Astride a grave

In a recent episode of the Rocco Schiavone detective series, the medical examiner addresses the corpse of a murder victim with a line from Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”

… one day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you? They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.

The thought seemed so Buddhist to me that I looked on YouTube and found a 1961 TV production of the play with Burgess Meredith and Zero Mostel.

The passage quoted in Rocco Schiavone is spoken by the sinister character Pozzo on his second encounter with Vladimir and Estragon, the ones who are waiting for Godot by the side of the road.  When they first met Pozzo, he was using a whip to drive a man called Lucky tied at the end of a long rope.

In the second act, Vladimir and Estragon find Pozzo and Lucky fallen in a heap on the road.  Pozzo has gone blind, and Lucky mute.  When they help Pozzo get up, he doesn’t recognize Vladimir and Estragon and gets quite angry when they seem to question how he went blind after just one day.  “(violently). Don’t question me! The blind have no notion of time. The things of time are hidden from them too.”  But they continue in the same vein to ask that Lucky sing or repeat his thinking out loud performance from the day before. Pozzo says again that Lucky is mute.  At the question “Since when?” Pozzo explodes

(furiously to the whole world)
Have you not done tormenting me with your accursed time I It’s abominable; Wheni Wheni One day, is that not enough for you, one day he went dumb, one day I went blind, one day we’ll go deaf, one day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you? They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.

At that Pozzo and Lucky leave.  Estragon struggles to take his shoe off.  He wants to sleep.  Vladimir starts to ponder and in his musing he inverts Pozzo’s image of “birth astride of a grave.”

…  (Estragon, having struggled with his boots in vain, is dozing off again. Vladimir looks at him.) He’ll know nothing. He’ll tell me about the blows he received and I’ll give him a carrot. (Pause.) Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave digger puts on the forceps. We have time to grow old. The air is full of our cries. (He listens.)

The more I watched this very damaged video of the 1961 performance of the play, the more I remembered viewing Burgess Meredith and Zero Mostel around that time.  I would have been in my late teens and probably saw it as a summer repeat when I was home from college.  I must say that Beckett’s play didn’t make much sense to me then.  Now as I roll through the eighth year of my eighth decade, Vladimir, Estragon, and Pozzo speak to me.  Perhaps I’ve learned how to let the experience be what it is and not try to put everything into a coherent schema.

At this time of life, I also find that my attitude towards the prospect of death is changing.  When I was in my late 30s, the end of the movie “True Confessions” moved me to tears.  Two Irish brothers stand arm in arm looking at the grave site that the terminally ill priest brother has prepared.  I realized later that my reaction involved anticipating my father’s death.  His health had not been well, and in fact he died a year later.

I remember going into his bedroom after he died and feeling his presence in his clothes and in the pictures of his policemen father and brother.  Now I go into my bedroom and wonder what my survivors will think of my collection of buddhas and bodhisattvas.  Sometimes I fret about all the detritus of two successive downsizings that still clutter up a large storage area in the basement of my apartment building and the basement of a friend.  Who’s going to deal with the eight large bookcases in my apartment with shelves full of books that seem so anachronistic in this digital age?  I’m not worried about the things.  Things don’t care one way or the other.  I think about about the work I’ll leave behind for others.

Particularly during this last year of the pandemic, the sameness of the days makes them seem to move by more quickly. I measure the passage of time by the increasing frequency of filling my 7-day pill box.  I’ve lived almost ten years longer than my father did.  If my health holds out, I’ll bypass even my mother in about four years.  Such are the milestones I think about, with no frets or regrets.  I miss my children in this time of no travel, but I haven’t started thinking that I will miss them when I’m gone, as did Laura and Harold Pinter during their terminal illnesses.

These reflections are as scattered as the dialogue in “Waiting for Godot.”  Perhaps that’s why I can hear it and enjoy it now.




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