Cover image for Second chance : a life after death
Second chance : a life after death
Barrett, Marvin.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Parabola Books, [1999]

Physical Description:
xvi, 205 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
General Note:
Sequel to: Spare days.

Includes index.
Personal Subject:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
PS3552.A7347 Z4628 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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On March 4, 1983, Marvin Barrett almost died. After his brush with death, Barrett recognised a reprieve and a challenge in the old age he had once dreaded. This book chronicles the events surrounding and following his brush with death by cardiac arrest. It reveals ageing to be a rich and blessed experience.

Reviews 1

Publisher's Weekly Review

"I died and was born again," writes Barrett of his near-death experience in 1984 at age 63. There was no tunnel with a light at the end, no life review, but rather, a green, seductive, luminous slope. This book, which consists of journal excerpts written between 1984 and 1990, is a sequel of sorts to Spare Days (1988), in which this former Time and Newsweek journalist described his battle against cancer with clarity and eloquence. Barrett's central message that old age is potentially the best stage of life, a time of freedom for significant thought and action, is a welcome one. But his musings, though clearly heartfelt, are less than fresh, even obvious (life "is a privilege, a treasure, not to be wasted, rejected, even for a minute"). Barrett led an interesting life in the 1980s, and much of what he reports on is notable. He tells of travels to Israel and to India, where he visits "holy Englishman" Father Bede Griffiths in his ashram; recalls his 1946 sojourn at the Southern California spiritual retreat of English guru Gerald Heard; records travel impressions, ranging from Seattle to his hometown of Des Moines, Iowa; and re-creates encounters with Max Lerner and Paul Nitze. There are sporadic phone calls from his father-in-law, composer Irving Berlin, a recluse during the 1980s, and reminiscences of happier times with Berlin decades earlier. Sprinkled with quotes on aging, faith and death from Jung, Tennyson, Goethe, Braque, Augustine and Brillat-Savarin, this thoughtful daybook works best in those moments when Barrett writes with simple directness, as when he discusses his delight in his grandson or the beauty of the Italian village of Taormina. (Mar.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One 1984 THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST CRATER LAKE, OREGON. Six A.M. The cabin we booked yesterday, the last visitors before the snows set in, is cold and dark. I have dressed quickly and am pulling on my shoes when Mary Ellin stirs, groans, asks what time it is, says, "Oh, for God's sake Marvin, come back to bed. You're supposed to be taking it easy," and hides her head under the pillow.     Outside a crescent moon shines through high, thin clouds. There is one bright star in a clear patch of western sky: a yellow V in the east. The lake, bottomless blue, is silvered now--the sky slowly lightening--the rim of the ancient water-filled mountain black. On my side of the lake are tall pines; on the far shore, a low silhouette of hills. In the parking lot is one car. A jogger goes by calling out "good morning," his breath visible. A light comes on in the big shed that houses the store and cafeteria.     The yellow in the eastern sky widens; yellow turns to orange, orange to pink. A high cloud stretches above the hills with a belly of light under the furry black. One star is gone. Another. The morning star in the east still shines through the frail clouds. The moon is a crescent in a blurred circle just large enough to contain it.     I have always been addicted to sunrises but this one seems to carry a particular message and question. Why have I survived to see a sunrise over Crater Lake? What am I, the barely recovered dead man, doing standing, inadequately clothed, in a frigid parking lot, admiring the view?     But then, shouldn't anyone who lives past sixty ask himself, ask herself, "Why have I survived to do anything? What am I doing here?" These are questions that should have been asked long ago. But now they are urgent. Why am I still here? How have I, who was dead last winter, arrived on the edge of this eerily beautiful, forbidding lake to watch the sunrise?     There can be no question that survival, on the shores of Crater Lake or anywhere, is the central miracle of life--the validating miracle--that we survive into the fertile egg, survive birth, infancy, childhood, adolescence--one threshold after another hesitantly, triumphantly crossed. Why shouldn't old age be the greatest triumph of all?     The sun is now up, white in the eastern sky. Buried in the dark western clouds, there is a smudged rainbow, a wavering circle of many colors, small, hovering, not arching, as though it had seeped through, and with no end in either direction. The lake is dark and deep and perfectly round.     Across the parking lot, Mary Ellin walks toward me looking cross. "It's been an hour. What are you doing? Where is your scarf? Why are you ... ?" And then looking at the dark circle of the lake, the luminous sky above, she is silent. The Abbot Bessarion, dying, said, "The monk should be all eyes, like the Cherubim and Seraphim." So, I say, should be the old, the about-to-be old. * * * TWO DAYS WITH THE REDWOODS, driving through them, walking in them. These trees have something to say about old age--the beauty and awesomeness of survival--independent of their enormous size, their silence, and their sheer extension in time. Still, you don't have the feeling of awe, as you do with old buildings, at what these stones have witnessed, or as you might have with rocks and fossils, that they were there millions of years ago when horrendous, amazing, unsurvivable things were going on. The redwoods have another kind of presence, a sort of being apart from memory and beyond the power to evoke past history. The possibility that one of these trees was alive here on this spot when on the opposite side of the earth Jesus was preaching or Nero fiddling seems irrelevant. They are the important thing, standing there, growing there. So is an aged human. But age is a credit that must be recognized and called in. One says, "I am old." I am old--and that is my identification, my label. Without acknowledgment there is no credit, no vision. * * * SEATTLE. This is my first time back to this city since the spring of 1942 when, as an ensign in the Navy, I awaited assignment to the Aleutians--Adak, Dutch Harbor, or worse. I was fresh from a two-month stint of small-craft training in San Francisco Bay that didn't take, and a detour south for a conference with the English polymath Gerald Heard on the religious life, that did. I was a suddenly pious ensign, about to be a woefully unprepared executive officer on a mine sweep patrolling the stormy Bering Sea, a disaster waiting to happen.     