Saturday, December 31, 2005

The End of the Year of Death

As you may know, 2005 was the Year of Death. Well, that's my name for it anyway. It started for me in December 2004 when my mom died. Then in March, my Aunt June died as well. My family is very small, so the two of them represented a significant percentage of my relatives. But death touched many people in my circle last year: one friend's grandmother, another friend's dad, my mother-in-law's dog, and more. It seemed everyone I knew had someone to add to the memorial list. When you then add all the folks killed during the tsunami and earthquakes in Indonesia, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the earthquake in Pakistan, and wars around the globe...let's just say the Reaper must've installed express elevators to keep up with the flow.

Once I'd run through my store of body-wracking sobs and exhausted myself with keening, I found I couldn't help but find humor everywhere. For example, with my mom and aunt passing away less than two weeks before each of the major catastrophes in Indonesia, I joked that my family members needed to stop dying -- for the sake of the people of South Asia. I got a few shocked looks. I had to remind myself that most people weren't as fluent in death as I'd become. Gallows humor started with the hangman who faced it every day, not the people who scurried home with their eyes averted.

Death seems to cause absurdity to bubble up everywhere. The most absurd experience in my entire life was shopping for an urn for my mother's ashes. We'd decided to get something in colored glass, which she'd always loved. So not only was I looking at shape and color, I also had to estimate how much space she'd take up. The kicker was that this was all taking place in the final shopping days before Christmas, with songs of joy and glad tidings playing on every loudspeaker in every store. I felt as though I were moving in a different gravity field from the rest of the world. In a sense, I was.

And in a heady mixture of the profound and ridiculous not long after June passed away, I discovered that an intense bout of gas made me feel overwhelmingly grateful -- because if I could feel the pain in my gut as I sat there on the toilet, then it meant I was alive.

Perhaps strangest of all is that I find that I'm happier and more content than I've ever been before. Don't misunderstand: in no sense am I happy that my mom and aunt died. Grief can still stop me in my tracks. In October, I stood frozen in the greeting card aisle of a supermarket as it hit me that June and I had traded our last Halloween cards. And I can't make it through my mom's favorite Christmas carols without breaking down entirely.

But the Year of Death seems to have purged much of my fear. It's easier to say what I need to say. I'm more willing to admit when I've screwed up and learn from it. I'm bolder in asking for what I want because I just might get it.

Absurdity pops up around death because it's the thing that keeps us humans honest about living fully. We constantly exist in the midst of that paradox, even as American culture does everything possible to ignore half of the equation. I'm not sure whether to marvel at or mourn a civilization that even has the option of pretending that death doesn't exist.

During 2005, though, I didn't have a choice. I had to let grief wash over me and through me. As the waters subside, I'm left with the sense of soil that has been enriched, like the banks of the Nile. In 2006, I'll find out what will grow.


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