Handley Lambert hated clutter, and the older he got the more he tried to simplify his life. He hired someone to clean out his basement lock, stock, and barrel; and he jettisoned his friends one by one.
For years Handley had slept over the basement storage room, a repository for everything that his family didn’t quite know what to do with but didn’t want to throw out. Every year it got more cluttered. There were faux Louis XIV chairs salvaged from his mother-in-law’s house when she moved into a retirement home, dozens of Portuguese plates shipped home by his sister-in-law when she returned from Europe, ancient tool boxes, saws, and drills from his father’s workroom, fireplace andirons, tax returns from 1975, buckets, washtubs, pieces of wall-to-wall carpet, broken lamps, and old cans of paint. None of this was worth anything. The plates were all floral-patterned swirls and Southern Mediterranean kitsch, the paint cans sealed shut with decades-old enamel, the andiron was missing a leg, and the toolbox was filled with rusted iron wrenches and screwdrivers from 1920.
In his younger years Handley paid no attention to the mess in the basement, took no notice of the growing clutter. He had never put anything down there because he had always had a sense of what had outlived its usefulness, what was of no interest to anyone, or what could easily be replaced. He knew that his wife and children shifted clothes, books, and papers from one closet to another and finally to their resting place in the basement.
The rest of the house, however, was orderly. The paintings, sculptures, lamps, and chairs were unique items collected over years of travel, and had been placed according to his wife’s personal feng shui.
His office might have seemed cluttered to some, but each postcard, snapshot, ornamental chain, or bouquet of dried flowers had its place. He would know immediately if something were missing or had been moved. Each piece had a meaning – the photo of the Romanian monastery where he had gone with Cristina; the picture of his young mother with him as a baby; the soapstone vase which had been given to him as a gift from a young Gujarati doctor. The kindergarten ashtray made by his son.
The basement on the other hand had no order, no meaning, or no purpose. Things there were accretions, random add-ons, worthless items with no memories or purpose. As Handley grew older he became more and more aware of the growing disorder beneath him. It was unsettling. At a time in his life when he was thinking of divestment, the physical accumulation of things kept growing.
This existential crisis came to a head when he re-read Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, a profound and chilling reflection on death and dying. Ivan Ilyich had led a life of order and discipline and felt that by exerting control over everything in his life – his marriage, his home, his work, and his personal effects – he might even be able to control his own destiny and ultimately his death. He becomes ill with a terminal illness and is tormented by the idea of dying – dissolution, disappearance, and a finality he cannot fathom or accept. Only at the moment of his death does he have the epiphany he had hoped for. It is the fear of death that troubles us, not death itself.
“We all die alone”, said Ivan Ilyich, a remark which made no sense to Handley Lambert when he first read the story many years before. In fact he had dismissed it out of hand. Of course he would be surrounded by his loved ones who would help him ease from one world to the next. There would be a loving vigil, part tribute, part good-bye, and part comfort.
This time, however, he understood precisely what Tolstoy meant. No matter how numerous or loving your family, no matter how large your constellation of friends, no matter how rich and varied your life, you and you alone must face your death. No one else can possibly share this ultimately unique and profoundly personal event. It is your life that is ending, no one else’s. Your mind alone creates the kaleidoscope of past images, runs the old reels, displays the genetic codes which mark your death.
If this is so, thought Handley Lambert, than the accumulation of anything makes no sense at all. As importantly the repetition of familiar but essentially meaningless activities made even less sense. He stopped going to restaurants. The lively, animated, and urbane atmosphere that he once sought out was suddenly something for others, not him. These upscale, youthful restaurants were part of the clutter, the accumulation of what he now saw were pedestrian impediments, not valued and prized discoveries. He stopped going for what he had called ‘urban walks’, forays into new and different neighborhoods. His cooking became more and more predictable.
Family gatherings were painful affairs. His niece was a delightful young woman, his second cousins interesting, his aged uncles crusty, hard-of-hearing, and doddering but their stories of the war were still engaging; but as soon as he started the car to head home, everything disappeared. It was as though the picnic had never happened; and as though someone had invented Aunt Rita, Cousin Billy, and Great-Uncle Samuel, wound them up and set them flopping around for three hours, then packed them up and put them in some metaphysical basement.
Handley went to his 50th Reunion because he had hoped that his former classmates – all white, all male, all well-heeled, and all 72 – would offer him some advice. How were they dealing with the light dimming at the end of the tunnel? Especially from those men who had been closest to him as a student he expected Ivan Ilyich prose.
“Third wives, grandchildren, and second homes”, said Handley’s dentist. “That’s what you’ll get. I don’t care if they are Yalies”.
The Reunion was fun and a reconnection with old friends and the University itself. Handley, like all students, had run in and out of Sterling Library without looking at the gargoyles, Gothic pillars, and low friezes; thought only of Smith girls on their way through the classic and elegant courtyards of Davenport and Trumbull.
At the Reunion he worked the cocktail and dinner crowds looking for Bob X and Bill Y to see what they looked like, to check in on their health, and to catch up. Even if his old friends had been willing to share some insights, there was simply no time in a busy and very social schedule.
The dentist’s predictions of course had come true. Perhaps because of the compressed schedule or the importance of wife, home, and offspring, most chat focused there and there alone. However, Handley wasn’t disappointed. It was enough to have one last sail with his classmates before going solo.
Handley’s wife and adult children became increasingly concerned about him. He was becoming a recluse. Was this early Alzheimer’s? Dementia cloaked in their father’s usual philosophizing? Were some of his tightly wound screws finally coming loose?
Nothing of the sort, Handley knew, but then again how could anyone else know about his personal preparations for death? As in the story of Ivan Ilyich, the journey to the end of the line was a long and deliberate one.
He saw very few of his old friends. He became more severe and judgmental than he ever had been – and this was saying something because he had been an arrogant and insufferable son-of-a-bitch when he was young – and left even his closest confidants on the curb.
“I have learned all I can from them”, he said to himself; and since friendship and camaraderie meant little or nothing to him now, why bother?
His wife tried to give him some light reading, an attempt to get his nose out of The Grand Inquisitor, Paradise Lost, and Notes from the Underground. “Paul Theroux has written a new book I know you’d like”, she said. Handley had once read everything Theroux had written, and in his younger days thought of the author as his alter-ego – a man of adventure, romance, and exotic travel. But as Theroux advanced into his 70s and became more reflective and philosophical, Handley lost interest. Although their journeys had been parallel in many ways, the rest of the way would have to be travelled alone.
He had once watched three movies a week and saw everything by Herzog, Mann, and Ridley Scott. Now he only watched BBC archival films of King Lear and Timon of Athens; and watched them many times, following along with the text and checking references by Harold Bloom and Nuttall.
I ran into Hadley Lambert a few weeks ago. He looked great – trim, de bonne mine, and vigorous. I told him so. “Numbers don’t lie”, he replied, and told me how he dismissed doctors who told him that he had the prostate of a 40 year-old and the heart of a teenager; and politely thanked his wife who cited actuarial tables that projected his life well into his 90s.
Anyone who didn’t know Handley Lambert would have said that he was the model retiree – immersed in Shakespeare and Tolstoy, parsing the epic poetry of Milton and Donne, writing essays on metaphysics and meaning, and involved in a productive and meaningful second career.
I knew better, however, and saw that Handley’s enterprises were all done for a very particular, urgent purpose. “We all die alone”, he told me, “and I want to be bloody ready.”