Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Death

Death and I have always had an odd sort of relationship.  Every time our paths have crossed there has been some level of aloofness, some disconnect.

My first experience came when I was seven or eight years old when my 92 year old great-grandmother died.  I'd visited her several times, but her senility had long outstripped all the other aspects of her personality.  She thought I was my father, and my young self didn't know quite what to make of that.  I actually made the trip to North Carolina with my dad to attend the funeral, of which I remember very little.  I don't think there was very much sadness for she had been clinging to a few threads of life for some time.  I think everyone was very comforted by her passing, she had been old and in poor health.  It was her time.

Probably the worst death for me, came in 1998 when the cat I'd had since I was two years old, and who was a part of the earliest memory I have, was put to sleep.  He'd been losing weight for weeks, and eventually had gone blind and stopped eating.  I cried for days leading up to when he was finally put to sleep, but I attended school that day, so there was still some level of detachment there.  Now he rests in the back yard, his grave overgrown by the ever expanding woods behind our house.

Then in 2005 our other cat, whom I had brought home with my mom when I was four, (and also remember very vividly) died while I was away at school.  One day, early in the year, my dad called me to tell me that he had been put to sleep.  He'd also been fading for some time, so it didn't come as a shock, and sitting at my desk a hundred and sixty miles away from home, I was removed from the tragedy.

Also during my years at college, two teachers that I had and liked and knew well had died.  Mrs. Myers succumbed to cancer and Mr. Olson had a heart attack.  No disrespect to Mrs. Myers, but Mr. Olson had been one of my favorite teachers when I took his ninth grade earth science class and remained so all throughout high school.  He and his class played a huge factor in my eventual decision to go to college as an environmental engineer.  An eclectically brilliant man, he was a joy to talk to about a variety of things, and I miss being able to pick his brain on a number of topics.

Somewhere in between my step-grandfather on my mom's side died.  I say step only because we were not biologically related, but since both my biological grandfathers died before I had a chance to know them, I will always remember him as my grandfather.  He had been a long time smoker, so in his later years he was battling a number of ailments.  Most of my memories of him involve a respirator and a comfortable seat.  I rather liked him, he always used to sit and watch me run around outside with our dog when she was younger, or watch me play solitaire while he and my mother talked.  I wish I had known him when he were younger.  Old photos of him from his army days show a cocky young man that looked like he would be devilishly entertaining to be around.

About a month after I'd first started dating my then girlfriend, her best friend fell in a battle with cancer that had been waged throughout her youth.  She was fourteen and my girlfriend was emotionally devastated.  That one might have been the hardest to deal with.  Just having to watch, with nothing to give but words that seemed so empty...that helplessness as you stand by while someone is torn asunder...  It's why I've vowed to outlive everyone, I don't want to see people go through that, ever.  And I certainly don't want it to be at my expense.

In the summer of 2006, a guy I knew well in high school and had enjoyed playing baseball with died in a freak car accident.  I know that the deceased often have their good qualities highlighted and exaggerated because that's how we want to remember them.  No one at my funeral is going to talk about how cranky and impatient I can be (actually please do, that will make me smile from wherever I go).  That really wasn't necessary with Keith though...he was nice to everybody.  Maybe that's what made his wake so hard since I really hadn't known him all that well, and I hadn't seen or talked to him in at least a few years.  It's always worse when bad things happen to good people...or to young people...or both.

Then my Uncle Dave, my dad's brother, died this past year of a heart attack in his late fifties.  He was one of my favorite Uncles, but I probably hadn't talked to him in close to a year, and hadn't seen him in about five so it was a surreal moment.  Without the contact, and with the distance of about eight hundred miles, it was as though he simply disappeared.  I hope to see the life he left in a much more tangible way as my family has a small memorial for him planned the next time we are together on the beaches of North Carolina.

And here I sit now, about to see, the passing of our only dog (most likely some time this week) and I confront death yet again.  This time there will be no distractions, no filter of distance, or degrees of separation as she passes, probably the first time I can say that about the death of anyone or anything in my life.

It seems appropriately dramatic that I would say that I don't know how to react, but that isn't true.  I can cry with the best of them.  Luckily for you, you did not get to see the mast few minutes where I cried and snotted into my favorite t-shirt...lovely.  I worry more about the impact it will have on my family than myself.  It's not that I don't care, but entrenched deep within my beliefs are two facts.  That everybody dies, and that time heals all wounds.  There is nothing as final and as resolute as death.  It's comforting in a way that there is something that can be relied on without question, and I know that in spite of those facts, the time that was spent with Sparkles, and with the people I mentioned above will endure.

I try and remember the quote from the movie Harold and Maude "I try not to get too attached to things."  And it's not an attempt to neuter any emotional connection, in fact I think it's just the opposite.  What we are attached to is not the tangible object, nor the pet, nor the person for that matter.  We are attached to the thoughts and feelings and memories, and even senses that surround that thing.  The physical nature of anything is not what makes it loved.  No one holds a connection to me because I am blood and skin and organs and plasma, and whatever the hell else I'm made out of.  They hold a connection to me because of what comes out of that shell, my thoughts, my emotions, my words, my actions, and even then, all of those things are simplified even further into memories.  And at the end of the day that's all we are left with is memories.

People will die, pictures will decay, digital images will corrupt, and stone etchings will weather.  But the experiences and the memories are eternal.  And better, those experiences and memories shape who we are.  Those memories are always a part of us even if they are forgotten, or warped, or cannot be readily accessed by our addled brains.  Everything we come across, no matter how seemingly insignificant at the time, affects how we interact with the world from that point forward.  I think that's why my response to a death has always been to go out and do something I enjoy.  To me, it's the ultimate sign of respect because you're taking those memories and experiences, and that mentoring and growth and using them in the best way you can, by simply being yourself.

I don't know that I have anything more to say, and I don't quite know how to end this either.  The other day on facebook, I asked whether a drawn out death or a sudden death was better.  I think a lot of people were afraid to answer for fear of offending me (not bloody likely), but the two that did both said the same thing.  So with that sentiment, I will end this blog entry.

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