The Dead and the Living

My great aunt LaVerne died. She was 98-1/2 years old. She broke her hip and then an infection set in, then she got pneumonia and died. My father calls pneumonia "the old person's friend," I guess because it's a relatively nonviolent way to end life. One of my few vivid memories of LaVerne is that she looked so much like her brothers Harry and Roy that when they got older you couldn't tell which was a man's face and which was a woman's. Just like in babies, there was no difference between masculine or feminine features. I was looking for something on death in Sharon Olds's "The Dead and the Living" but I found this instead.

Rite of Passage

As the guests arrive at my son's party

they gather in the living room --

short men, men in first grade

with smooth jaws and chins.

Hands in pockets, they stand around

jostling, jockeying for place, small fights

breaking out and calming. One says to another

How old are you? Six. I'm seven. So?

They eye each other, seeing themselves

tiny in the other's pupils. They clear their

throats a lot, a room of small bankers,

they fold their arms and frown. I could beat you

up, a seven says to a six,

the dark cake, round and heavy as a

turret, behind them on the table. My son,

freckles like specks of nutmeg on his cheeks,

chest narrow as the balsa keel of a

model boat, long hands

cool and thin as the day they guided him

out of me, speaks up as a host

for the sake of the group.

We could easily kill a two-year-old,

he says in a clear voice. The other

men agree, they clear their throats

like Generals, they relax and get down to

playing war, celebrating my son's life.