The first real life death that occurred in my life happened when I was five years old. My uncle died. I don’t remember him very well. I do remember that my dad spent a whole lot of time with him. He was older, and apparently had a huge personality as someone who was the life of a party, but also an obscenely hard worker. A lot of my relatives, even my ma, tell me that if he were still alive I would most likely be a very different man. Depending on your camp regarding me as a person, that could have been a blessing. We’ll never know.
What I remember about his death is somewhat spotty, with one glaring, crystal clear exception. When he died, my parents sent my sister and I to stay with my grandmother (*The one on my mom’s side. The one who was not stricken with grief over the loss of a son*). We stayed for a week. I got to pack my own clothes. I remember that I was going through a phase where I thought that if I were wearing a shirt that had buttons on it, just like my dad wore, that it was the classiest thing that I could wear. Even if it was a simple flannel shirt, which I had tons of, I thought them the epitome of fashion, and I was nothing less than the prepubescent mayor of Fashiontown. We stayed at my grandma’s the whole week, eating McDonald’s, watching TV, and cuddling. I wore a different button down shirt everyday. Fancy shirts and grandma’s house. I was in fucking heaven.
I got down to my last shirt. The shirt that I signified to me that our week with our grandmother was over. I was a bit bummed, but even at a young age, I was familiar with the idea that nothing lasted forever. Kinda. I had no idea that that same lesson was about to kick me in the ass in a few hours. As we lounged, my parents finally arrived at my grandma’s house. My mom was wearing a dark dress I had never seen before, and my dad was wearing a black suit and his wayfarers. I remember them asking me if I had any other shirts left, and I said no. I wore them all already, and they were dirty. I didn’t see the problem at the time. Twenty one years later, I completely see the problem.
I was wearing a Chicago Bull’s T-shirt. I was completely unaware that the reason my folks sent us away for a week is so that so that they could help plan the funeral, which we were now heading to.
I didn’t really understand death as we sat in the church. I only knew what I had learned from TV, which was that if someone dies, we’ll see him or her again on another channel. All I really understood was that all my relatives were there, all of them were very sad, and all of them were wearing button down shirts. Even in first grade, I could feel the anguishing bore of awkwardness in my gut. I sat quietly in the pew, wondering if anyone was going to notice my shirt, when in the corner of my eye I saw a dark figure moving slowly past. It was my cousin. My cousin whom every other uncle and aunt spoke about with concern before the service started. My cousin who’s father we were there to pay respect to, and bury.
I don’t think I could ever properly explain the look on his face. It was a sadness so deep that he looked broken. Lobotomized, almost. No tears. Too sad for tears. He walked slowly past me, down the aisle, past every heart that poured itself out for him and stopped at the casket. He stood there, holding his hands in front of him, taking his last look at the man that brought him into this world and died working to make a better life for him.
It was as my cousin, only six years old, stood at the front of the church saying goodbye to his dad, that it hit me. He was never going to see that man again. I was never going to see that man again. No one was ever going to see that man again. The unflinching principal that everything dies, nothing is forever, and that every person I know and love, including myself, was going to get their turn the casket up front switched itself on in my head. That shit is FAR too heavy for a bunch of first graders to digest. So, I did what any normal person does when the idea of mortality finally wraps itself around one’s head: I started crying my eyes out and hugged my mom.
I’ve been relatively lucky as far as deaths in my life. Between the passing of my uncle and the point in time in which I write this sentence, I have only had to experience two other deaths in my life. My friend, Megan, and My Grandmother (*Not the one who we spent the week with. The other one.*). Megan’s loss was a shock. It was an accident. No one saw it coming. It was terrible. My Grandmother, who passed first, did not pass quickly. Unfortunately, we saw her passing for a long time coming. Long enough that when it did come, we were all almost relieved. She didn’t have to go through the pain and indignities anymore. We went to the funeral, said our goodbyes, and put her in the ground. Made her one with the earth. I was nineteen. This time around, I also had a an epiphany. One lasting impression from the ceremony that sent my sweet grandma into the golden glory of heaven so that she could make the most bitchin’ flour tortillas for Jesus (*That is if you are into that sort of thing. I am. Love those tortillas*). I came home realizing one new fact about death and the grieving process. One that had eluded me before but was now more obvious that I could ever know.
I fucking hate funerals.
I’ve never been very comfortable with the idea of ceremony. Doesn’t matter what it is (*Wedding, Baptism, Purple belt presentation, etc.*) I never feel relaxed, or peaceful. It’s all just kinda “weird orgy from ‘Eyes Wide Shut'” for me, and I’m Tom Cruise, wandering around all mindfucked. Even if the ceremony has fuck all to do with me, it’s still awkward. People taking everything and themselves way too seriously makes me want to jump out of my skin and light something on fire. But, I do pride myself in being able to properly evoke the label as a “semi-functioning adult”, so I manage to sit tight and not arson the shit out of something. But it is awkward for me. Too awkward. Megan’s funeral was especially bad. A nice handful of friends, a metric fuck-ton of strangers
You might remember reading not but two paragraphs ago that as an adult, or a even a reasonably self-conscious human being, there was only two death in my life. That’s true and it’s not. I have known other people that have died. A fair amount, actually. I, just like most everyone else, have seen, reasonably close, nature’s constant reminder that we are all walking, talking sack’s of meat that eventually stop walking and talking. Thing is that I don’t take “Credit” for them.
