I was 10 years old when I first thought about death. I was standing in the darkened kitchen of our old house on the Southside of Corcoran, looking through the doorway into our fully lit living room when my mom and dad returned home from my uncle Raymond's funeral. They were dressed in black and I instinctively knew that something serious was happening. I wasn't quite certain what all it involved, but I knew that I would never forget that moment as long as I lived.
Then the day after school ended my sixth grade year, my best friend at the time drown while swimming in an irrigation canal out by where the prison is today. I heard the news from a kid that I didn't want to see at that moment for whatever reason. When I heard that he was looking for me, I ducked beneath my neighbor's grandpa's truck and was lying facedown in the dirt in the darkness staring out at his sunlit feet when he told my friends to let me know that Billy had drown. I had a dream that night that Billy was running through the hallways of Mark Twain School calling for me to come out and hang with him. Then I woke up into the extremely bitter realization that he was gone forever.
About a year later, there was a thunder and lightening storm that hit Corcoran, and my mother in a rush to pick my brother and I up from his football practice, forgot that our beloved family dog Pepe often slept in a rut behind the left rear tire of our family car. In the darkness my brother Tim and I didn't even notice that my mom was crying until we walked out of darkness of the night into the house and saw my dad sitting in the middle of the couch crying with his head haloed by a ceiling light coming from the kitchen through the same doorway that I had once saw them coming home from my uncle's funeral.
My dad, trying to spare us the grisly knowledge of death had hastily buried Pepe before we had even got home. We made him dig Pepe up and place him in a wooden coffin lined with an old towel, and we held a ceremony for our pet the next day and placed a headstone on the grave that is still there to this day.
I learned that time that it is inevitable and certain that all the people and things we love will one day pass away, and that is a heavy knowledge to place upon the shoulders of someone young, or for anyone for that matter. Throughout my life, I've often caught myself holding back and keeping my loved ones at arm's length in the hope that death won't notice my love for them and spirit them away.
I'm certain that everyone who reads this can substitute their own images of death that they will never forget for as long as they live. And I believe that if they search their memories that they will also notice the role that the demarcation beneath darkness and light play in their memories too, for Death is the great illumination that most clearly defines our very existence. So often, it pulls us up out of the darkness and our sleep and thrusts us into the harsh light of reality. REALITY. As in the world as it really is.
We humans often resort to such ridiculous measures to avoid the certain knowledge of our own impending death. Most of us, if we are being perfectly honest, would be more willing to watch every stupid ass show there is on Bravo in an endless loop than to ever take the time to carefully examine those acid-etched memories in an effort to squeeze out every ounce of possible meaning that we could gain from such an effort. We would rather become diehard Detroit Lion fans, or even pretend to love the music of a dip-shit like Marilyn Manson rather than sit for a minute alone with the deafening silence of the simplest most enduring Truth of our existence.
Recently, a young lady I knew and loved passed away after a courageous battle with cancer. She was given a timeline that pretty much told her when her life would come to an end. Her response was to try and prove her doctor's wrong. And the thing that was most amazing was that she always had a smile on her face right up until the very end. People my age live in daily fear of receiving such knowledge. And I don't even want to speculate on how well I would handle such news.
I read a quote the other night in a book that I was reading to learn more about another book I had already read. The author was trying to come to grips with the tragic death of a close friend, and it said, "It is a parent's job to love a child into the belief that life is worth living." I was struck by the stunning truth of that haunting sentiment. How different our lives could be if all our schools operated on the belief that it was their job to love a child into believing that life had meaning, or if all of our politicians understood that it was their chief responsibility to give us hope instead of behaving like the silly twits to which we have become accustomed.
What a great parent this young lady surely must have had to have her believe so strongly that life, no matter how bad it might seem, was worth the living. What a lesson for us all, not in how she showed us how to die, but in how she showed us how to live.