February 21, 2005

The age of grief

The saying is, "live fast; die young; and leave a pretty corpse."

The problem is, those who live sensibly are the ones who are dying.

My friend Nell's* 47-year-old brother, Matthew, collapsed on his way to work last Thursday and died instantly of a heart attack. He was married, had 3 kids, was in decent shape and had a good health history.

Nell and I were great friends in high school and through most of college, then we lost touch until about a year and a half ago, when we re-met at our 25th high school reunion. In the preceding five years, she had had lymphoma, been hospitalized on and off for more than a year, and came very close to dying. (She's in remission/recovery now.)

I found out about Matthew's death on Sunday, and planned to make a shiva call (their family is Orthodox Jewish) on Monday. When I got up that day, the weather was crappy, and the forecast called for Tuesday to be much nicer.

Before I decided whether to trek across the park in snowy/sleeting/windy weather, I checked my e-mail: my friend Serena, whom I've known since freshman year in college, fall 1978, had sent an omnibus e-mail, that her stage 4 breast cancer, diagnosed 2 1/2 years ago, had recurred. Serena has been doing chemo the whole time, but her liver metastases aren't shrinking; they're growing. Serena has a five-year, 16% chance of survival. We buried her best friend, also dead of breast cancer, about three years ago.

This isn't how it's supposed to happen, is it? Did the age of grief creep up on me when I wasn't looking? I still mourn my father, but he died 14 years ago in what seemed like a time frame when other people's parents were also dying. Now, my generation seems to have taken up that torch. Our own age of grief has arrived.

I waited until Tuesday to make the shiva call, and found out how religious Jews mourn, something I'd never experienced. They cover the mirrors, sit on low chairs made for mourners, tear their collars, have religious services (Kaddish) twice a day, and don't leave the house for a week, except to attend Shabbat (Sabbath) services.

I wondered how Nell's parents, whom I had not seen in more than 25 years, would make it through this experience, especially after having come so close with Nell. I am not good with rituals about death: I go to console, but I end up crying.

At Nell's parents, the largest group paying shiva was in the living room. It is a room I knew well, for Nell threw the best New Year's parties I've ever attended. It is a place I remembered as a happy one, with a wonderful view of Central Park and the annual New Year's fireworks, with good friends, smoking way too much dope and drinking champagne, perhaps dancing, always laughing, being the entertainer or the entertainee.

Death recast the room's image for me.

Last night, I dreamt that I was swimming in an Adirondack lake where, in real life, my father's ashes are scattered. I was with another college friend, DeeDee. In college she was the most self-destructive woman I have ever known, and she scared most people, but I loved her. We were friends, taking turns on our self-appointed rescue squad.

In the dream I was telling DeeDee about Matthew, and we were both laughing hysterically.

When I woke up I thought of it as laughter in the face of death, of the irony of DeeDee and I being the survivors, since she and I were both of the "live fast" school, and yet we were still here, when people who had life histories of being far more sensible were either dead or dying.

All I know right now is I am here.

* for privacy reasons, all names have been changed


Blogger no milk said...

i obsess about mortality all the time and i concur with your post; living sensibly is not insurance for a long life. i don't know what to think...

5:22 PM  

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