DEATH & LIFE EXPERIENCE
Yesterday my aunt was laid to rest. Cold Arkansas wind sawed at our ears as we stood beside the grave site, an omen of snow later to fall. There beneath a sagging cedar, by a rusted wire fence she was put down next to the man who had abandoned her with five children and a hundred dollars to her name. Faithful to him always, she kept her commitment, ‘Till death do us part,’ and kept it long after he departed. She never thought to remarry. She made one commitment only and determined that she would keep it. Earlier, the minister of this small chapel in the north Arkansas hills spoke of her as a virtuous woman, and she was. Not one time could I remember her speaking a word of judgment or condemnation. She had inherited my grandmother’s gentleness that way. In her discipline she was soft spoken, direct and un-shaming even when children had done things to garner shame. Like my grandmother, she was fair and just. I sat on the front pew two feet from her coffin, a red carnation pinned to my lapel. I was honored to bear her body to and fro in this ceremony. It was only a small gift for one who had helped to nurture my upbringing. Looking at the 1970’s cheap paneled walls, I realized that the church had not changed since my youth and I had not seen it since 1973. I thought back to those days, and growing up with her children, all of them now in their 50’s. It felt strange to remember them young, and see how age had made faces difficult to recognize. Although we had all changed—aged and matured, the soul of that small church and the community surrounding it had remained essentially the same. In my black tailored suit I noticed men in jeans and western shirts, some with cowboy hats. My alternate sensibilities made me realize how incredibly different I had become. However, I never really felt like I fit, and often wondered if the stork had made a mistake. I felt as though I was intended to grow up in Los Angeles with my father, but that was not to be. My mother left my father in California in the early 1950’s, returned to Arkansas and had me. How she came to be on the west coast to meet him is a very long story. Suffice it to say he hurt her deeply, so she came home. Then when I was five years old she became my first experience with death. That separation tore me like no other ever has. The echoes of “Precious Memories” and “Farther Along” haunted my childhood along with a terror that I would die young. My grandmother was never able to convince me that this little bump or that little ache was not cancer or some terrible disease that would deprive me of living. I grew up in the hills of Arkansas, raised by grandparents in a culture that was slow to catch up with the rest of America, a culture diametrically opposed to my father’s world. These Arkansas hills were indeed filled with salt of the earth people. Livelihood was carved from poor soil between the Ozark stones or shot from trees in the plentiful woods. Livestock roamed the pastures on one day and made meat for the table the next. In a four room house with no running water we scraped from the land a sustenance that was plentiful despite the hardship. Death became my challenge early and has seemed to surround me throughout my life. My great grandmother died not long after my mother. She rocked me to sleep as a baby with an opium poppy to my nose. She grew them in the yard, if not for that purpose, then for decoration. I “helped” her churn butter in a stoneware churn with a plunger through a hole at the top. I nibbled mint leaves from beside her well, and cried when green walnut hulls were applied to heal ringworm. My great grandfather died when I was a teen. When he passed, I stood outside another little Ozark church, white washed with a tiny steeple and a back door opening into the woods. I was furious how men could stand on the tiny front porch and talk about the weather or their crops rather than honor him in their conversing. The truth is, I felt guilty that I had resented giving up my bed so my grandmother could care for him when he became feeble. I felt guilty that my selfishness caused me to resent a man who had been nothing but kind to me, when very few men of my youth were kind. That grief challenged me. Guilt burdens a grieving heart, and often we don’t realize until they are gone what we’ve missed. For a time after high school I was free of death. I went to college and made wonderful friends, fell in love with someone I could never have, and yet found joy in the love and comfort of people I never expected to meet. I reveled in college, reveled in an opportunity to learn and to shine. As soon as I was made aware that my backwoods upbringing did not limit me nearly as much as I had anticipated, I dove into college like a deep refreshing pool. For the first time in my life, I felt like I belonged. It wasn’t that I did not deeply love the people of my raising, but I found people at college who loved me as much, and who met me on a level that my mother’s family could not seem to match. College and graduate school passed. I took a job in Little Rock and one of my two closest friends from college came to live with me. At that time I began to discover hidden depths within myself. I dug into my mind like a packing trunk full of treasures buried beneath the musty layers of roles I had worn throughout life. Some I kept and some I threw away. I found joy in the discovery and creation of myself. Other college buddies were also living there, and we discovered each other again, and in different ways. We played together, partied together and I found contentment and freedom for the first time in accepting myself for who I am. Yet the burden of death would return. My college friend had grown up with a close friend from childhood, a gay man who moved to Dallas not long after high school. As far back as 1979 he had come home for visits and ended up in the hospital with strange pneumonia and illnesses that local doctors were hard pressed to figure out. My friend and I sat on our sofa in 1982 watching the evening news when