Seriously, last week I was in some out-of-town parking lot and a woman comes up and goes, “Are you Amy?” My sister Amy lives a billion miles away. I haven’t lived in the same state as her, haven’t been asked by a teacher “are you Amy’s sister,” for decades. So, when it happens now, I take it as a sign to yield to the truth that she’s the best writer with the most dramatic birthdays and more hair than me and WHATEVERWHATEVER. Here is a guest post. By Ann’s sister Amy.
Everything I’ve ever submitted for publication, that’s been accepted, anyway, has related in some way to death. Religion and death, childbirth and death, dreams and their (metaphorical) death; you name a variation of a macabre punch, and likely, I’ve written it already. Even the time I was featured in a fashion blog, it ended up, inevitably, being about my death.
It wasn’t a choice. It’s more like an undeniable consequence of my father’s unexpected premature exit. It’s like being a vegan, or remembering that you’re allergic to latex, or finding an outfit that accommodates an insulin pump; day after day after day, it’s just there, like breathing. Part of maybe every fourth thought.
“When I die,” blah blah blah.
“I hate to spend the money on something that only lasts one summer, but I’ll be happy we did things like this when I’m dying.”
“Wow, WFMT plays the best songs. It reminds me of that song I want for my funeral. What was the name of it again? I totally need to look that up. I don’t want someone to just come along and plug in `Amazing Grace. ‘ What? Are we out of parmesan cheese again? How did that happen?”
It’s like that.
Many years ago, I sang up north at St. Gertrude on Easter morning, with the composer serving as accompanist. The choir was stacked with paid cantors from all over the city, all of us strangers until Jim started rehearsing his song. It’s the kind of rhythm, chord progression, and choral harmony mix that makes you instantly feel like lifelong friends with everyone who has their pitch, which of course in a paid choir, is everyone. It was such an uplifting experience that I took it back to my own conductor and said, “hey, you know, instead of one lone tenor and some tympanis in the balcony, we should really sing on Easter morning. And we should sing, specifically, this.”
He said no. That’s when it hit me: besides being macabre, I’m exclusive. I’m the kind of person who will only sing in a church choir so upscale that the conductor, as much as he loves me, won’t stoop to indulge in a Sandi Patty song, even as a prelude, even for my last Easter above ground. I’m like….classy macabre.
Miller Analogy: What my sister Ann is to fashion, I am to death.
The last time I saw my father was on Thanksgiving night. I had a really, really bad cold, the kind that seems like it must technically be some kind of dangerous pneumonia. I almost didn’t go home for dinner. I lived in Chicago, way up north in east Rogers Park, so it was somewhat of a commute on Thanksgiving morning to my far south suburban home. Normally I was up for a series of long train rides, but I could barely walk. In the end, something compelled me to drag myself out into the cold dark isolated morning and get to the only Metra scheduled before noon that day. We always put up the Christmas tree after dinner. My job was the lights. I basically just laid on the couch watching everyone work. “I’ll make it up to you next year,” I promised my dad as he strung every last light himself. I meant it.
Maybe he would have offered to drive me home even if I hadn’t been sick. It was my first Thanksgiving living on my own, so there’s no precedent. When we got to my apartment complex, he seemed to almost leap out of the driver’s side so he could get to my door and let me out. For the first time, our ride to somewhere I lived didn’t include carrying at least 15 loads of my things packed in backpacks, laundry baskets, and milk crates. I wasn’t moving in or out of college; I was home, and my home wasn’t his. Maybe that sudden realization was what the next few minutes were about.
We were directly under the streetlight at 1459 W. Morse. If you go there today, you can see how it almost makes a spotlight on the sidewalk. A theater lighting crew couldn’t have set it up better. A few panes down the sidewalk, someone once etched “Long Live God” into the wet concrete. “Make sure you bundle up. Chicago winters are cold. That’s why they call it the Windy City, you know. Well, that and the politics. I know you can take care of yourself, but I still worry.” Then he hugged me, for a long time. When it seemed like we were done, he pulled me closer for one last embrace. We both said I love you, heartfelt, not fake. He got into the car, drove away, and exactly one week later, the Thursday night after Thanksgiving, almost to the same hour that we said goodbye, he died.
