I don’t do death well but then I hope I never do. Unless it’s my own, I guess. For that I want it done right, with none of the usual waffling or agonizing over small details, or, apropos to the cusp of Black Friday sales and my fierce determination to find a hard drive replacement, endless “research” for the best product at the best price. When the time comes I hope I see death coming and boldly step right up to it and say howdy-doo. Surprised I haven’t seen you before.
I know it doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes you’re there in the real world one moment and the next you’re not, your life and everything about it clipped as cleanly as strings on a marionette. Ideally, I suppose, that’s the way to go, quick and painless, no surprises. Rather than a slow, lingering death where parts of your anatomy lose interest in functioning and go on extended vacations, including, sometimes, your brain. Lori’s grandmother is that way, technically blind, deaf and incapable of doing anything more than rolling over in bed, lost in her own peculiar dreamstate that has included black helicopters, trips to China, invented children, covered wagon journeys and extended visits with friends and relatives long passed. Mostly she finds solace in her childhood or the early years of her marriage and rarely ventures into the unendurable present. In the same circumstances I’d want the same.
After the message from my mother I fell into a mood best described as surly. When Lori arrived home from work I was banging around in the kitchen, angrily throwing ingredients together for a smothered green chile breakfast burrito.
“What is the matter with you?” she asked.
“I’m hungry,” I said, and if we both knew there was more to it than simple need for nourishment we wisely let it slide while I diced green chiles and she scrambled the eggs, a culinary technique I’ve yet to master. It was only later that I told her that my uncle had died.
For a heartbeat she froze. And then she said something I didn’t expect: “He never got over Ricky’s death.”
Ricky—Richard Smith, his namesake, his son—no doubt saw death coming but not in the usual mode. I suppose there are as many ways to die as there are people or stars in the galaxy but his was both lightning quick and molasses slow, a conjoined experience where time drags even as events ratchet to a whole new level of intensity. Or at least that’s the way I imagine it was, having been in somewhat similar circumstances and having read of others. Those that survived, that is. Ricky and his partner were shot to death by an agitated mentally-ill man, and Ricky might have survived had he not tried to drag his mortally-wounded partner to safety behind the police cruiser. The fatal bullet passed between the dual plates of his vest and blew out his lungs and heart, or the physical heart, at any rate. Ricky’s heart was legendary and lives on. But Uncle Dick, as we knew him, never fully recovered from the shock.
For the next several years he tried living alone in a house in Tijeras Canyon east of Albuquerque. I always thought he seemed a little scattered though he had an infectious laugh that, as with his own father, was more like an explosive bark. (His, though, was different in that it held genuine amusement bordering at times on wonder, whereas his father, a retired deputy, was heavy with scorn.) It might have been the onset of Parkinson’s disease that short-circuited his thought processes and led him into financial disarray. At any rate, he simply faded into a gray ghost of a man before eventually relocating to Texas and his daughter’s care. He passed away two days before Thanksgiving.
His was a slow withering. At the end he could speak but indecipherably so, gibberish at best. It must have frustrated him something awful. I wonder if he saw death approaching and if so what he actually saw. For all the firsthand reports of radiance and light at the end of a tunnel we really don’t know what to expect. Uncle Dick, I like to think, welcomed death with open arms. “Let’s go see Ricky,” he would have said. “I want to see my parents.”
They’re all gone now. I’d almost forgotten that until my sister-in-law sent a small packet of photos taken at family gatherings when the family was intact. They were all there except for my father’s father, lost to a heart attack at an early age, and something of a rarity, too. My mother’s parents lived in Texas for most of my life so having them home for the holidays was special. It’s also quite possible if not probably that the images were taken in the summer, or fall, or another time of year independent of traditional family reunions.
And yet we were the typical American middle-class family, not merely cognizant of tradition but firm adherents, perhaps a little lower on the middle-class scale but steadily rising into a comfortable level of existence. I tend to rate these things by choices proffered at the dinner table. The gradual evolution from beans and cornbread, bean tacos and salt pork to real cuts of beef and chicken and, possibly the great triumph, breaded shrimp, was a culinary climbing of the social ladder. We lived on the fringes of the city and moved when the northern horizon disappeared behind the trappings of civilization. The Navajo homeland provided the only barricade to unbridled growth but by the time it was reached we’d settled down to a nice place with an arroyo at our backs and a view off the front porch of Sandia Peak. At night we could see the small glittering light of the tramway inching up the sheer face of the upper escarpment. We didn’t think it got much better than that.
And, like other American families, we died, one by one.
The images jarred me and not for reasons I could readily grasp. Rather than sorrow I felt a darkness descend more of irritability than anything else I could name. The burritos turned out perfect thanks in large part to Lori’s expertise, and the remainder of the day went about as planned, more or less. But I kept returning to the images she’d sent, and studied expressions like a forensic scientist, matching bloodline to facial characteristic, a task far easier than I would once have imagined. It was obvious we belonged to one another. It was obvious we were family.
Death robs us of potential. In many of the photos I was fairly young, but there were times when we were raising our own family that I felt a nascent desire to be more involved with these people who, in the end, were more like strangers, victims not of apathy as much as geographic distance and the rigors of a career. I find it both difficult to grasp and humbling to realize that for my three wonderful granddaughters and a bevy of nephews and nieces my face on a photograph will be little more than that of an acquaintance, someone who was there sometimes and mostly not, and, eventually, never again. As with me with my relatives, they will someday say, “I knew him, but I really didn’t.”