by Bruce Meyer
When J. M. W. Turner sojourned in Venice in 1835 to capture the pastel light glowing on the architectural wonders of the city, he did not like what he saw. The buildings were in the wrong places. The compositions would not balance. Instead of accepting the city for what it was—ethereal, eternal, and elusive in its magical play of luminescence and shadow—he rearranged the buildings to suit his painterly sense of proportion. Things need not stay where they are, he convinced himself. Art is not the acceptance of what the world is, but an opportunity to make life or death into what they could be.
This was the reasoning behind John’s decision not to pursue further treatment. He told his wife that he was not going to die on his disease’s terms. His doctor strongly advised against a trip to Italy.
“It’s just too much of a risk,” was how the practitioner put it.
“A risk for what?” John fired back. “You’re saying I should avoid a trip that might kill me because I am being killed by something else? No thank you. I’ll die on my own terms.”
“Well, John, I’d much rather try to prolong your life through various treatments.”
“Why? Just so you can extend your billing cycle? I’ve seen those convalescent care places. People in those joints aren’t living. One in a million walks out. The rest mirror each other’s suffering like souls in a malebolge.”
“We could discuss assisted death,” the doctor said. “I’d much rather try to help you through various treatments. There are hospices. After you reach a certain point assisted deaths are approved by the medical board.”
John had known several fellow writers who had died from “assisted deaths.” One had lost a leg before the medical board approved his passing. They’d each plugged in their earphones to listen to a favorite piece of music as they slipped from this world into a realm of peace where there was no suffering. Ridiculous, John thought. The idea of listening to “Highway to Hell,” as he passed away seemed like a pleasantly sick joke, something one of his characters might have done just to be cruel to those around them. Another writer could not remember his name and was almost too far gone to make the choice independently. Assisted death had to be the decision of the person dying or else it was deemed to be murder. He didn’t want to have that noose hanging around his wife’s neck. All things considered, she didn’t deserve his absence and the punishment for his departure.
“Who the hell’s death are we talking about here?” he said to the doctor. “If I’m going, I am going to go on my own terms. I am not going to sit around and suffer just to satisfy a board.”
“Just make sure it doesn’t look like suicide,” the doctor said, “or your life insurance will be forfeited. Your wife wouldn’t be happy with that.”
The words of Keats flashed through his mind—“O Happy, happy, happy shades”—all the time coughing blood. John always considered sarcasm a great comfort. His wife said that was the one thing she disliked about him.
And on the matter of her husband’s passing, on his shuffling off the mortal coil as he put it with delight in his sense of euphemism, John’s wife did not know what to think. She wanted him to live, but he asked her what life was like as a vegetable or as a living corpse wracked with pain and suffering. That position might be consoling to others. Oh, poor darling John lying there as a martyr to the modern scourge. But there was no bloody way he was going out like that. He’d known a priest, a theologian, who had come to visit a dying woman, a fellow writer John had known.
“I wish she could just slip away,” John had told him.
“Oh, but suffering ennobles the soul,” he said before John punched him in the nose and knocked the man to the floor. “Ennobling, my ass,” he said. “You’re a bloody sadist, not a representative of a merciful deity.”
“No,” said John that evening over dinner at their favorite restaurant, as he sat quietly with his wife and the waiters cleared the last tables and the house was preparing to shut down. “I’m going to do this my way.”
“Remember what the doctor said. Your insurance will be null and void if you commit suicide.”
“Who said anything about suicide?” he said as he drained the final drops of wine from the bottle and swirled it around in his glass. “No, what I’m considering is an accident, a beautiful accident that would be memorable for you and for me, and honorable according to my profession as a writer. Nothing to clean up. Lots to write about if you want to turn a dollar or two out of it. I propose we go to Florence or Venice. Spend my final day with all my wits and strength, take in some museums, incredible art, enjoy a brilliant meal with bottles and bottles of Brunello, and then, whoops. I slip off the Ponte Vecchio into the Arno while you take my picture from the balustrade. A little mishap. The headline, “NOVELIST DROWNS IN ARNO.” You know, something straight out of Gianni Schicchi, ‘O Mio Bambino Caro,’ oh dear, I’ve thrown myself in the river. Sounds good to me.”
