It's kind of a basic axiom of life: the older you get, you see a lot more deaths than when you were younger. I remember my father getting very depressed once when I was watching some TV show that had an actress who was popular when he was young; it was a reminder of the unwavering speed of time, I suppose, and his thinking about everything he knew years ago being a relic and a harbinger. Now I wish I had been less narcissistic (I was a young teenager) and more aware so that I could have talked with him about that, but I might as well wish for a million bucks while I'm wishing.
The other day I found a newspaper article in the local rag about a man found dead in Mt. Shasta (about 60 miles north of here). Normally I don't click on that kind of article but I had a hunch about this one. The man was someone Gary had known since grade school, a troubled and mysterious individual with unexplained gaps in his life.
And that got me thinking: in the past few months I have sent out notices to my high school class (1974) of at least four classmates dying, as well as at least three of our old teachers. Someone told me about the death a few years ago of yet another classmate. A woman I used to work with died last week. The mother of my best friend from college died in late June. A young pastor I used to know, the owner of a grocery store I shop at all the time, the mother of a friend of Gary's, a college teacher, local people, people whose names I recognize but can't always remember why I know them. A lot of cancer, at least three suicides, some people just wearing out.
I'm not feeling sad about this except in a very large sense - a general sort of acknowledgement of the passage of these people from this world. The suicides are another kind of sadness: none of those were young and I think of them as sad lost lives. Overall, it's more of an awareness that a lot of people I know/know of have died recently, and I'm just writing this down to help me wrap my brain around it and process it.
I have two people I need to call this week and arrange to meet for dinner. I want to see them and talk with them, because it's later than we think.
This is a conversation that I have with my step mom quite regularly. =( My dad talks about it occasionally, but usually regarding his closest relationships. His wife, like my step mom (and you and I ... maybe it's a female thing?) feels the impact of *everyone* that goes.
Where I live, we lose an inordinate amount of young people. It's usually an MVA, but there are the occasional drownings, suicides, etc. Yeah, we get it intellectually, and we move on. But emotionally, every death seems to summon the ones that went before, and the depth is increasing, and it's humbling and profound.
The village I now live in has a LOT of old people in it. And that means at least half a dozen funerals each year, or so. I have only known one of them so far (The Venerable Ax Man), but when I look around me, I see lots and lots of old folks. They are plucky and they don't give in, which is something to aspire to :-)
Almost all of the village "worthies", the characters who were Sem's pals and co-troublemakers and co-village-supporters, have died. He often feels their loss quite keenly. For me, it's not the deaths that have me looking wide-eyed at how much time has flown by, but the fact that kids I taught in Sunday School when they were toddlers have had the gall to grow up, get married and have children - now toddlers - of their own. It messes with my mind SO MUCH. Life whizzes by before I can grab hold of it, sometimes.
Sometimes I don't know how we bear it. I don't know how we keep going, knowing that it will all just end one day, that we'll lose those we love (or know, either well or vaguely), that there's no stopping it, that there's no way out alive... But we do, and I guess that's the spirit of survival that glimmers on in us. Or most of us.
I'm rambling or babbling, I'm not sure which. But we live with the possibility of death every day, in this house, in this marriage, and so I try not to focus on it all that much, even though it is an ever-present spectre.
Sometimes this feeling of the passage of time hits me very hard when I look at two things: one, the faded and toppled tombstones in the village graveyards - in some cases just a mound of earth with only a boundary marker, not even a headstone visible anymore... and two, the hills, nearly unchanged for millenia. People long-forgotten in a landscape long-unchanged. We are specks. Or when I look at a place like Camster Cairns, older than the Pyramids, and think to myself, "people have been around for longer than I can fathom... here on this ground, living out their lives, and the gone, lost in the ages..." It astounds me.
As for me, personally, with no family here and very few acquaintances, I find myself wondering if anyone will remember me, and what small handful of mourners - if any - come to see me off when my light goes out. That is a sad feeling, that really no one will care. Hell, all I did was move away, and all my friends back home (barring LJ friends!) have forgotten me, for the most part! How much more so, then, when I am truly gone? I have no illusions about that, now.
So I try to live my life to the best of my ability, and be kind and find love and sometimes even joy, and not worry about whether or not anyone will notice when I'm gone. The thing is, eventually, unless we do something very remarkable that lands us in the history books, we are all forgotten at some point. Might be years or maybe even decades, but as time continues to wind on, eventually, everyone is forgotten.