And then, at the last minute, there was a miraculous reprieve, a temporary assignment to a desk job in Seattle, my papers mislaid. By the time they were found, eleven months later, I was up to six hours of prayer a day and had made two friends, Rose and Gustave Aschermann, who lived above Lincoln Park with an unobstructed view of Puget Sound and, on fine days, the whole majestic straggle of the Olympics.     Disciples of Gerald Heard, the Aschermanns were small and spare, white-haired and wide-eyed. Rose was delicate as a feather, with a Louise Brooks bob and fluttering hands. Gustave was monolithic, Sumerian, not a wrinkle. "The simple life--" they said, welcoming me into their board-and-batten cabin, "We try to lead the simple life as best we can."     They read to each other, and to me, when I was around, their favorite books--"our blueprints for survival": Whitman, Edward Carpenter, Tolstoy, Ouspensky, Paul Buck, Vivekananda, Huxley, and Heard ("our beloved teacher"). They served me carrot loaf, spoonbread, tapioca, gluten-burgers, and shaggy mane mushrooms which Rose and I gathered in the park below. No smokes, no spirits, no meat. Starving me, boring me, soothing me. Youth encountered peaceful, uncomplaining old age and moved on, down the coast, across the Pacific, on his own trip. Now the youth is old himself--a resonant way to tell time.     The cabin, the steep garden, the spectacular view I had hoped to show Mary Ellin are gone, wiped out by a neighborhood of shingled condominiums.     "You must have been the navy's weirdest ensign," my wife tells me now, not for the first time. She too had been in Seattle before--in the late 1930s, a firm-gazed ten-year-old with black no-nonsense bangs, confidently boarding the yacht chartered by her father, Irving Berlin, the world-famous songwriter--a spoiled brat, ready for a month of having fun, fishing, exploring, loafing, playing games, an idle summer before the war without a glimmer of what would come next. On the other side of town we visit Morgan O'Brien, Mary Ellin's cousin, who once with his raffish, well-heeled buddies was the terror of Southampton, Long Island. Now he is settled with his attractive Midwestern wife and two sturdy sons in a pleasant McKinley-style house on a street of such houses. Morgan in three generations has descended from indecent wealth to modest middle-class comfort.     We exchange family gossip. Aunt Kay's sapphires had gone to Uncle Bob's second wife, not to Cousin Katie as they should have. The mansion on the Truckee River where Aunt Kay reigned for many years as queen of Reno is now a museum.     Morgan, who in advancing years has not only given up drink and brawling but become a thoughtful Catholic, tells me that the very large solid silver crucifix bolted to the dining room wall had been a wedding gift from the notorious Boss Tweed to his parents.     "That is not possible," Mary Ellin corrects later back in our hotel room. "Boss Tweed was dead long before Aunt Kay and Uncle Ken were born, long before our Grandfather Mackay married our grandmother. You must have misunderstood. Or it is probably just another of Morgan's stories. Age may have dampened his carousing but not his tall tales." * * * HALFWAY UP MOUNT RAINIER, the holy mountain--we won't go higher, 5,000 feet is now my specified limit--Mary Ellin challenges me: "Don't be a fool. Sixty-four is not old."     "It is if I say it is. If I want it to be."     She shakes her head. She doesn't see the charm, the fascination, the advantage of being old. At home are her parents, her father ninety-seven, her mother eighty-one, not enjoying it a bit. " That is old," she says as we drive back down. "Not you." One of old age's reliefs, if not an absolute pleasure, should be the disappearance of the need always to be right, always to stand up to someone younger's contention that we are in error, to be able to hold, as the saying goes, our peace.     Still, without saying it, I am old. If you will accept its credentials, age validates everything. It is a real second chance--life itself being the first--another opportunity without ambiguity--no shading, no tricks--for those who haven't found their way and those who have, alike.     Old age is the final leveler. It teaches the same lesson to everyone, rich and poor, wise and foolish, learned and ignorant--to spoiled brat, weird ensign, and Southampton playboy. We ask the same questions about the reason for life--the use of life--the purpose of life--the meaning of life--whatever you choose to call it. The mystery is like the dark tarn of Crater Lake, or the bright saw of the Olympics obliterated by a shingled condominium, or Mount Rainier shrouded in mist, or the Oregon cliff off which a young man in a hang glider sailed yesterday. He circled and then dropped softly, trippingly in the sand at our feet where we were having dinner in a small Pacific cove, the last flight, the last fall before dark.     If one believes that old age offers something uniquely worthwhile, better, or at least as good in its way as anything the earlier part of life offered--and I believe it does --then relinquishing the prime-of-life prizes--their reality (or more likely, their illusion), their hope, their possibility --should be a natural gesture. And do we really have a choice? Even if we are among those who have attained or been given power, fame, beauty, talent, sexual satisfaction, wealth (squandered or invested or hoarded), we will in the face of old age eventually have to give them up, although perhaps at the next-to-the-last minute.     