“You’ve had too much to drink and now you are morose,” she sighed.
“No,” he said, “I’ve had too many people telling me I have to accept things as they are, that I don’t have any control over my fate. For crying out loud, I’m an artist. Artists rearrange reality. They change the things they can rather than accept things as are. I’m paraphrasing Bobby Kennedy, but you get my point. We’re going to Italy.”
Florence in late March was not as he remembered it. There was a dustman’s strike there and the streets stank. The city had become far busier and more of a shopping centre with high-end stores on every corner. If he died there, as Oscar Wilde put it, he would be dying beyond his means. The familiar ristorantes were no longer where he had left them, if they were there at all. They had been replaced by emporia of international chefs and served dishes that he could find in London or Paris; they were not, strictly speaking, genuinely Florentine. The portions were small and fussy, and lacked that sense of gusto that had made him happy in the city. Only the Brunello remained, the subtle wine of layers and symphonic gestures, the undertones and grace notes that made each mouthful a poem. But for all the delights of the wines, and for all the glories of the Uffizi, John told his wife that he would need to go somewhere else to find his end. When he looked over the rail of the Ponte Vecchio he saw plastic water bottles floating in the river, and the thought of dying in the aquifer and detritus of international conglomerates sickened him.
“Not here,” he said to his wife. “Let’s move on to Venice. Carnevale will be over by now. Venice strikes me as such a wonderful idea. In the taxi from the restaurant to our hotel last night, the driver had on the most beautiful piece of music I’ve ever heard. Certainly it is one of my favorites, “Un Sospiro,” by Franz Liszt, and not to be confused with Elgar’s “Sospiri,” which is also very nice but out of place here. The radio announcer said that Liszt had written “Un Sospiro” as one of three études during a visit to Venice in 1865. I think that’s a wonderful moment of kismet. Me wanting to die in a beautiful, Venetian kind of tawdry, crumbling splendor, and that piece of music on a taxicab radio. When we get there, the moment will be just right, that lull before the tourist season swings into high gear, when the frantic fuckery of Carnevale is over and everyone takes off their masks and feels sad because their city is sinking. I think I’d like to visit the Ducale Palace and then start across the Bridge of Sighs like those condemned lovers of legend, and before reaching the prison on the other side and real death as real characters knew it with all the brutal chop-chop of heads flying off, I can fall into the canal below.”
“Would you like me to have the Chorus from La Scala sing you to your splash, “Va, pensiero, sull’ali dorate?” his wife asked, frustrated at her husband’s glee and exuberance over her impending widowhood.
“Maybe not something exactly from opera,” he replied, “but something operatic such as “Rondine al Nido.”
“You will have to buy me something nice or I’ll have them sing “Funiculi, funiculà.”
But when they arrived, the Ducale Palace was labyrinthine. In preparation for the tourist season, it had been arranged into corridors designed to shuttle tourists through its decorated halls and corridors with as little wear and tear on the palace as possible. So much of what John wanted to see was off limits or out of season. He begged a guide to let him photograph the view from the Bridge of Sighs over the canal, but the guide merely wagged her finger. She spoke English. It was the gesture she wanted to impose on him.
The trick to his departure from both the Bridge of Sighs and this world would be a matter of manoeuvring and distracting the watchful museum attendant long enough to do the deed; but as he began the prisoner’s walk to the other side, he realized the windows were covered in iron lattices and there was no way he could fit through the tiny openings. His heart sank, and he sighed. “Un sospiro,” he muttered to himself as his shoulders heaved. He’d have to find another way to practice what Thomas Mann described as death in Venice. And where was Ken Russell with his Mahler lento when he needed it?
