highway at the spot where he left the road.
The list doesn’t seem extraordinary except for the time that I braked my Volkswagen hatchback hard when a trailer truck I was passing suddenly veered into my lane. The hatchback locked into a four-wheel drift, lurching sideways across the median strip and through two lanes of oncoming, limited-access, speeding traffic, somehow missed by all of them before the tires, just as miraculously, caught on the opposite shoulder as I spun and ended up facing sideways.
I took a breath and chose a break in the traffic to cross back to my lanes, swerving into the passing lane where I’d been seconds before. Two miles later I exited and found myself behind that same truck at a stoplight. The truck driver climbed down and walked toward me. It was summer. The car wasn’t air conditioned. My window was open. He bent down and said, “Fuck, I’m so sorry. You must be sitting in it.”
It didn’t take his shaken expression to convince me I’d had something like a last-second pardon.
We visit my father a few days before Christmas. He nods off at short intervals, a signal, I’m sure, that something serious is happening to the amount of oxygen that is reaching his brain. During the four hours we are there, the only thing he responds to is an old album of photos. “Everybody in here is dead,” he says, able to name his sister and his three brothers, his two best friends, and three girlfriends, one of whom, near the end of the album, is my mother. His head sinks, one hand resting on her picture. I measure his breathing until he snaps back.
I talk to him by phone on Christmas, calling when I know my sister is there so she will answer and tell him it’s me. Twice, as we speak, I am sure he nods off because there is more than a minute without a response, not even a “That’s good.” Two days later, while I’m interviewing candidates in San Francisco for a position at my university, he dies.
His minister tells me that my father has fallen back into resurrection’s arms, his body surrendering its balance to the trust exam of eternity. He is intent on convincing me that all’s well, that the dead are always revived. He doesn’t ask me if I share that faith.
Gary Fincke is the Charles B. Degenstein Professor of English and Creative Writing and Director of the Writers Institute at Susquehanna University.
* I originally came upon some of the odd histories in Elephants on Acid and Other Bizarre Experiments by Alex Boese (Mariner Books 2007).