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.