I keep a volume of Billy Collins poetry next to the toilet. It has never been my habit to spend time reading in the bathroom. When I was growing up, seven of us shared a single bathroom, so leisurely reading on the toilet was out of the question. Not much changed as I became an adult.
Moms understand that time in the bathroom is for doing your business quickly before some child, desperate to show off his latest Lego creation or in the crucial days of potty training, can’t wait another second. The bathroom is also for snatching two or three of the Oreos (or perhaps the vodka, I’m not judging) you keep stashed behind the towels, or just taking a minute to breathe deeply or wipe tears or pray.
So I never developed the habit, as my husband has, of snatching up a book on his way to the john.
A lovely place to think
Lately, I have found that reading a poem, especially from a poet as accessible as Collins, is manageable for the short amount of time I sit there. I enjoy Collins’ work. It reminds me that you can find poetry in anything. I imagine the poet thinking, “What should I write a poem about today?” And then he sees the moon, or the expression on someone’s face, or the Thesaurus on his shelf, and he writes a poem just as beautiful and poignant as any love letter. Which indeed it is. A love letter to language, to words, to thought.
So even in the bathroom, you could find something to think or write about. The bathroom is certainly a mysterious place, although we all know what happens there. We empty ourselves, clean ourselves, groom ourselves. We take care of the most personal, intimate requirements of our bodies. And sometimes we die there. What could be more poetic?
What’s going on in there?
Jim Morrison, Judy Garland, and Charlie Chaplin all died in the bathroom. Two of my uncles died in the bathroom. My husband’s favorite aunt also died in the bathroom. Her daughter found her on the floor, still holding a pencil in one hand and a book of word search puzzles in the other.
Pappy, my father’s father, died in the bathroom. I never met him, his heart attack occurring the year before my parents met. The one picture I have seen of him shows a tall, skinny man with protruding ears and an expression of weariness and terror. This is probably because he is surrounded by his fourteen children.
He died in the middle of the night. I like to imagine it was the only time of day he could use the bathroom in relative peace and quiet. I guess if you use the bathroom for alone time, you increase the odds of dying there.
A tragic discovery
“Your Aunt Jean found him,” my mother is fond of saying of Pappy’s death. Uncle Richard died in the bathroom. “Your cousin Christie found him.” Just as important as the death is the finding. Even the media will tell you who found the body in the bathroom. James Gandolfini’s son was the one who called for help after finding his father on the bathroom floor. If you Google Ginger Alden’s name, you will find that her claim to fame is the discovery of Elvis Presley’s body on the bathroom floor. Oh, and by the way, she was an actress. She was on that television show. You know the one.
The person who finds you catches a glimpse of your last moments and has the option to reveal them or protect them. To cover you or leave you for the world to see.
A nameless personal assistant discovered Whitney Houston in the bathtub. Chances are good that she will be writing a book or selling the rights to the story before too long. Friends found Philip Seymour Hoffman in the bathroom with a needle in his arm, and suddenly that place of ultimate privacy became an open and festering wound. If Mr. Hoffman had his druthers, I’m sure he would have been found clutching a book of word search puzzles or Billy Collins poems.
Living and dying in the bathroom
Dying in the bathroom may occur because that’s where they go when they aren’t feeling well. That’s one theory. They get up in the night with what they think is heartburn or indigestion, so they walk to the medicine cabinet, or they sit down hoping to find some relief. But it isn’t indigestion after all.
Apparently many more people die in bed than in the bathroom. So while my father’s relatives lean toward dying in the bathroom, my mother’s family almost all die lying down. It seems like they get to a point where they know death is inevitable, so they just go to bed and wait for it.
My mom’s mother was in bed about 10 years waiting to die. But she, raised in hills of Kentucky, was also practically illiterate. In her situation, learning to read beyond Scriptures and prescriptions was impractical. I believe if she had read Billy Collins, she may have lived in search of beauty and died happily, perhaps in the privy embracing a book of poetry.