For a departed friend

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A few months ago, a friend, someone I’d known for almost twenty-five years, suddenly passed away. 

 

 

Friend?  No, it was a far more complex relationship than that.  We were co-workers first; we shared an office back in the late 1980s; there was a big partition between our desks, but we both smoked, so we could each see the smoke rising from the other side of the office, and we could listen to one another’s completely fascinating telephone conversations.

 

 

Then, for about two years, I actually worked for her.  She was irritable and finicky, but we actually got along pretty well; once, however, she refused to speak to me for three days because she thought I’d neglected to say “good morning” to her. 

 

 

It was one of those relationships.

 

 

After that, we were just friends.  We always talked in the hallway.  I used to run into her in the market frequently; her stories were endless, but I enjoyed them anyway.  She was smart, and extremely opinionated, and completely fearless about telling you what she thought.  (My new boss told me several times that he’d like to be rid of her.  I never had the nerve to say it out loud, but I always thought: Good luck.  You will never be rid of her. And good for her.)

 

 

Partner knew her too, because we ran into her in the local grocery store with some regularity.  Sometimes she’d stop and give me a ride, especially in the wintertime. 

 

 

She was intelligent, and very sure of herself, and very stubborn.

 

 

And now she’s gone.

 

 

As always, when someone I care about passes away, I keep wanting it to be a mistake or a joke.  I think: It’s not real.  She’s still around somewhere.  She’ll walk through the door in a moment, and we’ll have a good laugh about all of this.

 

 

(Now, a few months later, I keep seeing her in the street, or going in the door ahead of me.  Naturally it’s just my failing eyesight.  But I think my brain wants it to be her.)

 

 

Hey, you, upstairs, whoever’s in charge of this stuff: this has got to stop.  This has gone a little bit beyond a joke.

 

 

Stop killing off my friends and family.

 

 

I rely on them for so much.


 

Birds at the window

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The people in my family are maybe a little psychic.  Mom generally knew when I was sick, even when I was far away.  At the moment my father died, I felt an odd jolt, even though I was about 250 miles away.  Partner and I also share a psychic link; it mostly involves food, however.  I suggested pancakes for breakfast, and he gaped at me: “Oh my god!” he said.  “I was just thinking of that!” 

 

 

If only we could make money with this.

 

 

Here’s another odd thing: birds come to our house when people die.

 

 

A few days after Dad died in 1976, at the old Venersborg house, there was a bird at my window.  It was banging its head against my bedroom window like mad, trying to get my attention.  I mentioned it to Mom and she looked somber.  “I know,” she said.  “It’s been at every window in the house. It’s as if it’s trying to get in.”

 

 

Fast-forward to late November 1999, when Mom died, all the way over on the West Coast.  A cardinal was pecking at my apartment windows for almost a week after that happened.

 

 

I don’t know where this comes from, but I’ve heard and read other references to it.  Birds just seem to be attracted to houses in which there’s been a death, one way or another.  They’re not attracted to the deceased, mind you; they’re attracted to the bereaved.

 

 

Strange.

 

 

I remember a reference to this kind of thing on a TV show some years ago, but I don’t remember the show, so I can’t look it up.  I tried a Google search, and found things like this.  It’s not unknown; it’s butterflies, and animals in general.  This website makes it clear that the deceased is trying to communicate with the living through animals.

 

 

I want to believe this, but I think this is wishful thinking.  I have no trouble believing that birds might sense some kind of disturbance in the house, but I don’t think the dead are guiding them.

 

 

But if only.  It would be lovely to see some of my departed relatives and friends again. 

 

 

But I don’t think I ever will.

 

 

Ah. This whole death thing sucks.


 

Final arrangements

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Partner and I are both getting on in age, and have begun to talk about our final arrangements.  Naturally we want to be together, even after we’re both defunct.  (This is irrational, but we’re human, so naturally we’re irrational.)

 

 

We have, unfortunately, discovered that we have a little discrepancy in our final wishes.

