Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Old People

When I was a kid, I remember hearing adults talk about who'd been in the obituaries lately. Especially my grandmother - she'd ask me "You remember so and so?" and I'd shake my head, and she'd get exasperated and tell me things about that person to jog my memory, to no avail. I'd be thinking, all you adults look alike to me. Then she'd go on and tell me all the details of that person's untimely demise as if I cared. She'd be so surprised about this person's death. He/She was so young, she'd say on the phone to her friends. It was as if a new and mysterious force were at work in our town, like a serial killer but formless and random, and all the adults were amazed. Meanwhile, I'd be thinking that 40, 50, and 60 years of age does not qualify one to be described as young any longer. "What do they expect?" I wondered silently. "Old people die."

But now my contemporaries are dying and I'm shocked too. Last week DeJuan died at 40. We were chummy in 5th grade but drifted apart in middle school, so it's not like we were close. But he was from my hometown and was in my graduating class and was still close to people I'm still close to, so I still felt like I knew him. He started feeling bad one day last week and was dead by Thursday. A rare and whoopass form of Disease X got him. Doctors estimated that he'd had it about three weeks before he died. What was so surprising about this was not his death at an unusually young age; it was the fact that he was such a low-risk individual and many of our contemporaries have led such high-risk lives (drugs, alcohol, general volatility and impulsiveness.) It hardly seemed fair. DeJuan quit the hard living a good 10-15 years ahead of everybody else, belonged to civic organizations, and worked in a helping profession. He was a pleasant and easygoing guy in a family known for some of its, well, not easygoing and pleasant members.

So a couple of days after the funeral home visitation for DeJuan, where we all stood around and marvelled at how old we're getting, I saw this hearse. If you can't read the signs, they say "Prepare To Meet Thy God" and "After Death, The Judgement" and "The Wages of Sin Is Death, But The Gift Of God Is Eternal Life Through Jesus Christ." It puts off kind of a hostile vibe, but its owners may sincerely be trying to help people be more aware of how fragile life is and encourage them not to take it for granted. At the same time, you don't want to ruin your quality of life by quaking in fear of death at every moment. In a way, death is already here. Those children we were in school are dead; we've morphed into adults and those old lives are gone. At some point in the future, we're already dead. The trick is to use that knowledge to enrich your life now, instead of waste valuable time feeling fearful.

It's hard to be aware of death and its inevitability without getting down and afraid about something you can't change. We need to develop better lessons for how to do that.


Anonymous said...

I recently watched the documentary The Tibetan Book the Dead, narrated by Leonard Cohen. It's clear that the people in Ladakh have a much clearer-headed and open-hearted relationship with death than people in America. For the people in Ladakh, death is but a sort of 39 day speed bump on the way to either the Clear Light or the next Bardo.

The sense of eternal existence that youth enjoys is ending for our generation. The amnesia of reincarnation is not serving us now for if we could remember then maybe we wouldn't be so fearful. It would be, "Ah, this again."

MP (who plans to choose the Clear Light this time)

verona said...

Get down with your bad self. I'm kind of glad though that I can't remember my past lives. I might be so gloomed out by how many times I've already done all this that it could ruin my morale.