On an Emergent Awareness of Impending Death (#fiction #prose #essay)

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Sometimes life just smacks you in the face. You’re just minding your own business and out of nowhere comes a big punch to the gut, or, yeah, a slap to the face or whatever. This mostly happens when you’re young. By the time you reach a certain age, if you are so lucky to live that long, you’ll be punch drunk enough, trust me.

Anyway, that’s why she couldn’t believe her rabbit was dying. No, she wasn’t pregnant or anything—her pet rabbit was riddled with tumors and needed to be put down. She’d never lost anyone that close before, and the tears came in waves. She was inconsolable, as you are when you lose something precious.

So she called her mother for comfort, which is a pretty reasonable thing to do, even for someone who is technically grown up and fully adult. Relying on mothers for comfort is a habit many of us never break until fate forces our hand on the matter. She called her mother and told her the devastating news, but her mother wasn’t really as sympathetic as she had expected, so she was a little crestfallen for a minute.

Her mother listened for a minute or two to the tears and lamentations before saying, “You go on like this for your rabbit when you know I have cancer, too?”

It was true that her mother had cancer and she definitely knew about it, but she was still naïve enough to believe doctors could save lives. She had heard of people surviving cancer, so she assumed her mother would be one of those, not one of the unlucky people you hear about in other families. We’re always pretty sure the worst things won’t happen to us, aren’t we?

She would be sadder and wiser soon enough, and maybe the rabbit served as a kind of omen or preparation for what was to come. Maybe it would help her get through the days, months, and years ahead. When you look back on things, it’s hard to say what helped or didn’t as you can’t imagine how bad things might have been otherwise. Trauma and grief can be pretty all consuming, you know, and your imagination for other possible worlds disappears.

You’re just sort of stuck, boxed in, and frozen.

Anyway, that’s how it all started. Tests, promising results, surgeries, promising outcomes, more tests, different doctors, different hospitals, different promises, and different prognoses were all to follow. Sure, the best of us indulge in magical thinking or just wishful thinking, anything to not indulge in despair, even when despair is rationally the correct choice. You pretend that rabbit cancer is categorically different from human cancer. You pretend doctors are magicians. You just get on with it.

Or sometimes you don’t. You decompensate. You look for comfort in anonymous sex, “mood altering” substances, or purely defiant denial. And you’re done for. Death keeps coming, and you find out you’re strong enough to face it down. I know, some people aren’t strong enough to face it down, but anyone reading this has been strong enough so far, so you’ve been strong for a long time.

Keep it up.

The Sad Solipsism of Suicide by Cop (#fiction #prose)

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IV

It’s not like I was his confidante or anything. It’s just that I did know him and talk to him from time to time, and I didn’t expect to hear anything about him on the news. But there he was.

A white teenager with reasonable grades from a “good” (meaning middle class, of course) family and neighborhood goes off the rails and does something crazy. And there were people on the TV saying how they were completely shocked. They never expected anything like that. It was totally out of character.

I mean this was way before “normcore” was a thing, but he was one of those guys with plenty of money and everything who just wanted to blend in and not bring any attention to himself. If he had any interest in fashion or trends, you couldn’t prove it by looking at him.

So I never gave him much thought until out of the blue they’re on TV saying some fool robbed a McDonald’s with a sawed-off shotgun and then kept pointing the rifle at the cops. They shot him in the leg and he fell and sort of slithered backwards into a cleaning closet all the while keeping that gun pointed at the cops. Anyone other than a middle-class white kid never would have made it that far, but couldn’t have lasted much longer. Texas cops run out of patience with guns pointed in their direction in short order, even when racism and classism aren’t factors.

So he died a bloody death in a hail of bullets, which must have been what he wanted. I couldn’t ask him, but it sounded just like what this other guy I met later said. Little Joey, the boxer, was always going on about how he’d show ’em some day. Joey would often wax poetic about dying on his front porch, surrounded by well-armed cops, shooting indiscriminately at them until he got blown to smithereens from all directions.