 

 

Partner wants to be cremated (after he’s dead, I mean, not today) and have his ashes thrown into the water off the Pacific island of Maui.

 

 

I want to be buried in a proper wooden casket and put in the ground in Venersborg, Washington, close to where I grew up, in a grave facing Spotted Deer Mountain, in northern Clark County.

 

 

So, you see, we have some negotiating to do.

 

 

I think we will do a catch-as-catch-can scenario.  If I go first (which I think is very possible), I want him to take me with him wherever he goes.  It would be nice if some little part of me – even a keepsake – were put in the ground near my parents, but really, it doesn’t matter that much.  It matters much more to me that I be with Partner.  He can take me to Maui if he likes.  There’s enough of me in Venersborg already, I suppose, after having grown up there. 

 

 

And, if he takes me with him to Maui, Partner and I will be together.

 

 

And if (God forbid) Partner goes first, I will carry out his wishes, and he will swim with the fishes off Maui.  But a little pinch of him is going to stay with me, and I will be buried in Venersborg with an envelope in my pocket, and that envelope will have some of Partner in it.

 

 

And, if I bring a little piece of him to Venersborg with me, Partner and I will be together.

 

 

And that’s really all that matters, isn’t it?

 


 

The coffin delivery man

Coffin


(Here’s a riddle: What is it, that 1) if you see it, you don’t want to buy it; 2) if you buy it, you don’t want to use it; 3) if you’re using it, you’re not aware of it?)

 

 

(Keep reading for the answer.)

 

 

During jury selection this past summer, I was thrown together with five other people: a wiseguy cable installer who kept moaning about how bored he was; an older man (what am I saying? I mean “a man around my own age”) with his nose buried in a 1982 “Quick & Easy Crosswords” magazine; a raven-haired beauty wearing a teensy bit too much makeup; a nineteen-year-old girl, very nervous about missing work (it turned out that she was the Keno-machine operator at a local restaurant); and a short plump cheerful gray-haired man.

 

 

I was sort of fascinated with this last guy; he talked about growing up in Brooklyn, and he knew the whole state of Rhode Island, which is pretty unusual here (most people only know their own communities).  He was smart, and cheerful, and calm, and unaffected.

 

 

And he finally revealed that he worked delivering coffins from the warehouse to regional funeral homes.

 

 

I have always been fascinated by the business of death. Partner and I watched “Six Feet Under” straight through on DVD. And funeral directors are always so courtly and polite and considerate! Partner and I were at a funeral home a year or so ago, planning a “pre-need” funeral for a family member, and I was really charmed by the Italian-American funeral director who worked with us; the room was full of memorabilia of his immigrant father, and he had a big piece of Simon Pearce crystal on the table of which he was very proud, and I looked him up later online to discover that he is a very long-established community benefactor.

 

 

I think living with a constant reminder of mortality must be very bracing. To paraphrase Lady Jane Gray: it teaches you to live and learns you to die.  Monks used to sleep in their own (future) coffins, and drink from cups made from human skulls, just to remind themselves that life is, um, short, and probably you should get about your business, whatever it is, before it’s too late.

 

 

I hope Coffin Delivery Man is doing well.

 

 

Someday I’ll need his services.

 

 

(By the way: did you guess the riddle yet?)

 


 

Preparing for the end

Death


A lot of my friends have told me that, when it comes to be their time, they want to die in their sleep. “I don’t want to know about it,” one of them said. “I can’t do anything about it, can I?”

 

 

Well, hm.

 

 

I like what Rue McLanahan said as Vivian on “Maude” a long time ago: “When it’s time for me to die, I’m just going to be somewhere else.”

 

 

This is a good plan, but I don’t think it would actually work.

 

 

Some of my friends have said, much more specifically, that they want to be spared the knowledge that death is coming for them: they don’t want a bad diagnosis, or a wonky heart that might go kaboom at any moment, or a nasty lingering complaint that just keeps picking away at you until you give up and lie down and die. They don’t want those months or years of misery, waiting for Mister Reaper.

