I have what one may deem a naturalistic view of life and death. Flesh and blood are all I can apprehend, and in this realm of apprehension, death is the very end of consciousness. It’s final. The heart beats no more.
I do not deny that the life of a man has a destination that follows his direct encounter with the face of death, but this destination is a place that seems only to be reached during our life on earth by a so-called leap of faith. Thus, notions of spirituality and religious transcendence have no resonance for me. I’m only affected, or moved, by what I can apprehend with my rational and empirical faculties. Notions of spirituality and religious transcendence, or simply the idea of an afterlife, are beyond the reach of these faculties, and therefore, they do not resonate with me.
I have not the legs for a leap of faith.
This is partly the result of my reading of Darwin and my study of biology, which provided me with a peculiar comfort rooted in the wonder of a world of order, but without design, or some moral bedrock built upon otherworldly foundations. This is the comfort of attaching no more moral significance to human life than to any other form of life. Putting aside kin selection and the obvious fact that being a human being acculturated to human civilization makes you more sensitive to the welfare of a fellow human being than, say, a fruit fly, there is no moral hierarchy in my view of life and nature.
This is a comfort to me because I cannot help but to accept death as being in the natural order of things. There is no God’s plan to question, or in which to find disappointment and anger. Death does not discriminate. It comes to us all.
I am not out to discredit faith, or to advance the cause of nihilism. I only mean to say that I find meaning in life in the relationships we develop with our family, friends, society, the environment to which our bodies are adapted, and the work and play with which we are occupied in our lives. It is these relationships, and the work and play that occupy our attention, that fuel the contents of our consciousness, and it is these contents of consciousness that constitute all that is real for me. This is why death can hurt so much. It is in death that we can see what is really true about our lives. It is in death that we see how much we cared about a person and the ways in which that person brought vitality to the work and play which occupies our attention in life.
Death takes away the conversations with a consciousness with which we shared our conceits. All we have left is to remember the times, and in so doing, to pretend that we can speak for the person no longer with us, as if to say, in the case of my father, Oh, what Dave would have said about that… and then proceed under the pretense that we can say what he would have said. But doubt lingers in this pretense, for only Dave Church could be Dave Church. Death forbids the carcass of my father to correct me as I try to make sense of the life he once lived. Anything I say about Dave Church is most likely inaccurate. Words, words, words…as Hamlet said. And that is the simple tragedy of death: that he is gone and I can no longer enjoy talking to him, being in his presence and having him say what is to be said in his own words.
Nevertheless, I am left to speak of his legacy in my own words, in the best way I can. So, I have conveyed this view of life and death not simply to take the pulpit and explain how Darwin has influenced my thinking, but because this view speaks to his legacy in the sense that it is the result of being the son of Dave Church.
My father once said that we are all the same when we are asleep, which I suppose can mean a lot of things, but I take the liberty of believing that he and I saw eye-to-eye in the belief that we are one among many millions and billions of creatures who live and have lived, and all are of equal interest to the poet’s empathetic eye. It is no coincidence, then, that he was once compelled to write a poem called Joe the Bee about a bumblebee slowly descending into death after being smothered in a slab of paint.
More than anything else, Dave Church was a poet, and those first fires of poetic feeling were ignited in 1965 when he read Why I Am Not a Christian by Bertrand Russell, followed by three books he stole from a bookstore: Coney Island on My Mind by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gasoline by Gregory Corso, and Howl by Allen Ginsburg. From that point on, Dave Church was a poet, and a poet doomed, as were the people who would come to know him.
He was difficult, but it is this quality that gave his life its charm, that made it mysterious, that, in the end, stirred our feelings about him, whatever they may have been. Bob Dylan has a song in which he says: Strange how people who suffer together have stronger connections than people who are most content. Dave Church was a difficult man: difficult to live with, difficult to get along with and difficult to understand. He was stubborn, cantankerous and capable of the most stinging of insults and offenses. One did not participate in his life without a degree of suffering, whether it was his conceits, his moods, or his prejudices. But in that suffering, strong connections were made.
Here’s a quick story: my mother and father were having one of their many, many arguments one night, and at one point my father slammed his fist against a portrait of a ballerina that my mother had recently purchased, to which my mother replied, “You just destroyed a beautiful work of art!” To which my father replied, “No, now it’s a work of art, because now it has passion!”
My view of life and death is not the same as a disbelief in immortality, or even simply life after death. It is simply a view that flesh and blood are all that I understand, and that they have no other destination than disintegration, but the passions that once stirred in this flesh and blood live on, in his writings and in the memory of those who were lucky, or unlucky, enough to have had relations with him in life.
It’s always hard to describe the relationships one has had with people, for words are such feeble tools for getting access to the stew of emotions and thoughts mixed together in the sorcery of a complex relationship. But I believe that the essence of his relationships was his uncensored, honest-to-goodness passion, for Dave Church had a way of letting you know how he felt. It’s not so simple to say merely that he loved, or hated certain people. I believe that he did, both love and hate, but saying so only cheapens the suffering he felt when he truly confronted the passions within him.
