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Death, Love, and Gratitude

Today was definitely "death" day. Not in a bad way; it just seems like that was the theme:

  • "We need to talk about death."
  • "Everybody wonders what death is like, but no one wants to talk about it."
  • "There are two aspects to preparing for death: Getting our heads around the fact that it will happen, and working out the practical aspects, such as medical details and who gets your stuff after you're gone."
That was the topic at church today; it was a good one. Then after the service on the radio, NPR had a program about people who are using psilocybin to get in touch with themselves as they deal with a terminal illness. And when I got home, I caught the end of the Jack Nicholson movie About Schmidt, which also deals with end-of-life issues.

This is good. My earliest exposure to the subject was when my Mom's cousin Frank died, in the very early 1960s. I still remember how my mother's voice sounded: "Frank Powers died!" in the same way someone might say "Frank Powers ate an alligator without bothering to cook it first!" – as though the act of dying was so outrageous, it was not to be believed or accepted.  Mom reacted the same way to Uncle Millard and Grandpa's passing. But— (and I say this with the same amount of bitterness I felt over 34 years ago) Mom didn't sound that way when she broke the news of the death of someone she didn't care about. Like George, my ex-boyfriend from high school, who became a homicide victim shortly after starting college. That morning it was "George was murdered last night." Like ha, stick that in your pipe and smoke it.

It took me a LONG time to get over George's death, even though we had broken up several months prior. To me, our breakup represented my failure.  Not only was I doing things wrong in the relationship, but he was doing things wrong, and I didn't know how to deal with them. So, double failure. And then when he was killed, it added another layer to the onslaught of problems I was trying to process in the midst of freshman year, with my mother having recently broken her hip for the second time, my father having been arrested for DWI, and both my parents having stolen most of my savings to make a mortgage payment.

It took a year and a half before "George is dead" stopped being the theme that ran through my head every single day.

During that highly unsettled time, the subtext of the death for me was "What if it happens to me?  Interestingly, the "happens" part wasn't about an untimely death. It's taken a long time to get all that sorted out. My head was a mess, and there was no one to talk to about it. Friends would invariably say "Let's not talk about George anymore, it's morbid." It occurs to me that people in their late teens can get away with that type of dismissal, but when you hit middle-age, it becomes denial.

My obsessive thinking wasn't about being a homicide victim. In fact, that line of thinking hadn't even dawned on me until now, today, writing this!  No, the "happens" part was about the legacy. For me, that meant my diaries. I was 18 and had few accomplishments, other than having made it to 18, graduated high school, been chosen for the All-State Chorus, and been accepted to college. All I had was a stack of notebooks that I'd been scribbling in for 8 years. For some reason, it was extremely important to have a plan about who would read the diaries. Dad chilled me to the bone when I told him George kept journals and he said "Oh, I hope someone burns those before anyone has a chance to read them."  Yikes!  NO!  Is that what he would have done to MY diaries? It upset me because, really, those diaries were the only voice I had.

Those diaries eventually did get thrown out. This was while I was pregnant with Wally. Re-reading my old diaries interacted with the surging hormones and got me very upset. I mentioned this to Doug, who said "I don't know why you insist on hanging onto all that crap. Get rid of it. When in doubt, throw it out!"

Oddly, even though I bear a lot of resentment toward Doug and toward myself for those mostly wasted years between 1980 and 1995, I don't feel any anger or regret about having discarded the diaries. I still think it was a good idea, with the only exception being that I don't have exact dates for various things that occurred between 1970 and 1989. That's the main purpose journal-keeping serves me. It's good to have an outlet for thoughts and emotions, but the main benefit is having a timeline and knowing when things happened.

I no longer worry that much about what will become of my writings after I'm gone. If no one reads it or keeps it, well, s'what? Maybe my "James Hillman theology" of the soul traveling on through time and space has enabled me to let go of all the here-and-now details. It's just not that big a deal anymore.

One great thing I got from today's service:

Q. How do we prepare for our deaths?
A. By loving, and living gratefully before that time comes.

This is so simple, and it makes sense. I had a chance to test it out right after church: I went to Subway to get lunch, 'cause I was hungry.  This morning I'd seen a billboard advertising new Orchard Chicken Salad at Subway, and figured it was something like a Waldorf Salad (apples, walnuts, etc.), which would be right up my alley.  However, my experience has forewarned me that large-scale ads often come out  long before the actual stores get the items on the menu or the employees are told anything about them. So it was no huge surprise not to find the item. I waited a long time on line and ended up with a Philly, which was quite good.

Standing on line at Subway can certainly give you a good workout in Love and Grateful Living. Love is in short supply when the couple in front of you scream "Yuppie Privilege" and proceed to order four complicated sandwiches. Love says, don't judge them; they probably have issues you know nothing about. Isn't it better to be around people who seem carefree and overly cheerful (they didn't really give the counter guy a hard time, they were just vaguely annoying) than abusive and obnoxious? Love says the counter guy probably does know how to smile, he just sees no reason to when he's all by himself with a line of 15 people and has run out of ham. RUN OUT OF HAM at SUBWAY!  Love says don't even blame the store manager or owner for not having Orchard Chicken Salad, because as a former franchise owner, I know perfectly well that Corporate will often make decisions that affect you directly (like sending out ads before the store actually opens) without getting your input or even letting you know about them.  

Living gratefully says:
  • I have food any time I want it; waiting amounts to hours at the most, rather than days, weeks, or months.
  • The food is fresh and won't kill me
  • I didn't have to slog across a desert with a basket on my head to get it
  • Nobody tried to kill me as I went after it.
  • I didn't have to steal it.

And so much more. It's really easy to love and live gratefully and I will try to do more of it.


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