I am tired of stupid death rules.
At my age, I want to shatter them; because in the business of death, I am considered young (and angry) at age 45. I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and fight back, full well knowing I will lose and then grow old enough to accept it and then I’ll be all done.
I mean really, does it need to be a rule that people need to be shut down in their prime? Or when they have finally achieved happiness and peace after a long fought battle? That the most gentle and kind folk have to suffer the most? The questions of irony just go on and linger in the ether, lurking and swirling all around those who are left to gather themselves and try to figure it out. It just sucks.
And then there are the rules about how one reacts to death and how it’s handled. Being over 40, doesn’t give you an advantage. In fact, the rules get tighter.
I think there’s this set expectation that at a certain age, grief is not be lingered in. Example: my beloved grandma died in 2010 of a short, but rather violent illness and passed away at 89. The grief for me was terrible; however, when I shared the news with others, some of the responses were like this: “Well, she was old and had a long life.” It wasn’t just the comment, but the tone and the body language that not-so-quietly informed me of the rule that old people shouldn’t be mourned for long. When friends pass away or other relatives (especially parents), our generation is expected to simply soldier on after an acceptable mourning period. America the stoic and the brave; and while there’s an expected length of time to grieve in our culture, if one goes on too long or is bold in their grief delivery, one is viewed as weird, very stuck and/or overly dramatic. If there’s an old boyfriend or girlfriend that passes away that lends itself to additional rules. There’s a whole weird factor there to even mention it much, especially if you currently are a longtime married or partnered. “Oh that’s sad,” people may say (and then that runs into the inevitable internal monologue that goes like this: “…so why are they all upset about an old partner/lover/boyfriend/girlfriend? I mean aren’t they married?”).
The expectation is to suffer on your own (or share your feelings with a close friend or two, your dog, or your shrink); but to go beyond that is breaking the rules. Then on select days (Christmas, the deceased’s birthday, an anniversary), its okay to say these things: “Gee, Mom would have loved that holiday party;” “Wow, I wish Robert could have been here to celebrate at the anniversary party;” “Oh, today’s rainbow reminded me of my dad.” And yes, while moving on is a good thing in the end, feeling the need to shoulder a lot of responsibilities and the philosophical weight on one’s shoulders, is really hard and not well understood.
As long as people aren’t causing harm to themselves or others, I think people should grieve as they wish and seek help as they need to without feeling stigmas and bound by ridiculous societal rules. I think we should be kind and patient with ourselves, which something is, that individuals have a tough time with.
And for those who lose beloved spouses and partners, and God forbid, a child, you are in a special kind of pain that should be given a lifelong pass.
And nothing hits me harder, in mid-rant, when the rules turn around and slap me in the face with a wicked sting as my own life gets touched, out of nowhere, even when they aren’t even close enough to touch.
Just this Easter morning, I rose early to prepare for the day. There were the obligatory Easter baskets to prepare and place just so for two sleepy-eyed young teenage children (who lightly tease they are too old for the tradition, but harbor a secret love for this childhood ritual anyway). I had a breakfast feast to prepare; eggs, hash browns, sausages and bacon and lemony marion berry muffins. There was tea to brew, hot cocoa to mix and orange juice to pour. The early morning of the quiet of the house playfully buzzed in my ears as I worked.
The beach bags were packed the day before for Anderson Island; we would head there in the early afternoon to celebrate a family member’s milestone birthday and another midday Easter feast delivered right on the beach, courtesy of some spring sunshine straining to break through the wispy clouds and give us warmth and light. The kids and their cousins would comb the beach for marine treasures and critters, as the adults would sip wine on the deck and catch up on the latest news and gossip. I was eager to get on the ferry, too; it had been a long week and I like to look for answers and calm in the bouncing and sparkling waters of the Sound. Little did I know that a quick glimpse into Facebook to indulge in pictures of baby bunnies, cute kids and happy little posts of springtime and indulgence would stop me in dead-cold.
The first post I laid my eyes on as I checked my phone was from some random person (with interestingly the same first name as me), expressing her sadness over the sudden death of someone I knew well and loved in my formative years. I thought it was a hoax and someone being very stupid on Facebook. The post was a stand-alone post; no joiners-in, no comments, no likes.
So, as I continued to make my Sunday preparations, I thought it would be responsible to check back once more, in hopes that this awful post was addressed and deleted. There would be no such luck; the post had given birth to comments, and shockingly, more posts. Though the tale was told in different voices and timbres, there was an eerie and monotonous ring to it. It was molding and shaping this reality that I really didn’t know what to do with.
And, really, how on earth could a person, who seemed healthy, happy and thriving, just literally and suddenly die in a blink of an eye? This was something that just couldn’t be.
I hate Facebook.
I don’t feel comfortable saying his first name; whether it’s aloud or in writing right now. It just doesn’t flow off the tongue; there’s a slight hesitancy in the syllables and the awkwardness feels like too tight clothes. So, I like S. Well, actually I don’t like it, but it will do.
