Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Banana Peel of Doom

For quite some time now, I've been giving death a lot of room in my brain. As a child of the Baby Boomers, the first exceptionally healthy generation of the world, I have not had to deal with it directly very often.

It's not that people around me never died, but they were rarely loved ones. Uncle Keith died after a bar fight when I was seven or eight years old... the same summer that our guinea pig, Trouble, died. My dad's great-aunt died before that, but I'd only met her once, so the memory probably lasts due to Dad's sadness over the loss. Aside from that, one of Dad's coworkers died a few years after Keith. Every other death I knew about was either an animal or I learned about it through friends or the news. I was insulated from it for most of my life.

Maybe if I’d had faith or more experiences dealing with death, I wouldn't have been so obsessed about it. Who knows? But I recall as a young child, worrying every night that my mom was out doing a Tupperware party. Was she alright? Would she make it home? Later, when I was a teen, it was just Mom and me living together. She got a job traveling the western half of the US. I would drop her off at the airport with nearly as much barely contained emotion as if I'd never see her again. Waiting at the gate to pick her up (which in those days meant waiting outside for her to deplane by taking stairs down to the tarmac), would find me fighting back tears.

I suppose in both instances, the Tupperware parties and the traveling, I was terribly afraid of being left alone. Sure, I had Dad, but he was really my stepfather with his own kids. I wasn't as comfortable around him as I would have been if he'd always been there. And when the traveling job came around, he and Mom were divorced; I wasn't sure where I fit in with him and his new family then.

Maybe some of my fears come from the fairly random religious education I received. In San Diego, the children (four of us) would go to a Baptist church on Sundays with my grandparents. Images of hell haunted my dreams for years. When we moved close to LA, my parents sent us to a Gospel church with the neighbors ("the neighbors" from whichever place we lived were often my parents' source of a free Sunday morning). The father of that family was also the pastor of the church, and he was the leader of Sunday school for kids my age. He had a very strange view of people, especially considering that he had such a large family. I recall his lectures about how all of us were born liars... even babies just born, crying when they didn’t need food or a clean diaper, were lying. Naturally, it all led back to hell.

As a teen, I dated a guy who all too easily changed my whole wobbly belief system by pointing out different proofs of evolution. I should have been relieved that his explanation would have eliminated my concerns about hell, but that thought never occurred to me. Instead the focus shifted from an almost certain trip to eternal hell to nothing (cue crickets... wait, don't... there's nothing).

In any case, you put all this stuff into the blender of my mind and add my own thoughts on the subject, and death is a scary thing.

Five years ago I started a new job. Within the next six or seven months, nine people I knew (directly or not) passed away. One of them was my ex-husband's grandfather's funeral in Oklahoma. It might have been then that I started to realize that I'd spent so many years fearing death, but I hadn't truly dealt with it for a couple of decades.

A few years later, Corey and I went to Utah to visit my grandparents. My dad and his buddy were heading up to Salt Lake City for a race, so they dropped us off on the way. I'd had a few sessions in the tattoo chair by then, but nothing very recent. I'm not sure how long it had been since we'd been to Utah, but it didn't occur to me to cover the tattoo on my chest... until my grandfather stopped short of giving me a hug to tsk-tsk at what I'd done to myself. Between that and the fact that my grandparents hadn't seen my dad since the divorce – for some reason I believed they'd be happy to see him again – I guess no one should be too surprised that my grandfather had a heart attack that night. It was fairly mild, as heart attacks go, but tests revealed that a quintuple bypass was needed to clear out the major blockages. (Yes, I see that our visit and my tattoo weren't the only things at work here.)

The surgery had to be done in Salt Lake. Grandpa spent two months up there, and they only let him go back to St. George when they did because depression from missing his wife was creeping in and inhibiting recovery. He made it back to St. George, but he never made it home. Two years were spent declining in a care center due to depression, possible strokes and then the onset of dementia. A few months before he passed away, Corey and I again went to St. George. We helped Grandma run errands and visited with Grandpa quite a bit. Despite his troubled memory, he knew who we were each time we dropped in for a visit.

It was clear we were likely seeing him for the last time, and I tried to gear up for it as best I could. One thing that helped was knowing that my brilliant, funny, steady old Grandpa would never have wanted his life to end that way. When he died, it was tough, but he wasn't suffering anymore. My old Baptist upbringing told me he was in a better place.

As I said goodbye to him, I mentally looked around at all the people I loved. With the exception of Corey, everybody was older than I. That type of extended youth... of always being "the kid," I believe, was pretty common for people of my generation. It was time to get ready for a new reality to set in. I pictured my life as some sort of modern day battle scene from Gone with the Wind, with dead bodies and smoke and dust everywhere.

It hasn't been like that, thankfully, but Grandpa's was the first in a series of springtime deaths. He was followed the next year by Grandma and last year by my good friend Carol. It was getting so that I was semi-jokingly warning my friends and family members to be extra careful this spring.

Fortunately, this spring brought Madelyn's birth and no deaths for me to handle. There is something that happens to a lot of new (again) parents, though, which is probably nature's way of protecting families. My risk tolerance has dropped way down. Not that I was a huge risk taker before, but now I find myself stepping more carefully and taking the time to really look where I'm going.

