Ah, all around me in my virtual neighbourhood people are conversing in the hushed whispers of high seriousness, and I’ve been talking about poop. The Wonderchicken : Going Off On Tangents Since 1965™.
So, how about we talk death a bit? (Gotcha!) And by ‘we’, I mean ‘I’. As well as discussion of disappearing up one’s own butt (and a nastier death would be hard to imagine, unless it might be disappearing up someone else‘s butt), there has been some talk of death lately in my virtual neighbourhood, from Mike and Shelley and Jonathon and Kalilily (who lives one block over) and others, and the talk has been stirring up some sediment at the bottom of my brain, down deep where those weird-ass flat fish live. The grey rubbery ones with both eyes on the same side of their heads. You don’t want to mess with those bastards — they have sharp teeth.
But I have years of experience in wrangling the f–kers, so I’m going to poke a stick down there and see what comes up. Not a response, but a riff. This may well be more than you care to know about me, and if so, just skip it.
I remember, unclearly, the first two of the many deaths that have molded what’s left of my small family. One night when I was about 4 years old, I think, and sleeping the sleep of the just and the play-exhausted, I heard a commotion downstairs. It was, by my reckoning, the middle of the night, but that could easily have been anytime from 9 pm to 5 am. I had been awakened from a dream in which my father had carried me down to the landing that was about a third of the way from the top, and told me that I would need to take care of my mother. I remember it as a pleasant dream, and, if a little distressing, not as much frightening as it was confusing. The noise downstairs escalated quickly from whispers and murmuring voices to sobs and wails. I snuck down to the landing on which I’d been sitting moments before in my dream and peeked through the railings. There was a policeman, and my mother’s sister and her husband, my uncle. There’d been an accident. Drinking was involved. Fallen asleep at the wheel. He didn’t make it. I don’t recall anything after that, for quite a long time.
I remember much more clearly, two or three years later, the next accident. My mother had remarried. She’d accepted the proposal of one of my father’s coworkers at the TH&B Railroad. If I struggle, I can remember the new bicycle sitting on the porch on the morning of my birthday that year, and how I overheard much later that it had been a deciding factor in her decision. My new step-father had moved the family out west, in a bid to shake off the oppressive presence of his own family, most of whom he disliked, for his own reasons. We’d ended up in a small northern town in British Columbia, and although the streets saw race-related violence between native indians, Pakistani immigrants, and Euros, and the first winter brought 6 or 7 metres of snow — more than I’d ever dreamt of, let alone seen — and the water smelled rotten-egg funny, it was a clean and beautiful place. My new dad had bought a riverboat, which we kept at a marina on the river, and took out onto the lake on weekends, to fish and just wander around looking at things. I have happy sunburnt memories of cruising along on glass-flat dark water, trailing a hand alongside, just smelling the air, watching the wall of spruce and pine trees wind by.
We all wore lifejackets, conscientiously. We took as much care as people did back in the early ’70s, which wasn’t nearly enough. One late summer afternoon, when we were returning from a day on the water, we were moving our gear along the floating dock, back to the truck. My stepfather was ashore, I was nearing the water’s edge, my mother a few metres behind me, and my brother, who was a couple of years younger than I, was just getting out of the boat, carrying a fishing pole. He’d taken off his lifejacket, and nobody’d noticed. God knows why.
I heard a splash, and turned to see the circle of disturbed water sliding downstream in the strong current. My mother let out a bellow, ran, and dived in. My father raced past me, and I followed, pelting up the dock to where my mother had dived into the river. We pulled her out. The current was too strong.
The next thing I remember is a couple of teenage girls comforting me as I leant against the back of the truck, hoarsely screaming ‘someone help my brother!’, and the next thing after that was a numb, silent ride to the hospital.
We spent weeks, months, riding up and down the river, searching for my brother, with various people from the town who took us under their wings. They never did find the body.
Other people in my family have died over the years – all my grandparents, great-aunts and uncles and so on. My stepfather too, a decade ago now, almost.
This is probably the first time I’ve written about those times, that I can recall, although I’ve told the stories many times since they first came rushing back when I was in my early twenties. The deaths in my family, coming for the most part as they did early in my life, may have given me a slightly different perspective on it than some. Although I love life, with a great, chest-thumping passion, I am… matter-of-fact about dying. I understand the grief and loss that people feel, but I simply can’t get terribly worked up over it, anymore. This comes not from being hard-hearted, as some have assumed over the years — old friends will attest that I’m nothing if not self-indulgently sentimental — but from a baked-in awareness, not so much burned into my brain as sewn into my gut, that death is at the end of the road for all of us, each and every one, and what is, is good.
I’ve tried to live as many lives as possible in the time allotted to me, however long that time may be, and I think this awareness of an End is one of the things that has driven me out onto the Road most of my adult life.
To regard the death of those you know and love as a natural thing, to turn the painful experience of their loss into something that enriches and strengthens your own life (because, face it, they ain’t got one anymore) – that’s the mostly truly reverant eulogy and memorial one can make. Which is trite, perhaps, but people seem to forget it, again and again.