But these are the very attachments that Christ, the Buddha, all the sentimental nineteenth-century divines, any spiritual director worth his or her salt, have said must go, or at least be ignored or looked beyond, if we are finally to understand. Instead for us the process of growing old too often induces panic--a spastic clutching at those very things that if we cling to them will surely sink us, and which already, earlier in life, have kept us from seeing, doing, being.     Freedom is, or should be, the synonym for old age--a free hand, a free view, the possibility of disinterested and significant thought and action--soaring and gently dropping, a free fall before night. "He who lives with a sense for the presence knows that to get older does not mean to lose time but rather to gain time. And he also knows that in all his deeds, the chief task of man is to sanctify time. All it takes to sanctify time is God, a soul, and a moment. And the three are always here." Are we supposed to thank Rabbi Abraham Heschel, holy and hard-nosed, strictly twentieth century, for reminding us of this upsetting fact? But isn't to be upset the whole point? * * * ON THE COAST DRIVE. We have been warned, by sign after sign as we approach, of "an experience not to be missed," the cave of the sea lions. A ticket booth, an elevator descending through live rock, and there the sea lions are in their towering grotto in the flickering water-refracted light, yelping, moaning, halumphing from rock to rock with their formidable hips glistening, more hips than an hippopotamus. It is, I suddenly recognize it, the first act of Tannhauser , and we are the audience, who stand transfixed, ignoring the horrid smell, and seeing the reflection in the wobbling, shimmering water of the western sea--Venusburg minus the goddess.     But there is someone in charge, on a high rock surveying all the noise and confusion--an old bull, greying and serene. A morning is spent wandering through a dark, twisted forest of petrified trees, broken trunks and branches embedded in, and struggling out of, a grey frozen sludge of lava, a catastrophe six thousand years old. SAN FRANCISCO THE SECOND most beautiful city on earth. Elizabeth, our oldest child, has chosen well: a talented composer husband, and a home at the top of a hill, the third floor of a grey wooden survivor of the great earthquake and fire of 1906, high-ceilinged and spacious.     We visit her at the job she loves; she is librarian in a small girls' school, recommending and reading her favorite books to children like those we hope some day she will have. Slender, with long, shiny hair, her mother's elegant features and widely spaced hazel eyes, she bends over the youngsters gathered in a circle around her, the floor striped with the slanting California light. It has been a morning of churches. Glide Memorial at nine with the flower children in calico and jeans praying for the old; Grace Cathedral at eleven with the old folks in flannels and Liberty prints and the well-dressed middle-aged out in numbers, praying for everyone, including themselves.     When I was teenager it seemed that a disproportionate number of people in church were old. My grandparents and those of their generation were the church regulars. My parents and their contemporaries, except for the Catholics and the Jews and a few maiden ladies, had mostly foresworn the comforts and inconveniences of faith in favor of the more obvious satisfactions of maturity. There is time enough, with your wits, your senses dulled, your courage failed, your family scattered, for you to turn back, to become that old gentleman sitting silent in a forward pew, that old lady telling her beads in front of the Virgin and the banks of guttering candles.     Now I acknowledge openly that such devotion is desirable at any age, in any condition, and it seems that, at least this morning, the world agrees. Living with old age is rather like living in San Francisco. You know at some moment, any moment, the terminal cataclysm may come, and you and this magnificent place surrounding you will go up in flames, down in a torrent of bricks, be engulfed in a wall of water. But when you are young, as Elizabeth and her husband Sasha are, you are right to ignore the threat that seems more than balanced by the beauty, the good living. You can't take each step or breath or bite as though it may be your last and in the next instant the amazing stage-set will be struck and there will be no place to put your foot, lay your head, or set your teeth.     Still the precariousness is a fact, and not only for you, but for everyone. Remembering it and forgetting it are pretty much the same. And there in your head is Jeannette MacDonald singing her heart out as the chandeliers begin to sway. * * * ON THE FLIGHT HOME my reading is And There Was Light , the remarkable autobiography of a blind French civil servant, Jacques Lusseyran. As a teenager he was a leader of the Resistance who ended up in Buchenwald. His observations, sharpened by his blindness and peril: Last of all there were the old men, the old Russians and all the rest, the French, the Poles, the Germans. From them too I always learned something. Because, you see, the bad old men, all those who hadn't found out how to grow old, had died. At Buchenwald many died between fifty and sixty-five. That was the age for the great slaughter, and almost all the survivors were good men. As for them, they were no longer there. They were looking at the world, with Buchenwaldin the middle of it, from further away. They absorbed Buchenwald as part of the great outpouring of the universe, but already they seemed to belong to a better world. I found nothing but gladness in the men over seventy. That is what you had to do to live in the camp: be engaged, not live for yourself alone. The self-centered life has no place in the world of the deported. You must go beyond it, lay hold on something outside yourself. Never mind how: by prayer if you know how to pray; through another man's warmth which communicates with yours, or through yours which you pass on to him; or simply by no longer being greedy. Those happy old men were like the hoboes. They asked nothing more for themselves, and that put everything within their reach. WATER MILL, LONG ISLAND THE DOG HAS BEEN HERE two and a half days now. One of the things I thought of first when I was told I had cancer, that some sort of definite term might have been put to my life, was that I'd get myself a dog to help mark the time. And now, the dog's arrival has been made by me into an occasion for panic--or worse than that--anxiety and guilt.     