Cousin George -- Or -- My Rather Copious Thoughts On Death
Wednesday, April 1, 2009
Last week, my cousin George died.
He was just three years older than me.
It was unexpected.
My Mom and Dad phoned to give me the news.
When Mom started with the opener that usually prefaces reports of the passing of 90+ year-old grand-uncles/aunts -- "We're calling with some sad news . . . . ", I didn't suspect, even a little, that it would be George.
George -- the kidder, the scamp, the guy who shared my first joint with me.
George, who I hadn't laid eyes on for 15 years.
George, who I can't say that I really knew, but with whom I clearly acknowledge a connection -- because he was: Family.
No matter that the word "family" is vague and serious and confusing and real and raw and muted and cloudy in my head. No matter that I hadn't actually known him, in my definition of knowing . . . . he was still that: Family.
As always, Death has evoked contemplation of Life for me.
I've spent the last week pondering myself into George's place -- into the places of my aunt and uncle, and my parents, and other cousins, and my siblings, and George's widow -- thinking about what legacy I would want acknowledged by those who might survive me (and how that may or may not match up with the legacy I've actually created).
I've thought about these particular words that are used in obituaries: "S/he is survived by . . . . ", and how I would want those who "survived" me to think and feel and act around my inevitable passage from this mortal coil -- all the while knowing that I have absolutely no control over their thoughts, feelings, or actions.
I sometimes think that the way I think about death is unusual, compared to most people -- but honestly, I sometimes wonder if my attitudes about the "final passage" really are all that peculiar.
I mean, there are the ways that we are culturally trained to think/speak/act about death -- the expressions and deeds that we bring to the deathbed and the funeral home and the graveyard -- and then there are the private, internal cogitations we all go through when considering death in general or our own passing in particular -- and it seems to me that those things don't always match.
Take me, for instance -- for myself, I am:
A) Not afraid to die.
No, really. The fear of death left me a long time ago. When I think about dying, the stuff that worries me is not the dying part itself, or being dead -- it's more fear of pain/discomfort in the process, or worry about the pain that people I care about might experience.
B) I don't see death as necessarily "tragic" -- especially not my own.
I feel sad sometimes, missing people who I can no longer hug in their physical bodies or kiss on their physical cheeks, and I feel sad when I think about the sadness of others who are dealing with their sense of loss, or shock at the sudden absence of someone who had been previously present with them, but I don't really feel sad for the dead person.
I know some of the things that formed these attitudes in me.
For example -- being seriously suicidally-ideated for more than half a decade will take a certain punch out of the whole death thing for you.
I mean, if you've spent five years genuinely wishing that a random semi-truck jack-knife or a freak mudslide or a statistically-improbable flash flood would "take you out" and relieve you of having to decide on the messy business of ending your own life -- it starts to look really disingenuous for you to carry on about how awful death is -- know what I mean?
I've found myself in a quandary in the last week, because I harbor a belief that people in my family would not want to have a discussion with me that included my real attitudes about death and dying.
You know who I've found do want to have those discussions, though?
People who are in the process of dying.
With an amazing consistency, the most real conversations I've had about the subject of death have been with the experts -- people who are "dying".
Ironically (or maybe not), these "dying" people have also consistently been the most present and truly "alive" people that I've ever interacted with
I've been up close with the dying and the dead more than most people in our culture, I suppose.
I worked with fragile elders for a decade, and lost dozens of friends to AIDS in the 80s. I've been the one who found the body. I've been the one who watched and waited at the bedside. I've been awakened in the middle of the night by the shocking phone call, and I've received the news days or weeks later from someone who was too stunned to call me sooner.
And every single time, the death of someone else puts me in mind of the fact that I am alive (which I just somehow magically seem to forget so many days).
Thinking of how they affected me -- what I remember of them, and what I carry forward from our time together -- reminds me that I am affecting someone, and that they will carry forward something of me.
My last big close-up death experience was with a friend who was "too young to die" -- but who died nonetheless.
The experience of sitting with her during her last three days in physical form changed my entire existence. Honestly, I've never been able to find words adequate to the task of describing how profoundly her passing affected me -- in a very, very good way.
Sometimes, I feel weird saying that -- because it seems unfair that she (who wanted so much to live) should die and I (who wanted so much to die) should live -- but it is undeniable that her death was a life-changing catalyst for me.
It transformed me so deeply and irrevocably that, for me, this was her legacy -- and it doesn't matter to me whether this was Fate, or Karma, or Dharma, or Soul Agreement, or Serendipity -- no philosphical box I could shove it into would change the fact that I was changed.
And if it were me passing out of body into whatever awaits us (even nothingness, if that's what might await), I would gladly take the life-change-for-infinite-betterment of one person as an absolutely acceptable legacy.
So thank you, George, for your life and your death. Thank you for that first toke, and for always being one of the family that I didn't really "worry" about finding out that I was queer. Thank you for the presence you were with me, and for helping me to think and feel more about the concept of "Family", which has been on my homework list for the past few months, even though I've been resisting/procrastinating on it -- thank you for kicking my ass with the Death Hammer, and pointing me back to my Life.
Posted byPortlyDyke at 10:23 PM