Wednesday, January 19, 2011


How did you first come to understand what death is?

I can't remember the answer to this, myself. It probably involved a goldfish. But I can remember experiencing, for the first time, being lied to about death.

My grandmother had a golden retriever that I absolutely loved when I was a kid, maybe 5 or 6 years old. Cindy was one of the highlights of my visits. She was furry and let me ride her and was my friend.

Then, one visit, Cindy wasn't there. Where was Cindy, I wanted to know? I was informed that Cindy had gone to the vet.

Cindy was at the vet for a super long time, but that was OK. I would simply wait until she came back.

But it took a really long time for Cindy to come back. I was on this story like Geraldo Rivera. Was Cindy back yet? When was she going to come back? Why did she go to the vet, anyway? WHERE THE FUCK IS CINDY?

I never got a satisfactory answer. Cindy never came back. Eventually I, the most Gullible Child in America, figured it all out.

It was (and is) not my mom's style to lie to me. However, it was my grandmother's style to lie, and she insisted that the situation be dealt with in this manner.

It seems like parents get kind of stressed out (I sure would) about this moment -- the moment when death must be explained somehow. I'd like to come down with a firm verdict and say that being lied to scarred me forever. It did not.

I advocate honesty. But whether you're straightforward, roundabout or downright deceptive, our culture tends to be severely fearful of death, and you're not going to change that in one instant.

This post was inspired by a friend's comment on Facebook about how she dealt with this same situation:

"[I had] to explain to J. yesterday that a dog he knew died. ...This dead dog has been dogging me since September!" she wrote. "It belonged to the physical therapist J. sees twice a week, and he'd fed him treats before. When we came back after the summer break, there was a photo of Freddy posted, and a message saying he'd passed away.

"And now, in January, the photo is still there, so naturally J. has started asking when Freddy is coming back. I decided to use the word "died," but now he is working it into everyday conversation and saying "so and so died," which is usually untrue, but kind of jarring to hear!"

My mom -- though she lied on behalf of her stepmother to me about Cindy -- taught me more about death than anyone, because she experienced it so harshly and so soon. Her mother died when she was 9 years old, and her father died as she was rounding her 20s. She also lost her beloved grandmother too soon. She communicated this loss in the way she talked about those loved ones after they were gone, and in the way she hugged us and said "I love you."

In college, for a sociology of religion class, I decided to write my final paper on belief systems around death. I thought (and still think) that the way religions and cultures explain death is fascinating. I was printing out my paper (dot-matrix) in the university lab and encountered a student from Israel who asked what it was about.

As I told him, he looked confused and dismayed. "Why would you write a paper about something like that?" he said. He had served in the Israeli Army and had witnessed a lot of death. He couldn't understand why anyone would dwell on this subject willingly, make it an academic topic. A paper.

I felt, in the moment, like a dirty voyeur, because that's what I was. At the heart of my academic interest lay a desire to find an coping mechanism that would work for me when death inevitably came my way.

I liked the idea of no mirrors. I liked the idea of setting a time limit on mourning. Other than that, not much insight. Because you can't prepare.

The first time I had to face death -- for real -- came when my grandmother died of colon cancer. It was the first time I'd ever seen a person on her deathbed.

It was horrifying. It was horrifying not only to see my grandmother, so beautiful and proper, reduced to a rattling skeleton where she lay, but also to see my father hunched over her, weeping, clasping her hand and telling her what a good mother she had been.

I remember being very angry. I was angry about what happened to her, and then about the fact that we were all asked to convene at the restaurant Grandma liked to visit for her birthday dinners.

What the fuck? Why would we go to the RESTAURANT where we celebrated her BIRTHDAY after her DEATH, as if she were here? That was, like, a cruel joke to me. I ran and ran on the treadmill that day, dry-eyed, trying to work it out. I never did. I just had to accept that that's what her kids -- the ones who mattered -- wanted to do.

If someone could tell me a good lie today, as an adult, about death -- if I could somehow revert to the child I was, and believe that lie -- I daresay I'd prefer it.

Music: "Sometimes It Snows in April"

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