Two years ago the Columbia University/DuPont Awards would have been what kept me awake. The TV show celebrated "the Pulitzers of Broadcast Journalism" which were my responsibility. Then my anxiety was concerned with the mistakes I could have made with the whole world watching, the unpredictable news anchors who were my star performers given free rein, their egos rampant.     Now anxiety has become the dog and guilt the cat. The cat, my first acquisition to celebrate my retirement, was named Pippo for San Filippo Neri and/or Phillips Brooks--both big, peaceful, holy men. Pippo is a big, placid cat but now he seems to be brooding, is off his food; it is my fault for bringing this larger, darker, doggy presence into his territory. And the dog: What is that thin patch on her back? Is she really happy in her new home? Healthy? Am I, in my frail condition, up to her care and exercise? (Mary Ellin is not a dog person.) Wasn't it irresponsible of me to even think, after all these dogless years, of acquiring a dog, and a big one at that?     Anxiety is the crab that fixes itself on something, anything, no matter how large or small, how fresh or spoiled. The crab I had to shake free from the seaman's knitted cap I found on the beach this afternoon, intact, washed across the sea--the sailor now inhabited by crabs, of coral made. The crab--cancer--a feeder on the young and old alike.     The dog, named Molly, is one of the first Portuguese Water Dogs to be bred on this side of the ocean, an "important" animal, according to the Animal Rescue Fund, although she is barely three years old and up for adoption free of charge. Her actual name is Condesa do Mar , "Countess of the Sea."     The vet tells me she is strong and well and the thin patch is a seasonal allergy that will disappear. Pippo the cat has come out of his funk. And now it is Mary Ellin I have to worry about: How will she put up with the dog's sleeping on the sofa? And where now will the cat sleep? And so it goes--until I acknowledge my age and my opportunity, my duty as an old man to be guiltless and anxiety free. Fussing, the last resort of the under-occupied, must go as well. Lohan Hoshang of Shoshu, a Chinese Buddhist, recounts how a Master he met on his wanderings resolved all his anxieties by a blow to his chest. This all of a sudden exploded my lump of doubt completely in pieces. Raising my head, I perceived for the first time that the sun was circular. Since then I have been the happiest man in the world, with no fears, no worries. Day in, day out, I pass my time in a most lively way. Only I notice my inside filled with a sense of fullness and satisfaction. I do not go out any longer, hither and thither, with my begging bowl. Such a blow was essentially how I was brought back from death at St. Luke's Hospital. It was no C'han Master who struck me on the chest, but a young Jewish intern. The paddles followed. As for fears and worries, that remains to be seen. It is a brilliant, cool day. Among the roseate finches at the feeder there was, for a moment, a gold one. Although Pippo is attentive, waiting upon chance to deliver him an inattentive bird, Molly is indifferent to both the rabbits in the backyard and the chipmunks who loiter beneath the feeder to catch falling seed. Nor, despite her breed, does she fancy the water when I take her to the beach. High-spirited and carefree, off her leash she bounds into the dunes. She has none of that nervous alertness that possesses hunters of any sex or species, no fears, no worries. She barks when Mary Ellin and I stand talking by the kitchen counter. To stop us? To join us? To get us to sit down and take it easy? IOWA IN RESPONSE to a cousin's invitation to a family reunion, we are traveling again. "I don't know that I saved your life to go for a long weekend in Des Moines," my wife tells me.     "You saved my life?"     Mary Ellin explains it wasn't anything so simple as commandeering a patrol car and getting me to the hospital in the nick of time. "It was telling whoever or whatever was up there (she points to the plane's ceiling) not to let you die."     "Well, "I reply. "You know what that means. To save someone's life makes you responsible for them from then on, however long that may be, however ungrateful and disagreeable they are or may become."     "I know."     "Even for a long weekend in Des Moines."     "Is that a threat?" It has been nearly forty years since I lived in Des Moines--this place which every baggy-pants comic, every late-night TV host considers fair game. Fourteen years since I paid my last visit (with my wife, our four children, three teenagers, and a fresh ten-year-old, plus a daughter's boyfriend along for the hilarious ride). But as far as my memories and my dreams are concerned, Des Moines is no joke.     This city which blurs in every direction into open fields remains my home. It is where I grew up, where my mother and father and his mother were born and raised--the capital of a state where two of my great grandfathers, a Scotch blacksmith and a Dutch cabinet maker, were pioneers.     Now the cousins on the Dutch, the Kruidenier side of the family, a grey-haired lot--some better dressed, some friendlier than others--are converging for a reunion in Des Moines and Pella, the small farming community where most of us share our roots. We are here to honor the relative we have in common, Daniel the cabinet maker.     On my last visit here I was still concerned about the effect my Eastern wife and children might have on the members of the family who had stayed on, and their effect on us. Now, thanks to my new disposition, I have no such concern. Whatever our current abode, our destination is the same.     