Nine years ago this month, I got a call at work from Beth Rake, my friend John McCarthy’s wife, informing me that John was in the hospital with a diagnosis of liver cancer. He died about a month later, at age 60. In that last month, however, he showed such unbelievable courage and good humor that those of us close to him still marvel at the way he died. John & I grew up in the same neighborhood in the Bronx and became friends when I was about 14 and he was 17. He was the only child of a father from county Kerry and a mother from Tipperary. He was also an amazing storyteller, comedian, mimic, singer, and spoons-player. With John’s permission, I recorded 3 or 4 of our final phone conversations. When Beth asked me to write something for the funeral program, I proposed instead that I put together a “poem” taken from some of the words John spoke during those conversations. Here is that piece:
Going Out Talking
I’m not gonna get better, barring a miracle,
which I don’t close the door on. But at the same time,
I can only deal with what’s on the table. It’s strange
enough to die, but it don’t even seem odd to me anymore.
It just seems to be my time.
My appetite hasn’t left me, but neither has
my appetite and need for spiritual nourishment.
I like the Pope personally. I have no problem with him.
However, there is the fact that he’ll meet with terrorists
before he’ll meet with gays.
Doctors all say the same things.
“Roll over” is one of their big ones.
Today I feel fine.
Yesterday I o.d.’ed on codeine.
It was terrible.
I called them up and told the nurse, “You know these Tylenols with codeine?
If I had the strength, I’d throw them out the window. I’ll never take another
one again.” I said to her, “I want morphine.” Which I don’t have a severe
reaction to. They brought me morphine, man. There’s enough here
to start a business. I got morphine in the fridge, and some here by my bookcase
in case I have a problem during the night. So far, I haven’t had much pain.
I got a new pain the other day: the inside of my liver feels like there’s a finger
pointing in it, which I began to refer to as “The Finger of Doom.”
It’s all about death. It’s all about time, and making you
and dying at home. That’s the deal: the doctors are out, the pain management
people are in, the nurses come to monitor the progress. The cards are stacked
for a peaceful death. I have stuff for aggravation—if I get aggravated,
I have stuff I put on my tongue. Maybe I could get some for you.
You could keep it in your desk at work.
The nurses were saying, “This must be terrible
pain.” I immediately
and deliberately told them—I repeated it three times, so I hope they got it—
“This is okay.” I keep saying to them, “It’s okay, it’s okay, don’t you understand?
It’s really okay.”
I’ve become part of you.
You’ll remember things we did together.
Things will come to you. Stories. In a mysterious, spiritual way.
You’ll say something that’s a McCarthyism. You want me to haunt you?
I’ve even thought jokingly of threatening people if I didn’t get my way
on what I was demanding on my deathbed: “I swear I’ll haunt you.”
I like the idea of flying. I’m beginning to really like the idea
of joining my mother and father and meeting God.
Pressure’s coming from all angles. Got a tumor coming down from the top,
liver cancer from the side. After a short time sitting down,
I get nauseous and dizzy. A few times I ran from the table to vomit.
I can probably still run faster than you.
I’m built low, dark, and blocky. That’s what the woman said to me in Ireland:
“You’re like all the McCarthys—they’re built low, dark, and blocky.”
Kerry people are odd. They look at you suspiciously. But I got along well
with them. She took me to the stone with an old plaque that said,
“Here’s lies Sean O’Connell, the Seanachie [the Irish word for “storyteller”].
His stories will live forever.” I read the plaque, I was looking at the stone,
and she said: “Your grandmother and the Seanachie were first cousins.”
I didn’t feel like a tourist there anymore.
They took me to a ruin that’s so beautiful, and so obscure, and so lovely,
and the man says, “This house was built as a present to your grandmother
and grandfather. And if you took it, we’d be grateful.
We’re certainly never going to sell it to the Germans.”
Turning a dollar was never one of my talents.
Turning away money I’m pretty good at.
I reached a new station. I call it a station on the
I’m not hungry, but I have hunger. Everything is reduced to halves,
and I’m sometimes not even interested in the halves.
It’s not gonna go any other way. Meanwhile, I’m here.
Just like my plan: that the last thing that will give out is my voice.
My life is full of blessings.
You know what it is?
You get tired of this. Tired of
This medicine I drink is rough—they never had anything like it in O’Grady’s.
Even just taking the pills becomes hard. I don’t want to take no more pills.
All these constant throughout-the-night visits to the bathroom. I just get tired.
After a while, more distance is created. You’re further away from life.
Further away from life’s concerns. You drop the reins.
You get to the point where you’re dead, and people say: “How serene.”
We’re here on this big rock traveling around a ball of
fire, and you’re talking
about security. You’re talking 401Ks. We’re out in space, hurtling around
a ball of fire. All my life, I really believed that, but when the time comes,
it’s startling. I didn’t think I had cancer. Never mind to such an extent.
But I’ve been okay since the second day in the hospital, and I’m okay today.
These days count. I woke up the next day in the hospital in a good mood—
I can’t understand it. There’s only one thing to do: you got to live till you die.
I got what I wanted: to talk my way out.
I found a funeral card that says, “Grieve Not.” I like that.
It says what I want to say.
----John McCarthy in the fall of 2003
below: John McCarthy on the roof, W. 16th St., NYC, 1970s; photo by Jesse Winch
in Memory of John McCarthy
You are smiling at us for eternity
but we don’t see what’s so funny.
You are up there on the roof, chest bare,
and you will not come down again, not ever.
We have a cup of tea on 16th Street in your name.
Once when you were drunk, you almost broke
my thumb. Failure was your great success.
You hated authority and hypocrisy, loved dogs,
cats, Irish songs. You were a hundred percent excess.
Fearless, ballsy, brilliant. Around you, I felt brave.
You made fun of me, I made fun of you.
No one ever died with such grace and humor
as you, my dear. You told us not to grieve.
I can hear you joke, “I thought he’d never leave.”
John McCarthy & Terence Winch, mid-80s, DC; photo by Jesse Winch