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  • Before You Embark—An Introduction
  • Wah Mohn

Papa Lee! I could say he died how he wanted, had he wanted to die. In the saddle, at the keyboard, composing his last performance poem. The following excerpt is the final section of that unfinished work, which my father titled The Fifth Voyage, a reference to the four voyages in Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. Approaching the horizon, Lee’s questions of how to conclude his piece and his life fused into this purgatorial poem, this gift to us from beyond the grave.

Lee was always concerned with staying sharp, with keeping his edge. Though he never showed any real symptoms of dementia, he complained about “losing his marbles” (Swift himself was declared “unsound of mind” shortly before his own death). In response, his spouse and artistic partner, Maude Mitchell, gave him a bag of actual marbles as a joke present for his seventy-seventh birthday. He kept them in a zippered pocket of his backpack as a talisman of continuing clarity.

As far as proverbial marbles were concerned, Lee seemed to hold onto all of them except for one: he forgot the difference between “save” and “save as” in Microsoft Word. So, he kept saving new versions of his final piece, or working on old ones, or combining them together. Forging ahead, Lee plugged away at whatever version of The Fifth Voyage he happened to open that morning. Call it a . . . creative process. No one was going to force him to write linearly.

At the time of his death on January 3, 2021, Lee’s laptop contained sixty-eight separate versions of The Fifth Voyage, none finished, none definitive. All cover the same subjects—a final train trip, a disintegration of identity with the approach of death, and an artistic arachnid companion named Flo (after Florence Nightingale) with conspicuous similarities to Maude (to whom the piece was dedicated).

Sixty-eight different versions. Sixty-eight different overlapping angles on the same material. I was fearful of this proliferation while he was still alive. During [End Page 87] those home visits, when Lee and I would look through his laptop together, I’d bite my lip. He had already lost some lovely pieces to the digital maw. If only he had stayed analog. Where were those scissors and glue sticks he used to wield at his desk, silhouetted by lamplight, frankensteining phrases and paragraphs? When I rose from bed as a child, some words stuck to my pajamas and others fluttered to the floor.

Our father was never particularly organized. He had faith in chaos and rather enjoyed when his projects blended into each other. While writing his last piece, he was in the process of preparing his archive for Yale. All his past works lay around him in a daunting cityscape of paper stacks, which had to be tidied up, organized. A life to make sense of. It was a continuation of his herculean struggle to tie it all together. Well, this was the capper, he’d often say.

The development of the text? Well, the text was autobiographical, and Lee’s illness was developing rapidly. After a bout of bronchitis made a lecture in France particularly difficult, Maude took him to Switzerland where they rode in an open railway car of The Bernina Express to Italy and back. Mountains to palm trees back to blue ice peaks. A beautiful day.

Over the last years, Lee and Maude went from touring productions to hopscotching artist residencies, to four ICU visits in the summer of 2018. The rhythm of his body slowed. His balance weakened. Tired, but unable to sleep very long, he wrote in a waking dream state. The unlimited narrative options narrowed to a corridor of escape. The aisle of a train. A private confrontation.

One of the last times I hung out with my father we were on a bench by the river in Brooklyn. I was worn down from my manual labor job. He was navigating the final stages of kidney disease and cancer. We gazed out over the bridges to that awful glittering ode to progress. The sunset caught on the island prism of metal and...


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