Monday, September 26, 2005

The culture of death

I've been telling colleagues and students about my grandmother's terminal illness, not to garner sympathy, but for pragmatic reasons. I need to find someone to cover my classes for a week so I can visit her, and I need simply to explain my sudden, seemingly random bouts of teariness.

Oh man.

As I said in my earlier post, I've been almost weirdly untouched by death. A very few friends and dear but not intimate family members; sweet though remote great-grandparents; a baby sister who had barely begun life. No one truly, truly close until now. Because I teach very young adults, no semester (indeed, almost no month) goes by without someone's grandparents, and sadly even parents, dying. Some of this falls into the joke category. There are those students whose grandparents routinely die when papers and projects are due. But most of it is genuine. I've seen real pain and confusion on these students' faces, in their eyes, in their words. I've even cried with them. I've offered sympathy and an ear for mourning friends. Still, I've only experienced this as an outsider. Until now.

Now I, too, am a member of the culture of death.

The death or impending death of a loved one is new territory and difficult to navigate. The maps seem to be disjointed and printed in Russian. How am I supposed to feel? How am I supposed to act? The two conversations I've had with Grammie since I heard the news have been weirdly full of laughter and optimism. For instance, it's damned funny that her step-great-granddaughter B (who never visits) has been by the apartment like the vulture she is to sniff around at the spoils of death. Grammie was so alarmed by B's coveting of a particular figurine that she insisted she get "later" that after B left, Grammie promptly wrapped it up and gave it to V, another great-granddaughter. B's tasteless behavior is occasion for a good belly laugh; Grammie's checkmate is even funnier. My son M and I are going to travel to see her in a few weeks (God, please let her still be ok in a few weeks), and she was thrilled by the news; it gives her something to look forward to.

Grammie doesn't want to die. And I am utterly unable to imagine the world without her any more than I can imagine the world suddenly without gravity.

Now students are not telling me stories of the parents and grandparents who just died or are dying and whose deaths are interfering with their schoolwork; they're coming to me in droves telling me about the parents and grandparents who died a few months ago. They're still mourning, but they're also joyful over the parts that were blessings: the swift deaths with no suffering; the situations like mine where there was still precious time to say and do things that ought to be said and done. These people know what I don't fully, yet: what the road ahead looks like and how it feels to travel it. Today I have shared a half a river of tears with people I only slightly know; I would never have considered doing this last week.

However, now, like it or not, I too am a member of the culture of death.


Waveflux said...

Bitty, I hadn't visited for a while and so just learned about your grandmother yesterday. There isn't anything I can offer except to recommend that you spend some good time with her before the end...but you already know that.

Personal experience of death transforms us: not necessarily for ill, or for good. It varies from person to person. My dad died back when I was sixteen; we were not close, but I remain affected by his passing in ways I'm just now figuring out - issues of manhood and adulthood. M's father passed about five years ago after a long and difficult illness, and she is now rather sensitive (as in thoughtful, not weepy) on family relations, hospice care, caregiving.

The landscape is altered after knowledge of death, as you have said. Our only consolations are memory, the knowledge that we are all members of that culture, and the certainty that the world eventually gives us - thank God - other things to think about.

Bitty said...


Thanks for the kind words.

We are, in fact, going to visit in a few weeks, hopeful that she will still be in relatively good health (indeed, still alive) at that time. She is, ironically, feeling well, has a reasonable appetite, and continues to live alone, although with a "I've fallen and can't get up" bracelet (which she's had for some time), and with people alternating spending the night at HER home. Nothing spells "you're dying" like being moved out of your home. So the family is working hard to keep her where she is as long as possible.

For me, some days are better than others. I'm a-ok 95% of the time, but now and then and often at the unlikeliest of times, I feel the oddest physical and emotional sensation. It's a mixture of dread and something else that I have absolutely no words for.

I can totally understand what you're saying about M's perspective. I don't think I was ever insensitive, but I feel a change. It probably is ultimately for the better.