Death


Dandelions and Forget-Me-Nots In a sycamore co...

Dandelions/Forget-Me-Nots (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Roger Ebert blogged recently about a streak of loses among his friends and relatives that got him thinking about how and why we remember those who have died. In his musings, he touched on something that rang true for me:

Early one morning, unable to sleep, I roamed my memories of them. Of an endless series of dinners, and brunches, and poker games, and jokes, and gossip. On and on, year after year. I remember them. They exist in my mind–in countless minds. But in a century the human race will have forgotten them, and me as well. Nobody will be able to say how we sounded when we spoke. If they tell our old jokes, they won’t know whose they were.  That is what death means. We exist in the minds of other people, in thousands of memory clusters, and one by one those clusters fade and disappear.

The idea that what constitutes are immortality is as mortal as we are makes a lot of sense. It explains in a small way our fear of dying and our fear of letting go of those who have died. When we can no longer bring them to life in our mind’s eye as clearly as our home movies on the flat screen, they are truly gone. because even the photos and audio-visual facsimiles will eventually belong to those who never knew them in the flesh and to whom they are nothing more than curiosities from someone else’s past.

One of the comments on the Ebert’s post had this to add:

Many Native American peoples had two words to describe the dead. One word for those who had died- but still had someone living who remembered them, and another word for those who have died and no living person was left who remembered them.

Implication being that there is no immortality on this plane anyway.

 


"The Journey": Illustration depicts ...

Image via Wikipedia

As a storytelling device, the dead mother is omnipresent in children’s literature, television and film. And I understand why. The point of the narrative is to play on the legitimate fear children have of losing a parent to death. Mom especially.

But lord, it’s tiresome.

Dee loves to check out dvd’s from the bookmobile and as she has yet another 3 day weekend looming, she needed to stock up last night. By chance, I noticed a dvd we’d seen recently at Walmart and she decided that it would serve. She’d recognized one of the teenage actresses from a television show she likes to watch on the odd occasions that she has access to commercial television.

I came home from teaching my yoga class at the community hall to find her disgruntled in front of the flat screen with said movie playing.

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

“I cannot believe this, “she said, her arms folded in disgust. “There is another dead mom.”

“Excuse me?”

She pointed to the actress on the screen.

“Her mom is dead,” she said. “Why are all the moms always dead?”

A good question.

Later I began to read to her from a novel that she was most anxious to acquire because she’d recently met the author at the Young Author’s Conference and on page six … dead mother.

“Seriously?” Dee asked.

I shrugged sheepishly and Dee just shook her head.

Trope or cliché? I think Dee would opt for the latter.


Didn't We Almost Have It All

Image via Wikipedia

She turned up dead on my Facebook feed Saturday night, and I can’t say I was surprised or even sad in a nostalgic kind of way. In one of those prescient ways that irony sometimes presents to us, I had just been thinking about her earlier in the day.

XM Radio is hosting another of its freebie weeks in hopes of luring back costumers who feel them once they realize how limited their playlists are, and as I was taking Dee and her little friend to soccer practice, one of Houston’s earlier hits warbled at me. It was a song I was fond of back in its day but it has aged poorly. The lyrics were thin to begin with and I always felt that the song ended a bit off-balance in poetic terms. It occurred to me – again –  that despite her obvious talent, Houston had no ear for lyrics – what made them memorable and enduring. In fact, aside from her cover of the Dolly Parton tune, I Will Always Love You, which she performed for the film, The BodyGuard, I’d be hard put to name any song of hers that really doesn’t date itself.

Most of her hits came in the 80’s, a piss poor decade for music overall. Stack up enduring melodies from that decade against any of the others, and I’d bet the list is short by comparison. It launched, after all, the “me” generation and the consuming something-for-nothing, life’s-a -party attitudes that have landed us where we are now really.

Not that Houston is to blame for any of that. She was as much a victim of coming of age in the early 80’s as any of the rest of us. The pastels, Reganomics, Gordon Gekko, MTV superficiality tainted us all to one degree or another. Her shallow contributions doesn’t damn her anymore than it does the rest of us.

