Monday, November 12, 2007

The Call in the Night

This story has a happy ending. I don't want to scare you, although I was scared. Just to tell the story and talk about the feelings.

Late Friday night I got the phone call every adult dreads: Chest pains. Emergency room. No point in my coming; I may as well stay home and get some sleep if I could. Debbie would keep in touch. As soon as she knew anything, she'd let me know.

That's right: the one who might be having a heart attack wasn't my father, my grandfather, someone in the older generation or generations. It was my lover, born the same year I was born. Someone of my generation who is vigorous, healthy, muscular—a man in his prime. And this struck me profoundly.

When I was born, I had four grandparents and four great-grandparents living, as well as innumerable aunts and uncles two or three generations back. Now my great-grandparents are all dead. My 90-year-old grandmother, who has Alzheimers, is the only grandparent left. Many of my great-aunts and great-uncles are gone. My father has been dead for nine years. I know about losing the older generations, the people who have always been here.

I even know about people dying too young: a college friend of mine murdered on the street at 23, Diane in a car accident at 22, Antony at 40 of congestive heart failure. I know about the tearing grief of losing someone whom you've known almost from the moment of conception, who had been breathing air a bare ten minutes when you first saw her, whom you've followed through every landmark from the first smiles and words to the engagement parties. I know about losing friends to chance or violence or lingering ill-health.

Somehow, to have my strong and healthy lover in the emergency room—that felt like a different kind of fear, potentially a different kind of loss. Oh God, do I have to learn all the different kinds?

He didn't die Friday night. He didn't even have a heart attack. But someday he will die; someday Michele will die; someday my sisters will die. That thought aches.

The thought of my own death is actually a comfort most of the time. I cherish that ultimate liberty of slipping away from the pain and misery of my life. My family has extraordinary tenacity, and most of us live long past the time when death would come as a relief. So the pneumonia, the asthma and bronchitis, even the tumor the size of a cantaloupe haven't frightened me about the future; they've made me miserable in the present. It's probably arrogance on my part.

But thinking about losing my generation is completely different for me than thinking about my own eventual death. My death represents my freedom. The deaths of my sisters, of my beloved Michele, of Alan, of my friends—those are deaths to dread, losses irretrievable.

Losing them is unthinkable, but someday, unless I die first, it will happen. One by one they'll all die, and I will. I clung to Michele this weekend, held fast to Alan Sunday night.

I'm not going to mope over the deaths that may happen today or in forty years. I'm going to live as well and love as hard as I can, because we don't get much time. I'm going to be kind, too, because a little brightness makes a difference.

This morning when I went to pick up my mail, the owner wasn't there. Neither was her elderly father, a kind Black man who was always sunny and thoughtful, who remembered to ask after my mother because she sent me packages sometimes. The substitute clerk had tears in her eyes. Friday night after he came home from work, the old man lay down and died in his sleep. An easy death; peaceful; the death he would have chosen, working hard until the last. But still so sad the clerk and I were both in tears.

Life is fragile. Love hard. Play hard. Be kind.

This story has a happy ending.

For now.

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