Leonard Cohen Taught Us How to Die

No tattered papers, no clawing around for narrative, no absence of poetry. It was some way to say goodbye.

After hearing Thursday night that Leonard Cohen had died, I found myself hunched over a desk in my apartment, going through the last of my father’s possessions. They comprise a green leather box full of discarded ephemera, once a case for a Spanish brandy, and a plastic bag stuffed with tattered papers.

My father was an alcoholic and he died, jaundiced, at 58; I was seven. I don’t remember much of him beyond his pallid green skin in his last few days. The stories I’ve heard about him since have been airbrushed: he was charming, gifted, well-read. But the booze seeps into most of the anecdotes they short circuit before they have a chance to function.

I was only ever half-interested in steadying this legacy in my mind. If he was happy to bail, if he was content to fade out as a broken man, then that was his choice. But this year, with its constant death, had forced me to reconsider. Prince’s death, in particular. A man that I saw as immortal was human. He, too, had an addiction and, eventually, gave way to it.

There was symmetry to Prince’s death; he died in April in an ascending elevator. It seemed as though he’d written ballads about it all decades before it hit. After that sank in, I wanted to do with my father’s mess what I’d done with Prince. I wanted to tease some poetry out of it.

So I brought all these dog-eared papers and half-torn cards back from London to New York over the summer. Eventually, I thought, I’d do more than just flick through the green box like I had over the last decade; I’d find a more robust timeline than the one I found by lining up his three expired passports and watching him age like that; I’d get some meaning out of it.

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