Real life is tricky. It doesn’t have a plot, a story arc, nor in the grand scheme of things a beginning or an end. It isn’t a bowl of cherries, a song, nor is it a board game and it certainly doesn’t have a grand design, a point or subplots running throughout in meaningful, descriptive, poetic verse. It certainly ‘is,’ but we just seem incapable of accepting it at face value and feel compelled to define it, box it, and quantify it. As if.
My life was filled with dead people. In the good old days, the days of yore and yesteryear, the times far enough in the past that we wax nostalgic about how grand and simple and vital everything and everyone was, burials were halted during the deepest, darkest, frozen part of the year in those locales sufficiently far from the Earth’s equator that the ground turned solid enough to preclude the digging of holes worthy of accepting a corpse. In these frozen times the pragmatic thing to do was to store the earthly remains of the newly deceased like cord wood, stack ‘em high and deep in a secure spot safe from roving scavengers that might gnaw on Auntie’s ankles or go mining for gold in the dearly departed’s mouths. Not all animals scurry about on four legs after all.
The dead people that filled my life were not racked in a room nor did they hang from meat hooks. Though technically they had already been buried below ground or cremated, placed in urns and stowed in crypts, they none the less roamed freely through the corridors of my mind, heart and what passed as a soul. No one else could see them but they haunted me relentlessly.
It hadn’t always been so. Time was that I gave little thought to the dead. That started to change when my mother, Jean, passed away in 2008. She “celebrated” her 88th birthday the first week of December and before Christmas rolled around she died. It was, “For the best,” and we all moved on with our lives but my world changed when hers ended. This cataclysmic change wasn’t something you could see but I felt the seismic ripples from crown to toenail. I started talking to the dead and the dead started to grasp at my heart and make it as cold and motionless as their own. I didn’t know it then but that was to become the prelude to my story.
Just to punctuate a point both of my beloved’s parents died too. First Eileen’s father passed just before the date clicked over to a new century and we saw all those shiny new zeros on the calendar for 365 days and then in the beginning of 2008 her mother died. I am, or rather was, a few years older than my wife and I had been born first of five where she was last of six. Her folks were old when they left this Earth and truth be told I did not comprehend just how devastating their deaths must have been to her. She was not one to express herself much and I assumed her grief was similar to the loss one feels for a grandparent, real, but somewhat remote. Mom’s death was a wakeup call to me and I apologized to my wife for my lack of insight. She responded with, “That’s alright. I understand.” She probably did, too.
Over the next six years I came to realize just how fundamentally my world changed when Jean died. It wasn’t obvious at the time. I had an 18 year old son and a 15 year old daughter along with a 47 year old wife and I loved them dearly. It wasn’t long into 2013 before Dad passed away and we repeated the same tired old lines; how he had lived a long, loving life and how the Good Lord had called him home. His death hurt even more than Mom’s but neither slammed me to the ground the way my wife’s did. Eileen was a strong, vibrant woman. It’s a shame she was also not as attentive of a driver as she should have been. Wham, bam, good-bye, ma’am.
Life isn’t like a book. There isn’t a specific beginning that we can point to and even though each of us will pass away in the very short term, human beings have lasted eons and could endure far, far into the future, so a definite end is pretty much out of the question too. Since we are used to stories that have a beginning, conflict, resolution and denouement I will try to give comprehensible structure to the chaos that is reality and present my narrative in a logical and sequenced form. I repeat, “As if.”
Let’s begin on Christmas of 2012, a time when I was working 50 hours a week, paying bills, helping our post high school aged children grow into caring, competent adults and enjoying the finer things in life such as vacations, triathlons and occasionally acting in community theatre productions. It would all come crashing down on March 15, 2013, -2057 years to the day of the death of Julius Caesar, but I didn’t know that then, so no one reading this could possibly know it now; could they?
Monday, December 24, 2012
One hundred billion have walked the Earth in the last fifty thousand years and I had it better than almost all of them. I knew it, but that didn’t change my ennui, my moping, my melancholy.
