The Stories We Write: Death

 

cureDoes anyone remember the movie The Cure, starring Brad Renfro and Joseph Mazzello? The film is about an eleven year old boy (Mazzello) living with AIDS. He befriends Renfro’s character, an older boy with a very different kind of troubled life. When the boys learn of a man who claims to have the cure for AIDS, they set off alone down the Mississippi in search of him.

OK. So it has been a long time since I saw this movie — like 17 years and a whole life between me and my last viewing — but I can still remember certain scenes with grave distinction. (I have no idea how bad this movie actually was. This is not a film recommendation. I have a point. Stick with me.)

There is a scene towards the end of the film when the boys are being chased by vagrants and Mazello’s character cuts himself, drawing blood to the surface of his hand. He holds his hand out, yelling (paraphrasing) “My blood is a weapon!” OR something to that affect.

I maybe should preface this story by saying as a child I was slightly preoccupied with death, but not in a fearful way. Sure, there was a sense of danger that surrounded the notion we could all just cease to be. I knew babies, and children, and parents, and friends died — I had experienced those kinds of deaths already in my life. But my understanding of the how and why was a little fuzzy.

So, I watched The Cure and there is a boy dying, but on the outside looking really normal. And then this scene, wherein I learn whatever is killing him is in his blood. Also, I somehow knew needles could transmit this disease and I can’t for the life of me recall how I ascertained that piece of information. This was 1995, I was eleven years old myself.

Meanwhile, I was already writing, and I was already a troublemaker. Those kind of go hand-in-hand. My fifth grade teacher was not my greatest fan, as she had made abundantly clear by calling my parents about me on more than one occasion. She gave us an assignment to write a short story, and afterward we were going to type them up.

I chose to write my story about AIDS. In the story the kids in a public elementary school are taken hostage by a group of drug dealers and vagrants. These bad guys make the kids do drugs and maybe other things. The vagrants are ultimately overcome by the kids, but not before the main character contracted AIDS.

Now, my understanding of how one dies from a disease was also fuzzy. Like, for years I thought if a woman had diabetes and had a baby she would just die — she had to, that’s what happened to Julia Roberts in Steel Magnolias.

The story ended a year later, and the main character, having accepted her fate and enjoyed the rest of her short life, died tragically one night in her bed.

Poof! Her time had expired, the disease had taken her.

Well, my teacher was not happy. She held me after class to “discuss” my story. She explained that this was not the kind of story they were looking for, that I shouldn’t be writing about death and disease, and therefor she wanted me to write a new one.

(STORY OF MY LIFE!)

What she didn’t seem to understand — because she did not understand me, because I was not easy to understand — is that there was no story I could tell that did not involve death. There was no way, in my mind, to tell a story about life without including death. There was no triumph without darkness to overcome.

I took the low grade and wrote another story, and another, and still I write stories. Still those stories are filled with death, either as a catalyst, a mystery, an end, a triumph or a failure. Because I will never understand it, not really, and so I write about it.

Wilber

Wilbur  May 2003-December 2012
Wilber
May 2003-December 2012

“The death of a beloved is an amputation.”

C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

We never expect death, no matter the form it takes, therefore we are never really prepared for it. You might think, as I might too most days, that we should expect death. Death is the end which we all will meet, one day, in one manner or another. We should always expect it, right? It is always out there.

I’m not being morbid.

When I met Wilber, the dog featured in the photo above, we were equally lost and unloveable. He was the runt of an unwanted litter, the least of the least. He was free. He was exactly what I needed. God uses many things in life to help teach us about His love. Or the love we should exhibit for each other. Wilber taught me about acceptance.

Wilber taught almost everyone who knew him that lesson. He was a flawed creature, intimidating and frightening at times, gentle and silly at others. He was unpredictable, and yet, easily read.

Wilber was a dog.

And now, Wilber is gone. That Wilber lived as long as he did is a miracle in itself. As loving as he was to me, and to those who were family, he was also an animal filled with violence. He had bitten and he had scared people. And this part of him, the part that was so dangerous, was just as much a part of him as the gentle, frightened heart we cherished.

His imperfection reminded us that being imperfect is a sign you are living. Toward the end of Wilber’s life he had mellowed. He had endeared himself to those who would otherwise be fearful of him, and he had remained a significant pillar in the building of our family. He had a good life, as good any dog ever did. Then he had a sudden death, but one you could say had been chasing him all along.

