Seasoned departure

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“…I used to think we escape time by disappearing into beauty. Now I see the opposite. Beauty reveals time.” from “A Lesson from the Earth” -Anne Michaels

The last year has delivered quite a walloping in terms of death.

Most are not exactly sudden, as people in our periphery grow tired, frail, ill or some combination of these traits. None necessarily fatal on its own, together create a kind of fatigue that can trigger the onset of departure. Late last year, my mother’s brother died, which was devastating for her, and left a gaping wound in the heart of our small family. During 2017 many other people succumbed. My mother’s cousin Terry, unexpectedly. Then my father’s good friend, Larry, died, not necessarily expectedly, but his health had declined in recent years. Then my dad’s mother, about a week ago (and only a week before her own birthday). Then yesterday (on the aforementioned grandmother’s birthday), my mom’s best friend for more than 35 years, Sherry, died. I know it sounds like the set-up for a joke: Terry, Larry and Sherry walk into a bar. Well, for all I know, somewhere in this universe, they are. But that’s not the point.

Death had been so much on my mind last year, entering this year, forcing me at times to move my comfort zones and expand on my sense of space and time. That is, time is not unlimited – but at the same time, does not really exist. We float through a world in which all action is interaction. What are we – or were we – without interaction? We do or did not exist. I have let myself love and let myself get hurt and do and undo all the concomitant reactions (e.g. lashing out, crying, recomposing, moving forward, and so on). To feel – and to produce something from the feeling – is somehow all there is, and what proves we are alive, proves we still have something to give – whether to another person or to the world.

Marie: “Pardon me all to hell”

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Last night, my last living grandparent died. It was not unexpected when it finally happened but was somewhat sudden in that the end came about quickly. I don’t have a lot to say about it; we were not close, she lived far away, and I didn’t really know her. I didn’t/don’t really know much of that part of the family.
But this, I suppose, is sad. I feel a certain sadness for her children, as it’s difficult to lose a parent (undoubtedly). It’s hard to come up with words about a woman I didn’t really know. When the other grandparents died, it was devastating, but I was really close to them.
I was not close to this grandmother; she was virtually a stranger. What do you say about someone whom you never really knew, whose life was defined by getting married and having children when she was a child herself and whose later life was pretty much dominated by Jehovah’s Witnesses?
I have small, incomplete memories of Marie, the distant grandmother who died, from the way my late grandfather pronounced her name, a rushed “Mree” (usually sneering or yelling), to the giant pancakes or the homemade loaves of bread she used to make.
I seem to recall that she had a crush on the late James Garner, circa Rockford Files time, which came to mind not so long ago when Mr Firewall told me about an episode (“The Empty Frame”) he had caught in reruns (yes, they are still showing Rockford in some parts of the world). The best parts happen at 42:15, when Rockford exclaims, ‘Pardon me all to hell!’
Immediately thereafter (42:30) when the episodes ‘villains’ discuss their failure to adhere to their initial socialist/hippie principles:
“Hey, David, will you knock off that stale 60s rhetoric? You’re looking at the new Jag, she wants a Kenzo wardrobe, I’m sick and tired of hearing about the pigs up on Gorki Street and the storming of the Winter Palace!”
“I’m not buying a new Jag; I’m buying a paramilitary vehicle…”
“We all sold out the day she got her first 50-dollar haircut and you and I said we liked it!”
I only saw her a handful of times in my life; the most memorable was in the early 80s. I recall that she bought some candy bars one evening, and my brother and I begged for one before bed, and in her very West Virginia way of speaking, she smiled and said, “I reckon we can have one tonight…”.
And that’s about it. May she rest in peace.

grief collective

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Facebook does not often give me reason to feel grateful. Today I feel grateful because I was able to reach out, with the platform’s immediacy, to an old (but not graduated-high-school-in-1977-old) and dear friend to express my condolences after a death in her immediate family, share in her angry grief and add to the vast chorus of voices chiming in with love and respect about my own memories of the loved one my friend lost.

Though vague and hazy childhood memories, the woman my friend and her family lost is branded in my brain as a strong, hard-working, straight-talking, no-nonsense woman. I didn’t know her well, but as a part of my friend’s family, I met her many times 30 or so years ago. For me to have retained clear memories of these personality traits in her, after three decades, she must have fully and indelibly embodied these attributes and, more than that, been able to make lasting impressions on all those she met in life. Seeing all the beautiful pictures my friend posted of this woman, her family and herself, all together, I felt such sadness for them, as you do for people who have disappeared too soon, but also the bittersweet feeling of joy you feel in observing a life well and fully lived.

These things also render one a bit helpless but wanting to help, reaching out in a flailing and fumbling way but reaching out nevertheless.