Like most successful Americans I felt as though I’d “picked himself up by my bootstraps.” I knew the truth; knew I was fortunate to be born in a country where opportunity was abundant at a time when armies did not maraud across her plains and doctors had some idea of what was and was not healthful. My biggest problem was that most of what I have had been handed to me on a platter. I didn’t want life to be hard but was growing weary of seeing a world where it too often appeared that other folks got so much for so little effort; where they were getting my share of the pie.
I liked numbers so I knew that my income was smack in the middle for men in their fifties with a master’s degree and that my wife’s was commensurate for a woman who’d taught elementary school for almost thirty years. Eileen and I worked hard by 21st Century, U.S. standards, but how hard was that? We expected to be young, strong, fit and healthy until the day we died- the T.V. and magazines said we could have it all and even though we’d laughed at the hype, down inside we still believed it.
We’d started out as a team decades ago and had stuck together through hard times. Our two children were grown and our son had left the six bedroom, four bath home we’d lived in for nearly twenty years. Max had moved west to Ames and Shawn was south in Iowa City. The McMansion on Capri Drive had been excessive for a family of four and now that it was just the two of us our house was a testament to rampant American consumerism. When I’d broached the topic of downsizing Eileen asked, “Where will be put the grandchildren when they visit?” There weren’t any yet, but maybe someday.
Financial struggle was relegated to our past. We’d worked, saved, and now were reaping the rewards of our labor. That part was okay, but somehow security brought discontent. When her parents passed away and we subsequently inherited our share of wealth our financial net worth went from being “typical American” to “average American,” a number seven times as high. The top earners in the USA, the 1%, made the financial net-worth curve highly non-indicative of what most folks have and owe. Eileen and I had fought hard for prosperity and now I was discovering what happens when we’re handed everything, what happens when you don’t have to work anymore. I was learning that fat and lazy is more than just a phrase.
What’s the point of hard work, of sacrifice, if the end is just more glitter, more shiny, more stuff? Unearned wealth had brought not a feeling of contentment, but rather a feeling of obsolescence. Our nest empty, our struggles seemingly behind us, I had entered a phase of life where nobody really seemed to need me anymore, and to add insult to injury the statistical numbers told me that people with greater wealth are more likely to divorce than those who need each other for financial security; seems the weak bond of pragmatism is all that holds a lot of couples together. Would unearned, inherited money and affluence ruin me and my marriage? Where exactly was I going?
And to cap off this melancholy it was Christmas Eve and our nest was empty. On Saturday the 22nd we’d visited the little house on Keokuk Court our younger child, Shawn shared with her roommate, Portia. I had wanted to ask about why the two girls shared a room in a three bedroom house but Eileen had just looked at me oddly and shaken her head. Portia was a lovely girl and if my daughter was involved with her I wanted to know but Eileen had said, “How is talking about this going to change anything? Just let it lie.” The girls were visiting Portia’s family in Cincinnati and wouldn’t make it home for Christmas this year but Max was due to arrive sometime before midnight. Max worked as many hours as his school schedule permitted at the Red Lobster on Buckeye Avenue in Ames and would make the two-hour drive down to Rapida Cedro as soon as his shift was over.
Late on Christmas Eve night, when we were through, I had asked, “Was it good for you?”
Eileen had shrugged and answered, “Yes. Well, I mean, it was fine; about average. How about you?”
Her face had fallen and she’d whispered, “Really? Sorry.”
“No, no; wasn’t your fault. I mean, we tried, right?”
“Yes, but I know you did it for me.”
“No! Not entirely,” I insisted. “I wanted to, really. There just weren’t any fireworks; you know?
“Yes. Maybe next time,” she had agreed.
Eileen had dragged me to church for Christmas Eve services and we’d left home at 8:20 for the 9:00 o’clock Mass. It only took five minutes to drive to church but Eileen wanted to be sure and get a seat. It was the only Christmas service we had ever been to where the pews were only three-quarter full and neither one of us had any idea why the church was so empty.
Rather than let it alone I’d asked, “Have you ever seen the church so empty?”
Shaking her head she’d said, “No! I mean, what was it, like half full? And on Christmas Eve!”
“No. No, I’d say at least two thirds, closer to three quarters, but usually there’s people standing in the back.”
