The Colors of Death

     I’ve experienced enough death at this point to be able to color it in a coloring book. 

     I’ve always delighted in the way that very young children color things heedless of the conventions of color and I love the way their hands take flight with scribble and run amok within and without the lines.  Here are children skating on a pond with green and yellow faces, and there is an elephant, big and black with orange tusks—wearing a hat!  The world is a carnival, one can paint it with imagination instead of experience, and within the big Crayola box is a ticket to every ride.    

     I’ve had the normal share of real death growing up; once in a very great while a neighbor, an uncle, or grandparent dies and there are the funerals and after-gatherings.  These are colored somberly in dark browns and matte blacks, low voices, and quiet preparations.  Those close to the loss and experiencing deep grief sometimes acted a bit outside of the lines, but their errancy was accepted with deference, and, for sure, with extra visits for coffee and conversation for many days and sometimes weeks afterwards. 

     But, of course, there are also abnormal death experiences.  The autopsy I witnessed in a room with moon-thin light, odd smells, and grotesque vulnerability was the color of a silent scream, and yet we all kept within the lines as medical training expects.  The bodies we found and tracked in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina told tales of slash-red violence and midnight-black suffering and yet we kept quite within the lines, as military training expects. 

     Adults handle it.  We are expected to handle it, and with restraint, and we should and do usually color appropriately and within the lines.  Society and life feel safer, and maybe children grow up better able to handle it in their own futures by this example.     

     But there is one area where all bets are off. 

     The death of a child. 

Anyone can tell you that the death of a child is particularly heart-breaking in all regards and extreme deference is given to those parents who experience it. It is also traumatic to those who must ‘respond’ to it. Among a corps of necessarily stoic first-responders, it is legion that the toughest part of their job deals with the abuse or death of a child and they are understandably greatly affected by it.

    

But I have a sense of this kind of loss.

I lost both of my children to parental alienation, deliberately false allegations, and bias in the family law court systems. As for grief stages: I am usually numb, though whenever I see children of their approximate age, I experience a quickening. I relive moments with my beautiful young children; they leap alive in my mind. Quick movies play, and I experience a hug, a toy, a laugh, and the gentle holding of a little hand. A moment later, it’s gone, and I am again alone. And for the rest of the day, I want to sleep. This has gone on every day for over three years. Life. Death. Life. Death.

I cannot see the lines that I am supposed to be within. And there are no colors for this that I can describe.

Steps

                Just after I woke up this morning, I descended my stairs carefully.  I had soft thick socks on, the wooden stairs had a shiny finish, and my fear factor was at a ‘two’.  So, I deliberately planted each step firmly and I did that thing where both feet meet upon the same step before another step is ventured.  This is an old-people thing, of course.  As I later puttered about on the first floor, I dissected the significance of the ‘two’.  It should have been a zero.  Fear seemed like an intruder here—the uninvited kid at the party who is rumored to have a gun. 

I had gotten used to zero. For so long, falling was fun, and was seen through the prism of play versus injury. In the playground, we’d push each other down just to ignite a chase. As teenagers, we’d jump off our 10 foot high porch roof into the grass yard, having to clear a menacing metal fence underneath! We’d build up to that stunt as a rite of passage in the neighborhood. Later, I’d parachute out of airplanes in the military and, despite carrying heavy equipment and even jumping at night, we’d usually land without injury. (Myself excluded—but that’s another story!)

                 I’d had a fall down the aforementioned staircase recently, and ended up in a pile at the bottom of the stairs with my laptop and a few other things strewn about the impact area.  Memory came upon me while I was lying there catching my breath and teared up until she realized I was pretty-much OK.  Nothing broken.  But that scene must have looked like one of those commercials for a ‘life-alert’ device, where the actor who has ‘fallen and can’t get up’ looks to be about 80 years old.  

                There are many manifestations of aging along our lives’ journeys but to be worried about stairs feels like a big category jump; a jump into the last category of aging—that category where people talk wistfully about moving to Arizona or Florida and getting a one-story house with no stairs.  Another big category jump is when discussing surgeries competes with discussing sports teams as general conversation at a gathering.  We all remember that kid in 4th grade who had their tonsils out—so exotic and novel was the idea of surgery and hospitalization back then that we were mesmerized and even jealous of that kid.  All the special treatment they must have been given at home, and were certainly given back at the classroom!  But now I’m afraid to ask how someone is, for fear of opening up the door to the banalities of their various health ‘procedures’. 

                 Well, I guess I’m old.  I’m admitting that.  Whew, that was a big step I just took there.  A-Ha-Ha-Ha. 

                I picture it all as a long journey to the top of a hill and then down the backside to the final valley of death.  I’m over the top, am somewhere on the backside and, actuarial tables aside, I think my slight fear of stairs can give you an accurate grid coordinate.  The exact location of the top of the hill, the peak of one’s life, is different for everyone, highly subjective, and open to interpretation as to whether it’s a physical and/or mental thing.  Good arguments can be made for various ages and events up and down the ladder of human experience while life is shiny and strong.  We can, however, exclude a timid descent of well-lit ordinary stairs as anywhere near a peak life event.

                So, now that I’m here, what do I have to show for it?

                Well, a good lifelong friend and mentor said that perhaps the only thing that survives our deaths, after anybody who remembers us also dies, is our writing.  So, since I’ve been writing for many years, I picture the backside of that hill glittered with little pages here and there.  And this piece is now also behind me as I stumble downward through the end-of-life scree. 

