I feel sometimes as though I’ve been surrounded by death, or the threat of death, my entire life. As a child, my mother was very sick (or acted as if she were), and I grew to expect her sudden demise as a given. Being very sickly myself, I spent a great deal of time in hospitals, smothered by the smell of death. I almost died at least once myself, having to be revived in a hospital (after a throw from a horse), the day after my temporary roommate died in the night. I’ve lived to help bury most of my grandparents. I heard of and knew friends who died starting when I was very young, from age and accident, tragedy and acceptance, suicide and war. I’ve attended many funerals and memorials. I learned to mask the pain with mirth. For many years as a youth, I envisioned the deaths of those around me, and what I would do after—just to be prepared. At times, it feels as if my heart has hardened to death. Yes, it affects me, but it doesn’t stop me in my tracks. I generally find it absolutely silly that so many mourn over the deaths of celebrities they never really knew (though I can understand a sense of loss in something that comforts us). I mourn more for the thousands who are slaughtered in war and through the uncaring actions of those who hold power, and seem to show no compassion.
“… I wonder if they bore it long,
Or did it just begin?
I could not tell the date of mine,
It feels so old a pain. …”
Four times in my life, however, has death felt real to me, torn me from my comfort zone, and thrown me for a loop. One of these was as a child, when a younger brother died—when my world seemed to fall apart, and those around either couldn’t, or wouldn’t, give comfort. The second was a few years back, when our dog, Aschenbach, died of cancer. Yes, some may say comparing an animal to humans is irreverent or inappropriate. But Aschenbach had been my best friend and companion for nearly 12 years. Many of those years, Tommy was away in the city for work every week, and it was Aschenbach who was a constant comfort and security—a stability. His love was pure.
The last two deaths have both happened in the past few months. And though my relationship to them goes from casual acquaintance to long-lost friend, for some reason, the pain—that sudden remembrance that my little world can change at any moment—of both of these events has struck me hard. Has left me a bit lost and unable to get back on track. And I think I need to look at these griefs with Emily Dickinson’s “analytic eyes” if I am to gain control.
“… I wonder if it hurts to live,
And if they have to try,
And whether, could they choose between,
They would not rather die. …”
Marvin Horner. I met Marvin at a time in my life when I was very lost, confused, and searching for … something. We attended the same Bible College, I in my first year, he in his last. We connected, as we were both searching for definition in our own ways. Me just discovering myself, he trying to hide or change himself. But he was a friend. He was the first person to ever make me watch “The Breakfast Club.” I edited his papers. He was a Marine Reservist (or National Guard, I was never quite sure), working in Air Traffic Control, and as a lark taught me to write backwards (which came in handy later in life when I started doing relief printmaking). We stood in line to see U2′s “Rattle and Hum” on the day it was released. We bowled together (his mother ran a bowling alley … I still have a pair of cast-off shoes she gave me), laughed together, connected. He sat with me as I cried over the cruelty and hypocrisy of those around us, gave support just by being there, by showing an interest in me. He literally (yes, literally) pulled me back from the edge of suicide on a couple of occasions, though he may not have known it—again just by being there at the right moments. Later, as our lives drifted apart, we had brief contact—me visiting him on a trip down to So. California, him visiting me in Monterey while I was stationed there. And then we lost touch altogether (though I tried a few times over the years to locate him, to repay a loan once given).
Just a few months before his death, a Facebook acquaintance (met through yet another Facebook acquaintance) happened to have a friend who recognized my name. It turns out this was CJ, Marvin’s husband (they’d been legally married in CA while it was available), and we reconnected. We still didn’t communicate much, but the link was there. Marvin had become a teacher and educator. He played Hockey (an interest we had shared), he was in a marching band (he’d put music aside for a long time), and he was happy. One morning a few months ago, Marvin was killed in an auto accident, and that rediscovered link was severed. A comfort in my life, a piece of the armor that had helped to build me, was torn away. No, I cannot feel or understand the pain his husband CJ has gone through since, but I thank him for bringing happiness and a sense of self and security to Marvin’s life, things he was searching for when I met him.
“… I wonder if when years have piled–
Some thousands–on the cause
Of early hurt, if such a lapse
Could give them any pause;”
Sara Larson. Her memorial service is tomorrow, and is too far away for me to attend. I really didn’t know Sara all that well, and I don’t want to pretend I can know the full grief of those who did. There are some people we meet in life, however, that make an almost instant impact on us. Who are just there, and it seems right. I met Sara a couple of times before I really met her, at conventions over the past few years. But it was just last Spring, when I was attending Mo*Con in Indianapolis as a guest, and speaking about growing up Gay as the son of a preacher, that she really “found” me. In regards to my story, and things I said, Sara merely reminded me that Love is all that matters. It was what I needed to hear at that moment, and Sara was there to say it. We had brief contact after this point, but again that spark, that spirit of connection to someone else on this planet, was there. My armour held a new link.
A few months before that, Sara had been diagnosed with breast cancer. She went through all the treatments, but they didn’t take. The cancer spread, and Sara died a couple of weeks ago. I wish I had been closer, and could have done more to help her and her husband Bill these past few months. But “regrets” such as these are irrational, and selfish. I am glad I met her, thankful for the brief time I spent with her, and remember the brightness of her eyes and spirit in all she did—the Inspiration and spark she brought to so many others. It is difficult to capture the exact essence of why I connected to Sara, but some things in life just happen for the better. And Sara was definitely for the better.
“… Or would they go on aching still
Through centuries above,
Enlightened to a larger pain
By contrast with the love.”
- Emily Dickinson
As a “memorial” goes, this post is probably weak. And perhaps all of this talk is merely maudlin self-pity (when it shouldn’t be about the self at all). But I think I need to remember these people, the impact they had on me, the parts of them that became my growth and self. To embrace their lives and build my armor, I must accept their deaths … not to lament, but to celebrate that I was lucky enough to have them as a part of my own life, and allow them to settle into my soul.