In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
Lately my mind is sunless and dim; my memories, like muted outlines of people lost wandering in a dense fog, appearing every now and again to remind me of some small or great event, are now more indistinct than ever. That is, I can barely remember what we ate for dinner last night...yet every so often a memory walks toward me, at random, gaining a bright lucidity as it draws near.
This morning such an image emerged from the hazy landscape, in complete detail, come to visit my shroudy mind.
In January 1988, just a few months before my grandma Eva's death, my grandparents attended a performance of Verdi's "Macbeth" at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. They had for many decades owned a near-priceless opera subscription, some of the very best seats in the house, mid-row just a few in from the stage for the very best sights and sound.
It was to be a regular Saturday afternoon, spent in music (and perhaps catching a cat nap when the recitative between arias dragged on a bit too long) and a light lunch in the city, at an understated restaurant where an old couple could pass an hour or two over lemon sole and dissection of the merits and flaws of the opera production...
The quiet enjoyment was broken apart in a sudden moment. I heard the disturbing news that evening, when my grandma, still in shock, called me at college to recount the tale: how she and Grandpa Max remained in their seats for the intermission, rattling their programs and chatting, taking a breather, forgoing the crowds searching out sustenance at the little bar...Grandpa said "Eva!", his lone cry lost in the collective gasp and cry of the audience remaining. Grandma looked sharply, grabbed Grandpa's hand and together they watched, as if in slow motion though it must have taken place in seconds: a man, falling straight from the very uppermost balcony, through endless air, the ruffling breeze from his descent and from the waving hands of the people unable to halt the terrible fall.
"It was so graceful," she told me.
I was not to know it yet then, but the falling man was a portent--his swift descent a suicide, a hard choice made in the final moments of despair--an awful sign (if I had known to look) of my grandma's death that warm May day a few months after, but hers an unwilling death, for she had more operas and luncheons to enjoy if she had only been able.
Though when I think of him, and her, now, the symmetry of their deaths, I'm comforted by an idea that takes shape: while he left his darkened world by fall, she left hers in flight.
To read in more detail of this strange and sad tale, visit the New York Times account.
Lines from "Musee des Beaux Arts" by Auden.