Photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt / LIFE
Red Cosmos, 1972
Vineyard Times With Eisie by William Marks

Eisie did not die alone in his Menemsha cottage. Lulu and I were with him.  

The last day of Eisie’s life began as usual for a man of ebbing energies. Lulu dressed Eisie and I helped him out of bed into his wheel chair. After breakfast, he took a little nap. When he awoke, he read the New York Times obituaries while sitting at the window facing Vineyard Sound. As the day warmed up, I treated Eisie to one of his favorite things, a trip to the outside shower. He loved the sensation of warm water pouring down over his head and shoulders. Since Eisie’s circulation was failing, the heated water helped to give him a feeling of comforting warmth and lifted spirit. After the shower, Lulu made us some lunch. Afterwards, I had a thought - take some pictures of Eisie signing the V-J Day photo he gave me. I asked Lulu if she thought it would be okay, and she said, “Bring it in and see if he is interested. It may do him some good.” For about five minutes, Eisie showed a hint of his old self as he posed for my camera as he had so many times before. When taking these pictures, little did I know that this would be the end of my ten-year photo essay on Eisie. As I removed the roll of film from my Minolta camera, Eisie looked up at me and said, “I am dying.”Lulu looked over from the kitchen sink and admonished, “Poppy, don’t talk like that!” Shortly after, Eisie took another nap. While Eisie was napping, Lulu asked me to stay the night. She said she did not want to be alone with Eisie because he seemed unusually frail. 

I slept on the fold-out bed in the room next to Eisie’s and Lulu’s bedroom. I couldn’t sleep. On and off through the night, through the open bedroom door, I could here Eisie asking Lulu to shift his position in the bed to help relieve the pain in his legs and back. Just about midnight, while Eisie was telling Lulu what position to shift his body for comfort, his head dropped and he stopped talking mid-sentence. Lulu called Eisie’s name. By the time Lulu got to the bedroom door with my name on her lips, I was already entering the room. I tried CPR while Lulu called an ambulance - Eisie’s spirit would not return.  

The paramedics arrived and also failed to get Eisie’s heart to start beating. After the hospital protocol, Lulu and I returned to Eisie’s beloved Pilot House, the place felt empty without him. I lit a candle and Lulu and I spent the night talking about Eisie and the journey of life. In the early morning, we took a drive to the Black Dog restaurant and shared breakfast while watching the sun rise above the ocean. We were both exhausted but yet, there was a sense of wonder at the sharing of Eisie’s life. Looking out from the Black Dog’s porch,  the sun’s warmth touched our faces; boats stirred in the harbor; the day’s morning ferry sailed away from its slip, and the restaurant soon filled with the chatter of summer people.  

Over the next few days, I was busy helping Lulu prepare for Eisie’s memorial service at the Chilmark Church, and to organize the after-service gathering at Eleanor Piacenza’s (a relative of Tom Benton). Lulu chose five people to speak in Eisie’s memory - author David McCullough; former Time-Life editor, Ralph Graves; family friend and attorney, David Nierenberg; LIFE picture editor, Bobbi Baker Burrows, and myself.  

Lulu and the presiding Chilmark Church Reverend Arlene Blodge, chose me as the last speaker because of my close relationship with Eisie. Being a bit nervous to be sharing the podium with such renowned people, I worked long hours preparing a speech. When the day of the service arrived, I humbly listened to the four other eloquent and moving speeches that were sometimes spiked with humor. It was wonderful to hear the overflowing church fill with waves of tearful laughter and sobs as each speaker recalled sharing life with Eisie. When my turn arrived, I approached the podium on the flower-filled alter and faced the audience. It was then that something strange happened - I heard Eisie’s voice. “Tell them the story of the President,” said Eisie’s voice. I froze for a moment as chills ran up my spine. Shrugging off the thought as coming from my subconscious, I looked out at the audience and began reading from my prepared speech. Again, I heard Eisie’s voice. Something made me look over my left shoulder. Hanging there on the wall was an enlarged picture I took of Eisie years ago - I could actually feel his eyes. This time Eisie’s voice insisted,  “William, tell them the story of the President!” Feeling a cold shiver run through my entire body, I set aside my speech and told the story Eisie requested. To the apparent reaction of Lulu and the audience, the story of Eisie photographing President Clinton was well received.  

As an afterthought, I guess, even in death - Eisie is still calling the shots.

Copyright, William Marks

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