It’s Memorial Day, so here’s a post about death.
Am I the only one who thinks about death all the time? Bear with me. Honestly, I’m not depressed and I don’t find it depressing to think about death. If you do, maybe you should skip this post.
Death has been a preoccupation of mine since my dad died, when I was eight. When Vince was missing for that first worst year, all I could think of was him lying face up behind a garbage dumpster, eyes staring, with a bullet hole in his forehead. Ok, I also imagined him dead in a gulley, in a corn field, in the river, and any number of other cold, isolated, lonely places. But that’s not the kind of dwelling on death I’m talking about here.
My mother is continually clearing out her house, shifting mementos onto me and my siblings. She had a shoebox of loose family photos that we looked through together. Birthday parties, picnics, and school plays from the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. “This is my cousin’s fifth birthday party,” she explained, showing me a summertime photo of small children assembled around a cake on a picnic table in someone’s back yard, wearing birthday hats. Little girls with Shirley Temple curls and elaborate home-sewn flouncy dresses. Boys with bow ties and their hair slicked down like Alfalfa. The cars parked in the background had gorgeous fins.
“My cousin and another child got sick after the party and they both died the next day—it was meningitis.” Her finger traced the circle of five-year olds. “I don’t remember who the other child was. We had to be quarantined, so they ran a yellow QUARANTINE tape around our yard. We couldn’t leave or have visitors for a week. Mr. Goldenberg, who owned the five-and-dime at the end of the block, would bring a box of food, set it near the back gate, and run back down the alley.”
Let’s face it, all these photos will be pitched into a dumpster when she dies. I won’t remember who any of the children are.
And so it goes. We are born and, if we’re lucky, someone loves us and takes care of us. Lots of photos are taken to celebrate our milestones. When we enter adulthood we are so focused on achieving goals that we don’t realize we will never be this healthy, energetic, or attractive again.
Now at 55 I have dozens of photo albums that will go into a dumpster when I die. I have thousands of photos on Facebook that will likely sit in cyberspace as long as servers exist, of interest to no one except maybe some future social anthropologist.
And so I—my whole life—my loves and dramas and losses, my story, all my brilliant ideas and daydreams and real dreams, my travels, my elaborately decorated dining rooms for dinner parties and painstakingly tended gardens, the thousands of miles I have walked and millions of repetitions I have done at the gym, my friends far and near, the millions of dollars I’ve raised for good causes, maybe even those good causes and their organizations themselves—will disappear.
We’re all on a conveyer belt. We move along it, conscious of it or not. We can’t get off, we can’t go back, and we don’t know when we’ll reach the end of the belt and fall off into … ??
A lot of people are sure they know the answer to that but I’m not one of them.
Again, I don’t find any of this depressing, or feel sorry for myself—I just find it intriguing. So what should we do while we’re here? The only conclusions I’ve reached for myself, after 55 years of armchair philosophizing, are: 1) it feels better to do good things than bad ones; 2) it’s important to have fun while you have the chance; and 3) if I ever stop seeking the answers to life’s imponderable questions, I’m as good as dead.