Jun 27, 2013

Death Dealing

Death has always been a topic of some fascination for me, so I suppose it is no surprise that I devoted an entire series of books surrounding a character who literally becomes the face of Death itself. Recent events have brought this thought into sharper focus, however, and, not so much as a quest to express myself as a consideration to comprehend myself, I thought I should write something declarative about it.

I was pretty young when it first fell into my lap, this sense of mortality. My grandfather had already passed away before I was born, and my uncle died when I was around four years old. Family was a weird notion as well - I didn't know my father's side of the family quite as well even before my parents were divorced, and knew them all far less afterwards. So before I was even ten years old, I was left with the impression of having very few actual family members. And then my parents each remarried, and life was flooded with step-siblings and so forth. This probably should have left me feeling like I was blessed with an excess of family, but I think it sent me the other direction - feeling isolated and separated. I don't blame them for this - I can't think of an individual or collection of acts which gave me this impression. I interpreted my world in this manner, and I'm responsible for feeling how I felt.

My relationship to my parents started falling away in large chunks around this time. I know adolescence and teenagedom is generally given a lot of the credit for breaks in communication between children and their parents. There was a bit of that here, too, I suspect. But my mother and step-father moved to Missouri, taking a few of us kids along for the ride, so miscommunication or not, I became closer to my mother and more distant from my father. It was the miles, it was being a 16 year old boy, it was everything. Family members passed away. Grandparents - people I hadn't really known that well, given my age and distance - and others.

All the while, though, I was kept from what I would call a truer exposure to loss due to the comforting reassurance in the existence of heaven and the afterlife. "Families are forever", I was taught, and any natural compensation of mourning and grief was assauged by the sense that I did not need grieve, for my family would be reunited later in the presence of god. My tears - when they fell - were brief. Underneath them all, I doubted. Did I know? Did I believe? Was it really going to be the way I was taught?

I saw death, yes, but it was most prominent in how it affected others. My parents, my friends, my siblings. I saw the pain and grief in their eyes, and for the most part I felt a numbness - death was only a transition, I told myself. Life is eternal. There's nothing to cry about.

It wasn't until I was in my late twenties that I truly experienced death, in all its apparent finality and horror.

A few years earlier, I had at last confronted my struggle of faith and found that I couldn't follow the church of my youth - and that no church I could find really offered the path of faith I sought, if even any such existed. So, really, I suppose it was a fairly perfect time to have my world come crashing down.

When I was old enough, I had moved even further away from my family, resolved to figuring out the path to my life as only I felt I knew best. I've always been stubborn in that way - or maybe "stubborn" isn't the right word. I just didn't know if I could trust anyone else's opinion. I'd left everything else behind - my family, my home, my faith - and built a new life, one that was built on my own choices. I didn't know if I could trust my own decisions, but at least they were my own decisions. If I was wrong, at least I'd only have myself to blame.

I began to rediscover faith, growing out of my own experiences and awareness, made new friends, and met my wife-to-be and was eventually married. We rented a pretty horrible little house, but it was ours and we looked forward to taking on the world, just the two of us. And then, just a couple of months after our wedding, one of my best friends - and something of a surrogate father - died. He was in his early forties, and had been challenged by poor health for much of his life, but somehow I'd just never expected it to happen.

I saw his body at the funeral service, and it just didn't look like him. It was like they'd mocked up a "Mark suit" for the occasion, and had done a piss poor job of it, like some really bad special effects house or something. At the time, this translated to me as proof of the existence of a soul - for seeing such a potent difference between a living person and what remained... it was too stark to deny it. And I was mad at him. Jealous, to a certain extent, that he'd gone on ahead to discover that great mystery he and I had so often discussed, and that I was left with the great unanswerable question. I was pissed. I was afraid, but I was also pretty angry.

Anger and resentment gave way to something else. A year and a half later, my wife and I had a child, and the fascination with life brushed away the questions of death.

It is said that this is the one question which defines mortality - this is what has been the inception of religion, of myth and faith, since the beginning. When the sun sets, will it rise again? When the winter comes, will Spring return? When the seed is planted, will the flower bloom? That's the very nature of faith. What has come before may come again, but we don't know. We just do not know. What we can do, however, is believe.

With the arrival of our daughter, the question of faith has become a central topic for my wife and I. We both have distinct opinions on the matter - a fact I would have, once upon a time, felt to be uncompromisingly destructive to a marriage - but ones that, as it turns out, are oddly complimentary. In our case, however, I believe our differences stem from our exposure to death, when viewed through the lens of our sense of family. My wife has had a much different exposure to death than I have. It found its way straight into the heart of her close and loving family several years before we met. I'll never know what that's like, what that kind of pain and grief is like. I don't know that anyone could. No one should ever have to. Seeing the face of someone you love suffering like that, years later... it makes me hate death for the indiscriminate desolation it leaves in its wake. My wife was so close to her family, and suffered loss so suddenly and unexpectedly, and it seems like I just seem to have dodged grief this way and that, by having kept myself so far from the family I have known.

I know I can't run forever. Death will catch me again, either through me or through the people I know and love. I fear it, and I still hate it. I realize that Death is supposed to be a comforting angel, to greet us at the last moments of our lives, and take us to the verdant fields beyond, but I just don't know. In my books, I made Death into an eleven year old girl, vibrant and optimistic. In this fiction, Death is the opposite of my fears. She is a hero, filled with hope and flying above the rooftops. She is the protector of the people, clear-eyed guardian angel, terrible only to her enemies.

One of my uncles passed away this week - one of my father's brothers. I'm aware that my life is getting to that point where this is going to be more and more of an occurance as more and more people in my life will pass away. One day, I, too, will shuffle off this mortal coil, and I won't be around to come up with a clever blog to write about it. There's a finality in that which chills me.

And that's the danger, I think. Death has had an influence on me for much of my life, but not in the way with which I'm comfortable.  It's frightened me to the verge of inaction, terrified me into distancing myself from the people who I should have reached out to. It's stopped me from doing a lot of things, my fear of death.

The question I have now is, will awareness of this fear be enough to push me into a new path?

The truth is, I don't know. But something has to change. Because Death, whether a villain or a companion, is coming. Sooner or later, this whole living nonsense will be over. And I sincerely hope I waste no more moments of it while life is mine to experience.