I met S in the late eighties in college. I lived in a filthy dorm with mostly filthy people and took to roaming the halls with friends and dorm-mates for adventures. My wanderings took me to the end of one of the halls and I spied into open dorm room doors, just begging for me to snoop inside. The very last one on the left really caught my attention. The room was impeccably tidy and organized; it seemed to be immune for the utter disgustingness of the building that smelled of rotting food, BO, cheap beer and nachos. It wasn’t until I saw this vast music collection, neatly stacked cassette tapes of basically every band I’ve ever loved (new, old, kitschy, cool) on the shelves that got me thinking I was in some sort of pure nirvana, devoid of all the benign college crap that was wearing on me. A wisp of a guy with this ridiculous longish, moppy-curly light brown hair and the most enormous (but shy) smile I think I’d ever seen, caught me gawking. Few friends had the same music tastes as I did and I just started asking questions about the collection and if I could get some copies and borrow his stuff. I think S was a little taken aback with my brazenness, but also delighted. Hell yeah, I could borrow. We talked for a long time about many things. The shyness softly morphed into cleverness, a wicked sense of humor, and a sweet disposition.
It wasn’t long before two good people decided to be good together. Dating was quick and easy.
And when we both decided to shove off from the dorms, we decided to play house for a few years.
It was a nice house.
The memories of that time pop and burst like fireworks, rapid firing into the night sky. Forgoing beer and scraping our pennies together to catch Tacoma’s iconic Girl Trouble play live in dive bars and other off the beaten path venues to shimmy to their distinct and deliciously filthy garage/rockabilly sound (I swear we even saw them play in a cafeteria). High-tailing it up to Vancouver, B.C., with little money in the dead of winter, determined to get Rolling Stones tickets from scalpers. The dream (and reality) quickly realized, we stood in the cold, shivering outside of B.C. Stadium, listening to a set in the night air, excited anyway. We grabbed some cheap Italian food, and then high-tailed it back across the border to go to work the next day.
S and I rode our mountain bikes like demons; we ripped through the streets of downtown Seattle, in ragged clothes and helmets strapped on tight, zipping through rush hour, vigilant for opening car doors and buses that could send us to the boneyard. Deciding to be vegan (or vegetarian, when the allure of cheddar cheese was just too great) on a whim and eating crunchy, undercooked lentils, flavorless gray matter hunks of tofu and soy cheese that turned into a plastic coating upon melting and loving it anyway.
There were road trips, hikes, bad television, great movies, cheap restaurants, paying bills, working at really stupid jobs to support our schooling and living and very late nights. Those memories swirl around like plumes of smoke, drifting in and out of my mind, then eventually dissipating into a general fog of memory.
However, we all know that even nice houses have shadows, secrets, hints of despair and frustration and other dark closets that don’t like to be opened. College left me hungry, graduation left me ravenous. My soul was burning to get into true adulthood and I was at the ready to battle. I felt I would be snapped up to write professionally immediately; never mind the horrid recession of 1991. I wanted to jump right on in and swim upstream with all my strength. S decided to jump in another river all together. Neither was right, neither was wrong. Both were just misunderstood by the other.
Yes, a classic case of going different directions and having a deep down, bottom of the gut feeling that there’s some shit to be dealt with, but not to be dealt with together. Yet, like most, we hung on while still doing our thing for some months more, yet the magnet of a separate life was a powerful one indeed. The pull bred some powerful concepts: silence, unkindness and immaturity.
It didn’t end well.
The drama was brief, the bandage got torn off and bloodied quickly and the healing, while it took some time, happened. Life continued where it was supposed to go. At least that’s what we all think.
Then, hello, internet.
It’s always funny when people in your past bounce into your life after a long absence. That’s what happened to S and me about six years ago. The reconnection is a long electronic story and it doesn’t matter anyway.
What did matter is that in words on the screen, we addressed, in a matter of a few sentences really, the end of our relationship. Water under the bridge, no apologies necessary, let’s move on, shall we? The brevity of the conversation was beautiful. There were more important things to talk about.
S was a prolific and successful writer, who went down on nontraditional path, but a seemingly good one for him nonetheless. In love with dynamic and terrific woman (who, not too far after our conversation, would become his wife) and with a neat circle of great friends, he was good. I was good, too. He liked that I was good and I liked that he was good. We shared some of our struggles in the life, but it was brief, acknowledged and put in a box.
Two good people, coming together with a virtual high-five, hey, that’s cool kinda vibe.
Then we went back to our lives, as people do, with occasional comments and likes on Facebook on cute kiddo pictures (I have my two, he welcomed twins a year ago), cool music news, silly jokes, neat travel pictures and the like. It was this gentle contentment afforded relationships that aren’t close or thought about much anymore, but when they are in these brief moments, it’s respected and smiled upon.
Yet, even in the distance and on the periphery, S’s sudden death, the non-human elements of posts on Facebook, shifted my molecules. Dead at 44; new dad, loving husband, a large circle of friends, a poignant legacy of really good writing and the promise of more to come; witnessing the written words of the heartbreak of those in the ones up close and personal puts life into an interesting perspective of fairness, honesty, loss and fragility.
I didn’t tell many folks. I reconnected with an old and mutual college pal to chat about memories; that was nice. An old friend mentioned that they were glad I got closure on that part of my life and that person. There was no closure, it was the opposite. Memories, decisions, moves and details were all opened up and to my surprise, they were mostly good. There was this freedom that swept over these thoughts that put the rules away.
Something told me just to be and that is exactly what I did. S would have liked that, I think. I think he’d do the same for me: just be.
Guess those rules don’t have to take hold, do they?