There is nothing like having three neighbors, a friend and a sister-in-law die in the span of year to bring the subject of death to mind. This morning I remembered being wrong about the title of a poem on death by Thomas Gray. Between my hearing loss and dyspraxia, I heard the title as “Elegy in a Court Churchyard” but thought that “Elegy in a Church Courtyard” was more likely to be the appropriate title. I imagine Gray arising from his grave and shaking off the dust on his starchy, ruffled suit to tell me, “No, I called my poem ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’!”
My confusion over a title of a poem on death is a preview that my thoughts on death could be just as strange. I don’t know if anyone else feels like I do on this subject. There is no graceful way of asking someone, “How do you reconcile that some deaths mean more to you, despite that all lives ultimately have equal value?”
This dilemma brings to mind the closing words of the film Slacker, “Strangers die every day.”
Although it may seem callous that we regard some deaths with indifference, it is possible that this emotional blindness is one of the greatest mercies we know. How would we survive if every death imposed a wound of the heart?
Within the last 12 months, I have had five occasions to reflect on death. Two of my neighbors took their lives in dramatic ways. Then my next door neighbor died after a long bout with breast cancer. Like the first two neighbors I mentioned, my friend also committed suicide. Added to all of this was loss of my sister-in-law Genie, who survived nearly two years with Stage 4 lung cancer. I did not meet Genie until after her diagnosis. I wish I had known her when she was well, too, and I feel like her life was stolen from her.
My feelings about these deaths run a wide range based on how well I knew the decedents. One of the suicides of my neighbors had an omen of sorts. My husband and I were going for a walk and stopped to talk to this neighbor as he stood in his driveway wearing no shoes, which for me brought to mind the rumors about Paul McCartney being dead and replaced with an imposter. One of the signs of his death was supposedly his barefoot appearance on the cover of the album Abbey Road. A few days after we talked to our barefoot neighbor, we saw a roll-off in his driveway in the rain with rust running from it. The roll-off was overflowing with what must have been the great majority of his worldly possessions. I told my husband that I wondered if our neighbor had died and mentioned how his running around shoeless in the driveway could have been a sign of his coming end. My husband said he was probably evicted.
It turned out that both scenarios were true. He had been evicted and then shot himself in an abandoned building downtown.
I had not befriended my other neighbor who committed suicide. He ended his life in a public place, so we discovered the manner of his passing in the newspaper. I had seen so little of him that I did not recognize him from his picture in the paper. When I saw him while he was alive, I had no idea of his suffering. I was blind to it despite my history of depression. He reminds me that I once had a dream about the difference between those who attempt suicide and those who complete the act. The difference was that the second group already thought they were dead and were resolving a conflict been their state of mind and reality.
My sister acknowledged the recent string of celebrity deaths by making the hashtag #2016theyearofdeath. Unfortunately, every year is the year of death, for both the famous and the rest of us. Stated otherwise, #(n-1, n, n+1 . . .)theyearofdeath. When my brother was in high school, he composed an essay about life in 19th century America in which he wrote, “People died more often back then.”
I recall wondering how this could be true given that everyone dies just once.
Death impacts us to different degrees based on how close we were to that person. Sometimes we can feel some grief for a stranger’s passing if someone has taken the time to tell that person’s story. It is like they are brought to life through words and then taken away as quickly, and we feel an echo of grief. These echoes of death are a taste of what is to come for us all eventually. As I reflect on the deaths of those around me in the past year, it’s as if I hear a doppler effect of it.
When I think about the variations in our reactions to death, I remember my college philosophy professor saying that we swallow spit all day and think little of it, yet if all that spit were poured into a glass, we would be horrified at the prospect of drinking from it. Like our feelings about spit, our reaction to death is very much grounded in context. Without context, the event has little meaning, but we grieve death to the degree of intimacy to the person who has passed. When I heard my professor’s point about spit all of those years ago, I did not think of how death could be similar. Instead, I wrote a paper about Doink the wrestling clown and how clowns are symbols of white, male privilege. While clown narratives don’t really evoke posh conditions, the fact that a male with a painted white face usually gets to tell those stories implied privilege. At the time I strove to insulate myself from any important personal breakthroughs, without knowing it.
Closer to my heart was my sister-in-law Genie. The effect of her passing was more emotional for me than I expected. Since she lived out of state, I was only able to spend three weekends with her while she was alive, yet her death impacted me as if I had known her for much longer. She really was a fundamentally lovable person who encountered no strangers. She had a great clarity about her impending death, and I believe she gifted all who witnessed her struggle. When I went to her crowded funeral in Kentucky, the preacher told us that Genie said that when it was her time to pass that her late father would come for her. I thought of my grandmother, who had last seen her father in 1936 when he died in a car accident, his extended family unknown. When I heard the preacher’s words at Genie’s funeral, I vowed that I would solve that mystery unless it proved impossible to do so. With help from my aunts and cousins, I was able to find the truth and family of my great grandfather.
When I think of Genie, I know it’s inevitable to reflect on death despite that it’s going to come some day whether I think of it or not. Spending mental energy on it will not control its character or timing. We can depend on three things in life, that we were born, that we will die and that we will change in between that beginning and end. In my childhood, I wondered many times about my birth, about why of all of the billions of combinations of time and place that could produce a person, how did I land where I did? To what purpose was I meant in being me, out of all of the billions of people one could have been? Eventually, I accepted there were no answers I could find alone to such questions about my birth. Likewise, death is a matter that we see “through a glass, darkly” in this life.