Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Randomness of Life

I took this picture of Mom's grave this morning. See that
dark marker in the center? That's where she is buried.

A couple of days ago, Stan Musial's wife, Lil Musial, died at the age of 91.

I think it is fair to say hers was a storybook life. The Musials were married for more than 70 years, and they raised four children, who gave them 11 grandchildren, who have given them 12 great–grandchildren so far. Stan is remembered as one of the great hitters of all time — unorthodox in his stance and swing but very effective — and Lil is remembered as his constant booster, his #1 fan.

Mrs. Musial passed away at 6 p.m. on Thursday — "her favorite number," one of her grandchildren told the St. Louis Post–Dispatch, as her husband's uniform number was 6.

Her grandson also said she had been sick recently, and the family had been been aware that her death was imminent — so many family members were at her side when the end came.

I guess that's the way most of us hope to make our exits — with the people who mean the most to us at our side.

And I wish life was fair that way. But it isn't.

Today, I have been thinking of a song that Paul Simon recorded in the mid–1970s. I think it was called "Some Folks' Lives."

The refrain of the song, as I recall, went like this: "Some folks' lives roll easy / Some folks' lives never roll at all."

I'm not sure why that song is in my head today. Perhaps it is because today is the anniversary of the day my mother died. Thoughts of Mom often bring thoughts of Paul Simon to my mind. She was a fan of Simon & Garfunkel, and many of my childhood memories include her and the Simon & Garfunkel records she frequently played. On such occasions, the music literally filled the house.

But why that song?

I'm not really sure — except that the manner of Mom's death (she drowned in a flash flood) was so sudden and shocking. It's been exactly 17 years since she died, and I can still remember how I felt each day for a long time thereafter and the general melancholy that lingered much longer.

Perhaps thoughts of that song are more about my own life, not Mom's.

There are only two things of which one can be absolutely certain in life, I have been told — death and taxes.

There are some things that folks tend to take for granted — for example, that parents will not outlive their children. And that's usually the way it works. But sometimes children die before their parents do. There have been people with whom I grew up who died while their parents were still living. Nothing fair about that.

So, while people may think, may even expect, that they will die before their children, there are no guarantees.

Neither are there any guarantees that there will be enough advance notice of your approaching death that the people in your life can be assembled and at your side when the time comes.

Even that taxes thing isn't absolute. That part presupposes that everyone will (at least) live to adulthood — and participate in that annual ritual of paying income taxes. But I've known people who died when they were still children, still totally dependent on their parents — and did not yet file tax returns..

If they were old enough, of course, they paid sales taxes. I guess my first real experience with sales tax was when I would buy gum and candy with my weekly allowance when I was about 4 or 5, but it sometimes happens that small children die so even that sales tax thing would not be something they would experience.

Death is the one constant. It's the one thing that everyone will experience. But the experience is different for everyone.

Parents tend to assume that their children will have to bury them — just as most of them had to bury their own parents. It's the natural order of things, and most people probably expect that they will die relatively peacefully in their beds of some disease that tends to afflict the old, surrounded by the people they love. Much like Lil Musial.

Odds are, anyway.

But it isn't always that way. People don't always outlive their parents. Sometimes people die young, and sometimes people never find a significant other and wind up dying alone. It's different for everyone.

I guess most people, given a choice, would prefer the way my grandfather died — in his sleep with plans to go fishing with one of his buddies the next day. There was no lingering illness that forced him to spend his final days, weeks, months in a hospital room. When he died, he may well have been dreaming of a day spent dedicated to one of his passions in the company of one of his closest friends.

Perhaps, in his last moments, he dreamed he was reeling in the biggest fish he had ever caught.

Not a bad way to ease out of this world and into what, if anything, comes next. But people who don't take their own lives have no real say in how or when the end comes.

Most people probably only think of death in general terms — an event that will happen sometime in the future, presumably the distant future — and they don't think at all of how their deaths will affect those who are left behind. When people have children, it has been my experience that they give little, if any, thought to that day when they will die and their children will have to cope with a new reality — and any unpleasant memories from the experience.

(When my mother died, I was living in another state, and my father had been injured in the flood. It fell to my brother to identify her body. I have always tried to remember that he must carry that memory.)

