God, Death, and Mustard

A condiment-smeared Holy Week epistle of practically no religious significance whatsoever...


Musical accompaniment: Dead Man Blues, by Jelly Roll Morton/Anita Gonzales, c.1926*

Graphic accompaniment: Camille at her Deathbed, by Claude Monet, c. 1879**

Spirituous accompaniment: Hot toddy, by Yours Truly, c. 9:35 p.m.***


"I've seen a Dying Eye

Run round and round a room

In search of Something - as it seemed

Then Cloudier become

And then - obscure with Fog

And then - be soldered down

Without disclosing what it be

'Twere blessed to have seen"

- Emily Dickinson


My continuing research on early 20th century writer / poet/ playwright / philosopher / pagan-twig-gatherer Thomas J. McSheey (1899-1935) has produced the following piece written during the Lenten season.

McSheey wrestled with his Catholic belief. Well, it was more like arm wrestling than classic wrestling in the Olympic sense as done in ancient Greece ... after all, the Greeks wrestled in the nude, and McSheey had a phobia of gym locker rooms. On second thought, let's just say that he wrangled with his Catholic belief, and in fact, he had a problem with the whole notion of Lent.

Influenced, no doubt, by his World War I experiences, during which he suffered the loss of a number of comrades (as well as trench foot), he saw only the element of death associated with Lent, clearly not seeing the element of rebirth embedded within it. He saw Lent as a period of decay, a period of dismantling, basically a period of giving something up and getting nothing back in return.

McSheey scholars have argued that his writings on death were less about the physical "death of the body" and more about the ethereal "death of the spirit." Proponents of this theory point to the fact that McSheey once filled an entire notebook with the words "Death of the Spirit ... Death of the Spirit ... Death of the Spirit" written over and over and over. While opponents of this theory point to the fact that McSheey was a raving lunatic.

"Death" for McSheey took a number of forms. For instance, any misfortune in his life represented a form of "death," like whenever one of his manuscripts was rejected by a publisher, or whenever his finances were in a dire situation, or whenever he ordered a sandwich at the local deli and the woman behind the counter put mustard on it instead of mayonnaise. These failures, and many others, represented little "deaths" for McSheey.

During a particular April  in the mid-1920's, he began work on a series of short essays toward developing a theme around which he had planned to create a one-act play to be entitled "Death...And Other Bad Days." The play was never written, but McSheey's notes survive ... unfortunately.

Here is one such entry entitled "God, Death, and Mustard":




God, Death, and Mustard (But not necessarily in that order)

I recently sought out the Dickinson poem "I've Seen a Dying Eye," flipping through the pages of a book from my college years. In the margin to the right of the poem, I had written years ago: "Person who dies cannot tell what he has seen." As if, in those final moments, the dying person, searching for the answer, the truth, the meaning, perhaps finds it, but then departs this life without disclosing that answer, that truth, that meaning.

In my encounters I have witnessed that searching look in more than one set of dying eyes -- that final moment, that indecipherable mumbling stare as if an angel stands at the foot of their bed. What is it they see? Do they, in fact, see an angel? A departed loved one standing by to lead them to the afterlife?

Do they see God?

Medical science will explain away these final moments as a series of misfires in the brain during the mind's inevitable descent toward death. It's as if each drawer of the great cranial file cabinet that stores a person's thoughts and remembrances begins opening in random fashion, and snapshots from those drawers are suddenly accessed in an equally random fashion.

No angels. No departed loved ones. No God - just biology gone haywire.

I have no answers. The only thing even approaching an answer that I've been able to arrive at is this: I believe that whatever a particular person believes is their final answer, their truth. If a person believes in angels, then they will see angels in their final moments. If a person wishes to see a departed loved one, then they will be visited by a loved one to help usher them to the other side.

And if they believe in God ...

{McSheey's writing ends here quite abruptly, but based on a smudge of mustard upon the page it appears he suddenly became hungry and went down to the deli for a baloney and cheese sandwich.}

Jack Sheedy


Deathly footnotes:

* Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton, co-writer of "Dead Man Blues," was the self-proclaimed "inventor of jazz," a claim that has been argued by jazz historians and quantum physicists, alike.

** Impressionist artist Claude Monet painted his wife, Camille, as she lay dying in her deathbed at the tender age of 32. Boy, talk about a guy who took his work home with him!

*** Hot toddy is whiskey, honey, and hot water served in a steaming mug - a great nightcap before surrendering to the "death of sleep."


Next time:

I will conclude my research on the misunderstood New England poet Thomas J. McSheey with the final chapter of his life, leading up to his ultimate demise, when he  "died quite sudsily" (he apparently slipped quite suddenly in the bathroom on some suds from a bubble bath he had drawn for himself).

At that time, I will attempt to explain the meaning behind McSheey's self-scripted obituary -- which seemed to be greatly influenced by his newfound interest in the "iceberg theory" minimalist writing style developed by Hemingway and others of that era -- which simply read:




McSHEEY, Thomas J

36, of Braintree, Mass. - He died.




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