If anything about her death has touched me at all, it is the fact that we are the same age, born in the same year. Forty-eight is awfully young to drop dead though by all accounts she drowned in her tub after falling asleep. Xanax, liquor and a nice hot tub are probably not the best  combination. That she takes Xanax at all makes her one of my peers. You can’t swing a cat without hitting the Xanax dependent among women in the United States anymore. It’s more of a go-to than anti-depressants it seems. That it’s an oversold, horribly addictive drug goes without saying. Most of the mood altering concoctions peddled by the family physcians in the States are dispensed without proper physcological assessments but that’s the way Big Pharma likes it.

Big Pharma, another thing the 80’s gave us that it wisely doesn’t brag about.

A Facebook writer friend noted on her status update that she’d spent the evening listening to Houston’s songs and crying and didn’t know why. She wasn’t that big of a fan. But I pointed out that Houston is a cultural marker. Her music, more than she herself, is part of the soundtrack of a time when many of us were growing up or trying to pretend that now we were grown up. Her death is a stark reminder that those days are long gone and though we fool ourselves most of the time into believing that we are not older but better, the truth is that we are truly grown and more than a bit adult now. Not in danger of somewhat carelessly drowning ourselves in our tubs, but certainly not impervious to time.

Time ravaged Whitney. Mostly with her assistance. But time is no friend to women in America. Look no farther than poor and to be pitied Demi Moore, who recently checked her anorexic, drug addled (wanna bet she’s got a bit of a Xanax problem herself?) self into rehab after she recently collapsed from being overly artifically stimulated. Or Heather Locklear? Remember her from Dynasty or her short skirt/long jacket days on Melrose Place? She tired to commit suidcide not long ago.

What do these women have in common? Growing old while female in the United States, a country that doesn’t like women much anyway and certainly has no use for those pretty ones who can’t retain some of their youth.

Look at Madonna. She’s 54. Can you imagine the pressure? Only if you are a women. Fifty-four and having to be twenty-five forever. If I didn’t know she was a devout yogi, I’d suspect Xanax use here too.

It’s hard to be surprised about Whitney Houston, however. A cocaine addict turned prescription drug abusing alcoholic isn’t the American dream but it’s probably not far off a lot of people of a certain age’s truths anymore. And that’s sad.


Jan van Eyck, "Knights of Christ" (d...

Image via Wikipedia

Stumbled across a book on “closure” not long ago, written by Nancy Berns, a professor at Drake University in my old home of Des Moines, Iowa. She’s a sociologist, attracted to the cherry “death and dying” course work. I have perused her blog but only read the first chapter of her book because it’s essentially a textbook for one of her courses and, therefore, ungodly expensive.*

In Chapter one, Berns basically outlines the progression of the rest of the book in syllabus fashion with brief detours into the history of the etymology, psychology,  cultural and historical evolution of a term that she compares to the equally made up idea of “self-esteem”. It is not, exactly, a grief book. Although since nearly everything in our culture is now subject to the Kübler-Rossification of processing, it is heavy on the idea that humans need to define the death throes of all experiences. Nothing can simply end. It has to be analyzed, processed and brought to “closure”.

The case can be made that because people believe in the idea that all things unsettling, hurtful and traumatic need to be kneaded like dough, punched into submission and baked until closure, it must be real. Of course, Santa Claus is real until you reach a certain age of enlightenment about magic, and God is real until it becomes apparent that he is like Santa Claus and perhaps existence can’t be explained so simplistically.

Toward the end of Chapter One, Berns describes the two types of people who don’t believe in closure – The Walking Wounded, who can’t find it and the Myth Slayers, who simply can’t fathom its existence.

I like the term Myth Slayer, don’t you? It’s fitting. I don’t believe in grief as a process (unless you are willing to admit that life itself is a series of processes of which grief is just one and in that case I will concede). I am suspicious of the idea that everything needs to be analyzed in light of how we feel about it because feelings are often irrelevant. Some things just are. Birth and death are merely the beginning and end points of mortal existence and are viewed through the accepted societal narratives of the culture and times, which vary depending on where in the world Carmen SanDiego happens to be at any given moment.

