Cousin George -- Or -- My Rather Copious Thoughts On Death

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  

10 comments: said... April 2, 2009 at 5:08 AM  

I'm sorry for your loss.

I agree -- death sure does put life into perspective.

If only I could keep that perspective.

Ralph said... April 2, 2009 at 7:29 AM  

sounds like a great guy. wonderful post, and i'm sorry.

NameChanged said... April 2, 2009 at 10:27 AM  

I'm sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing this intimate moment.

Dani said... April 2, 2009 at 11:21 AM  

Thank you for this post; it's serendipitously dead-on for me, as I've just been informed that (a) the doctors do not yet know what I have but (b) the best I can hope for is to be on cortisol the rest of my life, tote around an injection kit, and never leave the house without my sexy, sexy med-alert bracelet. Which isn't so bad, when you consider that the worst I can hope for is not making it to my fortieth birthday.

Long story short, I have for the first time in my life had to have a serious conversation about my own death with myself. And it's a conversation I can't seem to have with anyone around me, as they all want to reassure me that I'm not going to die or statistically I stand a better chance of being hit by a bus in my own front yard or.... I'm sure you've heard them too.

That's not the conversation I want to have. And I can't tell you how much it did for me to read this post and know that there ARE people who don't want to have that conversation with me, either. So thank you.

Steve said... April 2, 2009 at 10:30 PM  

I'm sorry George is gone but he is also not gone. You are right we carry forward those people who we may not be able to physically touch, or call, or be annoyed with at family gatherings but they are also still part of us and so many other people in this infinite well of life and death.
Thanks for putting into words something I have been feeling but could not.
Much love to you and your Beloved

dolia said... April 3, 2009 at 11:55 AM  

Thank you Portly

Bird said... April 3, 2009 at 2:45 PM  

Thanks, Portly. I just lost my mother to a brain tumour three weeks ago, followed by her youngest sister just last week to the same type of tumour, genetically linked.

Knowing that this legacy may be coming my way some day, I've contemplated what death may mean to me. In my mother's memoir that she left for me, she said that the years following her cancer diagnosis were the best years of her life.

I stop and consider what that means. The time when she let go of the fear of death and accepted that her time was limited was the best time of her life. This leads me to believe that if we stop fearing death and instead embrace the life we have, finite as it is, can bring us a better life than we ever could imagine.

I, too, have struggled with depression and thoughts of suicide in the past, but somehow the idea that life is now, for the living, gives me a real sense of hope, as paradoxical as that may be.

I guess this was a really long way of saying that there are many of us out here who also do not fear death. It is the last great change of our lives, but that does not mean it is to be feared. Thanks.

thanks for calling said... April 3, 2009 at 6:56 PM  

That was a beautiful post.

Anonymous said... April 3, 2009 at 11:30 PM  

Once again, your brilliant writing has opened hearts & minds, imo. For me, this is a perfect reminder: what the fuk am I waiting for to start living authentically 100% of the time!?! Thank You!!!

OlderThanDirt said... April 6, 2009 at 12:30 PM  

This is very timely, since my dad just died last month. As someone who's also daydreamed her suicide more than once (I've decided on the William Styron recommendation), what I feel about death is that it can be a great friend. When my mother died after a life of all kinds of pain and struggle, the way I could go on with my loss was knowing that her suffering was over. You don't hurt when you're dead. I don't want to die now, I'm totally in love with my life. But pain is the enemy, not death.

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