See? It’s just over there, at the base of that fallen tree, fluttering gently in the fading light.

Well Being.

The day before my wedding, I went to check the well at the farmhouse where I was staying and where the wedding was to be held the next day.  The farmhouse got all of its water via an electric pump from this well and it was a big and professionally engineered well.  I would check it once in a while in its neat little wooden covered hut, and I always tipped the large wooden disc cover up so I could stare down into the deep cool clear water.  It was late summer, dank and florid with earthy smells.  I could  even smell the wet granite stones that lined the well. 

                This time, as I lifted the cover up, I was surprised to see a dead rodent floating on the surface in the center.  I could see that no such creature could get up the smooth granite walls of the well once it had fallen in.  After it died, it had remained floating and apparently slowly decayed on a lake of glass. Various grey and blue hues had spread out widely in concentric circles to cover the entire surface of the water in a sheen of decomposition.  In the middle of the target was a small hapless bag of fur, tufted carelessly, laying quietly atop the water like a dropped jacket.  I couldn’t see whether the fur had yet released the marionette of mouse skeleton to spin eerily through the cool water to the stone cold bottom.

                I pulled what I could out of the water with a big screen dipper used for taking the occasional leaves off the surface. 

                Back at the farmhouse, I thought about it.  Hmmm.  Big wedding tomorrow with people coming from all over.  Guests were staying with us.  Water for cooking, food prep.  Water for showers/bathing and drinking.  Almost immediately I thought about calculating how much bleach I could add to the water to ‘purify’ it.  I knew about this stuff from being an Army Officer and there were calculations one could work to make water potable for ‘field’ situations; bleach, in proper ratio, was the simple little miracle ingredient.  I typically had that type of Army manual around, found it, and decided to do it.  I was a trained and smart little Army Officer and really had no second thoughts other than an abstract interest in the implications of a bad outcome.  Ha.  But I was pretty sure about myself back then, and didn’t even devote much time to worrying.  The night before a large home farmhouse wedding and reception with all the fixin’s tends to be a little busy.   

                I measured the volume of the water in the well, calculated, added the bleach in carefully counted ounces, and stirred.  The next day we had the wedding, everything went great, and nobody ever got sick.  I would occasionally tell the dead-mouse-in-the-well story to various of those wedding guests years later and of course everyone was (safely!) aghast.

                Later, I would sometimes wonder about a couple of things here.  How could I have decided so cavalierly upon my ‘water treatment’ scheme versus simply buying lots of bottled gallon water from a supermarket for the day?  Cost wasn’t a concern compared to what we’d already spent on the wedding.  And, with a sad furtive shudder, I’d also wonder about the last hours of that mouse: the swimming, the exhaustion, and whether maybe, near the end, the mouse had had a stricken sentient realization.   

                So.  Time went on.  Years.  Jobs.  Houses.  Cars.  Kids.

And then I got divorced. The divorce, and subsequent legal proceedings, have been a struggle. My beautiful children were pulled away from me through a family court legal system that cannot, or will not, recognize bad-faith and malice. I haven’t seen Autumn and Lincoln in years. And I’m swimming. And it’s dark down here. And I’m alone. I cannot rest. And I’m very, very tired.

Amazon and the Wild West

Recently, Memory got an Amazon package in the mail, and, walking through the house with it, casually mentioned that she’d forgotten what she’d ordered. We both laughed sardonically, sensing the implications. Oh. My. God. It’s come to this.

It made me wonder if America was on the verge of a collapse like ancient Rome. But, I think the excesses of ancient Rome lacked the nuance of modern indulgence; Romans certainly had technicolor excesses but bread and circuses were simple brick and mortar events. Today’s quest for fulfillment plays out in a long Kafkaesque play where something is always almost going to happen. (Franz Kafka was a writer whose surreal fiction vividly expressed the anxiety, alienation, and powerlessness of the modern individual.)

The best part of doing cocaine is going to get it. (We’re not talking about Memory anymore, I have, ahem, a friend, who has some experience with this.) Amazon allows us to always be on our way to the coke dealer and that journey –knowing that something is ordered, and in the mail– is the fix. This personal fulfillment process –running concurrent with all the steps companies must take from the moment they receive an order until the items land in customers’ hands– gives an extended buzz of anticipation and it’s almost a shame that Amazon is making two-day delivery a standard because, when the product arrives, something dies. What remains is good, and maybe even useful, but not so important that you’d always remember its name at a party.

                I tend an extensive vegetable garden and I can tell you that the harvest is a different animal than watching the vegetables thrive and grow. If I could inject only one of the two into my veins, it would be watching the plants burgeon and stretch out green and lush in the warm brown dirt, soaking up water while reaching hungrily for the sun –and it would not be plopping the basket of picked vegetables on my kitchen counter at the end of the summer.

Maybe getting a package in the mail wasn’t always like this. I traced Amazon’s lineage on one of those ancestry websites back to Sears Roebuck, and Montgomery Ward. These catalogs revolutionized mail-order, and credit, and shopping as if in the big city. This was now done from the distant farm kitchen table miles from nowhere in the great wild West. Shopping equality came to minorities, and the poor, in a boon that hasn’t subsided. And I’ll bet that when they ordered a plow, or new shoes, or a rifle, or a wooden toy, or a gingham dress, –I’ll bet that when that box arrived on the weathered front farm porch –they always knew what was in the box.