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.”
Tom, I really enjoyed your story recalling loved ones gone on. I recall the day daddy's dad died and how much it hurt. I recall Granny Parker's death which was certainly unexpected, and was so glad I took Ashley to see her 2 days before she died. Mama's parents I recall fairly well. Ricky's I'll never forget, because of the newspaper headlines and such. And speaking of grandchildren, I am so thankful that I see them all almost every day of my life and two of my daughters also. I try and let them all know that I love them very much and try and attend all of their games, drill team performances and other activities, so they'll know that their "papa" loved them enough to take time out of his busy day to come see them perform. I hope that when the time comes that I'm gone, that they will look back and say that papa really loved us and enjoyed life with us. If they can do that, I'll be content knowing I made good memories for them of me.
Tom, you and Lori are right. Uncle Dick never did recover from Ricky's death. He seemed so lost the days leading up to and including the day of the funeral. That never did seem to go away, it just deepened and he seemed to be more intense as time went by. We all touch the lives of so many people during our journey on this earth. Some for the better, and unfortunatly, some for the worse. Hopefully, The ones we touch for the better will far outweigh the other when we, too, are gone. Petty little blow ups that seem so important at the time and make us angry with those in our lives blow over eventually. If we are lucky, there is enough left of the relationship to rekindle what was important in the first place. All we can do is let our families and our friends know that they are important to us and that we love them and maybe someday we will be remembered fondly, too. I love you.
Stark piece, but you've never been anything but brave in sharing what matters.
One comment. I dislike white text on black background so much that I may have to stop reading your blog. I'll check for a while to see it you'll change back -- or try something else. Readable text on-line is critical. This stuff is hard on my eyes.
DeeDee (and Wes) -- The sundering days are over. Thanks for your thoughts. You're fortunate to live within proximity to your kids, grandkids and parents, something Lori and I aren't able to do. This is obviously something I struggle with without seeming to arrive at any workable solution other than to struggle with. I'm not much good at Herculean tasks and suspect this will end in abject failure, but we plug on as best as we know how. I enjoyed your comments. They added a new dimension to the story.
I, too, always believed Uncle Dick never recovered from Ricky's death. His heart was broken.
You will be remembered, Uncle Tom. I wish we lived closer and it hadn't been so long since we visited, but I still feel I know you (and Aunt Lori) and I'll always have great memories. I love you.
We love you, too, Vikki. Hopefully the big family gathering will take place next year and we can see each other again. Or we'll just have to head west, something I never tire of doing.
Man, dude, you can write!
Somehow I missed this piece earlier.
I am always just totally blown away by your "obituary" pieces - this one is very powerful, and the ending... man! Perfect. Very moving, very honest.
So many good lines here, Tom. So many powerful ones. You have so much depth and come from unexpected places with these pieces.
I know you like to write naturey pieces, but your people pieces just shine! They shine, they soar, they sing. Put all of these people pieces in your next book, Tom. You capture so much of human nature here, our thoughts, our fears, things WE cannot put into words - but you can - and you do it so beautifully.
And... my condolences on the loss of your uncle, Tom.
Cheryl -- As soon as I'm no longer blinded by tears of gratitude I'll respond somehow. Thank you, thank you, thank you. You are a very special friend.
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