The Des Moines of my dreams and memory is a leafy place with spreading elms, low-pitched roofs, and quiet front yards. But the giant trees which once made an arching corridor of the town's main thoroughfare, and canopied its parks and lawns, are long since gone, destroyed by elm disease. And the city's center looks as though it had been ground under some giant heel of glass and steel, and the heel had become the city. The fusty downtown of fifty years ago now is a clump of glassy skyscrapers connected by elevated walks. A plaza with a giant Oldenburg umbrella has replaced the rundown Coliseum where Nijinsky, Chaliapin, Paderewski, Kreisler, and Madame Schuman-Heink had once performed and which, by my time, was accommodating the dog show, the auto show, and Aimee Semple Macpherson.     As a freshman on a shaky scholarship (three B's and a C at November hours) returning from Harvard, I remember thinking that Des Moines, which seemed so large and authentic when I left, was no city at all but a dirty smudge pinned to the prairie by the white-topped Equitable Life Insurance Building, the tallest in the state. There on the eighteenth floor my Aunt Ada Barrett (the other side of the family) sat at her desk passing judgment on claims mailed in by the heirs of recently dead farmers. What a thrill it was to take the elevator to the top floor, stare down from her window at the gold-domed capitol, the fair grounds beyond, knowing that in the corner office sat Aunt Ada's boss, the richest, most important man in all of Iowa.     Now the Equitable is only the fourth tallest building in town, a greying spindle surrounded by shining, towering boxes. At the top of one of those shining boxes in a new penthouse club, we have dinner the night of our arrival with Cousin David, once a stocky little boy with a scowl, now publisher of the Des Moines Register --a leading citizen, smart, affable, with an edge--and a highly intelligent, good-looking lawyer wife. During most of the dinner he and Mary Ellin are deep in conversation. "What were you talking about?" I ask her afterwards. " Your subject," she answers. "Old age." They had been discussing his mother, my Aunt Florence, at the far end of her eighties, and Mary Ellin's father, halfway through his nineties.     The question was, Who is worse off--the frail, querulous but clear-in-the-head old man, waiting it out in his top floor hideaway in New York City overlooking the East River, or the old lady, healthy, cheerful and gaga in a luxury condominium in La Jolla--one minutely aware of his condition and deploring it, the other happy in her oblivion? It was, of course, no contest. The clear head and misery won out. * * * If Des Moines, elmless and glassed over, is an affront, Pella, fifty miles to the south and east, where the chartered bus full of aging Kruideniers takes us, is quite another thing. The Dutch built to last. The trees and tulip beds remain. Three of Grandfather Dirk's houses stand, one house cut in half to make two. A fourth, burnt to the ground, is back in replica. The town square where Dirk and his brother Lenhardt had their general store, where cousin Herman Van Zante's hardware emporium was just off the corner (on each visit he gave my brother and me new wooden shoes), is as I remember it. There is Jaarsma's bakery where each Christmas my mother ordered our initials in almond-filled pastry. There is the butcher where we bought Dutch baloney and kumine kaas , the cheese filled with tiny fragrant seeds which you could buy nowhere else. Nothing seems expanded, nothing decayed. Even the people, farmers and solid Dutch burghers, look the same, although I am already three generations past my first memory. And above us is a red and brown mackerel sky, a prairie sunset I had almost forgotten.     We are in for a long evening of food and family chatter, and a program to celebrate Great-grandfather Daniel, the cabinet maker, at Central College in the austere modern building that is being given in his name by Cousin David. The gentleman on stage, no relative of ours but a historian, knows more about our ancestors than we do: Great-grandfather Daniel arrived in 1855 from Rotterdam by packet, six weeks to cross the North Atlantic, another three weeks by train, and finally a wagon with a canvas cover to protect his wife and eight children, his household, and his tools--ready to set up shop on the Iowa prairie.     The Dutch, unlike the Irish, the Mediterraneans, and the Eastern Europeans, arrived, our friend on stage tells us, "complete." No rags to riches stories as in Mary Ellin's family, no tenement or mining-camp squalor to rise above--no waiting for, or going back to fetch abandoned wives and children. The Dutch came with expectations defined. And Pella, where the Rotterdam Kruideniers settled, drew a classier crowd than Holland, Michigan, the Midwest's premier Dutch settlement where my mother's mother, Wilhelmina Plugger, the daughter of a Great Lakes ship-owner, was born and raised.     This great-grandfather, who lived to eighty-eight, seems beyond the grasp of my imagination--although when all of us, one by one, his male descendants, have our pictures taken standing by his portrait, I am told I am the most like.     The next generation is within reach. Daniel's youngest son, Dirk, my grandfather, though he died four years before I was born, is accessible to my mind. I can chart the trajectory of his life--his solid success as a small town merchant, the houses he built in Pella which he and his family eventually outgrew, the farms and business he bought to leave to his three sons. It was he who moved the family from Pella to Des Moines, the state capital.     I too can participate in the simple domestic horror of his death during a family dinner, as recalled by my cousin Ed, the oldest grandchild, then aged four, who was there to witness it. Who else was present besides little Ed? My three uncles, Leonard, David and Edward? Aunt May, Edward's pretty, unhappy wife? My own mother, the youngest (she never mentioned it), her older sisters, Elizabeth and Helene? My grandmother, certainly. She would have supervised the preparation and serving of the meal. She was suddenly brutally bereaved by a man too young to die--a man my age. Ed, a precise, elegantly dressed bachelor, is now himself past seventy. * * * THE NEXT DAY in Des Moines, a grey day, very grey, with fat heavy clouds, fatter and greyer than we get in the East. Cousins Catherine and Angelica, daughter and granddaughter of Uncle Leonard, drive us to the family cemetery.     