We buried him behind the house he spent his last months in. I was there with three of my brothers, my husband and son, a longtime family friend with a special affinity for the black mutt, and my mom and dad. Wilber had lived most of his life in my parents home, and even though I had found him, he wasn’t mine. He was all of ours. So in the chill, on ground frozen still lingering white, we all said goodbye.

He will be sorely missed.

I don’t usually like to write like this. To encourage mindfulness, or to talk of finding greater meaning in the otherwise meaningless. I usually like to avoid putting things out there like this. But this holiday season, too much has happened not to make a statement about it. Not to employ you to hold close those one’s who are dear, or to examine the value in all that you touch.

“So, be careful then how you live, not as unwise, but as wise making the most of every opportunity for the days are evil. Do not be foolish.”

Eph. 5:15

heart

Hold on…

Yesterday, upon waking from his nap, my son went about his normal routine. Cuddle in his bed with mom, wander into the living room, beloved blanket nigh nigh trailing behind him like a train, couch flop and request to watch “a little bit of a movie”. The exact order. My husband and I don’t have cable. Now, we’re not pretentious or anything, nor are we destitute, but my husband can’t watch commercials without launching into a rant, and I don’t like TV enough to pay for variations of the same mediocrity spanning hundreds of channels. Our solution is a little box which we stream Netflix and Amazon On Demand through, where we avoid commercials, and where my son dominates the “suggested watch list” with Nick Jr. and PBS shows alike.

Yesterday, he saw in the suggestions a film titled A Cat in Paris. This film — which I knew nothing of until yesterday — looked harmless, read like a silly romp about a cat burglar who was an actual feline, and featured clever animation reminiscent of the classic children’s tale “Zin Zin the Violin”. Fine. I put it on for him, sitting on the couch for a couple of minutes until he sent me off to our kitchen for a snack and milk, with the requested “pweease” and grin.

When I returned, there was nothing at all alarming on the screen, but Sam was no longer reclined or docile. He turned to me and very simply said, “That man killed the little girls father.” I was understandably thrown by this statement and those words leaping from my three year olds tongue. I asked him if we could turn the movie off, to which he gave a bored nod and crunched a graham cracker. I tried to broach the topic over the course of the afternoon, but was met with tempered indifference and requests to put on his Spiderman mask “so he could be Spiderman.”

This morning, as if sharpened somehow by sleep, Samuel (sitting pin straight on his alphabet mat with his Superheroes strewn around him) said, very cooly, “That man killed the little girls father?” And I was at a loss for how to answer him. I considered a few approaches, ranging from feigning ignorance to telling him death wasn’t scary, to trying to ascertain what he knew of death at three years old. I settled on promising that man and that little girl weren’t real, just a cartoon, and therefor he didn’t need to worry about them. He shrugged and handed me Iron Man, but confusion still flickered in his eyes.

My response was in no way a brush off, but merely my acceptance that this subject is too big to sound byte. Ultimately, as a three year old, his grasp of life and death is still very fuzzy. He has never been exposed to great loss, and even if he were, I do not know how concrete a concept ceasing to exist is or how capable he is to hold it in his mind. Those are questions for someone else to answer professionally, with fact and science that tells us when we are able to measure the missing of someone with the memory of them existing and the knowing that they no longer do.

In the span of that moment, watching him fiddle with Iron Man’s moveable limbs, I saw that he had glimpsed something real and confusing and he was not sure why it didn’t make sense. So young, he touched a truth he will someday (because this is a fate none can escape, even if we wish our babies could) face head on, or sideways, or in great heaving breaths. That is a fact, it will not cease because we wish it to. Even after I held his superhero — cast in invincible metal and warding his own mortality away like a plague— I wanted for him to hold onto the time of not knowing. And isn’t that what our heartache, as parents, is built on? Not will they run the car into a ditch when their sixteen, or will they get drunk and end up on YouTube mooning a cop? Because aren’t those very tangible — though no less controllable — concerns born from this very place? This place of knowing the road. And isn’t that why we do it to begin with? Why we keep on doing it?

For me, the time of not knowing ended at four years old, when my mother gave birth to twins who never left the hospital. I do not remember the time of not knowing. I cannot. For Sam, for now, the understanding of true death is still a distant dark cloud on his vast horizon. He is still without the knowledge. For now, that is something for us both to safeguard. Him by his ignorance and me by my understanding. I will keep holding on until the glass shatters, then I will hold him, and tell him what I know, and know someday that will become an answer worth remembering.

(*An aside about the movie: it was an Academy Award nominee, and I actually want to watch it on my own at some point because I think I would rather enjoy it.)