I just turned 30 recently. Yesterday I attended my 15th funeral.
That’s quite a pace.
One every two years, if you average it out, though fate is hardly that symmetrical. If you extrapolate that over, say, a 75 year life span, that’s 150 eulogies. One hundred and fifty fewer people in my life than when I started.
That’s what life does, in its rawest form. It eliminates people. Ironically, in many areas, thinning the herd, winnowing out the weak, paring away the fat, often contributes to a better all-around product.
Not with death. With each funeral service, there is less of me. I feel my soul get lighter, emptier. With one less kindred soul to feed off of, my spirit can’t help but wither and eventually die. It is perhaps the most vicious of all the cycles of life. The older I get, the more I desire succor and a warm presence, and yet life almost guarantees there will be fewer people in my life to provide it. I will die wanting.
I have to assume this veritable landslide of death so far in my relatively brief time on this placidly spinning plate-on-a-stick will slow down and allow me to catch up. To fill in the holes left by the deceased. Baseball teams have a bench. Why shouldn’t we?
Friends, family, casual acquaintances. They all leave footprints in the sand. Some are clearly formed, deeply forged and neatly carved. Others are sloppy, directionless holes that signify someone was there, but little else. I have spent a lot of time and effort going back, either filling in some of the holes as if that person never existed, or sitting contemplatively by the side of a significant imprint, wondering if I should allow someone else to step in it.
I sit here now, 24 hours after burying my cousin, on the edge of the Grand Canyon, having driven all night to get here. Oddly, it is my first visit.
I’m so far not disappointed. It lives up to the hype. Pick your word: majestic, august, grandiose, ostentatious even.
One word seems to continually find its way to the front of the slide carousel that is constantly clicking away in my mind, continually popping up on my mental screen like a ubiquitous, vocabularic flashing neon sign screaming for my attention.
With that one word, I’ve linked the Grand Canyon and death. It’s a word that has none of the obvious negative associations with which people define death. That’s one of the reasons it resonates with me. Death, from a very early stage of my life, was demystified; its inevitability reinforced over and over. That took much of its sting away for me. Even facing the suicides of my father and brother later in life, stomach punches from left field, to be sure, the impact was muted by my fatalistic acceptance that we will all die. Some will choose how, others will merely succumb.
The road traveled to our final resting place somehow, over the years, has lost much of its significance to me, since everyone’s destination is ultimately the same. That type of fatalism can be, and often has been, paralyzing. Living life with one eye canted toward my grave has allowed me, much too often, to relax back into the hammocky softness of a ”Why, I’m gonna die anyway?” rationale, that I then would press into service when dodging a difficult, substantive decision in my life.
Yet, here I am. Literally poised on the precipice of arguably the single most impressive offspring of nature in the United States.
My cousin was only two years older than I. He was thrown from his horse and incurred brain damage, a particularly cruel irony for such an analytical man, a person never hesitant to prop his entire existence on the fact he could out think just about anyone.
He’d made it clear early in his life, I was told, to NEVER leave him plugged into ANYTHING to keep his heart going, if his mind ever decided on early retirement.
I have a similar DNR request. One of my biggest fears is contracting Alzheimer’s and hanging on for another 15 or 20 years, forcing my loved ones to care for me when I was no longer, well, me. My mind is the very last thing I would want to lose. The thought of going through life as a watered-down shell of myself, intellectually, without even knowing it, frightens me. And I definitely cannot see myself caring for someone in that predicament. How does someone set aside what was and stay totally in the moment, in order to care for someone who no longer resembles who they were? I know people do it. I also know I could not.
So, as I sit here, gazing slowly back and forth, taking in 75% of the panoramic view, or as far as my neck will rotate, another question sprouts up. Why am I here?
Not here as in Arizona, but here as in the karmic universe of things. What is my purpose? As I’ve so crassly stated, caring for others is not an instinct I have. Au contraire. I seek autonomy from my fellow man, and demand it of the people I do let into my life.
I don’t ask for much, and expect the same courtesy in return. Women seem to have much more of a problem with this approach then men. I understand that. The fairer sex is more enlightened, historically more reliable and consistent, and their DNA more wired to thrive in the care-taking role.
To see their very natural instincts harshly eschewed, as I have done, must be nothing short of an assault on their sense of humanity.
Thus far, the big decisions in my life have been made by my heart. One thing I have learned, even at this early stage (knock on canyon rock) of my time on earth, is to no longer trust the important verdicts in my life to the beating muscle in my rib cage.
When I intellectualize an issue, invariably I come out on the pragmatic, correct side of the conundrum.
I’m not home to a ticking titanium heart inside a bony carapace that is cold and inscrutably logical. I bleed.
Through trial and error I have learned a painful lesson about making decisions. I‘ve discovered a sizeable demilitarized zone between my heart and head, and I stand a better chance of winning the war if I think it through, instead of feel it through.
My cousin and I once ping ponged this subject back and forth over a couple of pitchers of beer one night. His law school educated mind understood exactly the need for separation of one’s internal ‘church and state’. He often found himself in the courtroom, he told me that night, struggling with the duality of these two disparate aspects of human behavior.
Was a murder committed in a one time fit of passion, or “was calculation employed through the portal of the mind through which chicanery travels”?
His exact quote.
Damn that fucking horse.
Off to my left, a family begins disgorging from a mini-van. First the adults, then three children. The five of them step forward and lean on the steel fence railing. They are chattering away.
As I sit here, hugging my knees, chin resting on them, I realize that my over-exposure to death has quelled much of my joie de vivre, almost forced me into an emotional straightjacket devoid of sensation, viewing life through a dispassionate prism.
The obvious metaphor as I stare into the abyss of this enormous carved out opening in the earth, is that eternity lies at the bottom of this seemingly endless ravine. We each get our undetermined amount of time up here on the rim of the fishbowl, staring down, searching for something. Someone. Anything.
And shortly after hearing our own eulogy, we discover that there’s nothing there.
“In the clearing stands a boxer
And a fighter by his trade
And he carries the reminders
Of ev'ry glove that layed him down
Or cut him till he cried out
In his anger and his shame
’I am leaving, I am leaving’
But the fighter still remains”
© Copyright 2016 Bill Rayburn. All rights reserved.
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