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The Happy Phantom

Posted Nov 03 2008 9:00pm
Someone told my mother that if you make arrangements to donate your body to an anatomy class at a medical school after you die, the students wind up cracking jokes about you, sticking Groucho Marx glasses on your corpse, things like that. And although she'd been thinking of making such a donation when the time came, this tidbit gave her pause, made her reconsider. It just made the whole prospect sound yucky.

She happened to mention all this - the irreverence, the fake-nose glasses - to another friend, whose reaction was much different. This woman didn't relate to the purported silliness of the young medical students as being harmful or hateful or even in bad taste. Her response was, "Oh, what fun!"

Oh what fun.

Upon the sound of these three words - and, equally important, their unforced delivery, the genuine tone of delight amplifying them - my mother was suddenly able to come at it from a whole different angle, to consider the students' broad humor not as denigrating the human spirit in general, nor the dignity and humanity of the individual who'd donated her body in particular. She was able to consider it as part of the universal human spirit, both in its goofball playfulness and in its betrayal of an underlying discomfort with and fear of death.

We were talking about this the other day, she and I, sitting in a couple of Adirondack chairs by the tiny pond behind my parents' house. The pond, we found once we'd drawn our chairs up close, was itself a bit yucky that day: the water level was low and the surface near-stagnant, furred with algae and clotted with foamy, iridescent scum that looked so foul our first thought was pollution - but which, we figured out, was only the product of natural decomposition. We almost reconsidered our choice of place to sit. But it didn't particularly smell bad, and the sun was warm and broken up into golden spangles by the overhanging branches, and we decided to be there after all.

We spoke of the possibility that no real barriers separate the students' fear from their frolicking, the dissected body from the joke-shop glasses, the doctor from the cadaver, gratitude from irreverence. That in a sense all matter of things and all manner of being might be part of the same cyclical spectrum, a kind of Ferris wheel or spinning top. I thought of the Tori Amos song in which she sings, "If I die today I'll be the happy phantom." The song is impossibly, irrepressibly cheerful, almost giddily so, as it paints images of ghosts cavorting, making mischief, celebrating "the universal opera." It has the round, full flavor of the sugar skulls and dancing skeletons of Mexico's Day of the Dead. I told my mother about the song; later, we went inside the house and I played it for her and she laughed.

But first, we sat a while longer in the sunshine by the slime-coated pond. Every so often we heard a plip, and glimpsed fresh bubbles. We gradually saw that the pond was not stagnant after all, but teeming with life and death. Skimmer bugs danced a geometrical pavanne, frogs now and again briefly broke the surface, and those episodic bubbles flagged gases being released by the breaking down, the transformation, of things we couldn't see.

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