 

 

But we are having those years right now, n’est-ce pas? I predict, with absolute certainty, that you will die, and so will I, at some point in the (indeterminate) future.

 

 

There! Just like a doctor might have told you.

 

 

Now: what are you going to do about it?

 

 

I have watched friends and family members go down the road to death:

 

 

Mom was nine years from diagnosis to death: for more than eight of those years, she kept active and vital and managed to get some enjoyment out of life.

 

 

My sister Darlene, who had six years from diagnosis to death, spent her time taking care of neighbors’ kids and cooking and gardening and doing everything she could think of. She was never my favorite person, but you know what? She spent her last few years nobly and profitably. Good for her.

 

 

Dad had less than a year. His cancer wasn’t diagnosed until late, because he’d ignored the pain inside him – he thought it was his hernia. Diagnosed in October, died in May. Miserable most of that time. Tried radiation therapy, but it was 1975, and radiation therapy in those days was primitive and humiliating and painful.

 

 

My friend Bob caught the flu in 1992. It never quite went away. Then he began to lose weight. Then came the HIV diagnosis. He wasn’t surprised: his partner back in New York had been HIV+, so Bob had always assumed he was positive too, without being tested. He lasted about three years (he died within a month of the death of my sister Susan, about whom I will tell you later). He got tired a lot, and depressed a lot, but he was still funny and smart and outrageous most of the time.

 

 

Oh, yes, my sister Susan. She was diagnosed soon after Mom, also with ovarian cancer, but Susan’s cancer was very aggressive. She lasted three years.

 

 

She spent those three years living.

 

 

I visited her about a month before her death. She had just come home from coffin-shopping. We’d be talking, and she’d be picking through her closet, or her jewelry-box, looking for – guess what? – the right outfit for her funeral. “I don’t want them to worry about it,” she said. “I can take care of a lot of that now. Then they won’t have to worry. They’ll have other things on their mind.”

 

 

I can’t tell you all about Susan here; there’s not enough room.

 

 

But, more than any other person in my life, Susan taught me how to think about death.

 

 

I hope, when my time comes, I can be as brave and tough as she was.

 


 

Sunday blog: The late Amy Winehouse sings “Rehab”

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I had a different song planned for today, but when the sad news of Amy Winehouse’s death came around yesterday, I wanted to do a little tribute to her.

 

 

She was 27. Others who died at 27: Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain.

 

 

As of this writing, cause of death is still unknown. But I think we all have a pretty good idea of what might have happened.

 

 

I love this song: I love Amy’s whiskey voice, and the chimes, and the horn section, and the quiet backup group that comes in on “No no no,” and the strings that creep in so stealthily at the end.

 

 

They tried to make me go to rehab; I said No no no . . .

 

Amy_Winehouse_-_Rehab.mp3 Listen on Posterous

 


 

 

The world is coming to an end, you stupidheads!

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A report was recently released on the health of the seas.

 

 

Here’s a quick summary: it ain’t good.

 

 

Marine species are dying. The chemical composition of the sea is itself changing. There is reason to believe that we are in the first phases of the sixth great extinction in the Earth’s history, and that we – human beings – are responsible for it.

 

 

There are so many man-made disasters, big and small. A recent episode of Halogen’s “Angry Planet” gave us the death of the Aral Sea and Chernobyl, in one brief half-hour program. Oh, and just for laughs, there’s a lab on an island in the Aral Sea where the Soviet government stockpiled – and weaponized! – things like bubonic plague and anthrax. Except that it’s not an island anymore; the drying of the Aral Sea (see above photo) has connected the island to the mainland. Rats and mice and vermin in general are probably carrying bits and pieces of all those deadly things to land.

 

 

Charming.

 

 

I’m always pleased to bring you news of the apocalypse. One of these times, it’s bound to be true.

 

 

And it’s always best to be prepared.

 

 

So put your crash helmet on, buckle your seat belt, and start screaming now.

 


 

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