Grief, perhaps unlike death, and all its forms, is tough and unpredictable. As I have written before, it is those who remain on earth and in life who struggle:

“It’s this aftermath that’s hardest to know what to do with. The people who remain: how should they move on? Should they? I mean, do you ever really move on? Are you the same person after you experience a major loss and the kind of grief it visits upon you? Of course it – death and grieving – is a part of life; do you come out the “other side” dramatically changed because, in fact, your world is changed so significantly (because of these absences/losses)? Or is grief the engine of being exactly the same person you were in a changed world (and you start to “let go” or “stop grieving” only once you start to change in facing the new reality)?”

“’Moving on, as a concept, is for stupid people, because any sensible person knows grief is a long-term project. I refuse to rush. The pain that is thrust upon us let no man slow or speed or fix.’” -from Grief is the Thing with Feathers, Max Porter

My friend and her family have the strength of their faith to help and guide them through and to offer some kind of reason for what they are going through. But more than that, more broadly, the more we can form a loving and supportive collective, no matter how long ago our friendships flourished or how distant we are – literally or figuratively – the more we can at least be witness to the human experience in all its nuance. I won’t say it will make things easier for those left in the wake of loss, but it never hurts to reach out and offer compassion and reassurance.

“scatter the ashes”

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Cremation
Robinson Jeffers
It nearly cancels my fear of death, my dearest said,
When I think of cremation. To rot in the earth
Is a loathsome end, but to roar up in flame – besides, I
am used to it,
I have flamed with love or fury so often in my life,
No wonder my body is tired, no wonder it is dying.
We had a great joy of my body. Scatter the ashes.

Life’s flickering blue light

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Perhaps my mother and I have never been particularly visual people. Unable to see or care about what is in our face, or to remember the faces of people we have met repeatedly…which would explain something like what follows…

Years and years ago, we decided to show my then-partner, C, the film The Right Stuff. I don’t remember why now, but I do remember sitting down and watching the first/an early scene, and both my mom and I commenting, “Wow, they sure look young.” We were, of course, referring to Sam Shepard (RIP) and Barbara Hershey. C incredulously demanded, “Well, who the hell are they?” We’d seen the film a bunch of times so we knew who they were, but C had no clue what he was even seeing – silhouettes of indistinguishable people, apparently, so he decided to adjust the color on the TV, only to find we’d been watching something that was so ridiculously dark that we too might have exclaimed, “Who the hell are they?” if we had not seen the film before. I still laugh at this sometimes, and of course, it came up again with the news of Sam Shepard’s recent passing.

In another one of those tiny coincidences, where little things cross your path at just the right moment, I had just read Patti Smith’s memoir, Just Kids, only a few days before Shepard died. I had had no intention of writing about it; it was one of my filler reads – interesting, entertaining, engaging, but nothing so thought-provoking it warranted analysis or further discussion. Yet I learned in reading it that she’d had a relationship with and was a near-lifelong friend of Shepard’s, which struck me as strange at first, but then as I read, it felt more and more fitting (not that I know these people to comment on what was strange or not. Like almost everything – we decide what’s strange based on some surface perception). She’s written about this most recent loss as well.

Then I remembered this truly beautiful video of Patti Smith that I had seen last year, just after my uncle died, in which she discusses dealing with death: “all of these people that we lose, and this is what I mean by experience, they’re all within us. They become part of our DNA. They become part of our blood.”

love life

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Not a lot of information exists out there, particularly in English, about the late Bulgarian poet, Danila Stoyanova. Many years ago, floating along in a bubble of seeking out and reading eastern and central European women poets, I stumbled on this moving poem, written when Stoyanova was only 16. She died of leukemia when she was only 23. Prescient perhaps that she wrote about keeping life on par with death.

While, perhaps, the dying person fears death, s/he might treat it with this casual indifference or acceptance. Stoyanova in her poem; or like Margaret Edson in her play “Wit“: “am waiting for the moment when someone asks me this question and I am dead.             I’m a little sorry I’ll miss that.”

Death is surely the mystery that causes all manner of unexpected reactions among the living.