I lost touch with Joey, so I don’t know if he ever fulfilled his dream, but I did see a picture of him kneeling down with his fist in the air in front of a regiment of cops in LA. He made it into the LA newspaper and he didn’t even have to die for the privilege. I think his tri-colored Mohawk and metal spikes caught the attention of the photographer, but I can only guess, because I wasn’t there.

Some people just want to die impressively, but I never saw the point. Do they think they’ll be looking up from Hell, nudging their buddies, and saying, “Yeah, I really showed those cops a thing or two”?

On the other hand, I guess it’s better than how many of us die—in a hospital with no loved ones around, no control of bodily functions, and with little awareness of who anyone even is. But how does that matter, either? You go and then you’re gone. It’s simple and I decided a long time ago to stop fussing around about it.

The Lustful Ignominy of Death (#prose #fiction)

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III

The funeral was a real shit show. The deceased considered himself Christian, make no mistake about that, but his religious practice was quiet at best. He was sort of a non-practicing Methodist—just enough faith to count when he got to the other side, in case anyone was keeping score, but nothing more. Loud displays of devotion or, well, almost anything, made him uncomfortable. Maintaining decorum was paramount to him.

Can we just say he came from humble roots and wanted to keep his unrefined past buried? That’s why he’d been careful to lead a life of quiet dignity for the most part. When you’re a retired military officer, people give you a bit of respect, anyway, and he maintained a stable marriage and a reasonable display of material comforts for a few decades.

But sometimes aging men want to grab onto what they think they’ve been denied, and he saw the death of his first wife as an opportunity to indulge his long-denied carnal nature. When she died, he announced rather solemnly that he would take a year to grieve and then look for a young companion with “big tits.” And I guess he pretty much proved that you can achieve some of your goals with just a little patience and perseverance.

And so there she was—part trophy, part embarrassment. She was overtly sexual but also overtly evangelical. You might think of Tammy Faye Baker or something. Lots of makeup and tight clothes. You get the picture. And she went to one of those churches where people dance around and emote profusely. And of course no one would deny it was her right to choose the preacher for the funeral.

So you end up with all these retired professors, engineers, lawyers and so on sitting in amazed silence as this preacher says of the deceased, “I tried to think what he would want, and I realized he would want me to preach.” An hour of shouted invocations and praises followed with discomfort settling over the audience like a heavy fog.

So the man who spent a lifetime seeking quiet decorum was sent to the other side with all the subdued dignity of a summer tent revival. Due to separate circumstances, he was also sent to the afterlife with a cigarette between his lips and missing the ring he was wearing when the body was prepared for burial. Apparently his son thought he deserved the ring and that the cigarette was somehow appropriate to the occasion, and maybe he was right. Who am I to say?

 

Awkward Beginnings and Assorted Insecurities (#fiction)

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II

He wasn’t a virgin. He had definitely had sex more than once before and with more than one person, which was just another way of saying she was the third person on his sexual resume. He had enough experience to know where to put what and so forth, but things had never moved quite so quickly before. She was almost a stranger, even if they had talked in class from time to time.

To be fair, it wasn’t like she just threw him in bed and jumped on him. She invited him for pizza first, then she drove him to the park for a walk in nature. At the park, they sat in the grass on the slope of a kind of ditch, and he was lost in his thoughts, because that was where he spent most of his time. He was sort of staring into the distance, but he wasn’t looking at anything, really, when he felt a light kiss on the back of his neck.

She apologized for being so forward and said she didn’t generally do that. If she’d been more honest, she would have told him that anytime she’d sat in the grass with a man before, he had immediately put her hand on his crotch, so she wasn’t accustomed to having to get things started herself. A lot of women don’t meet the quiet boys, the non-sex-crazed boys, the shy boys, or the timid boys because those boys don’t meet a lot of women. If you think about it, it seems obvious.