Tom Brokaw informed us of a strange new disease hitting the gay community in places like San Francisco. As he identified the symptoms, we turned to one another in stark awareness, and simultaneously spoke the same name, “Larry.” He was not officially diagnosed until 1985 and managed in those early days of AIDS treatment to hang on until 1987. No one really had a clue about AIDS back then, so AFRAIDS was rampant and I had a severe case of it. It did not help that in 1987 several members of my family passed along with Larry, others were diagnosed with terminal cancer, and I had a major car accident. My fears of dying resurfaced in 1982 with that announcement by Tom Brokaw and reached full crescendo in 1987. In 1984 I had moved to Nashville, more because everything fell into place for that to happen than anything else, but also because I had fancied myself a singer and a songwriter. Whether fortunately or unfortunately, fancy and fact do not often match. Still, I lived in Nashville for many years and came to face my fears there. During one of Larry’s many hospitalizations, I had visited Little Rock and stayed in his apartment while he convalesced. His parents had come to get his basset hound, so starving fleas deprived of dog flesh decided to dine veraciously on me. In those days, who knew how AIDS was spread? With every flea bite my mind reeled. Was I going to die a young, and horrible death like Larry? Had any of those fleas previously been biting him? Had I slept with someone he slept with? Did I ever drink after him or take a bite of dessert off a shared fork? Once again, the terror of dying tormented me. Just after Christmas and a horrific nightmare in January of 1988, I realized I had to do something. The nightmare was of a lush green pine forest being engulfed in a tremendous fire. As I ran for cover and threw open the door of a nearby cabin the Christmas tree inside burst into flames. A black cat in the basement was climbing flesh walls and drawing blood while flaming wind had thrown a child against the basement window. I watched as the flesh was burned off his body and helplessly listened to his agonizing screams. I realized on waking that the child was me and my innocence was being burned away. I felt like a caged animal inside, tormented by the loss of hope for the beautiful world of my illusions. The next day I called, and started counseling with the minister of my church, a tall black man steeped in wisdom and kindness of heart. Although he gently guided me toward spirit, I continued to be tormented, unable to let go of my fear of dying. Arguments between the various voices of my mind were constant with accusations of guilt, and fantasies of dying a horrible death. Then one day I was driving up the street tormenting myself when amid the loud, fearful and demanding noise, I heard a single voice exclaim, “What the hell difference does it make what you die of or when? Everybody has to do it.” Suddenly peace, suddenly quiet—in that moment, I accepted that I am going to die. Many loved ones have died since then. A board member of my church died a couple of years later, also with AIDS. His deeply fundamentalist Christian family had disowned him to the degree that they refused even to accept his ashes after he was cremated. However, our church was his true family. When he developed AIDS related dementia, a sign-up sheet was placed in fellowship hall. Anyone in the church could sign up for as little as 30 minutes or as much as 48 hours to stay with him and keep him safe. For three months the congregation of 500-600 kept someone with him twenty four hours a day until he died, and then honored his life in memorial. My grandmother and grandfather have died, close friends have died, and other members of my family have died. The ones I felt closest to in youth, and could never see myself living without, have all gone now. It is certain that death is relentless. Even in these last few weeks my sister and my closest friend from college have both had their mothers on Hospice. My friend called just as I started writing this to let me know her mother passed around 10:00 am this morning. Death and life both march on. The older I get, the more people I know who have come and gone. With age grief begins to take on a different hue. The soulless black of treacherous loss begins to turn into a gentle blue acceptance. Yesterday I stood in the cemetery with cold physical discomfort warmed by the awareness that there were many who loved my aunt, and many who were touched by her gentle unassuming ways. I glanced over at her grandson, my last memory of him being as a little boy. He is a handsome young man now with children of his own. When our eyes met, I quickly recognized and honored the red streaks that tears had worn into his eyes. He smiled an embarrassed smile, but also one that accepted the brief moment of solace that a simple glance can bring. I resisted the urge to hug him. He does not know me now. I am far away, and going further still. Before I left the cemetery, the previous generation talked about how they seldom see each other anymore. “We have got to get together.” “We ought to have a reunion.” “When are you going to come see me?” They know their time is coming soon. Death both unites and separates families and nothing tells better how a family has drifted apart than the experience of a funeral. Old ways pass, old relationships pass. Matriarchs and Patriarchs pass down their thrones to their own children, and on it goes. Some families are better at staying together than others, but maybe drifting apart is how it is supposed to be. Like bubbles in a pool we cluster, and drift apart, drift back together and apart again. Some of us pop in the sunlight, a brief existence lost to the wind. Other bubbles are formed. Clusters drift from clusters and individuals drift out on their own. Through it all, the essence of each one is contained in the other. The essence of my family and those I have loved is forever with me and over time I have come to understand that it’s only love that matters.