He paused and peered through the window. He witnessed what should have been his last glimpse of Venice but it did not allay his sighs. Turner was right. Venice needed rearranging. Why couldn’t the bloody architect have left a window wide enough for him to fall through? Then he realized he had chosen a prison as his place of departure, and of course there were going to be bars on the windows to keep the more zealous of the condemned from leaping to freedom. He felt inconvenienced and incarcerated by the most beautiful city on earth.
“The cheek of them making the windows too small,” he said to his wife, annoyed, as they left the palace.
Returning to the Piazza San Marco, he told his wife they should go for dinner, that he needed time to think, and that if he was going to die, he had to do it on a full stomach.
“I don’t think you have any intention of dying,” she said “You are having the time of your life. You’ll think about this from your hospice bed and smile.”
“Hospice? Don’t be unkind. I have no intention of lying in a bed and begging for morphine. Give me a bottle of a damned good Veneto or nothing!”
Dinner was beautiful. He began his final meal with the famous Sarde in saor sardine dish, that made him reflect on both the sweet and sour of life, followed by an antipasto of Baccala montecato consisting of a delectable cod mousse. Venice was born from the sea. She was Botticelli’s Venus. And in her final culinary gift to him, he tasted the flavours of the sailors who brought the fruits of the sea home to their beloved city in the waves. The wine, a Veneto prosecco drew all the elements together into a work of art, and he swore he could taste the drifting serenity of the famous lento from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony that Ken Russell used as the shimmering theme to his film treatment of Mann’s novel.
When his wife remarked that his dinner consisted of seafood John reminded her that he was merely acclimatizing himself to his next abode. He finished off his last meal with a plate of Fritoli that had been decorated to look like Nipples of Venus, an homage to Botticelli, and he held up each one, admired it, winked at his wife, and said, “You know, I could make death wait until tomorrow and we could just go back to the hotel.”
His wife found the suggestion reassuring. She was certain her husband was not going through with his intention of redesigning his fate the way Turner had rearranged the city around them. Surely, her husband would comprehend that there were limits to his own art, whether he was writing a story or shaping the finale to his life. The frantic search for a good end seemed to have abated as the day wore on.
They were making their way back to their hotel when John stopped. The sun was setting over the Grand Canal and in its scattering of perfect pastel jewels on the water, the stone of the Rialto Bridge became golden in the light.
“I have seen the color of my death,” he said, pointing to the span. His wife shrugged and shook her head. She wanted to sigh but had heard enough of her husband’s all afternoon and early evening.
John walked up the steps of the Rialto followed by his wife, who by this point was exhausted from his hide-and-seek game for a way out. The thought crossed her mind that if he wasn’t going to kill himself she might just do it for him. He had worn her to death with his wanderings through the back streets, pausing at every small bridge to admire the view of the canal then shaking his head because the vista was not quite right. If she closed her eyes she swore she could see crumbling stucco buildings and glittering waves lapping at the foundations of a sinking city.
“Come,” he said as he raised himself up on the balustrade of the Rialto, “and take my picture.” A Carabinieri saw him and shouted, moving toward the couple, waving at him to get down from the edge. John looked into his wife’s eyes, smiled, and toppled backwards. His wife waited for the splash.
Instead she heard the motor of a vaporetto passing beneath them and an ugly thud. She ran to the railing, gasping, and saw the motor bus moving away into the sunset with John splayed on his back on the white roof. She sighed loud enough for a man beside her to turn and say, ‘Ah, un sospiro! É tuo marito?”
As John lay on the roof of the vaporetto, he saw his wife and the shrieking Carabinieri shrinking among the crowd gathered at the balustrade. He could hear the frantic screams and shouts from both tourists and Venetians, and he raised his right hand on its elbow and gently waved goodbye.
Bruce Meyer is an award-winning author of more than sixty books of poetry, short stories, flash fiction, and non-fiction. His most recent collection of stories is Down in the Ground (Guernica Editions). He lives in Barrie, Ontario.