The Great Inevitability

Bloggified by Jake on Saturday, May 16, 2009

Grandma Hiss was of good solid German stock. She was raised to value things like efficiency and getting the job done. I don't remember any displays of emotion between her and my grandfather. Instead, she seemed to approach their marriage--and motherhood and grandmotherhood--as a job. A job she did with the utmost competence, but a job nonetheless.

Grandpa Hiss was the son of Irish immigrants. He worked hard until the day he died, refusing to settle for doing a job halfway or "good enough." He spent a lot of time with me when I was little (he died when I was six), and made sure most of the things we did had some intrinsic educational value. We'd go to plays or museums or read books--reference books.

Grandma Bell grew up with a mother who laid about in bed and had little to do with her children. The very few stories you'll hear about her childhood involve her aunts and grandmother coming over to get the kids ready for school or her uncle taking them out to the park or for ice cream, but never her own mother.

Grandpa Bell's father was a Lutheran minister who would put his hand on his children and grandchildren's foreheads and kiss it rather than kiss them directly.

My point in all this is that my parents were both raised by families where emotion was withheld. In one case, love was apparent, but was expressed through hard work and dedication rather than hugs and kisses; in the other, emotions were bottled up and never expressed.

Now that I write this out, it becomes much more apparent why so many people on my mother's side of the family have heart attacks and so many people on my dad's side of the family get cancer.

I was raised in a more emotional environment--it couldn't be avoided during the post-hippie 1970's--but still I was taught, indirectly, that emotions should be shut off in situations where they might... complicate things.

For example, I didn't show much emotion about my daughter's birth until she was five or six days old. During labor, I had to focus on the job of keeping her mother calm. During the delivery, I had to focus on delivering Taryn, cutting the cord, and, while nurses cleaned her off, delivering the placenta. Shortly after she was born, the doctors decided to put her into the natal intensive care unit because she was having some trouble breathing. I spent the better part of the first two hours of her life blowing an oxygen tube toward my daughter's nostrils.

My emotions remained at zero. I remember saying things like, "Come on, kid, you gotta be tougher than this," or "You're gonna make it," but I also remember thinking, "If she's going to die, I hope it happens soon. Please let it happen now while I'm still detached." I loved my daughter, but I also understood there was no way that my getting weepy and overly emotional was going to help either of us. Withing a few hours, she was fine--though hospital rules said anyone admitted to the NICU had to remain in the NICU for 72 hours and I wasn't able to pick her up for the first 24 hours of her life as she had to stay connected to all sort of monitors.

Even when my grandfather died, I remember going to the funeral and drawing a picture for my mother. She was sad and my six-year-old brain thought drawing a picture of my grandfather and Jesus together would help fortify her in some way. I don't remember crying about it, but I do remember my kindergarten teacher's reaction when I told her flatly and without emotion that I only had one grandpa because the other one had died.

For some reason, most people see death as an excuse to wax poetic and be philosophical and introspective. I, on the other hand, just see it as the great inevitability of life. Death happens, no matter what we do or how we live our lives. There's no reasoning with death. There's no justice to be argued that someone was taken too soon.

If you'll allow me a tangent here, why is it so rare that you hear people openly discuss those who haven't been taken soon enough? My uncle wasn't supposed to live to see six, yet he died last year at the age of 51 after years of countless surgeries, agony, mental illness, and robbing both my grandparents of any life independent of endless care for him. My mom's Aunt Esther lived into her 90's, wishing for death most days of the last 25 years of her life. Their deaths weren't tragic. They were merciful and long overdue.

While I'm willing to admit that maybe I could afford to be more emotional about somethings--just because a dog has diarrhea or slips and comes up limping doesn't mean you should immediately begin steeling yourself for having it put to sleep--but I simply cannot wrap my mind around the need of many to put their emotions above common sense, especially when it comes to death--like my friend who spent thousands of dollars on surgeries to keep a defective dog dying as slowly as possible.

This all comes up because a friend of mine from fifth grade, John, died on Thursday. I haven't seen or spoken to him in more than twenty years. During junior high, he and some of my other friends went one direction and I went another. A few months ago, I had one of those "small world" moments with another friend, Tate, when we realized he knew John in high school. He was the one who called me on Friday to tell me John was dead.

I could tell he was shaken up by the news, so I tried to be comforting, but as he told me about the planned memorial service and suggested I might want to send a message to Dan, John's friend and my best friend from elementary school with whom I also haven't spoken since Reagan was in office, I found myself just "uh-huh-ing" through the rest of the conversation.

Is there some reason I should care that a dude is gone from my life when as far as I was concerned he'd already been gone from my life for decades? By all accounts, John spent a significant portion of that time fucked up on meth. Tate's own stories of memorial to John include lines like "big fucking waste of talent and genius" and "John and I were whacked out of our heads on speed for like a week" and "she watched us bang away on every object in sight... while she shoved speed up our noses."

Perhaps my "problem" comes from the fact that I'm forthright and open about my feelings with people. If I like you, you know. If I don't like you, you know that too. If you are important to me, I've made sure you've felt that in your life. Thus, when you die, I have a sense of closure already. I suspect the reason so many people are thrown for loops when someone dies, is because they have unspoken feelings that they realize they'll never get a chance to share with the deceased.

Unfortunately, this often leads to attention whoring. I remember three significant deaths of students during my high school years, all in car accidents. In each case, the deceased went from little known to everybody's best friend. By the dozens, anyone who'd stood behind Leann in a lunchroom line or sat six desks away from Ben in a class recalled a special bond they shared. It stems not from actual emotion, but from a desire to absorb the reflected affection mourners are casting upon the dead.

This may be best illustrated by the fact that a rumor of my own death was spread around my ten year high school reunion (in the interest of full disclosure, I was accidentally responsible for this rumor). I didn't attend, but heard later that one of my classmates, a girl who sat behind me in Free Enterprise and whose name I couldn't recall if you put a thousand dollar bill in my hand and told me I could keep it just by identifying her, told anyone who would listen what a significant crush I had on her. I'm not sure what her reaction was when my friend Ryan's wife informed her that I was not only not dead, but that I'd been sitting on their couch less than a week earlier, but I know it wasn't, "Wow, you know how I said I was curious whether there would still be a spark between us when we met at this reunion? Well, give him my number so I can follow through on that."

I'm not going to be that girl at John's funeral. I don't need a room full of strangers admiring what a good friend I was to John. I won't ball my fists and beg of the heaven's an explanation of why someone who seemed so determined to destroy his body had to be taken from us. I won't lament his lost opportunity to make something of his talents when he spent most of his 35 years on this planet actively ignoring those talents.

Celebrate the accomplishments of the living, not the lost potential of the dead.

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