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Posts tagged ‘death’

My First Memory of Death

I’m taking a non-fiction class and our first assignment was to write about a fuzzy memory. I’m thinking I didn’t quite get it right, but I’m going to share it here anyway.

~~

Thirty years later, I don’t interrupt as my mother talks about her father. Every time she calls him Daddy, I think for a moment that she means mine. I’m a little ashamed that I don’t know the answers to some of my questions, but I don’t let that stop me from asking.

All my memories come to me in patches. They are fragments of emotion, pictures in a photo album with untold stories lost in the expanse of white between each shot.

And so I ask my mother to tell me what I don’t remember: I want to know about Grandpop’s funeral. I want her to flesh out my first memory of death.

~.~

I remember it was sunny.

“It was a sunny day, it was a very sunny day,” she says. “Actually it was kind of warm; it was in the fall. He didn’t want to have a funeral, he just wanted to have a….He didn’t want to have anything really. We just had a graveside service.”

I remember the light. The sun folded over the edges of the canopy above us, making a sharp distinction between light and shade. That line of light crossed over the green astroturf carpet, crossed over the people, and cut a slant across the backs of the folding metal chairs in front of me. The bare sunlight glanced off their tops and pierced my eyes.

I remember the flag spread over the coffin. I vaguely remember the sound of a bugler playing taps. I don’t remember the guns firing off their salute and I don’t remember ever before asking, “What was he in the military?”

Momma tells me now, “He was in the Navy, in the CV’s, which is the engineering group. And in the Army he was just a private. He was in the Army and the Navy, during world war 2.”

I remember watching dry-eyed as the flag was lifted. Two men in uniform worked silently, solemnly. They folded the flag in half lengthwise, and then again, the same way my Nannie and I folded sheets when we brought them down off the clothesline. Then one man folded a corner down to form a little triangle. Over and over he turned that triangle, making crisp and precise folds, slowly eating up what was left of the flag. I never cried until his partner bent silently and handed the folded flag to my uncle.

I remember crying for Momma and Uncle Bodie. I remember thinking that my tears weren’t for Grandpop or for me. I remember mourning his life and what little I knew of his choices. I felt sad that he was an alcoholic. I felt sad that when I thought of him, the picture in my head was of passing by his room and glancing in to see a drunk man sitting on the side of his bed, looking back out at me.

I remember thinking, “This was their father.” No matter what his choices, no matter what his faults or frailties, he loved them. And they loved him. The tears they cried were not just for the man he’d become, but for a man I never knew. I ached inside as I considered that pain. I cried because their daddy was dead.

~.~

Everyone went to my Aunt and Uncle’s house after the funeral.

“Cause we were living in the apartments and we didn’t really have anywhere people could go,” Momma reminds me.

“It was nice,” she says, “people sitting around talking about – you know how they do – about different things they remember about him.”

At thirteen, I didn’t understand at all how the people around me were behaving. They were talking – and laughing! I moved through the familiar rooms of that house, soaking in the stories and the jokes, the apparent cheer and indifference. And I twisted it all into anger and resentment inside my heart.

How could they laugh? How could they act as though nothing bad had happened? A man was dead! Gone. My Grandpop would never have another opportunity to see his loved ones, to enjoy this world, to do something more, to make something better of his life. His chances were all over.

~.~

“Daddy’s feelings were just, ‘take me out, dig a hole in the field and dump me in it’.” Momma says, and I think I’ve heard that before.

“He did not want to have a funeral. He did not want to have a family night; he thought that was barbaric.”

“Really?” I ask, “Why?”

“Because everybody goes through and does their condolence thing and then they stand around laughing and joking and talking. While the person’s right there in the coffin! He said if anybody wanted to come see him, come see him while he’s living.”

“Well, all that stuff is really for the living people, anyway.” I say.

“Yeah. And he said that any money he had, he wanted us to take it and have a party.”

~.~

Momma and I meander through his childhood and I learn that he started drinking when he was thirteen, the age I was when he died. I meet his mother and some siblings. And I feel sad for him all over again.

Then Momma talks about a man who had months and years of sobriety. She talks about a funny man with a dry sense of humor. She talks about her father.

I remember my own stories of Grandpop in his garden, Grandpop in the chicken coop, Grandpop letting all the food on his plate run together because that’s what old people do. I see a picture in my head of Grandpop in a lawn chair by the well, beneath the biggest most beautiful shade tree ever. He sits with his legs crossed, quiet and content, watching as all us kids play.

And I understand what I couldn’t grasp at thirteen: that when dealing with death, we can’t help ourselves from focusing back on life.

Movie Quote Monday – Blade Runner

I recently saw Blade Runner for the first time:

In the future (2019, haha) a company has “advanced Robot evolution” to the point of being virtually indistinguishable from humans. These robots have super strength, naturally, and “at least equal” intelligence to their creators. And so of course they are used as slaves off-planet to do probably crappy and definitely dangerous work that humans don’t want to do.

