Tuesday, November 09, 2004

 

Random thoughts on death

These thoughts came to me, in no particular order, while I was pondering El Dia de Los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead. There is a profound difference between personal experience of death--as in my case, burying in the course of 3 years my 90-year-old Great-aunt; my 34-year-old cousin Paula Jo who died of a massive heart attack while mowing the lawn, with only her 3 small children home to phone 9-1-1; my mother's cousin and best friend, who was also my godmother, of a cancer detected in August 2003 that killed her on September 8, 2003; and my own 34-year-old brother David, who had a heart attack on December 4, 2003, and whom I found dead of a final massive heart attack on December 12, 2003--and the kind of death we are seeing daily on the news.

The link I posted yesterday, The Memory Hole > This Is War , shows images of unbelievable brutality and inhumanity, and it sickens us and saddens us when we see these images. But we do not experience the deaths, I think, at a visceral level. We do not experience them the same way we do the deaths in our own families.

This is, obviously, stating the obvious, and I realize that. The deaths we encounter, from which we struggle daily to heal (and I still am having an extremely hard time coping), are far more meaningful to us than the distant deaths we view on CNN.

And why, exactly, should this be so? That's the question that I've been tossing around my brain for the past several hours, after posting a reply on my The Zero Room blog to Chandira's comment about seeing a parade of dancing people dressed as skeletons. I've been fascinated since my brother's death with cultures that mock death, which Hispanics do in a very real way every November. By consuming candy skulls imprinted with their name in icing, they are, in a symbolic way, consuming Death with a capital D. They become the death-eaters, they gain control over this monster that is Death. That kind of thing brings me comfort, or at least relieves my own mourning briefly.

So, back to Iraq, and Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, and...and...and... The people who died had families who mourn them. The dead are mere numbers to those of us who view the siege of, for instance, Fallujah, from afar. Mere numbers. They did not break bread with us, they did not carpool with us, we did not take their children to the park with our children. We did not share any of the same relatives.

And yet they are all our family, and the fact that distance makes them less so, makes them abstract and surreal, something to argue about over the water cooler on Monday morning, should in and of itself be setting off clanging claxons of danger in our minds. We should care, we should be trying to heal from these deaths even as we do from the deaths in our families. Because when we cease to weep for the dead of places we may never see, we sell our own humanity to the lowest bidder.

And there is no obvious way around this, of course. The distant dead will always be the distant dead. We will not attend their funerals. We will not hold their grieving widow as she sobs on our shoulder. We will not take their kids to Dairy Queen to restore some semblance of normality. When a beloved relative dies, we cannot understand how the world goes on. W.H. Auden's poem becomes new and sharp and all-too-real. "Stop the clocks..."

We do not alter our normal lives when the death toll in Iraq rises. We do not call for a universal stoppage of clocks. We do not share in the pain another, distant family feels. We are so caught up in our own pains and stresses that we fail utterly to see the pain in the eyes of someone else.

No, there's no real end to this post, it's just a random babble, but as a human being, it all gives me pause.

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