This uncertainty seems to be an increasing element, encroaching on me beyond its normal "winter depression" boundaries. I should be used to it, but every so often, it still takes me by surprise that I am not where I want to be in my life, and that I seem to not be making much progress. Usually it's little things that nudge me into an apathetic lethargy...another job rejection letter, hearing about how my friends are struggling on the market (most worse than me), not finding anything on television, my drinking partners holed up with their computers instead of sharing minipitchers, and so forth. Sometimes its nothing at all. Other times, however, something sizeable comes along and does some real damage.
Last Thursday, I was throwing stuff together for the second of my two night classes. With ten minutes left, I checked my mailbox, hit the restroom, and started filling up my water bottle when my cell phone rang. It was a friend of mine calling from Florida...a really good friend, but I fear he's a bit of a Luddite, so I tend to lose contact with him in between my visits to the ancestral homeland of Jacksonville. The call was, in short, unusual.
I was happy to hear him, but before I could let him know that I was off to teach, he told me "I'm afraid I have to hit you with some bummer news." A friend of ours, it turns out, died that afternoon.
I taught the class pretty much on autopilot...luckily, I've been doing this long enough to where I can go into my "blank space" and just unconsciously ramble on for an hour fifteen without thinking of much of anything...which is what I did. I hurried down to my office, ran into a student, and came very close to snapping off said student's head before heading out to the frigid dark, with car scraping and an icy drive ahead of me. I tried to play loud disgusting rock music for the ride, but it didn't help me much.
The whole time I was heading back home, my brain was locked in the most depressing battle in recent memory. In this corner, I had all the memories of my deceased friend R....and they ranged from life-of-the-party moments, to memories of performing petty vandalism, to the times where my friend would come close to snapping, whether from too much alcohol, girlfriend problems, or, on occasion, for no real reason whatsoever. I remembered when R. began therapy, which somehow made him less social. I remembered hanging out with him and other friends, listening to new (to us) music, smoking way too many cigarettes. I remembered R.'s smile and infectious laugh.
In the other corner, however, battling my varied memories of my late friend, was something else. It wasn't the standard dark, morbid, "what happens when you die?" stuff, either. Instead, something was reminding me of exactly how long it had been since I saw him. I also started to wonder how well I really knew him in the first place. I knew he had some issues, but I never really knew what they were. I knew R. could snap, but I was never able to predict when it might happen...or know if I could anything do about it. This friend was a friend of my brother's first, and during that drive home, something was reminding me that as much as I liked hanging around him, I was probably mostly "the little brother" to him.
Coming home provided no solace. The lovely spousal unit was at a conference, so the house was dark. I called the friend who broke the news to me for more info, but it was not a comforting conversation. R. died of liver failure...but, of course, the story was more complex than that, and I have to wonder if his body gave out or if he simply gave up on living. Knowing I couldn't make it back for the funeral didn't help any.
After the phone call (which I had to break off early because I just couldn't think of anything to say) and a few moments of quiet reflection, I finally decided that, for the love of all that's decent and good, I had to do something fun. Luckily, a friend of mine was available, so we had some drinks and played video games where we smashed stuff.
This isn't the first time I've experienced loss. Both my grandmothers have died in the last few years, and I wasn't there for either one of them. My paternal grandmother had slipped into a coma by the time I could've seen her, and my maternal grandmother was in another country. I don't think I knew either of them nearly enough (especially my dad's mom)...I'm not sure that's entirely my thought in either case, but that doesn't stop me from feeling guilty.
This one was different. I knew R., spent plenty of time with him, and enjoyed his company immensely. However, I always had the sneaking suspicion that, as much as I liked him, I was probably only a blip on his radar. Sadly, this is a suspicion which extends to many people I know...there are many people who I value highly and enjoy immensely, in spite of my suspicion that they don't really think much of me at all or (in one documented case) actively dislike me. But with them, I guess there's always some part of my mind which argues there is still time to make those connections, even though it will probably never happen. No such time exists with R., though...so his death was like having hope torn away.
Even though this upsets me, it's not the thing on which I find myself dwelling. From the sound of it, when R. died, he was not the happy, friendly, lively person I remember. Instead, he was lonely, depressed, and, to some extent, destroying himself. I wonder how he felt about his life, about the impact he had on the world...and, unfortunately, I am not optimistic.
Of course, I've been thinking about this a lot over the last week. I know of no list of "good ways to die" or "good thoughts about death." I hear lots of advice, but most of it seems trite, beside the point, or incredibly naive. It would be easier if I was a Klingon or something...a glorious battle would be enough, in that case...but instead, I just have to struggle on and do the best I can.
What have I come up with? Two things that at least provide a bit of comfort and guidance to me.
One of my favorite tv shows deals with death a lot, and earlier this season, the protagonist told a dying patient that the best he could come up with was to hope your last thought is a happy one. I like that. There are lots of marvelous things out there to see, amazing people to know. Warren Ellis once said that every day we're here is a bonus. I tend to agree. Any day that I know I can converse with friends, learn something, see my beautiful spousal unit...those are good days, and those are things I want to remember when the time comes.
The other good thought comes from one of my favorite books, where the progatonist goes on a rant, which I find notable:
- we drink 'til we stink and we smoke 'til we choke because that's how we get things done, you and me. Spending our lives making things and making things out of our lives, because anything else would be dull as hell. And we're damned if we're going to sit at the other end of whatever years we get, saying, well, what the f* was that for?
Doing something helps. But it's more than just that. It's good to make an impact on the world, to change things in some way, but there are other issues to consider. Am I helping? How can I make the world a better place than before I got here? What can I do to improve the place, to help people's lives? I firmly believe it's the most moral question we can ask ourselves, the best thing we can do.
And that's all. Know people. Enjoy their company. Try to help them. I hope it's enough.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to dive into that mound of work, try to make some headway...and maybe that will help.