As an imaginative person, I see myself falling down the stairs that I always insist on taking at work, tripping over the wooden curb outside my home or doing any number of incredibly silly things that result in my immediate death. As a clumsy person by nature, my concerns aren't entirely unfounded. But how much time should one give to worries about dying stupidly? And how much of my life's energy have I wasted worrying about something that hasn't happened? It's not as if I'm psychic (well, Tom says I am, but with another syllable in the middle), so there's no reason to believe that my imagined body at the foot of the stairs means anything other than I'm worried about leaving. (Well, that or it could just be me recalling the times I have fallen down the stairs, both as a child and as an adult...grr!)

I recognize the need to prepare for most of my loved ones to pass before me over the coming years. But how much time have I already spent worrying? How do I find the balance between the very real concerns that Mom won’t be around as long as I’d like with the very real fact that I should be making the most of whatever time I do have with her?

I guess the question I’ve been struggling with is this: Why do we act like we’ll live forever, when those who know they are dying seem to get so much more out of life? How can I maintain that sort of end-of-life appreciation now, when the people I love are here and I’m here and we can make a good life together? And is it possible to do that without obsessing about death all the time? Because I can totally see myself slipping and falling to my demise because I was too distracted thinking about how I might slip and fall to my death.


Lady with a View said...

Okay Shan - it's 6:52 AM in Misery - I mean Missouri - and I actually laughed quite heartily at your post. Thanks for that - your sharp sense of wit is fully functioning!

There is much to worry about when it comes to banana peels. Like you mentioned, you don't want to trip on it to fall to your demise - or waste your life worrying about that same thing. However, you must be careful when you try to step over the proverbial banana peel, becuase maybe it was put into your path for a reason. Instead of falling to your demise, perhaps you would just fall - and the reason for the damnable peel in your path is the lesson you learn on the way back up. Or - maybe - some really yummy guy helps you up and makes your day.

Your belief system and mine differ - I do believe in what people consider the mystical God, and I think the Bible is a wealth of information to help guide us while we spend some time here. However, I too was raised in a hell and brimstone type church and it took YEARS for me to work through the damage and find my own personal relationship with God.

I use to worry about death and dying - and my Mother got fed up with me. One day - she looked at me and said in a very loud voice - "You started dying the day you were born!" Her other favorite saying, the old "Nobody gets out alive".

We are all marching, right along with father time, towards our last day...and I think you have the right perspective...we dont' want to waste it with worry.

Sorry for the long post...lol...

Peace ~ Kim

Tiana said...

A couple years before my Grandma died, my aunt talked with her doctor about the vivid thoughts she had imagining her mother dying. Her doctor said it was only natural to find the need to fill in the gaps about things we don't understand--mainly death. The fact of the matter is, we can't imagine what it will be like after someone dies, or when we die, so we have to imagine it. If that makes any sense. I didn't like thinking about my Grandma dying back then and then she died. I especially don't like thinking about it now. She wasn't my first death, but I'm still just as confused about it now as I have ever been. To me, dying makes no sense at all and I don't see any reason for it.

I do think it's sort of comical the way you worry about slipping and falling. Do you know anyone who has slipped, fallen, and died? I mean, I know it happens, but do you actually know anyone whom it has happened to?

I, as well, think about death all the time. Although, I don't think about my own death all too often. Instead I worry about my mom's. A couple years ago my mom had a heart attack and I was the one who had to call the ambulance for her. She asked me to drive her to the hospital and I fought with her about it and finally called 911. Her heart stopped as they were rolling her into the Emergency room. I try not to think what life would be like if I had driven her myself, or if I had fought with her even a moment longer prior to calling 911. We're fortunate that they were able to revive her. The doctor's were mostly baffled by her heart attack and were able to place a stint in the only narrowed artery she had. Regular medications and doctor's appointments ever since has kept her healthy. I fear her death. If I call her and she doesn't answer the first time, she's obviously dead. Every night when I go to bed I worry that she will have a heart attack in the middle of the night and I won't be there to call the ambulance for her. The other night I dropped her off and worried there was someone waiting inside her house to kill her. I called her when I got home and when she didn't answer, I was positive that in the most likely scenario that someone wasn't waiting inside to kill her, that she had instead went and had that heart attack I've been dreading.

It's all nonsense, I get it. I understand that I'm imagining the one thing I can't possibly imagine. I'm trying to prepare for the inevitable. I think that's what you're doing when you think about your own death--preparing for the inevitable.

I don't know the purpose of this amazingly long comment. I have no answers to your questions. Sometimes I think I should spend more quality time with my mom, but who has the time? I guess I just wanted to let you know that you weren't alone. I don't know about anyone else, but I do know that I feel ya. If I could go a day without thinking about my mom dying, well that would be a happy day for sure.

P.S. I'm avoiding working on a huge paper and presentation that's due tomorrow. Which is probably why this comment is so long.

Emms said...

All i can say is I love the banana peel reference.
My fear? Losing bug. Before.her I didn't struggle with it too bad.

JT said...

This is what I believe:

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?

They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the
end to arrest it,
And ceas'd the moment life appear'd.

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

--Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

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