At the bottom of Grand Avenue, a funeral cortege cuts in ahead of us--a hearse, two big black autos filled with family, followed by a leisurely procession of perhaps fifty nondescript cars with their lights on. (On the Long Island Expressway the processions, limousines only, go as fast as the rest of us.)     We wait, then follow the cars up the avenue and turn off at 42nd Street to catch a glimpse of my Kruidenier uncles' houses, south of Grand, once huge, now modestly large, comfortable, tenanted by strangers.     Back on Grand Avenue I point out Grandfather Barrett's house where, at the bottom of the walk, on Sunday afternoons we would wait in our Chevrolet while my father's father went through the rooms for the third time, checking every door--front, back and cellar--the refrigerator, the furnace, puttering, pottering, putting off to the last moment his departure. In this dwelling his wife of forty years had recently died and his son Bill, his daughter-in-law, and granddaughter occupied cramped quarters on the third floor.     Uncle Bill--I remember him vividly--was restless like myself, eager to explore another world beyond the one he was born into. In my memory there is Bill with his patent leather hair, in his band leader's tux, the accordion on his flat belly all buttons and bellows, mother-of-pearl and dazzling white teeth--accordion and Uncle Bill both. Bill Barrett's Cardinals said his letterhead with a bright red bird in the upper left-hand corner. His band covered Iowa, venturing as far south and west as Kansas City (Jimmy Lunceford, Count Basie, and Julia Lee), and north to the suburbs of Chicago (Bix and Louie)--he knew them all. Reefer madness--no, not quite that, a drag or two between sets. The accordion was regularly hocked. Grandpa Barrett just as regularly redeemed it; he wasn't as mean as he sometimes seemed, at least not where Bill was concerned. Bill ended up in Southern California, clerking in a neighborhood hardware store.     At the cemetery the funeral is there ahead of us, a crowd gathered by a tent set up on the slope across from the Kruidenier family plot, heads bowed, a man in black holding a book.     Strangely, the graveyard does not seem to have spread and grown like the town around it, no new stretches opened and covered with graves. Those graves already there have been stripped of their special plantings--no flowers, no bushes, just grass, healthy weedless grass, well kept. Grandmother and Grandfather Kruidenier, Helene, Ed, David--all are buried there at the foot of the big weather-stained granite obelisk. Mother and Uncle Leonard are in San Diego where most of the family ended up until they were shipped back in boxes to this final resting place; Aunt Elizabeth, the family rebel, the oldest and best-looking of a handsome brood, is I don't know where.     We go on north to the Barrett plot. Again a grandfather and a grandmother, William Edwin, Letta Galbraith, Aunt Ada, and my brother Eddie--Edwin Galbraith Barrett, 1925-1928. Dead before his elders, he is the only one of my generation, Kruidenier or Barrett, buried here. The small white house with the pillared porch, 1408 Forestdale Drive, where I spent the first eighteen years of my life, plus two--and return to at least once a fortnight in my dreams. It is still there, apparently unchanged.     A young man in shirtsleeves opens the door; behind him is a heavily pregnant young woman and deeper in the shadows of the living room a silent, ancient parent. They invite us in, since that is what we seem to want. Their taste isn't my mother's but the living room is recognizable, the same size and shape, the same windows and beamed ceiling, fireplace and mantel. I could furnish it from memory: the high-backed wicker chair with the hollow arms for magazines or darning that my mother kept repainting until it ended a defiant Chinese red; the gutted player piano in the far corner, on the music rack "The Song Is Ended," "Chloe," "The World is Waiting for the Sunrise," "The Indian Love Lyrics."     "Pale hands I loved beside the Shalimar; Where are you now?" Poppa sang in his formidable bass with his accompanist Cousin Nellie, a small spare woman with strong hands at the piano. "And now, perhaps Marvin will favor us with a selection." "The Scarf Dance"--my recital piece. We were a musical family.     Under the front windows was the daybed, Great-grandfather Daniel's master work--made of native walnut, spooled and finialed with a gracefully curved back and legs. They laid me on it the winter I fractured my skull in a sledding accident and watched me aghast as I left them. "Gone," said the family doctor, and then gave me the shot that brought me back--the first of my miraculous round trips.     It was the year my brother Eddie was born.     Upstairs in the attic where my brother Dirk and I slept (the baby had been given our downstairs bedroom) the dormer windows in winter were frozen fast and thick with frost, and in summer opened wide to invite a nonexistent breeze. The current owners have added air conditioning and a bathroom to accommodate Grandma. The house that was built to greet me on my arrival on the planet is scrubbed with a shine to it. It is obviously still cherished.     At the top of the hill we pass the curb where I stood and saw Eddie destroyed. One minute I was holding his hand, the next my hand was empty. The car--the sound of tires on macadam--the bonny boy reduced to a dull thud that I'll never forget. On the plane home we ask ourselves about our long weekend. Whatever else, it certainly had not been boring. But had it raised ghosts or laid them to rest? "Do you wish you had never left?" is one of the questions Mary Ellin asks sometimes, hoping to catch me unawares.     "No," I say firmly, but not at once.     