Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Sorry For Your Loss

Oh death, oh death 
Can't you spare me over till another year 
Trad., recorded by Kaleidoscope

In the last week, I've received several of the same messages on Facebook: "Sorry for your loss."  This is because I posted photo memorials for two of my long-time friends who died.  The word "loss" threw me.  It didn't seem appropriate.  Hearing of their deaths triggered a flood of memories, all of them good.  Neither death was unexpected. Ernie, my friend from high school, had lived in a wheel chair with ALS for over ten years. Gene, a fellow dissident Catholic, was nearing 90 and had entered a hospice.  This is how I responded on Facebook:
You know, at this time in my life, it feels like a series of celebrations rather than losses.  I've had such wonderful people in my life!
When you get to my age (73), death is a constant companion.  As the only animal that can anticipate its demise, life sometimes feels like a series of scenarios that all end badly.  One reason I enjoy the company of my fellow geriatrics is that we can joke about death without getting depressed. Of course tales of strange symptoms and visits to the doctor can quickly get boring.  Modern life is marked by the banishment of death to the basements of mortuaries and the silence of cemeteries.  We talk about the departed in hushes tones.  At least my friends in Santa Cruz had better ideas.  When Betsy died of breast cancer, they put her in a homemade coffin and took her to the beach where they propped her up facing the sea and surrounded her with music and dancing.

Ernie Smith was always big in size and heart. We met in high school were he was a football player and member of the "clubbies" while my friends and I were considered juvenile delinquents.  Three of us decided that they had the better-looking girls and converted to their side, but we did our best to corrupt them.  Easter Week in our senior year we rented a motel in Laguna Beach and partied for a week.  Big Ern looked 21 and bought our supplies at a nearby liquor store.  He got a football scholarship to Eastern Washington University but lost it when he put his arm through a glass window at the gas station where he worked.  My dad, who loved Ernie like a son, visited him in the hospital and took him a jar of chocolate-covered grasshoppers.  The day nurse put them in the refrigerator and when the night nurse found them she screamed and dropped them on the floor.  Ernie married his nurse, but I'm not sure which one it was.  He always assumed all his friends shared his enthusiasms and dragged me to a barbershop singing concert but I ended up appreciating the harmonies.  We shared a love for 50's rhythm and blues, and the bawdy songs of Oscar Brand. Ernie raised his two kids in Los Banos and Salinas selling chemicals to the farmers, sang in prize-winning barbershop quartets, was a scout leader, helped found Monterey Dixieland which has an annual festival that attracts huge crowds, and was an usher in his Presbyterian Church.  He came to see me at my lowest point, gave comfort, and spoke of a problem with his muscles that turned out to be ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease).  Ever positive, he got the best wheel chair for his 200-plus body and outfitted a van he could drive.  He took part in several clinical studies and was an organizer and fundraiser for the local ALS support chapter.  And he outlived two wives.  I last saw Ernie two years ago when this picture was taken. We met at a coffee shop in Santa Cruz and he presented me with a generous wedding present that he and our close friend Mark (who died last year) had put together for Nan and I.  You can read more about Big Ern here.  I'm sorry that we didn't get together more regularly on Skype and I shall miss his living presence at the other end of email and Facebook, but I'm very grateful to have known him.

Gene Donatelli was a member of a men's group our friend Ted asked me to join, and for several years a half-dozen or so of us each month gathered at one of our homes to share a potluck and talk about our lives. Most of us were dissident Catholics with various grievances against the hierarchy that seemed determined to thwart our spiritual aspirations.  I was a newcomer, a Thomas Merton convert who thought he could ignore basic Catholic dogma out of a love for the social justice work of liberation theology in Latin America.  Gene on the other hand was an archetypal Catholic.  He and Mary had raised eight children in the church, participated in all the auxiliary movements and had priests as good friends.  But when Mary began to drift away with Alzheimer's, Gene grew bitter.  Both stopped going to mass.  I think he was basically mad at God and the church took the brunt of his anger over losing Mary. When I lived in Santa Cruz, Gene's house was nearby and I would often ride my bike up to have coffee with him in the morning and discuss the news headlines while looking out at his bounteous garden.  Mary could still remember me then.  All of the men's group attended his 80th birthday party which was a joyous celebration of multiple generations.  I'll still remember being with Gene that day.  We visited for the last time two years ago and Mary could no longer remember me (she died last year).  He never got the hang of the digital devices and I had to rely on friends to give me his news.  Gene had one cancer or the other (Does it matter?  They all do the dirty work.) and his kids put him in a hospice where he died last week.  I remember that Gene always made the best cookies when our meetings were held at his house.  He had a warm and gentle soul. I will never forget out times together, Gene.

