I suppose it's a common thing to reflect about life when someone you know or care about dies. My next door neighbor has just passed away. He was felled by a massive heart attack
. He was a retired gentleman who enjoyed going down to the local garage
where he'd pass a little time chatting with the owner/mechanic. He left the garage and was walking the short distance to where his car was parked when his mortality
asserted itself, savagely and without apology. He fell to his knees, then pitched forward onto his face, dead as quick as that.
His name was Allen, and I'd met him over 15 years ago when I moved in beside him and his wife Maggy. My wife was already living there, and I moved into her home after our marriage. The first time I spent any significant time with him was probably in 1994. The weatherman had forecast flurries for the next day. The next day came and brought the expected flurries. It flurried for the better part of two days and when the snowstorm had passed we were left with almost two feet of flurries.
Our street is an orphaned street. It belongs to no one. It doesn't belong to the property owners, or the town (which is a tiny unincorporated burg), or the state. We don't have snow removal service provided by a governmental body. When it snows we break out the shovels and dig ourselves free. That's how I met Allen, really, two men bundled against the cold riding the end of their respective shovel handle. We'd shovel a while, chat a bit, then go back to throwing snow. You can learn a lot about a man in a couple hours, working with him that way. He was a quiet man, no bluster about him. He didn't feel the need to dominate a conversation. He seemed to be content just living inside of his own skin. I liked him from the start.
My career is that of an over-the-road trucker. I know more people in other states than I know on my own street. My time is spent somewhere else. My contacts with Allen were few and far between. Most times we'd see each other going somewhere in the car and we'd throw our hand up in a greeting, recognizing the others presence. That's a peculiar thing about where we live, that hand gesture. When I went into the larger world after graduating high school I was still waving at everyone, not understanding why they didn't wave back. Culture shock is a wonderful thing.
The times we did exchange pleasantries were just that, innocuous exchanges meaning little of significance. Just passing the time, saying hello, not much more than that. Fifteen years living side by side, no conflicts at all. I can't say as much for everyone else in the neighborhood.
Our real contact was with Allen's wife. She and Allen have raised two children and they now have kids of their own. She talks with my wife, sometimes several times a week. They have a mutual respect for one another, a genuine liking, though there is an age differential, my wife being the younger. She has always been generous in her time and resources toward us. We each share what comes our way, whether it be an overabundance of tomatoes in season, or the newspaper. Once bought, twice read works for us. They are good people, good in the way that counts. They can be relied upon to watch out for our interests, help if we need it, be good friends. I hope we are the same to them.
Allen's passing has occurred like an explosion in the day to day flow of life. His wife has been thrust into dealing with 'arrangements', a terribly cold word. Demands made on her time and energies, requirements she can ill afford. She has had recent cancer surgery herself. She doesn't need all this right now, but need it or not, it's hers to handle.
This is the doorstep to Appalachia. We sometimes delude ourselves, convince ourselves that we are more sophisticated than we really are. Part of the culture here demands 'paying respects' to the departed and the family. It isn't as set in stone as it once was, though. There was a time when you went to 'family night', which was a solemn event. It called for your best clothes, shined shoes, the whole nine yards. Family night sounds like there should be bright lights, confetti, treats for the kiddies. This is something entirely different than that, though times, they are a'changing. People schlep in however they're dressed, it seems. Suit, shirt and tie traded in for a sports shirt, slacks for jeans. I'm old school, off the hook old school. I believe it's a time to be respectful, express regrets and condolences, to simply be there. You go to these things to mark the passage of a fellow human being, to allow your presence to be a monument in the memory of the survivors, lend whatever support and fellowship you may. You pay your dues, gladly if you're able, but glad or no, you pay your dues, my friend. You view the departed, smell the flowers, sip in some small way the cup they have drained. You know your turn is coming when you will sink beneath that lake of consciousness to rise not again this side of resurrection morning. Perhaps in the hallway by means of decor there is a grandfather clock, suitably polished and respectable, ticking along. You hear those ticks and in that setting you realize its measuring your own span of days, and it's a subtraction game it's playing.
This rite of passage always takes me back to other passings in my life. The early loss of both my grandmothers. The loss of a host of aunts and uncles. All my father and mother's siblings are gone, save one, and she's close to her end. My mom and dad each had seven siblings. Their generation still had large families, unlike present day America. I have lots of cousins from all those aunts and uncles. I'm one of the youngest of the lot, and I'm 53 years old. It suprises me that not one of my contemporaries have passed along. That won't last much longer.
Funerals for me have always been monumental events. It strikes me as hugely significant that a totally unique human life has ended. The passing of someone who is a duplicate of no one, and who will never be duplicated. I wonder that the Earth doesn't pause momentarily in its measured spin upon its axis, marking the passage of one of its own. Perhaps the Earth doesn't pause because it knows that the body of the deceased simply is coming home to a more intimate integration than in recent years. It realizes that the material is coming back, and it never had a claim on the soul anyway. Perhaps it simply doesn't care one way or the other.
I am struck beyond expression by the dichotomy of life. We are all unique but we are all the same. There is a conflict of worldviews inherent in being human. Insofar as I am aware, humans are the only creatures who possess the concept of a worldview. A worldwiew can be visualized as a screen through which everything filters, becoming categorized, made to fit into the grand scheme of things, becoming understandable in that filtering process. I once read a philosopher who defined mankind as a constant vileness, inherently flawed, subject to infections and discord, a nasty sac of fevers and putrefaction. In todays parlance he might define man as a dirtbag.
The apostle Paul tells us in II Corinthians 4:7 "But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us." Both assertions can be equally true, and the truth to each individual depends on their worldview. It is up to you whether you regard yourself and others as simply a dirtbag or a treasure indwelling an earthen vessel.
There is a part of me that wants to rail at the powerless feelings engendered by reflections of my own mortality, or that of my dear ones. I didn't ask to go on this ride, and I sure didn't sign up for the forceful ejection at the end. I balance this by the realization that it is a privilege to be on the ride at all. I don't know which feeling is trustworthy and it doesn't seem reasonable for both to exist simultaneously.
When I was young I was so sure I had a handle on all this. Truth be told, I never have had a handle on any of it, none at all. We delude ourselves, tell ourselves things to comfort ourselves on the way toward finality. When all else fails, we attempt to simply ignore the inevitable. The process of aging should be one of learning the important answers, not of knowing less. Is it, as Solomon asserts in Ecclesiastes, all simply vanity?
I don't know. My faith assures me but I will not know until I pass that line, enter that unknown territory. Then and only then will the truth unfold.
I suppose until that comes my way I, like everyone else, will simply continue. Continue in the rut that we all seem to slip into so easily, with no real effort or intent, just going down the river of life. It's only in times like this that off in the distance, beyond the glitter of light on the water, the sight of the trees along the shore that we hear the distant roar of the waterfall.