One of the reasons I rail against the grief process whose end goal is closure so that people can move on, is that I think it sets up false expectations, hopes and even inspires fear and feelings of inadequacy in those who buy in only to discover that what is promised isn’t going to materialize. It’s not okay to sell grief á la Weight Watchers or peddle it as a life-long chronic emotional illness. Grief culture is just a mythology that our death fearing, but equally obsessed with, society has created to explain the seemingly unexplainable. Just like the Greeks and the Norse invented the gods and goddesses to explain and teach, we have the five stages of grief and closure to weave through the narrative of life’s rather ordinary processes. In this way, we can avoid the fact that life is full of beginnings, middles and endings where just about everything is concerned and we can avoid the reality that nothing much happens on any front without effort on our part. There is no magic.

No magic. It’s a letdown day when we first realize this as children and it continues to bum us out until someone has to bury us and search for closure of his or her own.

One thing that resonated was Bern’s belief that people don’t need closure to heal**, which runs contrary to what the grief industry would like us to believe. Unsurprisingly, I agree with this premise. The falsehood of promoting this has led many a person to sit back, wallow and wait instead of putting one foot in front of the other and moving on. Grief lessens until it reaches a point where it is so muted as to not really be grief as it is portrayed today. There is lingering regret, longing, and sadness attached to nearly anything that ended without our permission. Death is not special in that respect. Closure promotes clinging and this leads to wallowing, sympathy seeking and inertia in terms of moving on. It gives people permission to define themselves in terms of what life has done to them instead of defining themselves by what they do in life. Bonanno would say that this is tied to resiliency, which some of us have in abundance and others of us lack or don’t have the inner resources to access or use if we did. Some social Darwinism in play here too, I suspect.

Closure is hardly a grief thing. We are encouraged to look for it when we lose jobs, lovers, friends and when bad things happen to us good people. We are a 12-step culture and I blame the Baby Boomers, but I blame them for most things about society that drip with self-absorption and keen like a child denied.

Everyone should don a cape, pick up a bludgeon and play “whack a mole” with cultural foolishness now and again.  It’s liberating to discard made up notions superimposed on normal feelings and milestones.

*At $75 for a hardback and $25 for paper, I won’t be purchasing it anytime soon. College students, it seems, are still viewed as a cash cow captive audience. In the age of e-readers and smart-phones, it astounds me that they haven’t risen up and demanded downloadable e-texts at affordable prices, but that’s a post for another day.

**However, she seems to adhere to the same idea that society pushed people through grief – as if this was actually possible – and that grief, like a fine wine, should be savored. I have to chuckle a bit because by and large people move on at a pace dictated by their personalities and needs in spite of society’s best efforts to school them.


Little Girl

Image by Mr Bultitude via Flickr

A friend of the older girls disappeared earlier this week setting off a fast, frantic furious search launched by concerned friends via social media and flyers plastered on buildings in an ever-widening circle.

She hadn’t shown up for work. Her car was missing but her cell phone was not.

I didn’t know her but for a handful of encounters at the house she shared for a time with Edie. She smiled but looked away or down more than she looked at you. I chalked it up to shyness or the awkwardness of your roommate’s  parents descending and upsetting the singular atmosphere of house-sharing as it exists among the young today.

Twenty  and employment challenged, she’d settled into work at a nearby youth hostel. You would have noticed her had you seen her, long wild red locks, round cheeks and ethereal in a Renaissance Fair kind of way. She was beautiful in that fleeting way that we women never appreciate about ourselves until decades later when we run across old photographs and wonder why we didn’t see it when we looked in the mirror then.

She wasn’t missing long.

And when they found her, she was already gone.

She driven to mountains. It’s a city we always pass through on our way to the Okanagan. A destination whose significance was known only to her and it’s where she died.

Edie and Mick were postering at a local park when they heard the news. Friends were already gathering for a candlelight vigil. Edie posted it to her status on Facebook, the town crier of our modern life.

Rob was still out, driving the babysitter home. We’d been out to formal work function earlier.

I greeted Rob on the back porch with the news.

“How’s Edie taking it,” he asked.