Mary Ellin pauses and then tells me about the rest of her conversation with Cousin David that first night. How my brother Eddie's death not only lowered my family into deep shadow, but cast a pall on David's own privileged childhood. How he and his sisters were told more than once what might happen to them if they didn't look both ways before crossing the street. They had been introduced to the reality of death, although in their neighborhood with its broad lawns and long driveways the threat of traffic, of death, seemed dim and distant. "Look both ways," a lesson for kids and for the aging grown-ups we had all become. "You must live," our family osteopath had told me, a shaky young man on his first desperate return after four years of war and a disastrous year at a West Coast religious commune, "as if today were your last, and as if you would live forever." Dr. P., a tall statue of a woman with a magnificent head of Titian hair and strong arms, was the family love object and sibyl. "Marvin," she would say as she kneaded my back and cracked my vertebrae, "Just remember this: Tomorrow is the first day of the rest of your life."     Had my dying last March confirmed Dr. P.'s cross-stitch platitudes or ripped them out? I look at Mary Ellin in the seat beside me, the current woman-in-charge, for a long time now--and refrain from asking. NEW YORK AND WATER MILL BACK HOME on Claremont Avenue, I was called to the phone to speak to my new hotshot editor. He was much displeased that I hadn't met the deadline for the book I had promised months before, an autobiography cantilevered from my youthful reminiscences of Ronald Reagan from the time when he had been a sports announcer on radio station WHO, Iowa's clear-channel station, heard as far away as Schenectady to the east, and Butte, Montana to the west. There, at WHO, my father, brother Dirk, and I--"Captain Bill, Jimmy and Teddy"--fed the young Dutch Reagan the largest audience of ten-year-olds in the Middle West. In addition to Reagan, who soon decamped for Hollywood, there were also to be recollections of Joan Crawford, Laurence Olivier, John Huston, Pat Weaver, Charles Van Doren, Elsa Maxwell--characters my work as a journalist had brought me into contact with--and also Hugh Hefner and Huntington Hartford, my colorful sometime bosses. This project, a lifetime of jerry-built celebrity anecdotes with flimsy morals attached, was one I no longer had any enthusiasm for. The present, I told myself, was what I was interested in, even though it frequently seemed simply an opportunity to revisit and reevaluate the past. Still it was me, an old man, doing the reevaluating.     This pipsqueak editor--I have already forgotten his name--expressed a cool displeasure at my tardiness, and a total indifference to the story of my illness, in the six hundred pages I was cutting to a manageable three hundred and offering him in the other book's place. I felt no answering resentment to his snub--no concern about what he might think or do if I didn't respond appropriately to his demands. The space where he should have been, above me glaring threateningly down, was empty. He wasn't getting through to me at all.     Such is the immunity and indulgence, I decided, of seniority. This intentionally disagreeable young man was another of God's creatures whether or not he appreciated and acted like it. He couldn't really do me lasting harm, nor I him. I should have told him just that if I had wanted to drive him up the wall. But I remained silent, more than content with the realization that in a lifetime of deadlines I had met my last, at least of the kind imposed by someone else. There was to be no more jumping in answer to another's snapping fingers. He was welcome to his advance, all $1,500 of it--the check would be in the mail tomorrow.     A surprised silence was followed by a grunt. "Give my best to my old buddy M. (his boss)," I said, and rang off happy. * * * A DREAM LAST NIGHT in which I was bleak and hopeless, complaining that my writing had gained no acceptance and my acting (my acting?!) the same. But in the dream I was a young man with all my life ahead of me. And when I woke I was old and full of hope, hopeful about what I could and should and possibly still would do. In recent weeks bad dreams, good days has become the customary trade off. A fair exchange.     Meanwhile the evidence piles up day by day--at least on the good ones--"the deeper the mystery, the greater the wonder." I say it again, to myself, to whoever will listen. Our true survival depends on our belief that life has meaning--total meaning, from beginning to end, a meaning that includes not only all of our life--every minute, bad days, good days alike--but every other creature, good or bad, without exception. No thing--no one--can be dismissed or ignored. All is evidence and opportunity: a dream, a phone call. Any shadow, any doubt is simply a preparation for more light, more certainty. * * * YESTERDAY we spent the evening with the Lerners, Max and Edna, in their apartment with its view down the East River, the New York skyline bright on the bank. Max was just back from California, preparing for his six-lecture series at the New School and then, after the holidays, ready to go back to the West Coast for the second semester at the University of California at Irvine. He continues to write three columns a week and works on his various book projects--at least four that I know of. Next month he will be presented at grand rounds at Mount Sinai Hospital by Doctors Holland and Hollander as the most glowing example of the success of their new cancer therapy. All this at eighty-two--and under this activity one senses an acceptance of his mortality on his own terms--his terms obviously being very vigorous ones.     Edna, the mother of his three sons, silver blonde and handsome, her magnificent profile slightly tilted, sat serene at her end of the table, commenting from time to time, correcting the conversation's thrust in her shaded drawl.     Somewhere in all the talk Max found occasion to quote Wordsworth: "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!" Another dinner with the Lerners, this time at their farmhouse in Southampton. With dessert Max asked us to identify the people we most admired. Jeffrey Potter, another writer friend, spoke of a Sikh officer in Burma during World War II who taught him how to dispatch the mortally wounded soldiers who were moaning in the rice paddies revealing their location to the enemy. You lay next to them breathing more and more slowly, said Jeffrey, until, when you held your breath, they died. He didn't tell us how many soldiers he dispatched that way nor did he admit to feeling any particular tenderness for the men lying there, helpless and dying.     