Late Fall makes me think of death. Maybe it is the empty trees. Maybe it is the gloomy early darkness and the eventuality of winter bearing down on. Maybe it is the history and traditions of New England that our culture has adopted and transformed into the full on Halloween experience. Or maybe it is that a few years ago my aunt and one of my close friends died within a week of each other. It is probably the last thing.
I have never really feared death. Not in a macho way, it is just something that happens as a part of life and I accepted the eventuality of my own passing. I think that I have far worse feelings about the passing of others than I would ever have contemplating my own death. I didn’t have any tragedies in my early life, and didn’t lose anybody close to me until I was in my teens, so I wasn’t directly touched by death but I knew it was around. I think that I lived much of my early life with the reckless abandon that many kids of my generation had, taking chances and embracing the rush that comes with danger.
When I was 13 my best friend moved away and I scrambled trying to find another group of people who would accept me. That fall I tried to prove myself to a group of guys who were a little rougher than the crowd that I was used to. Spoiler Alert: I wasn’t rough enough at the time to handle it. There was a lot of drinking and smoking and tough guy teenager stuff going on, and as the new guy I was the easiest target. One time things got so out of hand when I talked back to the “ringleader” of the group that he took things to another level. He went upstairs got his father’s pistol, made me get down on my knees to be forgiveness and put it to the back of my head. Apparently he removed the clip and was just “joking” but had had enough to drink that he forgot to take the round of the chamber. That was a pivotal moment in my life.
After that I realized that I needed to make some changes and started surrounding myself with better people, which was one of the greatest investments that I could have ever made. The guy who pulled the gun on me wound up dropping out of school and when I last heard of him about 10 years ago was in jail for making a sex tape with his 16 year old girlfriend. I was lucky enough to find new friends and set off in a positive direction, but that incident always stuck with me. I could say that it made me realize that I could survive anything and rise above, but in reality it put a thought in my head that no matter what happened I would somehow meet a violent end. This belief lead to a reckless college of experience of drinking too much, fighting too often, and feeling apathetic about everything. My friend Brad and I shared a prevailing belief that we wouldn’t make it to 30, so why not take chances. I apparently was wrong and have reached the ripe old age of 31, but Brad proved the point by not making it to 25.
After Brad died I pulled out of my spiral and spent a few years trying to be my best self. By that I mean working far too much, isolating myself from everyone in my life, burning all the bridges that I could, and spending my time off watching Pawn Stars and binge drinking. It was great. It took getting robbed at work and actually experiencing the threat of violence beyond my control to snap me out of my self destructive path. I turned things around and over the course of two years was able to actually make positive changes in my life, new job, new car, new apartment, new me. And as I was settling in to this new life the rug to pulled out from under me.
My aunt Pam was a character. A learned doctor, a comic, someone always chasing hobbies and obsessions, an obsessive online shopper, who spent most of her life keeping people at bay. Sound familiar? We developed a pretty close relationship and spent a lot of time talking through my experiences and chasing her memories. She was also a junkie who burned so many bridges (at least in her mind) that she died broken and alone. We had a great conversation a few days before she died, we talked about Lou Reed. Now listening to the Velvet Underground makes me sad.
I knew that Pam’s passing was inevitable and while it hurt it was bearable and I was able to console myself knowing that she was no longer in pain. What wasn’t bearable was hearing a few weeks later that my friend Dustin had passed. He was always the life of the party, a tiny little ginger who lived much larger than his stature. We only knew each other for a few short years, but he made a huge impact on me. When he died it tore me apart. Dusty was so full of life and he died in a terrible accident that could have happened to me thousands of times over the years. His death hurt a lot of my friends more, out entire friend group was destroyed, which took out most of the support system that I had left. We all fell into despair for a while a while, but eventually we manned up and got busy living.
A few years ago I started reading stoic philosophy and learning about Roman customs. I was captivated and fascinated by the idea of Memento Mori. The concept is to remember death, which is a statement that cuts both ways. It can be a “live the best that you can because death could be right around the corner” like that cheesy Live Like You Are Dying song that always plays on the Muzak station. Or it could be a “Don’t get too full of yourself, because someday you will die and be nothing but dust and nobody will remember who you are” which helps to keep me grounded. Learning from the stoics is much more rewarding than iconizing the skull and crossbones or memorizing lines from Thanatopsis like I used to. It allows me to find peace with whatever is going on in my life, good or bad, knowing that things, including life, are temporary. These books are full of wisdom that has stood the test of millennia and still rings true while also being incredibly quotable and relevant.
I like to think that I have started to become more comfortable with death. I worked in long term care and for 18 months would start my day off with an email that listed which patients had died during the night. I suppose that this helped me to rationalize that while death can effect us all in the end we are nothing but names on a list just waiting for someone to update our status in a computer to deceased. In theory I have hardened myself against death and readied myself for it. I don’t believe in God or an afterlife, so I have nothing more to look forward to so I might as well make the best of it.
I work in a field where death is constantly present, and spend a lot of time with comics who bring tragedy to the stage, and have become very comfortable with it. Along the way I have learned that only through knowing the darkness I can enjoy the light. Being aware of that contrast makes the good parts of life so much sweeter. Everything in life, including life itself, is temporary, so why not make the most of it. Everyone I know is going to die, and I am prepared to celebrate their lives rather than mourn their deaths. And when it my turn I can only hope to approach my grave like one who wraps the draperies of his couch around him, and settles down to pleasant dreams.
“Do not act as if you were going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over you. While you live, while it is in your power, be good.” -Marcus Aurelius