“You should call her, ” I said.

I listened as she told him the news through choked sobs and sniffles. Worry on his face mixed with the urge to do and knowledge that “listening” was all he had to offer at the moment.

Mick has lost friends to suicide. He asked if she was okay. Edie said they were together. Dare was there and Silver was on his way. They would not be alone.

She noted that this would be her third funeral this year. She still is surprised by death. It didn’t strike close until she was an adult. That lulls some people I suppose. I was eight the first time, and it doesn’t surprise me anymore. The way it can come in waves, taking without regard to age and leaves you grappling with feelings and thoughts you try to avoid most times.

Edie told Rob that she’d just seen her friend a week ago.

“I didn’t see this coming,” it was hard to tell if that was surprise or self-recrimination.

“It’s so hard to understand,” he said.

It is. In cases when there are mental health issues evident, serious mental illness, there is at least something concrete. I taught in an at-risk program at my first middle school, and one of my favorite students lost his father to suicide.  The group’s counselor and I took all his classmates to the funeral. The man had thrown himself in front of  a train. I’d met him maybe just the once. Jon lived with his mother. His dad’s mother and sisters made sure he had plenty of supportive family around, but his father’s mental illness hung over him. He was afraid he’d end up like his dad, hearing voices and trying not to listen or do what they told him too.

At the funeral, the grandmother told the counselor and I that she was glad her son was at peace. The voices, she said, had plagued him since he was a small boy. He was just too tired to ignore them anymore.

But some people’s deaths can’t be pinned to obvious causes. They hide them in plain sight secure that their game faces are just like ours, or  – perhaps – they just don’t have the strength to live in the world. It’s not really Eden after all or even property east of it. Some people just can’t imagine themselves far enough in the future to wade through the now. They tire. They slowly stop treading and go under, and we are too busy swimming ourselves to notice.

My late husband lost two friends to their own hands when he was in college. After the second, he was so distraught he thought about it himself. Loaded the shotgun even. What made him pick up the phone and call his best friend that night, he really didn’t know he said when he told me about this years later.

“If anyone knew what there was to live for, it was Wally,” he said.

He could have just as easily not called though and I would be somewhere else today. And it wasn’t as if anyone had an inkling of how he felt or what he planned to do. It was just … one of those fateful things that can’t be explained even in retrospect.

Edie’s friend left behind a mother, who’s devastation I could not bear to imagine, a boyfriend, a few extended family members and many, many friends who loved her and searched fervently for her – if only she had known, and maybe she didn’t take her phone because she couldn’t carry that knowledge with her where she needed to go.

Rest in peace, Kylen.


Stanford University Quad Sky

Image via Wikipedia

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”—Steve Jobs – Stanford University Commencement Address, 2005

Jobs gave what is arguably one of the best launch speeches ever in his 2005 commencement address to Stanford University students. Filtered through his own intimate acquaintance with mortality, he boiled it down and handed it on a platter to kids who’d only ever received anything sans much struggle anyway, so it’s doubtful – given their age and relative privilege compared to most – that any of the young adults in attendance that day took Jobs’ words and ran with them. 2005 was still “booming times” with “limitless growth potential”.

And I would guess that anyone who did give his words more than a cursory second thought misapplied the advice in a material Jeffersonian “pursuit of happiness” way that is typical of Americans and those who follow the model. Following one’s heart is not about “happiness”. There are more important things that simply being “happy”.

Happy, like sad, or satiated or angry or blah or anything that a person can feel is transient. It’s like weather. Wait long enough and it will change – for better or worse.

What is truly important boils down to surprisingly little when one is willing to measure it against the finite amount of time we are alloted. Love, giving more than receiving but also not giving just to receive. Knowing our true self well enough to realize that it is the only true north compass we have. Realizing that we are ultimately more than the shells we inhabit and the stuff that supports our shells. Being thankful for everything because the universe didn’t owe us any of our experiences but gave us the opportunities anyway – to learn from or not as we chose.

Mostly though what is important is the fact that we are the authors of our lives. Dramas, romantic comedies, tragedies. We dwell in the narratives we’ve written for ourselves.