Let me explain. I’ve known a lot of people in my life, and sadly, not all of them are still here to hang with their families, drink beer, or bitch about not being able to find a job. Some have gotten into accidents, some due to health problems, tons of stuff. Sad stuff. Now, I do believe that the passing of everyone is a natural thing. People die. It happens. A lot. And I understand that the passing of said people is gravely unfortunate. I would never do anything to imply otherwise. But when I say I don’t take “credit” for people’s death’s, I mean that I don’t think that I could ever proclaim that the passing of certain individuals is something that I, personally, could chalk up as a loss. Not because I don’t care, actually far from it. It’s because I know that those death’s are being felt far more profoundly by other people. To say that I lost someone that I knew, sometimes even barely, feels like I would just be lying, and trying to invoke sympathy from parties who didn’t ask how I was doing, but now are getting an earful of 3rd degree mortality. I have been sad for the passing of people that I knew and their loved one’s, but I can’t say I lost someone because the truth of the matter is that depending on the person, I really didn’t lose anyone. Someone else lost someone.
It might not sound completely copacetic, but it is honest and actually quite mannerly.
But it’s not everything. It’s only a partial reason why I don’t take “credit”. There is another part to the reason that is just as honest, but far, far less noble.
I don’t take credit because . . . well, frankly, I don’t want to deal with it. I don’t like funerals. Pouring on thoughts about human mortality and the eventual end of it all doesn’t really help in the fight for balance of my sanity, and it can be awkward as all holy get out to deal with the bereaved, ESPECIALLY if the majority of the bereaved are people are barely know, or don’t know at all.
For example, immediately after a service last year, I ran into the son of the man we were at the church to mourn. The departed was a good man, of what I knew. I had met him many times, usually in a jovial atmosphere, and I generally thought pretty well of him. I can’t say the same for his son. I had met him once, for a couple of hours, months and months before, while drinking. He was nice enough, but I can’t say I knew this man standing before me very well. Without even thinking about the scenario we were currently in, him especially , I asked him, as if we ran into each other in the parking lot of 7-11, “So, how have you been lately?” At that moment, I realized that I was the dumbest piece of shit I’ve heard of in a long time. My buddies, whom I actually drove to the funeral with, all breathed out a heavy sigh of disappointment. How could someone they’ve known for so long, someone they loved as a brother, ask a question so mindbogglingly retarded? I couldn’t blame them for asking themselves that. The man whom the question was posed to saw the look of instant regret on my face, and laughed. Maybe he appreciated that someone spoke to him like a normal person for the first time in a week instead of like a kid who got hit in the face with basketball. Maybe idiots just make him laugh. I don’t know. The only thing I know for sure is that I felt like shit the rest of the night. Better part of the next day too.
2011 was a rough year for deaths and people I knew. Three in total. It was a morbidly depressing summer. All were people I had met. I had known one guy for years. The other men, hours. And as much as I want to bitch (*and trust me, I do*), I can’t. I knew these men. I did not know them very well. I know other people that knew them remarkably well. The hurt of seeing people I knew ….. well, it sucked. And there was, and still is, a huge amount of guilt because I know that 1) I didn’t care as much as other people around me did, and 2) I didn’t want to care. But these were people I knew. People I had fun with. People that had been nothing but incredibly nice to me. But I didn’t know them well. Maybe it was a barrier, or a buffer, that actually protected me from really hurting. I don’t know. Three deaths in four months is a lot for a person to take in. But in the same time, why should I have been trying so hard to be upset when there are those much much closer who are legitimately more devastated than myself? Why am I trying to make these passings about me and my past remorse and present guilt? There were, and is, more important things that I could be handling in these states.
The last death to occur in my line of sight last year was the passing of the father of one of my absolute best friends. He had been battling the big “C” for awhile, and sadly lost war after winning several battles. He passed away two days after my twenty sixth birthday. I’m sure there is some sort of poetic whatnot about life and death in there somewhere. Sunrise and sunset, every rose has its thorns, and all that. I was asked to call my friend because I was at work and she knew I wouldn’t pick up right away. I called back, and she told me the news. I didn’t see it coming. I tried to be comforting and consoling on the phone. It wasn’t glorious. I was in shock and I was on the phone. I forget how to speak when I’m on the phone. She, of course, had on her “brave little trooper” voice, which I completely expected, and given the reason, didn’t call her out on it like I usually would.
