Saturday, June 25, 2011

When Death Stops By For Tea

It feels like I’ve seen a lot of people of people die. Up front I extend my apologies to those who have actually seen death in multitude: victims of war, disease or any other number of ways this world can wage its fury on humanity. I just mean that in my social group, among my peers, it seems I have encountered death at a rate higher than others, but I have no conclusive evidence that supports this. In fact, it is just a feeling and perhaps others in my shoes would feel the same way.

There have been no truly astounding deaths. I mean it happens to the best of us. Astounding deaths are truly rare – I guess I’m implying freak accidents or large-scale catastrophes. I have seen grandparents go. Which is sad, but to be expected. Even when one is strongly emotionally linked with a grandparent or they pass earlier or more suddenly, there is still some assertion that they’ve lived a full enough life to have children, seen them grow and have their own children. My father did die at a younger age – in his mid fifties. (The above picture is a self-portrait the day he died.) His cancer was discovered in the late stages, solidifying the knowledge that he was definitely going to die and soon. He was given a timeline and he worked rigorously in that structure. He prepared a whole world for my mother; one in which he knew he would not exist. He led the purchase of a house with easy landscape to maintain. He bought her a new car. He bequeathed this and that and the other while mourning and grappling too. In some respects it was sudden in others we had just enough time to come to terms. It was also phenomenally physically painful for him to continue living. In this respect, everyone (including himself) wanted him to pass on. It was like some Deity approached us with a sign off sheet on the extermination of this life and over the months we, in great turmoil, said, “Alright. Alright. Where’s the fucking x?”

More recently Death came by again, uninvited. When is it ever invited in a good life? It’s like a visit from a dreadful relative that never calls before coming over, tells you things you really do need to hear, but you never want to admit, because he or she is merciless in the delivery of the message. “Life is short. You’re not getting younger. Why aren’t you living that dream or even pursuing it? Are you lazy? Nothing lasts forever. See? I just took this one with me. It might be you tomorrow… or today.” You’re too pissed off about the not calling and the tone of it all to even want to listen at first. It’s like, “There goes crazy uncle Death again. Up to his usual shenanigans.”

He came by again. I politely poured him a cup of tea and silently waited for him to administer his horse tranquilizer sized pills of wisdom. This Death was in many ways the antithesis of the last Death. Here was a friend I’d worked along side and known for years, but was not inseparably close to. She was young, early thirties, with two kids – ages three and one. Suddenly she fell from the second story of her apartment, breaking her shoulder, cracking her skull and five ribs and damaging vertebrae. Yet, this didn’t claim her. She was stable, alert and talking with friends and family. She had surgery and again was stable, alert and talking with others. She went to sleep and died in the night. The suddenness of all this was astonishing. This time there was no time to process or cope. This time I was left shaking fists (absurdly, as if God answers TO me) saying, “I didn’t sign off on this! You didn’t give me any paper with the fucking x. What’s this?” Regardless of my befuddlement I am still one of those annoying people that believe things do happen for a reason (but not one of those annoying people that feels the need to tell others who are immersed in the tragedy of the inexplicable death of a loved one, “You know, everything happens for a reason.”) and hence felt that coping was surmountable.

Surmountable is the optimum word here because this leads me to the realization that I most recently had. I am really bad at quantify death. I am terrible at knowing what to do with it. It’s like I’m the first person ever to discover plutonium. I don’t know what it is or what to do with it. “This looks like something.” I say. Part of the dilemma is discovering ones own way of grieving and embracing it. Still everyone grieves differently with every new encounter with Death. Grieving for aunt Edna that you rarely saw is not grieving for your brother Jim that you shared your deepest secrets with. I think my therapist (You can tell. I’ve been in a lot of therapy.) expressed one of the best points I’ve heard concerning dealing with Death in any form. You don’t get a pass on grieving, whether it’s physical death, the death of a relationship or a dream. No one gets to skip grief and if you try, it will come back for you with a vengeance. So, I’ve found it’s best to cultivate a self-awareness that recognizes when I need to grieve and how. Often it hasn’t been pretty or contained in some neat format that’s convenient for me. The mid day break down of sobs in the work place bathroom is never, initially, a proud moment, but it’s an important one. I’ve had my times, too when I punished myself for a need to mourn and paid dearly, falling apart in ways that not only cost me, but cost the ones I love.

In some ways I really think the ancient Hebrews were on to something. I wish it were socially acceptable in our culture to mourn as they did; complete with the heaping of ashes onto ones head and the tearing of garments. I believe there was some rolling in burlap sacs, but I might be remembering my Biblical studies incorrectly. They even hired mourners. Can you imagine outsourcing mourning? For a nation that outsources everything else, you’d think we’d be onto that, but I think we’d miss the mark and hit laziness where it would be comprehensiveness that we would need to aim for.

Short of adapting ancient cultures’ styles of mourning, I am developing my own. Sadly (or not so sadly depending on your view of life and death), it’s paramount that I continue this growth, as death will stop for no one, but waits for everyone.

DEATH be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee, 5
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell, 10
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell'st thou then;
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.
- John Donne (via