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Hyperion April 6, 2006

The Hyperion Chronicles
“Do you know how to make a Jam Sandwich?”

#384 Reflections on Death and those who have Departed

Part 1: Grandpa

My grandfather came from a completely different world than I know. Grandpa was poor growing up. I thought I knew what that meant. I was certainly lower lower middle class for some time as a kid, and there have been periods as an adult where I was desperately poor. But I had no idea what poor was.

One time he related a story of his childhood to me—not in some “up hill, both ways” fashion—but a simple factual recitation without embellishment.

Grandpa’s family was too poor for Christmas presents. However, one year, when Grandpa was 7 or 8, he got a little red truck for Christmas. He played with that truck every single day. It was his favorite—and only—toy.

Well, 7 year olds are only, after all, 7, and one day Grandpa left his truck out in the field. The next day he rushed out to find out, only to realize he’d left that little red truck in the pathway the cows used to come back from the fields.

His poor truck was smashed flat, completely ruined. Grandpa told me it was years before he got another toy, and by that time he was basically grown out of it.

I think of that story, and it makes me ashamed. I think of all the kids I know and their selfish desires….forget that; I think of myself, and stupid toys I’ve wanted growing up, toys I just had to have. And then I think about my Grandpa.

My Grandpa was a quiet guy, usually overshadowed by those around him. But he was almost always the funniest guy in the room if you’d give him a chance to talk. And he had a way of putting things. One time I was visiting him and telling him about research I was doing for a series of columns on weddings. I told him the average wedding cost $10,000.

Grandpa shook his head at that. “The problem,” he said, “is that so many people have a $10,000 wedding and a ten cent marriage.” That put it better than I ever could.

Another time when I was a hormonal teenager, Grandpa was trying to teach me about sexual temptation. That’s right. My Grandpa; unafraid to talk about the big issues.

Temptation, he told me, is like a chocolate cake. You can decide that you’re not going to eat the chocolate cake. However, you are going to keep the cake in the room, so you can look at it all the time. And you’re going to go over and smell the cake, maybe pick at a crumb or two, and every once in a while run your finger along the side of the cake and taste some frosting.

You can see where he was going with this. Sooner or later, you’re going to eat that cake. The only way to make sure you won’t succumb is to put yourself and that cake in two different places.

Grandpa also had a wicked sense of humor. Many didn’t see it because he was so quiet, but it came out. Once we were all at some sort of fair. My mom headed into the restroom, and my grandfather yelled hoarsely after her, “You’re in the Men’s!”

My mom flew out of there so fast you’d have thought her hair on fire. Good times.

The last few years of his life Grandpa got to telling me jokes whenever we’d talk on the phone. As he got more ill, and unable to function as well, one joke moved to the forefront. He’d tell it every time we talked. The last few months he couldn’t remember it as well, and I’d tell it to him. I think in my mind that was the saddest part, when I had to start telling the joke, but it was still such a great shared memory that I loved doing it.

Here goes: How do you make a Jam Sandwich? You take two pieces of bread and jam them together.

Ladies and Gentlemen: my Grandfather. I’ll miss him.

Part 2: Useless conjecture

I have never cried when a person I know has died. It’s not that I’m an unemotional person. I’ve cried when characters in books died. Same as in movies. When Borormir goes at the end of Fellowship? I’ve not once seen that once without tearing up. It’s not just fictional deaths, either. I tear up in Good Will Hunting when Robin Williams tells Matt Damon the abuse he suffered isn’t his fault. Every single time.

Actually, I think I cry a good deal more than most men. An emotional song, like Dan Fogelberg’s Leader of the Band or Same Old Lang Syne always gets me, as does the beauty of the end of Mozart’s Requiem, the aggressive force of a Goya painting, or even the colors on the water of a pond in moonlight, if it hits me just right.

And don’t even get me started on poetry.

With all that, I often ask myself what is my deficiency that I haven’t been honestly able to summon tears at a real person—someone I know or even someone I don’t—who dies?

I grew up in Kenya, and the Kenyans do not cry at death. Their culture simply doesn’t allow it. Instead they laugh, as a release of their tension, perhaps their grief. For a long time I told people (and myself) that this was the origin of my ethos, this upbringing of mine.

Maybe it’s true, but lately I’ve begun to doubt such simplistic Freshman Psych reasoning. Though I certainly saw hardships in Africa, it wasn’t like I was out among the Masai all by myself. In fact, I’m not even sure how much of my knowledge of Kenyans’ inability to cry at death was observed, and how much was learned after we moved to America.

I think I have told that story because I don’t want to examine what’s really within me. I get angry at the culture of death (as I wrote about in #146 The Business of Death), and I stand by my admittedly scathing attacks. Yet my father—a pastor who’s presided over hundreds of funerals—adamantly disagrees with me. He says that people need to deal with their grief, and those don’t pay for it in spades down the road. A funeral, my dad maintains, is often a necessary way for people to say goodbye and acknowledge what’s really going on.

You all know how much I stick to my guns when I think I’m right, but his thought has a ring of truth to it, and I have to admit that. Though my criticisms might be valid, perhaps my vituperative attitude on the subject is a defense mechanism, hoping to cover my own major malfunctions when it comes to grief at death.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not happy people die. I certainly don’t wish it. Yet I have never felt that raw grief emotion that others do. I remember when I was 7 years old, at my grandfather’s funeral, seeing my uncle openly weeping. I cried too, but even then I knew I was crying in imitation of a man, not in any honest pain.

In high school I remember this girl who died in a car wreck. She was an obnoxious jerk and very few liked her. I remember when the news of her death hit the school, and all those girls who trashed her daily turned their viperish tongues to honey. I’d never made fun of the girl, but it just felt so false to pretend she was suddenly in the bosom of my heart, and my dislike had gone away.

I remember coming home and telling my dad, making some sort of flippant remark. He was quite angry with me, and my mom told him I was in shock. That made me angry. I wasn’t in shock, I wanted to protest. I just didn’t care that much. I’m sorry for her family, but how can I pretend it affects me? Was I more honest than others, more delusional, or just more of a jerk?

Five months later another died in our school. This time it was an even bigger deal, as the boy killed himself. That very morning I had taken a shower next to him after weight training. The next morning I stood under the same shower nozzle, staring at where he’d been. I tried to summon—what? I don’t know—something, some emotion, whether it be pity, empathy sadness or….anything. That’s when I first wondered if I was cold-blooded.

I don’t get all weepy when cable news channels exploit a tragedy for ratings; it feels fake to care about someone I never even heard of. Yet I’m the very same person who gets murderously angry when thinking about some young girl I never met at the hands of an abusive adult. How can I summon so much rage for that, but not for this?

I’ve never lost an immediate family member—Thank the Light—and perhaps all bets would be off if that were the case. But I have lost my grandfathers, and more than a few friends—some very, very close—and I do not think I am unacquainted with death. I’ve often felt sad for family members left behind, but it’s usually a fleeting moment, ephemeral and without devastating impact. Am I abnormal that it bothers more that it doesn’t bother me more?

Normally at the end of my columns I wrap up with some “what it all means” moments. I try to cut through the rhetoric and leave a conclusion that’s easy to follow and hopefully contains some truth. But I have nothing here. In the back of my mind I wonder if I have simply repressed every emotion of grief over death—and why would that be?—which will someday come back and cripple me. More than that, I worry that I’m not repressing anything, that there is no grief to repress, and I don’t know if that makes me the healthiest man in the world, or a monster.

April 6, 2006


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