Were I writing a narrative, the way it actually happened is so immaculate that my editor would insist that I cut or change most of the details to make it more believable. For a sudden death, we had basically a perfect ending.
I had a good friend in college, a non-traditional student (31 years old! The epitome of wisdom!) who rode a motorcycle and had worked as a professional photographer before deciding to pursue a degree in ministry. Many years after graduation, we met up at a restaurant and the first thing he said was: “Wow, you even smell the same.” I did. He remembered all kinds of details from the one time he’d visited my childhood home, had collected the best stories from every road trip (we were in a touring company together), and, as he’d been working some freelance hours as an airport limo driver, gave me tips on the little known routes. From that day on, I was hard core side streets. He’d been at my father’s funeral; he’d also been to the funerals of both his parents. We could talk like most people our age couldn’t, yet. Those few hours deposited me on fluffy clouds for weeks afterward. I was only in my mid-twenties, so an encounter with a friend that I hadn’t seen for years, picking right back up as if we’d never spent a day apart, was mostly still the stuff of clichés in which older people spoke. It was a threshold moment; I had one of *those* friends.
People mocked him a little bit for being so cautious. They called him “Mr. Safety.” That’s how I knew, when I heard he’d been in a motorcycle accident, that it couldn’t have been his fault. It turned out that the chance of a piece of flying gravel hitting one’s artery at the exact angle and torque to cause death before the ambulance could get there was something like zero.
My college roommate died shortly after her wedding, right as they planned to start a family. My graduate school professor, who I mentally cursed for giving me a B and scrawling a less-than-supportive note across the top, didn’t make it through the subsequent semester. A good work friend died in the hospital, about seven days after surgery. The best boss I ever had didn’t die, but almost did, didn’t wake up for almost a year after surgery in another hospital, was sent home to die, but survived, albeit with brain damage. A child, due on Christmas day, made it only a handful of weeks, exactly to Good Friday. Classy, and consistently heartbreaking. That’s less than half my actual stories. You can’t make a career out of writing the same random catastrophe over and over, even if it’s true. As Joanne Greenberg once told me, “At a certain point, you have to leave out some of the tragic details, so your reader doesn’t throw your book across the room.”
Over the years, I’ve developed a habit of going through my things pretty regularly and carefully, conscious of not wanting whoever has to come in and clean up after me when I drop dead to have excessive work. I’m not sure, if my father was still alive, that my files would be quite so carefully labeled, so my kids could find things like their social security cards or birth certificates if I suddenly wasn’t there. It seems especially important as December approaches, as I either outlive my father – or don’t. It also seems increasingly irrelevant. My grandmother on my mother’s side just turned 94. My father’s grandmother lived to be 101, 52 years past 49. Were I her, I wouldn’t even be at the midpoint of my life yet.
Were I my father, I’d have exactly five months left.
When my grandfather was diagnosed with cancer a few months after my father’s death, he contemplated out loud what it was like to face a terminal diagnosis, with time and enough energy for awhile to clean up after oneself, plan the funeral, have a few final adventures and a chance to say many goodbyes. Referencing my father’s sudden unexpected fall to the floor, he mused, “that’s the way to go.”
Maybe I will disagree someday, but for now, I think he was wrong. The chance to live life conscious of its impending end, whether it’s a few months or 52 more years, is all we have, really. David Nicholls, in One Day (which you really should read, perhaps right now), writes: “He wanted to live life in such a way that if a photograph were taken at random, it would be a cool photograph.”
I always assumed that when I got to the last age my father had ever been, the hardest thing would be not knowing whether I’d make it past the day he died. Now, I think that’s probably absurd. Even someone with my bizarre track record of sudden hyper-poetic tragedies wouldn’t have the luxury of knowing, to the day, when fate would strike. Maybe people who follow the assortment of law-of-attraction philosophies are onto something. Perhaps the way to go is to live like 101 is the new 49. I don’t expect to be followed by paparazzi any time soon, but I want to live life in such a way that if a photograph were taken at random, it would be a classy photograph.
And to that end, I need to go shopping.
OMG Amy. You are so old and hooray for that. Happy birthday.