Almost a week went by until I heard about funeral services. I would be required to take a day off of work. I told my friend that I might not be able to make it to the funeral, which was true. From that point on, two thoughts dominated me for days up to the service: 1) I honestly can not afford to take a day off, and 2) FUCK!! FUCK!!! FFUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK!!!! NOT AGAIN!!! SHIT, GOD-MOTHERFUCKING-DAMNIT!!!! I had fucking had it with funerals, and the sobbing, and the churches, and the speeches about how wonderful people are, and organ music, and cemeteries, and sitting in pews, and all of it, all of it, fucking ALL OF IT!!! I WAS DONE!!!
….. but she is my friend.
If that girl didn’t mean as much to me as she actually did (*and does*), I would have sat behind the completely legitimate and honest reason of not being able to swing a day off, shared my deepest and honest condolences to her and her family, and be done with it. We are adults. This type of shit happens all the time. But I would have known the truth. I would have known that I was hiding behind a shined and magnificent excuse. I would have known that I was using a truth that at most would have been mildly irritating to me, but also something I could completely cope with, as a lame excuse. I would have known that I straight punk’d out.
So, the night before the services, I cleaned my suit as I had decided to man up. But it turns out my version of “man up” is still pretty lame. I called another friend and ask him if he wanted to go to the funeral with me. I did NOT want to sit quietly on a car ride and a church service and stew in my awkward juices. He said yes.
The next morning, I got ready, looked damn good, and began my drive north to pick up my funeral buddy. As I drove on the freeway, I could think of nothing other than the dread that I could not shake. I just did not want to even see this church. I didn’t want to see the flowers. I didn’t want to hear the organ. For the first time in years, I didn’t even want to see my friend and the look on her face that I just knew was going to break my heart.
I park in front of my friends house and call to let him know I had arrived. He came out holding some nice clothing on a hanger, and wearing a Captain America shirt. He thought he could change into the nice shirt and coat in the restroom of the church. I informed him that I don’t think I’ve even seen a restroom in a church. Slightly defeated, he put on the nice shirt and coat on the sidewalk, hopped in, and we drove off to Riverside.
The ride got substantially easier with someone else to talk too. We didn’t talk about where we were going. The two of us together are well versed in the art of bullshit. It was a welcome distraction, but I still couldn’t shake the dread.
We got to the church. An elderly rent-a-cop taped a paper funeral band to my rear windshield. We made our way towards the front of the church, and there, at the top of the stairs was my friend. She didn’t see us immediately. Her back was to the street. She turned as we approached. I will never forget the look on her face. It was a look that was simultaneously upset because, well you know, and happy. I didn’t know if she was happy that I could make it, because I did think very well of her father and she knew that I wanted to pay my respects, or if she was just happy to see me. I wasn’t sure. But climbing up the church steps, looking at my friend, I realized where the dread that I anguished over for days came from.
I didn’t want to see my friend in sorrow. I didn’t want to see any of them in that manner.
Death is a fact of life. It’s the last part. Actually, it might be the first part immediately after the last part of life. Anyhow, it’s unavoidable. Everyone is going to run into it or be grazed by it. The clump of unfortunate passings last year hit people I love very hard, and they hit me too. But what was harder for me was seeing how pained my loved ones were and me being able to do nothing about it. Words can only comfort so much, and company is only pleasant for so long until it is awkward and I’m just kinda in the way. These were people I love, completely crushed, and I stood helpless. Nothing I could do or say would make them feel better. And that was it. I didn’t like funerals, I still don’t, but I couldn’t stand to see loved ones in pain.
I felt terrible that I wanted to skip out on the funeral, but I didn’t want to see my friend hurt. I did my best to be supportive through all the weakness and disquieted insecurity that wanted to overtake me. We made our way inside, and found our seats. I quietly explained some of the finer points of a catholic mass to my funeral buddy as the service went along. I watched the casket get wheeled down the aisle, tailed by an anguish ridden family, as a soulful organ rendition of a John Lennon song forever ruined my ability to listen to the original version without wanting to burst into tears. Afterwards, we drove to the military cemetery for the burial.We were invited to a post-burial get together at the the home of the widow.
On the drive there, my funeral buddy and I discussed the finer points of late seventies/early eighties music (*Joy Division = Double New Order burger with cheese*) to relieve the stress and sorrow. At the get together, I made conversation with a bunch of people I didn’t know while trying to not make a drunken slob of myself. I did okay.
The day was long, but only half gone. We left early. I took my funeral buddy home. I drove home thinking about what a dick I can be. I was grounding myself into the day because I didn’t want to face what was coming. But it wasn’t my cross to bear. I felt terrible for my friend, but I knew that one day she would be okay.
I only knew Bill McDonald for a total of two hours and twelve minutes. He was always very nice to me. He bought me a plate of spaghetti once. But I can’t pretend to speak of how great a man he really was because it’s not my place. I don’t know. Others do. The only thing I can speak to about his greatness as a man is that he raised two children. One has grown up to be quite a man. The other has grown to be one of my absolute favorite people that walks the earth. There is no way that a man can raise such a wonderful, ambitious, talented and radiant woman without being a hell of a man himself.
He was a good man. He will be missed. As will Zetch. As will Tony.
I just have to do my best in dealing with the inevitable like everyone else does. And keep a shirt clean.