My aunt died a couple of months ago. I know this is the natural order of things, and while she reached 83 active years of age, had a full life and did everything you’re “supposed” to do before you die, it was still shocking. Why? Because she was relatively healthy and it was completely unexpected. Going out this way might be good for the person who died, but man it’s hard on the ones left behind. I still can’t bring myself to delete her email address from my contact list (yes, she was an older person who willingly used email!). Keeping the address is harmless, but it’s not going to bring her back.
I grasped that things would come to an end at an early age. How did I make this terrifying discovery? When I was about four years old, browsing the pages of a science book--specifically, a Peanuts (yes, by Charles M. Schulz) science book. There was a series of them, and my sister owned the first four. I tried to find them on eBay to prove that I’m not crazy, but my search was unsuccessful; you’ll just have to take my word for it: Peanuts Science Books—hey, it was the ‘70’s. Kids liked popular comic characters delivering their facts. What I read was this: “In Five billion years the sun will be in the red giant phase and come to an end.” Even then, I knew this was not good news. If the sun was gone, then the Earth didn’t have a chance. Therefore, the world was coming to an end!
I bawled over this. FIVE BILLION YEARS! I lost sleep and voiced my worries on long car trips. This was serious business and no one seemed to care!
Eventually (and inexplicably), I moved on.
There is a “Childhood Trauma Checklist” from Matt Groening’s Life In Hell cartoon which includes the death of a parent. This is another thing that can make you preoccupied with death. It’s not always such a terrible thing—you can get some pretty good jokes out of the deal. My senior year in high school, a lot of students lost parents, most of them fathers. This contributed to a group my best friend and I coined, “Dead Dad’s Club.” There was an adult counselor there who ran a group catered specifically to us. My best friend and I attended—not because we really wanted to sort through the issues, but because—hey—you get to get out of class!
So one day, I handed over my Dead Dad Club note to my teacher (while looking appropriately humbled and slightly sad) and skipped out of class. At the meeting I sat next to my friend.
“Close your eyes and think of a flower blowing in the breeze.” The counselor said.
Apparently it was a relaxation technique, but in my case, it was a battle to squelch the inappropriate laughter rising up through my chest. A flower? I controlled my breathing and locked my lips shut. The mistake had been sitting next to my friend. We nudged each other under the table, willing the other one to bust out first. If either of us did have an outburst, the nice thing about laughter is that you can easily make it look like you’re sobbing-- hysterically.
I’ve been to a handful of funerals in my life. It’s funny how different they are. There are so many ways to say goodbye. One funeral involved not a relative, but a former academic dean—a retired one star general. It was a BFD. I got to be there because the family requested to have a cadet contingent at the funeral—specifically from the company that this dean was in way back when he was a cadet. I was in this company, so therefore I got to attend.
This involved a rehearsal to make sure we didn’t screw up the big show. We spent an afternoon marching down the road to the cemetery, taking our places, waiting, and then returning to the barracks when the show was over. There were other players too—a unit of soldiers to play drums and send the guy off with a twenty-one gun salute. I was doing just fine until the soldiers who had the coffin (empty, of course, this was just the rehearsal) maneuvered into position while another soldier played a snare at a rapid pace. The real funeral would have the accompanying brass and frills, but for the rehearsal, all we had was the drumroll. Drumrolls mean anticipation of something to follow, the resulting “ta-da” of a magic act. I looked at the top of that coffin and envisioned it popping open, jack in the box style. If I laughed out loud, everyone would turn and glare at me. If I fell out of formation, I might have been punished. I locked my lips and stayed as still as I could. As soon as the drumming stopped, I took deep breaths and collected myself. In case you’re wondering, no, thankfully this didn’t happen the next day for the real deal.
I get freaked out to think it will all come to an end. Where do we go? What happens? Does someone just shut the door and turn out the lights and that’s it? I don’t bawl in the car anymore, but there are times when my mind spins in circles, thinking about the time I’ve already lived and how much sand is left in the hourglass. There is not much you can do about any of it. It makes no sense to be shocked and surprised. We know it's coming; it’s the natural order of things.
You have to laugh. It’s going to happen to all of us eventually, or, as my boss has said, “Nobody gets out alive.” The joke’s on us, so at the very least, try to have fun along the way.