Then Jeffrey modulated into the story of how he had connived with his mother in her death at the age of ninety-four. He bullied the attendant physician into going along by uncovering an unfortunate lapse in the doctor's past.     Jeffrey took a stoutly secular approach in all of this although his grandfather and three great-uncles were bishops, one of whom had proclaimed from the pulpit to a cowed congregation, "We are the Potters, ye the clay." No wonder that when he finally got himself confirmed in his ancestors' church in his sixties he fainted under the anointing bishop's hand. * * * THANKSGIVING. Three of our children are present: Irving, Mary Ellin, Katherine--all busy, in flux. Irving is preparing to move to the East Village to go after his art in earnest. Mary Ellin Jr. is contemplating a job in Washington, D.C. with USA Today . Katherine, back from Italy, is working at Cosmopolitan , making up her mind about the academic career she intends to pursue. Only Elizabeth, the eldest, is absent. Everyone has his or her own agenda and opinions, which are expressed without any reticence. All of them at least one time in the last two decades have been in grave peril, and all released--the Barrett luck. My family--one good reason I have survived.     There are a few skeptical comments on the large portrait recently arrived on our dining room wall, of Katherine Duer Mackay Blake, my wife's grandmother, a bad luck lady if there ever was one. Three generations distant, the famous beauty gazes down with troubled eyes on the noisy, good-looking Barretts, her great-grandchildren. Those eyes signal her brains (a novel or two, the company of intellectuals), her privilege (old New York married to great new riches from the West), her notoriety (a scandalous divorce), her misery (abandoned finally by the heartless interloper), and her untimely death (the cancer that killed her was already growing behind those phenomenal eyes). Her tragedy was assigned and delivered long before old age could give its release--gone to Woodlawn at fifty. For all its beauty and panache there is a melancholy about the portrait: the dress and the jewels opulent and out of date, the gesture of the elegant hand.     Under her sad gaze I carve the turkey as usual--no interruption there, no volunteers. My children and my juniors, which means everyone at the table, are considerate. Should I falter they would be there to assist. Until then they are content to look on, to witness this evidence that Dad, that Marvin, is back to normal, though exiled from an office and an assigned job. (In the front hall in boxes yet to be unpacked is a lifetime's accumulation.)     I say a cautious grace. It is the first Thanksgiving after death. * * * A VISIT TO BERT DAGMAR, the charge given me by the West Side Ministry to the Elderly four years ago, when elderliness had a different meaning. A former vaudevillian, night club M.C., and radio host, he sits in his bathrobe, dentures out, in his Upper West Side single room occupancy hotel surrounded by memorabilia of the good old days at the Palace, in Atlantic City, on WNEW. On the wall are pictures of Kiki Roberts, Legs Diamond's delectable girlfriend, Bert's friend as well, and Helen Morgan whom he had comforted, he tells me, in her drunken despair backstage in an Atlantic City dive.     Bert is somewhere in the neighborhood of ninety, although being a professional entertainer and orphan his dates are dim. He was not only an entertainer but a bartender and floorwalker filling in the gaps between engagements, a lot of gaps since World War I.     Today he is grieving for his mother, lost at birth, and for his failing strength and faculties. "Why me?" he asks. "Oh, God, why me?" An odd question at his age, and useless at any age. I hardly feel worthy of instructing him in such matters when my own tuition is so recent and shaky.     Instead I give him two bottles of champagne--one for Christmas and the other for New Year's--and a box of chocolates for his caretaker, a large, comfortable woman who is, I fear, getting restless. On the bus home, an old fellow with a pail and harness argues me into a seat which I offer to him since he had obviously come from washing windows--what I perceive as a strenuous, perhaps dangerous, job.     "Oh, no," he says. "Four hours a day maximum. I am my own boss. I work as long as I please. After the holidays I will go to South America. Cartagena. Then on to Venezuela for six weeks or so."     He tells me he is seventy-seven, a dozen years my senior, and there I sit with him looking down at me. An orphan, he says. Like Mr. Dagmar. But whereas Mr. D. had been sent West with a trainload of orphans by some well-meaning clergyman to be brutalized by his supposed benefactors and released into a hostile world as an unprepared teenager, this fellow was well treated. He was given a good education and a trade--printing. No wife, no family responsibilities--why is he telling me all this? He was a paratrooper in World War II, volunteering at thirty-four, got a couple of purple hearts.     I tell him that at seventy-seven, still washing windows and taking junkets to a perilous South America, he is some kind of freak. He shrugs and accepts the description as it is intended, a compliment. Thoughts for Christmas morning: If you conceive of life as an adventure, the whole of life must be the adventure--not just the beginning and the middle--and like everything up till then, the end is open and uncertain. Otherwise, where is the adventure? Or, if you think of life as a gift, the whole of life must be the gift--not just what we think may be its blessings. Or, to truly learn is to realize that your life up until this moment has been one long lesson; the test comes later. Or this from the Sufis--"A sick man lay groaning in the presence of the Prophet and one of the Companions told him to stop and be patient, whereupon the Prophet said: `Let him groan, for groaning is one of the names of God in which the sick man may find relief.'" Copyright © 1999 Marvin Barrett. All rights reserved.