When I was younger, death gave me the creeps.  That was before the death of my best friend Peter from prostate cancer in 2004 (seen here with his favorite pot plant).  Mostly we try to ignore the finality of it.  A high school friend died in a skiing accident in the socks that I'd loaned him for the trip.  My maternal grandfather slid into senility and died in a "home."  My favorite uncle Ted, gay twin of my father, suffered from emphysema and took an overdose of pills.  Then there was Allen who worked at my university.  We shared a love for the banjo music of Derroll Adams (he was the only other person I knew who had met him), and had other friends in common.  First he had a heart attack, then he was diagnosed with liver cancer.  Two days before he died, a friend and I went to visit him.  His skin was the color of ash, and he talked hopefully of alternative healing remedies.  Peter's death was different.  We both had prostate cancer but his was much more advanced.  Still, he lasted over five years, had a big party when he retired as general manager of KUSP, and we watched the Superbowl together before I left for my first trip to India.  When I returned, he was in a hospital bed in the living room and could no longer talk.  I became an overnight care-giver, gave him massages and changed his diaper.  A week later he was dead, his wife and my ex-wife at his side.  When I got to the house I went straight to the cold body and kissed him (Peter, a semi-closeted bisexual, loved kissing his male friends on the lips).  His skin was hard.  Peter had left the room, and family and friends gathered to honor his memory.  It was then that I realized my fear of death had also fled.

Since then, people close to me have died, not a few, although I don't keep a tally.  Both my father and mother left this world before Peter.  Dad died after a couple of heart attacks and late-onset emphysema in 1992 and Mom slipped away after she broke her hip ten years later. My tears for both were brief, which I long saw as a personal failing on my part.  I think now that I was just prepared for them to go.  Life has to end some time.  Why not now.  With my son Luke, it was different.  He was only 42, but his life had been severely damaged by an addiction to booze and pills.  It destroyed a promising career as a manager of location shooting for TV commercials, and it drove him from home and friends in California to a small room in Boston where he tried and failed to outrun his demons.  I sat by his side in several hospitals fearing he would not survive, and I told him of the pain I felt watching him commit suicide in slow motion.  When he was sober, Luke and I were extremely close.  Our failings generally kept us from judging each other.  But one morning he failed to wake up in his girlfriend's bed.  I sent his mother $1,000 as my share of cremation costs.  She promised to send me something from his cluttered apartment to help me remember him, but the momento never came.  His ashes have never been distributed though he was a lover of the sea.  I have not finished grieving, and maybe never will.

I've tried to believe in something other for years, but it's never worked.  I don't think anything of Luke or Peter, or now Ernie and Gene, survived the decay of their bodies.  We are our bodies.  I don't believe in the existence of any disembodied entities, either gods or ghosts.  Which makes it difficult for me to partake of the Thai world view which imagines invisible forces, for good and ill, everywhere.  I want to understand that the language we use to talk about the meaning of death and the importance of our relations with the dead has some intrinsic usefulness.  We know by the artifacts found that humans have believed from the beginning that death is not the end of the individual, that something survives.  For me this can only mean that our cherished dead live on in our memories, and perhaps in words, photos and videos (now with the internet, nothing is ever erased).

Jerry tells me that when someone dies a violent death, say in a motorcycle accident, the people in his Khmer village in Surin sit with the body for a week to make sure the soul leaves and does not stick around to trouble villagers.  Lately they've taken to putting up red shirts on hangers in the trees around their houses to encourage evil spirits to stay away.  No one knows where that custom began but it's fairly new.  Thai spirituality is largely a transaction with the unseen, using candles, flowers and incense to propitiate good spirits and encourage bad ones to stay away.  I can't imagine what it's like to think these thoughts or hold these beliefs.  For me, the dead are dead, and I cannot stay in contact.  However, Ernie's Facebook page is still up (actually, he has two for unknown reasons), and Luke's remained until I finally persuaded the authorities that he was gone. While I cannot shed my rationalist, materialist skin, I do think that our inability to live in an enchanted world, as do the Thais and most non-western peoples, leaves us diminished and, well, thirsty.

Maybe the poets can tell us how to leave the prisons of our bodies and our minds.  I'll leave the last world to Dylan Thomas.


Anonymous said...

Good Post Dr Will. I guess we are all on that escalator through life. I am not much of a believer , as my mother spent time in a convent pre-german occupation France, and came out an athiest, and still is at 85. I enjoy your post , as I have been following you for awhile.

judi bola said...

three things that each one has its own needs, but between sex and politics are inseparable,,, will always side by side,,, sex and religion aka contradictory if abuses in the sex act,

Anonymous said...

That was a good post thank you.
I hold similar feelings about death & as my folks & relatives have left,
At times I felt guilty like you mentioned at not feeling sadder.

But, that is how I viewed it. A cycle & they all had good ones.
While I do not hold a specific religious belief I have read & many during my life & ended up with a view I guess.
I think I feel in many ways as you do except the part about we are the body.

Although we may be carbon based I do not think of us as a battery that eventually just runs out of charge. I tend to feel the charge leaves as the housing no longer can hold it.

Thanks again for an intimate view into your views on life & death.
I liked reading it very much.


Janet Brown said...

Will, you are so generous with your memories and your thoughts. Thank you for this.

Tille said...

Hmm, good job! This is really something!