Sunday, August 8, 2010

A Few Random Thoughts

This is the third straight day I have felt compelled to write about the death of my good friend, Phyllis.

Maybe I am obsessing. But I can't really help it. I keep remembering things that I had long forgotten. And maybe, somewhere in the back of my mind, there is the belief that if I keep writing about her, I can somehow put off the finality of it all.

That's ridiculous, of course. Phyllis is gone. I've confirmed it in numerous ways — through friends, the online obituary at the funeral home, just about every way I can except for an obituary in our hometown newspaper (Phyllis died on Thursday, but there is still no report of it in the local paper — I don't know why).

I guess it's my training as a journalist at work. I have to confirm things through multiple sources before I can believe they are true.

And the thoughts I've had probably fall more in the category of "things I'm having trouble understanding" rather than "things I remember with fondness."

There are many things about Phyllis that I do — and, most likely, will — remember with much fondness, even though they bring tears to my eyes now. Some of those things I prefer to keep private, though. They're just memories I have of moments and things we shared. There is nothing particularly poignant about them, other than the knowledge I now have of how everything ended for her.

For example, Phyllis' last name — at least when we were in school together — was Yarbrough. I shortened that to "PY," which is what I called her in high school and continued to call her after we graduated. As the years went by, other people called her "PY," too. Some may have been inspired to do so by my example. Others may have done it on their own. Whatever the reason, it is a nickname many used for her until her dying day.

Well, I guess it wasn't used so much after she married. Based on some notes she wrote about herself on Facebook just about a year ago, one of her nicknames was "PC" — a moniker that, apparently, she acquired after her surname became Coleman. (I guess it was sort of a double entendre, considering how "PC" is often used as the abbreviation for "personal computer" or "political correctness.")

I will always remember one evening when we were finishing up a "chat" on Facebook, and I said something like, "Good night, PY." There was a pause, then came her reply: "No one has called me that in years! It feels good."

Then she called me "DG"my initials. It's also the nickname she used for me in high school. Nobody had called me that in years, either. And it felt good.

Now, I wonder if anyone will ever call me "DG" again. I feel torn on that one right now.

I feel that way about other things.

Even though I know she's dead — and it had been awhile since we "chatted" on Facebook — I can't help thinking, whenever I sit down in front of my computer, that I need to send a message to Phyllis asking her when she will be free to chat. And I have to remind myself that we won't be chatting anymore. I wonder when I'll stop doing that.

I'm really going to miss our chats. I miss them already.

I remember last year when I had submitted an application for a writing job online, and the application asked me a question that I had never been asked before. I wanted to talk to Phyllis about it.

The application asked, "What is your favorite word and why?" Phyllis asked me what my answer had been. I told her, "Redemption — because it suggests that no mistake is permanent, that we can all learn from our errors."

My answer must not have impressed the potential employers, but it impressed Phyllis. "It shows you're smarter than the average bear," she said, alluding to a line from the Yogi Bear cartoons of our childhoods.

And I think about when we were in school together, and we went to her house after school sometimes. It was there that she introduced me to some of the music that was special to her — jazz musician Maynard Ferguson and country singer Kenny Rogers stand out in my memory.

I've tried to listen to some of the music we listened to when we were teenagers. I can't do it. Not yet. My wound is too fresh.

It reminds me of how I felt when I lost my mother. It has been the same out–of–the–blue, punched–in–the–gut experience for me.

There are other things about Phyllis — or, more accurately, the subject of death — that I still feel a need to write about. I don't expect an answer — although, if anybody has one, I certainly would love to hear it.
  • On Friday, when I first wrote here about Phyllis, I mentioned the "McGovern Club" that Phyllis, Doug and I formed back when we were in sixth or seventh grade in Arkansas.

    I e–mailed Doug with the news Friday afternoon. In his response, he spoke of the "McGovern Club" and said that "I'm sure Phyllis would want us to carry on."

    I know Doug meant well by that, and he may be right. If you could ask her, I am confident that Phyllis really would want all those she left behind to "carry on."

    She would have felt bad if she had thought that, when she left this life, no one would mourn her passing (I would say there were/are two chances of that happening — slim and none).

    But I think she would have felt worse if she thought that anyone was so overwhelmed or paralyzed by their grief that they couldn't function.

    Nevertheless, I have never really understood why anyone would assume they know what a deceased person would think or say or feel. I guess, if you were close to a person who died — a spouse or a sibling or a longtime friend — you might have a pretty good idea. But you can't know something like that for sure. Can you?

  • Similarly, I guess, I'm not really sure what I think when I hear people talk about how someone who died is "looking down and smiling." As George Carlin said, you never hear people say that someone is looking up at us and screaming from the fires of hell — even if the person in question really lived a despicable life.

    It comes back to that afterlife question, I suppose, and whatever one imagines it to be like. And part of it, I guess, is a reluctance on the part of those who are still living to suggest (even if they believe it) that someone they knew is now suffering eternal damnation.