The Macintosh 128K was the first commercially ...

Image via Wikipedia

I can’t say that my first exposure to the computer found me instantly smitten. I didn’t even know what it was and, looking back, it was amazing that my dirt poor Catholic grade school even had a computer that students were allowed to use. Not that we used it for much. The only thing I can recall doing with it was playing one of the lame original versions of The Oregon Trail. I can’t recall if we were supposed to actually learn something from the experience but, periodically, small groups of us would be sent to the small office behind the main office, where the sacred computer was housed, to “play” this game. Perhaps it was a teamwork thing?

No matter. I didn’t love computers at that point. With their dot matrix print and slower than blobs of spit drying on the pavement processing, they lacked even the basic personality of their fake television and movie counterparts. As far as I was concerned, even that most boring of video games – Pong … or Ping? was more interesting and I use the term “interesting” quite loosely, even for me.

There were computers at university. I have vivid memories of the Math Lab and playing endless rounds of games that were supposed to help me learn algebra. The tutors were so confident when they assigned them to me and so deflated when they realized that they were simply going to have to teach me math the hard way – by actually tutoring me.

I did not learn to love computers then.

My first brush with word processing was on an Apple II during my student teaching at Northwest Junior High in Iowa City. They had a computer lab with computers;  thirty-five of them. Enough to take an entire Language Arts class at once. I would never have such a thing again in twenty years of teaching, by the way, which is more sad than I can tell you.

The program was FredWriter, an open source version of AppleWorks. Already possessing competent typing skills, thanks to dear Sr. Deborah back at Wahlert High School, word processing unleashed me, freeing me from my own bad spelling and typos with the ease of backspacing.

From there it was the Apple IIe and the Macintosh’s.

Not a single teacher at Hoyt Middle School in Des Moines wanted the Mac Classic when we were finally alloted our five. Five. That’s it for a school with close to 700 kids in it and 35+ staff members. The principal had to actually beg people to take one and try it out.

Not me.

“Give my a printer,” I said, “And I’ll figure out how to put it to use.”

Between my Mac and a small writing lab with about 10 IIe’s, I taught every single kid who came through my classroom in the next three years how to use a word processing program. This was years before we had Computer teachers and well before English teachers began to stop regarding spell check as something evil and anti-dictionary.

Sadly, the first computer I owned was an IBM. Apple had a program for teachers to buy computers from them but they wanted over $1000 more than IBM was asking for a similar package. PC’s, I soon discovered, mostly suck. They don’t make sense. They assume that one cares about why they function and the programming that makes the function happen. Which is incorrect. The majority of computer users want the computer to perform. The DOS of it is beside the point

Sometime in the late 90’s, my school district threw over Apple for Dell. And Windows.

And I coped.

Learned just what I had to in order to do the things I wanted and needed to do, and missed Apple and Mac’s.

I didn’t own another Apple product until 2005 when their store arrived at the nearby mega-ish mall. I bought the cheapest computer they had – a cumbersome eMac which, in spite of its ungainly size and retro appearance, did everything a Mac should do. Work. Without my needing to know or care why.

Two iPod’s later – and really, the iPod saved my sanity – I finally had the capital to purchase my beloved MacBook. Sleek. Sure. Friendly. Wonderlicious. If ee cummings had owned one, he’d have written the perfect poem about it. If Hemingway had written on it …. well, okay, he still would have come off as whiny and effeminate, so bad example.

Shakespeare would have rocked the house with a MacBook though, that I am sure of.

When Steve Jobs announced that he was taking another medical leave not long ago, I knew he would die soon. He was lucky to have lasted as long as he did, but it was folly to think that someone with that particular type of cancer can continue to beat the odds forever. The last photos of him on the web clearly showed a man with little time left. And I am not so trite as to believe that even leaving behind the legacy that he has made leaving any easier for him or his family.

But isn’t he lucky to have touched so many lives?

I think so.

Rest in some kind of peace, Steve. And thank you.

You can’t connect the dots looking forward you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something: your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart, even when it leads you off the well worn path.

Steve Jobs, Stanford Commencement Address, 2005