When he died, I was sad to realize he would never get to experience a wish he had related to me one time: that he would have liked to have all his kids together in one place at one time. I told this to my sister Courtney, and she remembered that she made that offer to him a few years before, to which he replied that he wasn’t in the mood.
People who knew Dave Church would hear that story and sneer, sigh, or smirk. But I laughed. It was vintage Dave Church.
Not sure when Courtney asked him, but my guess is it would have been close to a workday, before or, more likely, after. He hated the taxi industry, even if he could not help but empathize with and write about the seedy netherworld that he witnessed from behind the wheel by which he earned his living. And a long night of driving wore him down, affected his mood and left him disgusted. I’d ask him on a Sunday morning, “So, how’s the cab business?” and he’d say, “It sucks.” I’d ask him, “So how’s Providence”” and he’d say, “It sucks.” But on a good day, he’d still tell me something about the night, like the stripper he was mentoring like a surrogate father, or the kids who called him Santa and asked where Mrs. Claus is, to which he replied, “She’s at home sucking your mother’s c###,” or the cop who asked him not to park his car in front of a bar where he wanted to wait for potential customers, so that he started to drive back and forth on the street waving to the cop every time he drove by in a kind of tragicomic mockery, or the guy who was drunk and gave him a fifty-dollar bill bill by accident which he kept for himself (justifying his actions by recalling the time that he went into a bar the night before his wedding to his third wife, dropped a hundred-dollar bill on the bar, put his head down, fell asleep, and woke up to find the hundred-dollar bill had vanished.)
Dave Church was a man who deferred to his moods without inhibition. Expressing his contempt for antidepressants and other self-help substances, he said he would rather feel his depression, internalize and live through it (which, by the way, is not to say that he was not capable of drugging himself up with antidepressants if it suited his mood.) But back to Courtney’s story: a long night of driving, or writing, whatever it might have been, there were times of recovery for him, and these are times when he would not be bothered. The moment simply had to be right, and he was stubborn enough to insist on it. It wasn’t even a matter of principle. For a man of such passion, his heart simply had to be in it at the moment.
I’ve given some vignettes of his life, but the overall impression I would like to leave is my belief, and it is only my belief, that he suffered in his passions, and that the grandest passion for him was love, the four letters of which were tattooed to his right forearm. He suffered because there were moments when he relived and contemplated the suffering he caused for himself and among those he truly loved. He once wrote a letter to his daughter Tara in the mid-80’s after a fight one night, in which he said the following:
I’m sorry for what I said and did
When I drink too much I become
Obnoxious and insensitive.
I want you to stay with me
Because I love you.
I want you to become a success,
Whatever that means.
In many ways I guess I feel guilty
Of failing you.
If I have
Then I’m sorry
But either way
Without sounding stupidly redundant
I love you.
He wrote letters and poems to and about his other children, his wives, his siblings, other family, his friends and his enemies. In all of them it was clear that he never censored his passions, and the passions could range from humor to malice to mockery, as when he described his brother-in-law as 96 percent water and 4 percent chicken shit. This was the source of our suffering with him, and because we suffered, he suffered. He suffered, I believe, because deep down, where it really mattered, he truly loved. And I believe that because of the quality of his poetry, which became apparent to me with the outpouring I received from the community of poets he knew around the country.
What I’ll miss about him the most is that he was a man who just knew where it’s at. I received a letter from one of his friends in the poetry community, who related a line from his last letter: if it’s not one thing, it’s another. You just have to know how to duck. And that is one reason I held his hand and kissed his forehead when I was alone with his body in the hospital morgue. I truly loved him, as a father, friend, writer and most of all, as a man.
It’s hard not to know where things stand in life, when your best friend’s face is scrambled raw and dripping from shattered glass after a car accident, when another best friend is found one day dead from hanging, when a young sister dies in a car accident at the hands of a drunk driver, when your brother burns to death while sleeping in the woods, when your older sister dies of cancer, when you’ve spent time in a chain gang, when you break the nose of a friend who tried to run you over with his car, or when another friend stabs you some five times in the face and neck and then, like a Hyde turning into Jekyll, pushes you into the passenger seat and drives you to the hospital emergency room.
Dave Church knew suffering, and as a result, I believe, he had a way of reading and empathizing with people. I’m not saying it was necessarily accurate, but it was raw, it was uncensored and it was unedited. And that is what made him the artist that he was. He was real, eccentric, difficult, stubborn, disagreeable, but more than anything…alone, a gentle poetic soul, alone in his unease with the demands of respectable society. Maladaptive, yes, but it was true to form. In short, a life of fiction, the kind of life no one thinks you’ll survive for long. But my father survived for sixty-one years, and though he no longer breathes, and though blood no longer runs through his veins, his life was like a novel I’ll never stop rereading.
Each time I do, he is born again.
This article is a revised version of an essay previously published in a chapbook entitled ‘Taxicab Poet Confessions: A Small Press Tribute to Dave Church’, which can be found at http://alternating-current-weekly.blogspot.com/2009/03/taxi-cab-poet-confessions-small-press.html.
Photo credit: Getty Images