Eileen looked at me over her reading glasses. “Are you mad that we left so early?”
“Well, you are ridiculous on that score you know. Mass starts at nine and we leave here at 8:20 for a five minute drive? You are absurd sometimes.”
Having put her on the defensive she snapped, “I wanted to get a seat.”
“No, you wanted to get your seat. Your ‘special’ pew,” and I threw in air quotes just to twist the knife handle a bit.
“Fine. But if we had had to stand you’d have been grumbling all through Mass and would’ve wanted to leave early.”
“Your ‘special pew.’”
“I said fine. It was a lovely service. You seemed to enjoy the singing.”
“Yes, the singing was nice. I wish they’d have sung a chorus of “Silent Night” in German; that’s always fun.”
“For you, anyway. I don’t think most people like singing in German.”
“At least we did a chorus of “Joy to the World” in Latin. That was good, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, dear. That was fine.”
We had arrived home by 10:30, found time to bicker and by 11:00 Eileen was ready to head upstairs to bed. When she asked if I was coming up I responded with, “I’ll stay down here and wait for Max to get home.” She said goodnight and we exchanged a passionless, arid kiss. I knew that Eileen preferred that I sleep in a room other than the one we shared because of my snoring and that she would be secretly pleased if I fell asleep on the family room couch. She got her wish.
I closed my eyes and began to reminisce about the times when the children were young and Eileen and I had been passionate about life and each other, when we’d shared a vision and worked hard for a common goal. I was soon snoring on the couch and exchanged my reminiscence for dreams and the dream that I surrendered to was simple and sweet.
In the dream Eileen and I battled the world with one arm around the other while holding the precious gift of our two, small children safely out of harm’s way. As a couple we contorted and fought all comers to protect ‘other,’ be it spouse or child. This dream of a shared life with a mutual goal of protecting the whole while simultaneously creating a world full of opportunity for the generation to follow was accompanied by a strong feeling of enjoying the moments that today had to offer. The struggle, the purpose, and the mission danced together in harmony and fate’s hardships were merely obstacles to negotiate and overcome.
No doubt my sleeping face wore a smile when Max arrived a little before 1:00 a.m. Our kitchen adjoins the room where I slept and Max flipped on the bright, glaring, eyeball searing there and I awoke. “Oh, hey, Dad. Didn’t mean to wake you. Uh, merry Christmas.”
I sat up on the couch, looked at my son from across the room, checked my watch and smiled a crooked, half grin. “Merry Christmas, buddy. You’re late.”
“Yeah, I stopped off at the Collins’ to wish ’em merry Christmas. Mom didn’t say you were gonna wait up.”
I stiffly stood and walked over to my son, “I just decided to. How are Brad and Anne?”
“Good. Yeah, they’re good. How about you? How are you doing?”
Standing next to Max the essence of the dream, the truth of the moment, swept over me and I realized that my work was not nearly over and that the opportunity to feel, express and share love was nearly infinite. We had been given a gift of financial wealth and now needed to use the gift in a way that brought us satisfaction while simultaneously helping others to experience the rewards that life has to offer.
Not being much of a Chapter and Verse kind of guy I muttered, “A miser sits and counts his shekels but a wise man would look for ways to cast his loaves upon the waters,” and smiled as the realization that there was important work to be done both for my offspring and those unrelated to me renewed in me a long absent sense of direction.
Max looked at me and asked, “Huh?”
Wrapping my arms around my taller and leaner boy I lifted him off the ground in a bear-hug. “Great. I’m doing great, now that you’re home.”
“Cool. It’s good to be home. Nice to have two days off.”
“Yeah. Life can be hectic, but it is what we make of it, isn’t it?”
I put him down and whispered, “I guess. I’m going upstairs. I just wanted to wish you Merry Christmas. I love you.”
“I love you, too. I’ll see you tomorrow, alright?”
“Perfect. See you tomorrow.”
“Hey, Dad? Are you okay?”
“Not yet, but I think I will be. Goodnight, buddy.”
I climbed the stairs unsure of what the next step would be, but whatever it was it would involve doing more than counting shekels, either the physical or the emotional kind.