Making sense

Anne Lamott, on writing ...

"We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are. Sheep lice do not seem to share this longing, which is one reason why they write so little. But we do. We have so much we want to say and figure out.”

Sunday, June 16, 2013

How did she die, and why do I care?

There are many obsessions in my life, chief among them finding great cups of coffee, outstanding chocolates, and off-the-beaten-path yummy eateries. These obsessions are socially acceptable.
What bothers people, namely my husband and children, is the obsession I have over figuring out how  young people die. My husband and daughters tell me that I am moribund and waste my time investigating the deaths of people I do not know, nor have ever met.
Look. I read obituaries with the same kind of interest that others hold when they read biographies of famous people. It is my life's philosophy that every person, no matter how long he or she has lived, has a story to tell. As such, I truly enjoy a well-crafted obituary. The Sunday Kansas City Star is my favorite source, as no fewer than seventy-five death notices are published then. Between discovering interesting names (Syd Sidebottom) and amazing achievements and/or actions ("When she was eleven years old, Melinda cut the word impossible out of the dictionary."), I am generally inspired to go out into the world and Do Something Important by the time I've read the final obituary. Besides, by the time I'm finished with the listings, my coffee has run cold.
This obsession isn't a fun one. I get depressed when I read the obits of children who have passed, especially the ones who die during their teen years. Having raised three children into adulthood, it strikes me as particularly crushing and soul-wounding, to have loved a child into his high school years and then  lose him right before it's time to graduate, to head to college, to realize childhood ambitions. At its core, I believe it is wrong for a parent to have to bury a child, no matter how old that child is. I am reminded of a saying: You bury a mother, a father, a sister, a brother, in the ground. You bury a child in your heart. There is not a day goes by that I do not worry about my children, that I do not have anxiety over all the What-ifs that befall young people. I pray to God that they are safe and out of harm's way.
Still. Young people die. Parents bury their children. I have a close friend whose son died riding his beloved motorcycle on the Fourth of July. A brand-new high school graduate, he and a friend were taking a quick bike ride before heading over to a relative's house for a celebration. A drunk driver turned right in front of him on a country road. He died instantly. The drunk driver walked away, unscathed.
My friend has never, will never, be the same. Her marriage ended and her joy dwindled. Three years later, I cannot look at her without thinking that she is a mother who buried her child. It is my first thought. I wrote this young man's obituary and typed through my tears. I also wrote my dad's obituary and my mother's. When my sweet aunt died a few months after my mom's passing, I said to my sister, You have to write Aunt Jannie's. I can't do it again.

Still, I read the obits. In a way, I feel that readership is necessary, that it is important to read about the people who were here on a Tuesday and gone on a Wednesday, and that by reading about their lives, their lives have meaning and they will be remembered. For many people, the only time their name is in the paper is in an alphabetized fashion on that page of remembrances.
I am particularly sad when I read about a young mom taken by breast cancer, who leaves children of the home, or a young father who fights for his country and never comes home, or for the young father who drowns in a lake on a Saturday night and is survived by two boys, ages three and six.
Sometimes, I experience anger, when an obit of a three year old is sandwiched between the obits of a ninety-one-year old named John and a ninety-four-year-old named Josephine.  Little Allie Fisher never started kindergarten. Where is the justice for her? Why do some people get to be so old and others die before they've barely begun to live?

There are cancers and accidents and house fires and military deaths (Army Staff Sgt. Jesse L. Thomas Jr., 31, of Pensacola, Fla.; Army Lt. Col. Todd J. Clark, 40, of Evans Mills, N.Y.; Army Maj. Jaimie E. Leonard, 39, of Warwick, N.Y.) There are deaths from natural causes, like with the Johns and Josephines of the world who get to be in their nineties, and, hey, let's face it, that's pretty damned old. There are homicides and suicides and heart attacks and folks who die peacefully in their sleep, surrounded by family. Usually, the cause of death can be determined by the context of each obituary: "The family requests donations to the American Cancer Society in lieu of flowers" ... "Contributions may be made to the American Heart Association."

And then there are the obits that don't make any sense, the ones that make me go all Nancy Drew trying to figure out why the person died. Someone like Andrea Beerman, a thirty-four-year old dentist of Westood Hills, Kansas, who passed away June 11, 2013. She wasn't old, that's for sure. We can rule out natural causes. Newly married, Andrea Beerman had a thriving dental practice in the Kansas City area.
Why is she gone? She was educated and ambitious and had her shit together. She volunteered in Honduras and El Salvador to provide dentistry to the underprivileged. She ran marathons and practiced yoga. She served on the board of the Timber Creek Retreat House.
There's nothing in the obituary that explains her passing. She is pictured, young and beautiful and healthy-looking, an enormous smile on her pretty face.
How did she die?
Why do I care?
I don't know the answer to that last question. I guess I want to try to make sense of things, to intellectualize that thirty-four-year-old yoga-running women don't just die randomly. It's something I need to make sense of. I've got children in their twenties. I want to think that if they lead healthy lives and make good decisions and stay away from drugs and crack houses and abusive relationships, and always wear their seatbelts and never drive drunk, they'll be okay. They'll live to be old people and they will bury me, not the other way around.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Oldest love, sweetest love

Last night I dreamed, again, of an old love. Since turning forty, this guy in my past drops by in my dreams with wonderful regularity. It is though he is telling me, Hey, I'm still around. We had a good thing when we were kids, didn't we? Don't forget me. Don't forget us. My psyche agrees: You need never to forget him; you are not too adult to discount the most romantic relationship you ever had. Enjoy yourself, Kathleen. Wrap yourself in the memory of that love.
Yes, we did have a good thing. He was my first love, and therefore my sweetest, most uncomplicated love. We were young and unencumbered. We never fought over money or children or his golf club purchase or yet another expensive face cream showing up on a bathroom counter. We didn't have middle-aged spare tires and aches and pains. We had each other's youth and ambition; we had endless summer days and nights when school was out. We had hand-holding and stolen kisses and the occasional titillating grope sitting next to each other in the dark of his basement. We never had sex, which tends to ruin things, complicate matters. We had childhood innocence and the kind of kid happiness that is prevalent until the realities of adulthood start to wear on the natural joy of being alive.
If we ever fought, I don't remember why, or when, or how we might have made up. All of my memories surrounding my first love ~ when we were together ~ are positive and happy. When he would leave, for a summer afternoon, or a holiday event with extended family, or even for a nightly baseball game with his father, I would pine and wallow in a private misery that would have no audience. I didn't have the most supportive family, and had they known of my heart's allegiance to this backyard boy, they would have teased me mercilessly.
As many first loves go, this relationship ended in no official manner. There were no I-don't-like-you-anymore-leave-me-alone declarations. Neither of us stalked the other. There was no public tantrum complete with name-calling and tears. Our love withered on the vine of adolescence, and although we saw each other every now and then through the years, we were only socially polite and pretended that the love we'd shared was an immature alliance and nothing more.
We each married other people and became parents. I put my first love on the back burner of an old stove in a basement and pledged undying love to my husband, who is my best friend and my lover and my life partner. I am happy in my marriage. (Well, mostly happy, as is anyone who's been married nearly thirty years.)
These days, I do not put too much brain-time into analyzing why it is that my first love comes to see me so often in my dreams. I know with certainty, however, that I awaken 100 percent of the time with a heart happiness that makes me feel fifteen again. As I approach fifty ~ my goodness, I am getting old ~ this nighttime nostalgia hits me in my solar plexus, a sweet reminder that I have given, and received, love.