Mortality

by Stephen Jay Schwartz

He would have been 73 today.

He took his life twenty-five years ago, when I was twenty years old.

I’ve been thinking a lot about mortality lately. The triple-whammy celebrity toll didn’t help any. Ed McMahan, Farrah Fawcett, Michael Jackson.

I used to watch the Tonight Show when I was a kid, dreaming of the day I would sit on the sofa beside Johnny, laughing about the plot of the film I had in theaters at the time. Then Johnny died and so did that dream. Now Ed’s gone and the era is over.

I remember Farrah from Logan’s Run. Gorgeous. I wanted a flashing gem in the middle of my hand just so I could meet her. I was one of those boys who had her poster on the wall, too. Red bathing suit showing just enough up top to keep me up at night. I never did watch Three’s Company, but I sure did watch that poster.

I didn’t think much of Michael Jackson. He was kind-of disco era to me, and I was into Rush, Led Zeppelin, and Van Halen. Now I listen to his music and watch his dance moves and I have to agree with everyone else – the guy was amazing. Why didn’t I notice that before?

Last week I had a coroner-related question for my new novel. It had been about eight months since I last e:mailed the ME I knew at the LA County Coroner’s Office. I sent a note – “Hey, when you took me on that tour last year I thought I saw an X-ray machine. Do ME’s use X-ray machines, and under what circumstances?”

About five minutes later he sent an e:mail describing all the situations in which an X-ray machine would be used in helping to identify a body. I sent him another note a little later and he answered quickly again. Later, in the afternoon, I was driving and I heard his name announced on the radio and then I heard his voice saying, “We won’t have Mr. Jackson’s toxicology reports for another six weeks…” and I realized that he was doing the autopsy on Michael Jackson.

I e:mailed him the same day he had Michael’s body on the table.

I don’t know, but that kind-of freaked me out. The entire world was mourning Michael Jackson, and I had this strange, direct link to his most personal of personal possessions—his body.

It made me think of his body of work—what he left behind. I think it’s safe to say that Michael Jackson accomplished his great, artistic goals before passing on. He did what he came here to do. I would say that Ed McMahan, Johnny Carson, Farrah Fawcett, George Carlin…they said what they had to say.

It makes me think of mortality. Will I have enough time to say what I have to say? If I died tomorrow would my life have been fully realized? One novel, a couple short films, a few short stories, a bunch of unproduced screenplays, a documentary for the Discovery Channel. I think that about covers it.

But there are other things, too. A beautiful wife and two incredible boys. I’d rather have those two boys than the ten novels I didn’t write these past ten years. I know it doesn’t have to be one or the other, but I could have made a lot of headway with the career if I hadn’t been the sole breadwinner, responsible for the lives of four. However, I have a lot of single friends who managed to get a lot of good work done, but they don’t have children to sit with in the park, collecting potato bugs.

Stephen Sondheim’s musical “Sunday in the Park with George” makes it pretty clear for me—the most important things we leave behind are children and art.

And so I think again about my father. He took his own life. He would have been seventy-three today. What did he leave behind? The daughter-in-law he would never meet. The grandchildren who would never hold his hand.

He was a doctor and that was his art. After he died I was given the opportunity to take things from his walk-in closet. His wife permitted me that. I asked for one thing only. His medical bag. I saw her gasp at the thought—of course, it really was the essence of the man. One little black bag said it all.

I am his legacy and I carry his legacy. I set the bag upon the bed and open it for my children, his grandchildren, to examine. They run their fingers over the rough, black leather. Feel the pigskin bumps. Read the name printed in gold script above the latch – Doctor Larry R. Schwartz. Play with a twenty-five year old stethoscope, listening to each other’s heartbeats. Dig around the tools of his trade, the instruments of his art.

I think he had more to say. I don’t really think he did what he had come into this world to do.

My wife and I end all of our cards to each other with the same sentence. It’s from “Sunday in the Park with George” again. It’s about the process of living in this world, creating in this world, and sharing what we create in this world. It’s really quite simple:

Give us more to see…

13 thoughts on “Mortality

  1. Zoë Sharp

    Beautiful post, Stephen. Losing your father that way clearly had a profound and long-lasting effect on you and the lives of all those closest to him.

    As I’ve said before, though, life is a one-lap race. A one-shot deal. You have to grab it while it’s hot and hold on tight.

    But sometimes holding on is so much harder than letting go.

    Reply
  2. Jude Hardin

    Great post. As I approach my 49th birthday, these are things I think about as well. Also, I think about how much time I should spend seeking publication at this point…

    BTW, Farrah was on Charlie’s Angels, not Three’s Company. 🙂

    Reply
  3. PK the Bookeemonster

    Very nice thoughts. I, too, have had a period of reflection of what is meant by our lives. I recently — and am still recovering from — an illness that landed me in the hospital for a week where, if one has ever been thus incarcerated, gives one lots of thinking time. As a formerly healthy 40-something year old, the experience has provided incredible perspective and food for thought on what is to be done with the time left (knock wood, 40-50 more years). To bring this back on a book topic, reading and writing of fiction gives us the opportunity to explore many options in our imagination and definitely to have much-needed entertainment as we mosey along. What a wonderful gift to the world.

    Reply
  4. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    It’s so funny that I didn’t catch that, Jude. Of course, Charlie’s Angels. Well, I didn’t watch either of them, apparently. And, for that matter, it pissed me off when John Ritter died, too!

    Thanks for your kind words, too, Zoe.

    Reply
  5. Louise Ure

    My father has been gone much longer, Stephen. Forty-one years already. And he would have been 100 this year (imagine that!). But I, too, still treasure his black medical bag, the dried out stethoscope and yellowed syringes.

    As for "life’s work?" I’m proud of what I’ve said and what I’ve stood for and what I’ve done. I could say THE END with no regrets. (Feel free to quote that, you guys if I get hit by a falling star or a San Francisco bus or something.)

    Reply
  6. Pari

    Stephen,
    Thank you for this moving post.
    I’ve been thinking about mortality for a long, long time. All my parents are gone — and I was blessed with more than most people have.

    As for my life’s work, it’s my family. I cherish my writing and creativity but it’s those two glorious children and what they’ll do in the world that make my heart sing every day.

    Reply
  7. JT Ellison

    Stephen, I left a long drawn out comment earlier that seems to have disappeared. Suffice it to say you’re right on the money – and I’m so sorry about your Dad. xo

    Reply
  8. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    JT – awwww, man, I wish I coulda read your comment. Very sweet of you to think about me, though. Thanks for the nice words.

    Reply

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