Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The life lessons of death

On this day in 1986, my great-aunt, awesomely named Linda Hamilton, died. She was 80. I was 6. I saw it happen.

I had been very close to her; she lived only two houses down from me. She'd had a stroke a few months earlier, and had been bedridden at my grandparents' house next door ever since. It was sad to see a woman I knew best for putting her hands behind her back and asking, "Which han' ya want?" before handing me a fun-size candy bar, unable to communicate without a sign to point to. 

My grandmother (her sister) and their other sister were there in her final moments, as was my mom and grandfather. They had me go into the kitchen, but that was only a few feet away, so I stood and watched the whole thing. 

I remember her face well. She was in mild distress, but otherwise it seemed like she just went to sleep. To date, it's the only time I've ever seen someone die. (I was at the mall with my girlfriend when my grandfather died 13 years later, and asleep in the next room when my grandmother died five months after that.) I'm not sure I could handle it now, but my innocence helped me a lot then.

The immediate aftermath on that June 11 day taught me many things about life. Some poignant, and some funny.

When my mom came into the kitchen, I asked her if Ninnin (as we called her) had died. "Yes, she passed away," she replied. That was the first time I ever heard that expression. Well, misheard it.

"She passed out," I would say for several days thereafter. Kids say the darnedest things.

My other great-aunt made a long series of phone calls. "Ninnin died." "Ninnin died." "Ninnin died." It was a rhythm, and it helped the news sink in. And I thought, "Man, we know lots of people!"

Within an hour of Ninnin's passing, two men in black suits drove up in a hearse. I'd never seen a hearse before, nor did I know how they knew to come get her. I got in my head that these men in black just knew when people died, and drove around picking them up in their bizarre black car. (One of the men reminded me of actor Curtis Armstrong. I probably would have asked him if given the chance.) Later, I would be dazzled by the funeral home, and the limo with the digital speedometer I rode in from the funeral home to the cemetery. (The funeral home was also where I learned to chew gum with my mouth closed, courtesy of an aunt who offered me Freedent. It's a very awkward thing to try to do when you've never done it before.)

All of that was a lot to absorb, and I did so eagerly. I knew it was a sad occasion, but the new experiences it brought forth — and all the relatives I got to see — were still exciting to this 6-year-old.

But perhaps the most important lesson I learned was that it was OK to cry. Prior to the funeral service, I'd rarely, if ever, seen adults shed tears (and when I had, it was a private thing). But at her burial, everyone was, including relatives I thought of as grown, macho men. I'd always been a sensitive kid, so seeing that made me feel more comfortable with my own emotions. I may not have cried at that funeral, but I would at many more in the years to come. And on many other occasions. 

After the funeral, my cousins came over and we played Atari, hide-and-seek and the Wheel of Fortune game I'd recently gotten for my birthday. I remember those times fondly. Death is a weird thing, because it can activate life in its wake.

Still, death sucks. So appreciate life while you and those you love have still got it. 

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