But back at his room, she just expected to move straight to the bed, and that took him by surprise. Of course, he didn’t know that she’d taken some amount of speed earlier and was sort of buzzing around, not really in a relaxed mood, if you get my drift. She got the speed above board, more or less, because doctors are always willing to prescribe it for weight loss. They feel sorry for the chubby girls and want to do their part to help them be more desirable.

So that’s how you end up with a pretty well withdrawn young man going at it with a even-less-inhibited-than-usual somewhat chubby woman pretty much screaming and laughing as if she forgot they were in a fourplex with old and uninsulated walls. He felt embarrassed and awkward, but she didn’t seem to notice, so never mind. She was just in a routine, and he was out of his comfort zone. We don’t always end up where we expect to be, do we?

Texas Tornadoes and the Power of Prayer (#NaPoWriMo)

Screenshot 2019-04-10 at 05.58.12Oh, Good Lord, y’all, I thank we better git in the house. That sky is darker than Brother Jimmy’s sermon last Sunday, and it’s flashing like a God-damned disco. It’s gonna be a gully washer, all right, but Ronnie’s got the big truck if we git in any trouble, and we can surely trust Jesus will be with us. The last time we had a toad strangler like this, a big ol’ twister turned Alma’s roof inta toothpicks.

They say on the news that Greens Bayou is outta its banks, so y’all come on and let’s pray that God will watch over us. Come on in here away from those windows, and if you hear sumpin’ that sounds like a train, let’s hide in this closet and trust Jesus to know what’s right.

Some time later:

It’s over, so y’all come on give us a hug. It just goes to show Jesus is always by our side, watchin’ over us and protectin’ us. Uncle Raymond just called and said a tornado blew a tree on Bobby’s house and kilt him.

God bless his sweet soul.

Galena Park Memories (a story)

“Hey, Kenneth! You gotta birthday comin’ up, dontcha?” one of them blurted from the end of the counter.

“Yessir,” came the diffident reply.

“I think I’m gonna buy you a tractor. You think you’d like that?” the boisterous Screenshot 2019-03-25 at 13.31.33interrogation continued.

“Yessir.”

“I know you need sumpin’ to pull your head out of your ass!” With that, the guffaws erupted from all four at the end of the counter—all pleased with their comedic wit.

Those bullies said Kenneth was “retarded,” and they seemed to think that made it okay to talk to him like that. I was just a kid and didn’t know if words like “retarded” were bad or not, but I felt sorry for Kenneth. I don’t know how smart he was, but I know he never got my order wrong, and he could make a pretty mean grilled cheese.

He was born and raised in Galena Park, just like them bullies were, except he didn’t seem to mind it so much. I liked him because he never seemed to have anything to prove, and the cherry sodas he made were delicious. He never treated me like a kid, and I never treated him like one, either, even if he was like 40 or something.

I think that’s what bothered them bullies so much. Kenneth didn’t care. He didn’t get mad or cry or anything. He just made cherry sodas and grilled cheeses and kept the drugstore counter spotless all the while.

He was a good man, and them bullies knew it. But they had to try to convince people they were better than Kenneth, because everyone knew they damn sure weren’t any better than anyone else. And they weren’t any better than Kenneth, either.

Writing Through Illness and Grief Group

While mourning his daughter Tullia, Cicero took to writing a book of self-consolation. Thinking himself the inventor of this type of self-help, he said, “Why, I have done what no one has done before, tried to console myself by writing a book.” (This is quoted by Han Baltussen in the Nov. 2009 issue of Mortality in an essay titled, “A grief observed: Cicero on remembering Tullia.”)

I certainly don’t think Cicero was the first to console himself by writing, but he seemed to find it of value, and many after him have repeated the exercise. Writing can be a way of releasing out inner torment when faced with grief or illness.

If you use or have used writing as a consolation, I’d like to invite you to join the Writing Through Illness and Grief group on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/groups/256668978211572/). If you are not on Facebook but are interested in participating in other ways, please contact me at Randall@ethicsbeyondcompliance.com.