But while we are alive, oh! How we can LIVE! And that's what I try to do. From the outside looking in, I might not have the most exciting life, or the most successful, but I have a good life with heaps of love, and really, what does it matter if no one notices or cares when I've gone, if I lived my life with love. I live my life for me, for Sem, for us together... so if I'm forgotten, well... that's okay. My life doesn't have to matter to them, as long as it mattered to me.
It's no great tragedy to be forgotten. But it is a tragedy to have not lived....
Deb, this is just wonderful. I love your writing and I wish you would write more.
This reminded me of a passage at the beginning of Bill Bryson's book, "At Home." He & his family had just moved into an old rectory in Norfolk. The Brian he refers to is the retired archaeologist for Norfolk County.
He had never been to our village church and was eager to have a look. It is a handsome and ancient building. older than Notre Dame in Paris and about the same vintage as Chartres and Salisbury cathedrals. But Norfolk is full of medieval churches - it has 659 of them, more per square mile than anywhere else in the world - so any one is easily overlooked.
"Have you ever noticed," Brian asked as we stepped into the churchyard, "how many country churches always seem to be sinking into the ground?" He pointed out how this one stood in a slight depression, like a weight placed on a cushion. The church foundations were about three feet below the churchyard around it. "Do you know why that is?"
I allowed, as I often do when following Brian around, that I had no idea.
"Well, it isn't because the church is sinking," Brian said, smiling." It's because the churchyard has risen. How many people do you suppose are buried here?"
I glanced appraisingly at the gravestones and said, "I don't know. Eighty? A hundred?"
"I think that's probably a bit of an underestimate," Brian replied with an air of kindly equanimity. "Think about it. A country parish like this has an average of 250 people in it, which translates to roughly a thousand adult deaths a century, plus a few thousand more poor souls that didn't make it to maturity. Multiply that by the number of centuries that the church has been there and you can see that what you have here is not eighty or a hundred burials, but probably something more on the order of, say, twenty thousand.
This was, bear in mind, just steps from my front door. "Twenty thousand?" I said.
He nodded matter-of-factly. "That's a lot of mass, needless to say. It's why the ground has risen three feet." he gave me a moment to absorb this, then went on: "There are a thousand parishes in Norfolk. Multiply all the centuries of human activity by a thousand parishes and you can see that you are looking at a lot of material culture." He considered the several steeples that featured in the view. "From here you can see into perhaps ten or twelve other parishes, so you are probably looking into roughly a quarter of a million burials right here in the immediate landscape - all in a place that has never been anything but quiet and rural, where nothing much has ever happened."
Edited at 2013-07-29 12:22 am (UTC)
I graduated in 1974, too, and work with seniors, so I see a lot of death constantly. This is a recurring topic that seems to come up. Remember in the days of being a teenager and being 20-something when we (or those around us) thought we were immortal? Life shows us differently as we move along its path. We learn about our own mortality through witnessing death of animals, acquaintances and loved ones -- and even those we pretend to know such as Princess Di. Our culture hides death so the occurrence of it can sometimes feel as though it is not part of the cycle of life.
Absolutely. Even when a schoolmate died in our sophomore year - we were sad, of course, but we never for a moment thought it could happen to US.
And then as years go by and we start to see more and more people dying in circumstances just like ours - it does sink in. There are certain places where people died in a public way, and I can't pass by those spots without thinking that maybe that could have been me.
If you go to YouTube, there are a number of films made of old death photos. At one time it was common to pose the family with the recently deceased in a family portrait. That seems unthinkable now, but death was all around people then, and it was not hidden away. That might have been the only memento a family would have of the deceased, especially a child - and so it was not at all unusual.
A little reminder about the shortness of life is never a bad thing if it motivates us to change in some way.
I thought I was acutely aware of it til I recently realised an LJ friend had silently stopped updating - it's the ones you don't expect that are the greatest reminders.
I feel you so much with this. 2013 has been a year of passings and reminders of aging. We have said goodby to several friends, my sweet mother-in-law and are watching my parents with great care as they begin this final chapter. Seems like everyday we are greeted with news of an illness(cancer) or a passing too. I agree with your words about just wrapping your head around it all.