    It also makes me think of something else. Using words like "up" and "down" suggests a spatial element to the spiritual world when space, it seems to me, is really more of a characteristic of the physical world.

    It's sort of like the concept of space in the digital age. These things I write and the images I post with them all take up a certain amount of space in the non–physical internet world. I have "folders" on my computer that are filled with things I have written, photos I have scanned and things like that. But they do not take on a physical quality unless I print them out.

    I think it is the fact that we mortals know so little about what is next — if anything is — that prompts us to give the afterlife characteristics that are familiar to us from our physical existences.

    Phyllis, for example, was an accomplished musician. I often hear talk of a heavenly chorus or a heavenly band, and, if such a thing really does exist, I'm sure Phyllis is a part of it.

    But it doesn't make sense to me that she would play instruments she played in the physical realm. What use would a spirit have for instruments that were created by humans from materials they had on earth?

    See, my understanding of the history of musical instruments is that they largely came into being because humans discovered that this or that could produce certain sounds — and, when certain sounds were made together, they produced music.

    But music has long been used to glorify one's faith in a God. The Bible, after all, mentions the sound of heavenly music from time to time, even to the ancients, whose only "instruments" may have been hollowed out logs or reeds or something like that.

    So, perhaps, we're kinda sorta on the right track. I mean, maybe there is that heavenly band, and, if there is, as I say, I'm sure Phyllis is part of it. But I don't think she's playing a flute or a piccolo. If heaven really is perfect, I am thinking, she must be playing instruments that are beyond our mortal comprehension.

    My grandfather enjoyed fishing in his later years. After he died, I heard people talk of how he was in his boat catching the big ones in heaven. Same thing. Why would a spirit need a boat? Boats were created by men to serve their specific purposes — to cross bodies of water or to pursue creatures, like fish, that lived in the water.

    But water is something that humans need, like air and food and sleep and clothing and shelter. Spirits don't.

    Likewise, spirits don't need boats or cars or any other conveyance to travel from one place to another. They aren't subject to physical laws. Are they? The Bible speaks of God sending messengers (i.e., heavenly spirits) to earth, but it doesn't say that they used airplanes or cars or boats to make their journey.

    But neither Phyllis nor anyone else has (to my knowledge) visited me — in either my dreams or my waking moments — to share with me any insights they may have. Angels or spirits or whatever they are, if they do exist, apparently haven't made my home one of their destinations on their visits here.

    Maybe they only visit certain people, like Haley Joel Osment's character in "The Sixth Sense." If so, maybe I will need to find a real–life Haley Joel Osment one of these days, just to find out if Phyllis — or anyone else I knew — has anything to say to me.

    On the other hand ...

    I have a friend who insists that her mother, who passed away several years ago, has visited her — in the guise of her mother's favorite bird. That, apparently, is how my friend knows it was her mother. The bird sang, as birds do, and perched on my friend's windowsill for a couple of moments, then flew off.

    It imparted no special wisdom to her. As far as I know, it did nothing out of the ordinary to let my friend know its true identity. It just happened to show up at a moment when my friend was thinking about her mother — with whom, I guess it should be said, my friend often had a stormy relationship when they both occupied the same plane of existence.

    So, on the one hand, I guess I am skeptical of the existence of angels and spirits — and, if they do exist, of their ability to travel from wherever the afterlife may be to earth or anywhere else.

    And, yet, I wrote yesterday about an experience I had many years ago when I was traveling to Arkansas for the funeral of another friend. In nearly 20 years, I haven't been able to satisfactorily explain it.

    I guess there are a lot of things about the spiritual world that I don't understand.

  • Something else I wonder about is the stuff I've heard since I was a little boy — like how your life flashes before your eyes when you're dying.

    I have to wonder if that's true. If it is, how do we know? I mean, if it is true, it's only happened to people who were just about to "cross over," as the saying goes.

    And I wonder if it happened with Phyllis. As the life was ebbing from her body, did her earthly experiences flash before her eyes? If they did, what did she see and whom did she see? Did she see herself at the various stages of her life? Did she see people who have made what is called a "transition?" Or did she see friends and relatives she was leaving behind?

    My logical mind wonders if the idea that dying people see their lives flash before their eyes arose from an attempt to understand incoherent ramblings. Perhaps some people had hallucinations on their deathbeds and called out to people who weren't there, who may have died years before.

    And perhaps that was misinterpreted by those who survived.
I guess there are a lot of things I will never understand — or, at least, won't understand until my time to die comes.

Until that day, I guess there will always be times when I will regret that I didn't have that last chance to tell Phyllis goodbye, to tell her I loved her and how much she had meant to me, how much she had influenced me, how her memory will always be with me — even her voice, which I haven't heard in years and will never hear again, will echo in my ears almost every day.

But Phyllis was very perceptive. And I'm sure she knew all those things, even without hearing (or reading) them from me.

It just would have been nice to tell her, anyway.

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