image via Greece-Athens.com
Several months ago, when I had reason to believe I was terminally ill with pancreatic cancer, I consulted Michael Keever, the man who runs “Terminal Tours,” a business that takes people who need assistance on their bucket-list trip. If you read the fine print on his site, TerminalTours.com, you’ll see that Keever is the protagonist and narrator of my novels Passing Off, Passing Through, and Passing On. I realize it may sound odd for a writer to “consult” a character he has created, but while writing three novels about Keever I’ve learned a lot about the world and, perhaps, myself by imagining his consciousness and, as much as possible, occupying his body.
Keever doesn’t know it, but his name comes from the Greek kybernos, a word meaning “governor” or “navigator” or “steersman” that appears in English in “cybernetics.” His nickname is “Key” and several variations: Low Key on the basketball court, the Greek Key when he played in Greece, Coach Key at Queen City College. Although Key and I both grew up in Ludlow, Vermont and have some similar experiences, the novels are not autobiographical. And he’s not really my alter ego. Maybe closer to my alter id. Surely not my superego but sometimes, I think, my superior. I use him as a navigator to take me where my own thinking might not go. He and I are like the old “give and go” play in basketball: I give him ideas, and he bounces them back to me with his unique spin. When I first invented Key, I was quite a bit smarter than he was, but now I think his experiences with the dying have made him wiser than I am. He’s no steersman, like Charon, to the other side. But Key’s tours forced him to live with and think a lot about terminal illness, so I wanted to hear what he would say when I thought I was passing away.
After witnessing many deaths during a thermal inversion in Athens when he was playing in the pro league there, Key realizes in Passing Off that “We’re all athletes” needing air and water as we “run the suicides,” a conditioning drill that exhausts players and that stands for our relation to our polluted and overheated planet. In Passing On, Key considers life in the womb and says we’re athletes even there, taking on hydration, flexing our legs, getting in shape for the long run, first crawling, then walking, and then running through our brief time on earth. He was a point guard conditioned to govern play on the court, and off the court his mind is governed by his training. Low Key anticipates only the next second or two, doesn’t panic in the last two minutes, and refuses to be deceived. He has what Wallace Stevens described as the vision of “The Snow Man”: seeing “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”
Although I’ve been an amateur athlete since I started playing basketball at eight and continued to fifty, when a hip replacement drove me off the court and sent me to the ping pong table for twenty years, I doubt I would have come to Key’s pure perception of existence without creating the consciousness of a professional and obsessional athlete. So what would this fifty-year-old former athlete tell this seventy-year-old former professor about passing away? “We’ve both been passing away for years,” Key says. “When you stop hooping, you start passing away. You should be used to dying. You’re just doing it slower than most. People used to say, ‘speed kills.’ Speed lives, slowing kills. You’re slower and slower until you’re still. You’re just shambling along, waiting for the end. You can go on a tour, cross oceans at 700 miles an hour, scramble to dodge traffic in Cairo or Rome, but there’s nothing you can do that will make you feel like you’re playing ball and living fully. Why do you think Updike’s white Rabbit with his weak heart played that black teenager one-on-one in the Florida sun? To put himself out of his misery, the long misery of not doing what athletes do best, run and jump and pass and shoot, rebound and defend, run ‘on and on and on’ as the motto of Terminal Tours has it. All athletes die young. We’re just not buried or cremated until later.”
Once a basketball addict, I have to confess that I agree with him. I tell him that’s why I’ve tried to stay quick with table tennis. He laughs and says, “You think ping pong is the difference between the quick and the dead? That game is no substitute for hooping. There’s competition but no combat, no physical contact with your opponent, no force. Your body is not at risk from a hard foul, you can’t undercut an opponent who has elbowed you. The game is weightless like the ball. The score, not the clock, governs. Pongers are fake athletes, keeping their feet and hands quick but the pulse rate and stakes are low. Old men hobble around the table. They want to believe they’re not passing away. Hoopsters know life time is like game time-short and passing. Yeah, we know about the end. The buzzer always goes off, a hundred times, a thousand times, to remind us. And then one day, there’s no more buzzer to beat, we take a seat, and spend the rest of our years wondering how quick went so quickly.”
Keever isn’t a melancholy guy, just one who knows the score for the person who is all athlete. He never thought much about what being an athlete meant until he went to play in the Greek league, discovered that “athlete” was an old Greek word, and connected across centuries with ancient Olympians and the first runner from Marathon, who died after delivering his victory message. Key’s former wife believes he’s a “dumb jock,” and to some extent he embraces the characterization. Key feels his throwback sense of inescapable physicality separates him from Ann and her friends, who think of their identity in psychological terms. Key knows the word “proprioception” and believes his body knows more than non-athletes can feel or he can articulate. That’s why “Trust the body” is his first rule. “Keep it simple” is his second. Julian Jaynes posited that archaic Greeks didn’t realize they were thinking; they believed the voices they were hearing in their heads were the gods speaking to them. Key is not that dumb, but he doesn’t allow educated voices to override what his body tells him. Strip all the invented jargon from Heidegger and Sartre, put them in shorts and sneakers, and you’d approximate Keever, the existential simpleton.
