Last year my friend’s mother woke up to a clatter in the kitchen. She ran in to see her husband hitting pots and pans as he stumbled to the floor. He was clutching his chest and gasping for breath. The hospital had released him only a few days before and he was supposed to be resting after major heart surgery. The rest of the house had woken up and the family scrambled to rush him to the hospital. But there, on the floor in the arms of his wife he looked at her said, I don’t think I’m coming home again.
At the funeral, his wife who I call my Kingston Mother asked me to read her remembrance. It was both touching and awkward; a memory of her husband that had an intimacy that I felt I had intruded on, even though she asked me to read it. I read of his virtues and flaws and I tried to make the congregation understand the secret language of long married couples, that I did not understand myself. More than anything I read her words and I understood that a major part of her died with him. My friend and his brothers all tried to roll with the inevitability of death and the ritual of funeral but they were clearly stunned by both, unsure sometimes what was the correct or meaningful thing to do, how much emotion to show, how much charge to take and what people meant when they told them be strong, as if strength was something as easily mustered as bravado. Not long after that another of my very best friends lost his father after watching his mind wither from Alzheimer’s.
I think of these deaths and look at my own parents, both in their 70’s. I remember that I’m 36. Am I about to enter The Burying Years? My mother buried her mother the same year she gave birth to my sister. She was forty-one years old (A spunky broad, that woman). But that year triggered off a sequence of years punctuated by deaths, reunions and funerals that went unbroken until 1984. I never though about it then but I did start to notice that people around me, 10 or more years older all went though a period of years underscored by black clothes, trips to the cemetery, barely seen relatives coming out of the woodwork, and squabbles over burials when the deceased wanted to be cremated. Nothing turns a normal family into Ewings like a death. It took one death to find out who was adopted, who was illegitimate or who wasn’t family at all. It took another for family members to unleash knives and claws, back stabbing and fighting dirty over the contents of a will.
But as the ages of friends with dead parents reach closer to my own I feel a growing sense of dread that I will soon go through the burying years. Maybe I’m in denial of something that has already begun, after all how many more deaths do I need before I invest in a durable black suit? I’m not ready to bury parents or aunts and uncles yet because I’m not ready to see them go or live in a world with them gone. But more than that is something that may be a manifestation of a fear of aging and it’s this. What comes after the burying years? The dying years?
My mother reads the obituaries the way my brother reads sports. Or maybe the way my niece reads the comics. It’s strange sometimes. I watch her and try to figure out what she gets from these pages: satisfaction, regret, humour or fear. Her comments can be glib and dispassionate as if the deceased had taken a trip to a place she cannot pronounce, or they are tinged with faint nostalgia, like coming across a forgotten friend through gossip. Maybe this is her way of coming to terms with mortality as a concept if not a reality. I’m not sure and I’m too afraid to ask. I can’t remember even reading an obituary other than The New York Times’ “The Lives They Led.”
So to paraphrase that fantastic Led Zeppelin song I’m bracing myself for my time of burying. I’m telling myself that there’s no fact of life more factual than death. Maybe I’ll take a page from the dying of whom I assume death becomes matter of fact. That’s easier written than done. I consider myself lucky to having not yet experienced the death of a close loved one but that fills me with a ridiculous paranoia. Death takes on the character of an alien abductor, some sort of interdimensional thief.
Maybe there is a strength to one’s forties that nobody has in their thirties. Or maybe a forty year old has already resigned himself to anything with a whiff of the inevitable. I’m sensing an awareness of how life works that I did not have at 20 or 31 for that matter. I find myself being cool about things I never thought I would ever be cool about, like knowing that some friendships weren’t meant to last, that money is good servant but terrible master, and that being correct is not as important as being right and being good trumps both. I guess I’m saying that maybe I am getting older and wiser. I’m just not ready to be wise about death, mine or anybody’s.