In a big surprise to everyone, six of these “Replicants” mutiny, kill 23 humans and jump a shuttle back to Earth. Replicants “were designed to copy human beings in every way except their emotions.” It was estimated that after a few years they would start developing their own emotional responses, and so they were built with a four-year life span. These six Replicants have come back to Earth in search of a way to extend their lives.

It was pretty thought-provoking, and the first thing I considered was how many books and movies include robots or computers that have jumped the gap from being purely machine to having self-awareness. Some humans (at least in the fictional world) have a burning need to create sentient life by non-biological means, and I find that interesting. Why is this theme so pervasive in fiction? Why are we so fascinated with that idea?

Why, if this is a wide-spread fantasy and we can write stories in any way we want, does it almost always turn out to be humanity’s doom? Or at the least rather deadly.

Of course if a robot has self-awareness, but not compassion or empathy – you know, the kinds of things you develop when you have a childhood – then that would maybe not be a great thing.

Beyond that, it seems rather cruel to purposely create a being to have human emotions and then discount that being’s “humanity”, abusing it as though it were merely a machine.

At the end of the movie, the main Replicant antagonist laments his own death:

Roy:  I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those…moments will be lost…in time…like…tears…in rain.

That seems pretty human to me – not wanting to lose your thoughts and memories, not wanting to let go of your experiences. Those are the things that build upon one another and help make you who you are, but once we’re gone, our own personal involvement in the world melts into a collective memory. Our uniqueness is lost in the downpour of human history.

So my question is, is it wrong for a conscious being to do whatever it has to do to protect its own existence?

Exactly what constitutes “life” for these artificial humans?  And then to what extent is society responsible for protecting that life?

Who was really the monster: Frankenstein or the creature he brought into being?

death and I met

Death and I met at the drugstore on the corner I was

going in as he was coming out and blind in his hurry

he almost hit me head on but he missed and so

I nodded hello as was my habit and then he smiled a guilty

smile that I seemed to know and aloud I wondered if maybe

we’d met somewhere before and being a gentleman he slowed down and politely

answered no but I feel so certain that I’ve seen you somewhere I

insisted and he thought maybe we’ve known some of the same

people and that must be it I said then he smiled a funny

smile and said we’ll surely meet again someday so I certainly hoped

we would and then stepped into the door as he

made his way down the crowded sidewalk.

.

Saying Goodbye

I just got home from my aunt’s funeral.  By the time the service was over, I had a pounding headache from restraining my emotions.  There were times when the girl inside me sobbed and sobbed, while the shell that held her in blew it’s nose and wiped away any tears that managed to escape.  My friend told me last night not to do that, to just let myself have whatever emotions I felt.  But that’s easier for me to imagine than do.

My main method of emotional coping is escape. Perhaps in some part, small or large I don’t know, it’s denial.  As long as I don’t face it, it’s not real.  It didn’t happen.  It won’t turn out the way we all know it’s going to turn out.

My aunt has been sick for a couple of years now, and when I was told that they found a cancer, I thought, “Ok, so now we know what to fight against.”

The next week I was told she had between a month and a year to live.  My heart sunk, but then I thought, “Ok, a year’s a long time…there’s time to fight or to make peace with it.”

The next week I was told the doctors couldn’t do a thing for her and she probably wouldn’t make it through the end of the year.  I thought, “Ok, I’ll go see her next week when she gets settled back at the house.”

Two days later I was told that she died.

In all that time, as quick as it seemed to pass, I only called them once.  As long as I stayed away, as long as I put off a visit or call, then I could believe she was well.  It was the same after she died, when I should have called or stopped by to offer whatever support I could muster – I didn’t.  I sunk further into myself and the shield that denial and escape offered me.  In my mind, I could still almost believe that she was walking around that house, the same.  Alive.

So, guilt tinges my grief.  I feel guilty that I didn’t say goodbye.  I feel guilty that I didn’t offer support to my uncle.  I feel guilty that I wouldn’t believe I had  any amount of support to give.  I feel guilty that I chose to believe staying away was better, since it was all I could do not to cry all over him in that last phone call.  Even today I kept my distance, because I could barely look at him without bursting into tears.

(So instead I came home and started crying all over you.  Thank you and also sorry about that.)

I’ve been alone for a while now, and emotionally speaking I’ve been alone most of my life.  That’s not on anyone but me, because there have been and are people who love me and are available to me.  But I am so much more comfortable – and safe – inside of myself.  Even today, as my mom or dad showed concern for me, I wanted to turn away from that.  I don’t want my uncle to have to comfort me in my grief, when his is so much greater.  So I abandoned him.  I don’t want my parents to worry about me, so I shut their concerned words down.  I just want to hide away – I want to worry about no one but myself and I certainly don’t want anyone to concern themselves with me.

I have been as open and honest and vulnerable to my aunt and uncle as I’ve ever allowed myself to be with anyone.  And in some ways, much more so.  And yet when this all happened, I sucked right back inside myself.  I disappeared again.  These are people who nurtured my relationship with Christ, who challenged me and helped me build my faith, who led by example.  And as much as they’ve done for me, as much as they’ve given me, I ran away instead of being there.  That sucks.

Death sucks.  Saying goodbye sucks.