“Grief. Death was not an intellectual conceit. It was an existential black hole, an animal riddle, both problem and solution, and the grief it inspired could not be fixed or bypassed like a faulty relay, but only endured.” -from Before the Fall, Noah Hawley

“One of the main reasons I decided to take the trip was to escape my grief. I thought, as people in adversity are wont to think, that a change of scene would help me escape the pain, as if we did not bear our grief within ourselves.” -from The Encyclopedia of the Dead, Danilo Kiš

And that in-between place where death is coming for someone, and his/her family fights the more powerful forces that death brings to the battle:

“Death is the enemy. But the enemy has superior forces. Eventually, it wins. And in a war that you cannot win, you don’t want a general who fights to the point of total annihilation. You don’t want Custer. You want Robert E. Lee, someone who knows how to fight for territory that can be won and how to surrender it when it can’t, someone who understands that the damage is greatest if all you do is battle to the bitter end. More often, these days, medicine seems to supply neither Custers nor Lees. We are increasingly the generals who march the soldiers onward, saying all the while, “You let me know when you want to stop.”

But for most patients and their families we are asking too much. They remain riven by doubt and fear and desperation; some are deluded by a fantasy of what medical science can achieve. Our responsibility, in medicine, is to deal with human beings as they are. People die only once. They have no experience to draw on. They need doctors and nurses who are willing to have the hard discussions and say what they have seen, who will help people prepare for what is to come—and escape a warehoused oblivion that few really want.” -from Being Mortal, Atul Gawande

Untitled
Danila Stoyanova
They say I don’t love life.
That I love the dead tulip not the breathing one,
that I’m in love with the sob and feel only
the laughter of the sarcastic.
That to the sun I prefer the rain and the electric wind,
that in the raging spring I seek out pre-ordained tragedies,
that I take the shroud for something sacred,
that I recognize man only in his animal wisdom,
and that shoving with the mob intoxicates me.

Oddness, or deception?

I only know my funeral
won’t take place
because it’s hard to bury someone
who puts death on par with life
and lives equally in both.

Gone away: 23 May

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Today would have been my uncle’s birthday – my uncle who died last year in November. As with all losses and the mourning that follows, it has been rough, especially for my mom, his sister. I’ve written various bits about the loss and all the things you lose along with the person (the shared memory, or, as my mom put it the other day, “I was the person who had him in my life the longest of anyone alive” – in a sense this is true. As the older sister, she was there, 1.5 years old, when he came into the world, and with both of their parents gone, she is the only one who was there, and up close, for the rest of his life).

But in losing someone like him, we gain a deeper appreciation for who he was, and more than that, for what he taught without even trying. As I wrote at the time of his death: “the man collected everyone who came into his life, from “stray” people, to new friends, to ex-wives and ex-wives’ future families to new loves and their families and friends” – and this is always the thing about him that stuck with me during his life and now “post-life”. Perhaps because it is the thing I aspire to most. I find that somehow he was able to make it work, but I just encounter the most stubborn and traditional of barriers. I touched on the thought the other day: why are we so territorial and stingy with our love and acceptance?

Sure, I am a dyed-in-the-wool misanthrope, a come-to-life Oscar the Grouch (my hero, my idol), but it’s not actually who I am inside. Like my uncle, I am curious and my capacity for wanting to love people and show them compassion is boundless. When a former partner, who became a close friend, moved on and met the woman he has hitherto spent his life with, I was elated for him, but I lost the friendship because she was too jealous about its continuing to exist. When I got twisted into a mercifully brief emotional vise earlier this year, I swiftly got over the disappointment of it and thought we’d be friends – I tried to at least leave the door open to friendship on his terms but got burned by the partner/ex-partner/who knows now what she is/was because that became a question mark. Those details don’t really matter – I understand why these people got jealous, angry, irritated, upset. I just don’t think they had to – I have at least as much care and compassion for them as for the other party (the ones I actually knew directly). They have no way of knowing this and probably would not care because I guess there’s some intoxication or self-righteousness to be had in directing hatred or frustration toward perceived threats or annoyances. And all I can think is: I am sorry. I don’t think that holding onto hostility – or feeling hostile in any sustained way at all – is a way to live.

That is not to say I never get annoyed or hostile (often reactions to feeling hurt). But these things mend, and I look at situations and people (even virtual strangers) to see the good in all of them, to see what they must have gone through or experienced. If I could, I would be like my uncle and “collect” these people, too, into a distant but extended kind of network of people – like-minded or not, I am sure that if someone I cared about, even remotely or briefly, loved these people, they must be remarkable in some way. I’d venture to guess we all have a lot more in common than not.

Confronting mortality – both one’s own (and one’s own brushes with death) and others (so many losses, some obvious, some hidden) – it has always seemed ludicrous to be so insular and self-absorbed about love and particularly about welcoming and accepting people into your heart. My uncle, may he rest in cycling adventures and untold numbers of over-the-top characters and events on whatever plane he travels now – today, his birthday – and for all eternity, managed to live this challenge and invite others to live in this way too.

He taught by example, sure, but I really wish he were still here to ask him how he did it.

Photo (c) 2006 John/Johnny Grim used under Creative Commons license.