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Dying is Easy, It’s Living that Scares Me to Death

June 4, 2012

Reflections, literal and metaphorical.  The title is a quote from an Annie Lennox song.

You never get used to death.  That’s what I realized when I was trying to comfort my best girlfriend, V, via Skype, in the aftermath of the death of her grandfather, a man who raised her since she was eight.  I didn’t know what to say, how to comfort, despite having lost so many people myself recently.  All I could say was that I was sorry.  And I was.

Death and taxes, the old joke goes.  Death and taxes.

I chose my first college boyfriend out of the many contenders partly because of his view on death.  We were sitting in the common dining room of our dorm, and I was explaining why death terrified me.  It was the forever aspect of it all, I said.  See, once you are dead, you are dead forever- time continues without you.  Infinity terrified me like a nightmare I couldn’t quite grasp, couldn’t wrap my head around.  He nodded and said that infinite consciousness was just as scary as infinite nothingness.  He understood, and the next year and a half I clung to him.

Lion’s Head, in Capetown. The mountain that Nina and I climbed.

The girl I roomed with in South Africa killed herself a few months back.  I found out about her death through Facebook, people leaving her messages of love and grief on her wall. It was horribly impersonal, and there is something macabre about leaving messages for someone who will never receive them. In that garish coffee shop in Michigan, tears started to stream down my face silently as my entire body clenched- I couldn’t believe it.  She had been so strong, fierce, smart, and a devout Christian.  She was about the last person who I imagined would kill herself, especially not when she was finishing up her last year at Yale Law School, a brilliant future ahead of her.  I remembered all of our conversations in our bedroom in Cape Town, climbing the Lion’s Head together, sharing dried mango, me taking terrible photos of her while she slept.  I wasn’t like we were that close, but I guess I knew her even less well than I thought I did. That hurt somehow.

And when I found out that she definitely killed herself, that it wasn’t an accident or homicide, twin feelings warred in my chest: relief and hatred.  Relief because irrationally I tied my fate up with hers: I was allowed to feel that I wasn’t (necessarily) doomed to die young by some horrible accident, that death wouldn’t steal me away in a car wreck, or in the wee hours of the night by the end of a knife.  And I felt hatred, so much damaging wrath, because she put me and her other friends and family through this pain deliberately, she knew she had people who cared about her and, damn it all, she did it anyway.  Selfish pain, selfish release.  It is easier to hate her than to mourn her, and so to defend myself, I mix the two into a manageable blend of grief.

Sarah killed herself the summer after our senior year of high school.  We were in theater classes and plays together, I still remember the gleam of relief on her face one spring day as her abdomen cramped and she realized she wasn’t pregnant.  Her swing dance partner in Much Ado about Nothing was an adorable boy named Danny, and she thought my mom was cool.  My mom still thinks about Sarah, sometimes.

I cried more when my kitten got run over by a car than when my mother’s father finally breathed his last breath.  I felt guilty about my lack of tears for my grandfather for years.

Sunset, in the Caribbean. A woman stands at attention.

My Dad’s little brother died of small cell lung cancer in his forties.  He never smoked.  When Matt died, my dad went to his electric piano and pressed the record button.  He proceeded to play an improvisational song of his loss, letting out all of his emotion through the white and black keys.  He played the song at my uncle’s funeral.  He cried.  I almost never see my father cry.

After Uncle Matt’s funeral, I went upstairs to my bedroom and lay down on my bed and started to read a book.  A family friend’s kid, the same age as I was, tentatively came in fifteen minutes later.  He stopped short when he saw me reading.  “I thought you’d be crying,” he said, almost accusatorily.  “I was coming up here to comfort you.”  He shuffled his feet, and not knowing what to do when presented with a completely dried-eyed girl, went back downstairs.

My other best friend’s grandfather just died too.  It’s a bad time for grandfathers of my good friends, I guess.  My friend was more concerned with being there for his mother than experiencing his own grief.  Duty to the living mattered more than duty to the dead.

Springtime in DC, and the cherry blossoms are in bloom. In a museum garden.

My first boss, a wonderful man who gave me my first chance, was hit by a car when he was on his bicycle.  He was in a coma for months, then his wife pulled the plug.  I didn’t see him after his accident, and regret it bitterly.  My godfather, a death too raw to really address in words, has been dead for ten months almost to the day, and it feels like yesterday that I was stuck in my silent scream, Edvard Munch impersonator, the world swirling around me, my coffee cup falling to the ground from my suddenly limp hand.  If my boyfriend hadn’t been there to bundle me to the car, and take me to my parent’s house, I would have lain down on the dirty pavement and sobbed until I slept.

And a few days ago, I found out that girl very much like me, a writer, 22 years old, with straight long brown hair, who just graduated from Yale was killed in a car accident on Cape Cod, my beloved Cape Cod.  Her last journalistic blog post was about her graduation, and about the world of possibility and wonder she was about to step into.  It is frightening to be so rudely reminded of my own mortality like this.  How dare she die in that car crash, and how come I am so affected by it when I never met her in my life?

You never get used to death.  V is dealing with the aftermath of her grandfather’s death one day at a time, baking cookies, talking to friends, living life and mourning both.  She wrote to me about how her roommate tried to comfort V when she was in the midst of a daymare about mortality.  I have reproduced it below, just as she wrote it, because I think it is perfect.

“she asks if I would like to cuddle for a bit

(as I wipe my hands over and over across my face, as if to wipe away the nightmares of nonexistence before my eyes)

I think to myself that it wouldn’t do a dammed bit of good, wouldn’t change anything or stop it

(and can’t she see that’s exactly the problem?)

but I cuddle anyways, and inevitability doesn’t change, but it gets a little warmer and fuzzier.”

Death happens, and there is nothing I can do about it.  I am going to die.  You are going to die.  Eventually, not even that long from now, none of us will be here anymore.  All you can do in the meantime is try to take solace where you can, live it up little.  Enjoy what you got, connect to those around you.  This is all we have got, folks.  Let’s make it count: be aware that you are mortal, but don’t be paralyzed by it.  Because death is inevitable, but living a full, rich life is not.  My love to you all.

My mother and brother. Making Christmas cookies in the kitchen, playing with the flour.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Anonymous permalink
    June 6, 2012 9:22 PM

    Me likey!
    Read “early death and fame” by matthew arnold if you have a chance..

  2. Philip permalink
    June 7, 2012 7:49 PM

    I remember screaming in an apartment in Oxford when I heard my grandfather died across the Atlantic in Baltimore and I couldn’t see him. And I still miss him. And it maddens and saddens me that people we love and care about die, and people like us die, and eventually we die. But I have to disagree with V: cuddling for a bit does do a damn bit of good. It does a lot of good. Because the only way I’ve found to deal with the fact of death is to emphasize the fact of life before it.

    • June 14, 2012 11:06 AM

      Well said, Philip. “Emphasizing the fact of life before it.” I like that. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Anonymous permalink
    April 7, 2015 9:16 PM

    you are a writer indeed.
    sad memoires but exciting read for sure. loved how you weave and lead me onwards. I hope you are well since it is 2015 now. kind regards from nyc. thank you for the youthful wisdom & in fact inspiration.

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