I’ve been studying death since I wrote my doctoral dissertation on death and comedy in American fiction. My pretentious or ironic title was “Final Words.” Norman O. Brown’s Life Against Death and Ernest Becker’s Denial of Death have been very important to me. Two of the novelists I read and write about again and again—Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo—are death haunted. But when I believed I was dying, profound intellectual explanations and others’ fictional explorations seemed like fabrications, so I turned to Keever. His third life rule is “Love your luck.” “Athletes live by luck,” Key says. “Every time a player jumps, he knows it could be his last leap. Come down on the floor and jump again. Come down on a player’s foot, tear your ACL, and limp the rest of your days. Kareem played in the NBA more than twenty years. Len Bias’s heart exploded before he ever played a game for the Celtics. Breaks of the game. It can make you or break you. There’s good luck and what the brothers called ‘hood luck,’ dying young. You had good luck and a good run to fifty, only twenty years of passing away. Forget all those Kubler-Ross stages. Keep it simple. You’re lucky to be alive, and then you’re not.”
As you can see, Keever is not a comforter. I didn’t expect him to be. Like me, Keever was raised as a Catholic. The Jesuits inadvertently talked me out of my faith in an afterlife my first year at Boston College. After Key’s mother committed suicide, he lost his faith and admits in Passing On that he hoped the tours would help him retrieve it. They have the opposite effect, but in his last client Key finds a navigator, a physical therapist named Alice who travels to famous mausoleums. She says she’s on the “No Hope” tour, learning how to die without any illusions of immortality. “Even when Alice couldn’t get out of her hospice bed,” Key remembers, “she was an athlete all the way through. All body, no matter how shrunken. Her mind didn’t imagine a second chance, didn’t invent a passing on. I want to keep up her courage all the way to my end when it gets close. Go away like Alice and save my daughter from nightmare memories of an Ivan Ilyich passing. I never gave Sara any religious upbringing that might protect her from a fear of death, so I need to show her I’m not afraid. Pass gently into the void.” Since I have three children to whom I passed on no religious faith, I vow to imitate my creation’s client’s courage, remember his three-word sentences: Trust the body. Keep it simple. Love your luck. Hope is dope. One and done.
Key asks me if I want to go on a Terminal Tour, and I tell him no, that I want to use the time I have left to chase Updike and write a fourth Keever book entitled Passing Away. “What about you?” I ask, “Would you go in my shoes?” “Maybe,” he says, “but I’m sure not going back home like a lot of the clients, not to the Vermont potato farm that killed my mother, the icy river that sucked my father under. No, if I go anywhere it would be Athens. That’s where my life changed. In the States I was a slow white guard. There I was the ‘Greek Key’ and ‘White Magic.’ That’s success for an athlete—when you get a new name like LeBron’s ‘King James.’ That was the best year of my life, game and fame. It might be good to go out with reminders of that place and time, memories of boat rides into the total blue where sea and sky meet.”
I was about ten years older than Key when I went to Athens to teach. I wasn’t famous, but I fell in love with the country and wanted to never return to the U.S. I was playing ball occasionally but didn’t feel I needed to, not the way I did back home. Athens itself was like a court, and the Greeks were athletes, their hands in motion when they talked, their bodies hustling and pushing on the sidewalks, the motorcycles and cars speeding and jostling in narrow spaces. That was more than thirty years ago, and I’ve been back many times since, but when I’m really terminally ill I might like one last reminder of my feeling, back in 1981, that I had come to the land of athletes, that Greece was my true home.
I thought Key didn’t go to museums, but when we talked of Greece he showed me a postcard of an archaic ithyphallic figure from the National Archaeological Museum, the statue at the head of this essay. “Here,” he says and laughs, “is your former athlete, a man of mass and force before Greeks developed their minds and idealized human figures. He’s on the bench now. He’s never getting up again. The part of his head that houses the higher brain functions is gone. His penis is knocked off, his feet are missing, one hand is destroyed. He raises his other hand to his brow where the reptilian or athlete’s brain resides. Is the gesture a farewell salute or a sign of puzzlement? His mouth appears to be open. What’s he going to say?”
“It looks to me,” I tell Key, “like he’s going to tell us what it’s like to be passing away.”
Tom LeClair is the author of six novels, including the recently published Lincoln’s Billy, a work about Lincoln and his law partner, William “Billy” Herndon. (updated 10/2015)