If people do give it any thought, it is the kind of thought that usually goes unexpressed until circumstances make it necessary.

My mother, I'm sure, rarely gave any thought to the eventual circumstances of her death or how it would affect her family and her friends. She probably never gave much thought to which friends and relatives would outlive her — except that she probably assumed she would outlive my father. Both of my grandmothers outlived my grandfathers, and I think that was the pattern in the previous generations although you'd have to confirm that with my father. He's the genealogist in the family.

It is an ironic story, an irony she might have appreciated if she hadn't been the casualty.

In the last decade (or more) of her life, my mother was greatly influenced by the sight of my grandmother slipping deeper into dementia. Mom always called it "hardening of the arteries," and I am no doctor so that may well be a sort of layman's way of describing an actual medical condition, but, for the last 20 years or so, I have believed that what my grandmother really had was Alzheimer's disease.

I think Alzheimer's was first identified more than a century ago, but I don't recall hearing much, if anything, about it until after my grandmother died. I was young, though. Perhaps I just wasn't paying attention.

She lived with my parents for a couple of years before the burden of meeting her needs became too great for my working mother, and she was put in a series of nursing homes before Mom finally settled on one that she believed had an honest staff that would provide the best of care for my grandmother.

My grandmother lived into her 90s, and my mother, who believed (as I did) that she would live a long life, too, eagerly absorbed every tip — be it from a study in a medical journal, a newspaper article or word of mouth — that promised to enhance mental acuity, even to advanced age. Through diet. Through exercise. Through whatever.

If Mom was going to live into her 90s, by golly, she was going to make sure that she was mentally engaged to the end. She wasn't going to spend year after year sitting in a chair and staring vacantly out the window of a nursing home.

Mom feared an end like the one she saw her mother go through. She didn't want her children's last memories of her to be of an old woman who didn't know them, wasn't even aware when they were in the room with her.

Turned out, that wasn't in the cards for her. And, not long after her death, I remember a family friend observing that "she went out at the top of her game." I suppose it would have made her proud that she was forever frozen in people's memories as a vibrant life force.

But I think I speak for just about everyone who knew her when I say that we could have lived with her in a diminished state if it had meant we could have another 25 or 30 years with her.

She outlived her mother by about six years. I know it wasn't what I expected — and I am about as certain as I can be that it wasn't what she expected, either.

But that is how it worked out. Some folks' lives roll easy. Some folks' lives never roll at all. My family's lives, I think, fall somewhere in between.

I've been musing a lot about how the future plays out. Maybe it's the influence of that TV commercial where the little boy and his grandfather are sitting on the front porch of the grandfather's house, and the grandson is talking about how much he loves to be there.

"I'm going to have a house just like this when I grow up," he says confidently.

"I hope so," replies his grandfather as the narrator starts to speak about future prospects for home ownership.

That commercial never fails to make me think about things that go far beyond real estate. No one ever seems to think about those parts of it. (Well, I do, but, perhaps, as George Carlin said of himself, that is the kind of thought that kept me out of the really good schools.)

Yes, it would be nice if we always got some advance warning that someone we loved was about to die — but, if we did, it might suggest that we have more control over things than we actually do.

Because today is Cinco de Mayo — a fairly prominent holiday here in Texas — I've been thinking about a particularly touching Christmas episode of M*A*S*H in which the doctors tried to keep a mortally wounded soldier alive (technically) until after midnight so the date on his death certificate would be Dec. 26, and his children would not have to think of Christmas as the day their father died.

Soldiers have a pretty high rate of unexpected deaths, and most of those deaths probably occur with no relatives and few, if any, friends nearby.

But the soldiers' relatives probably treated their last moments together as if they really would be the last ones — ever. They knew that death was a real possibility.

That's something we all should realize. The last time I saw Mom, the thought that it would be the last time never entered my mind. In hindsight, I have told myself that, somehow, Mom may have sensed it was the last time, and I have told myself that I remember a little something extra in her last embrace.

But then there are times when I think that is something I must have dreamed up, that there was nothing unusual about our parting embrace, nothing that hadn't been there a thousand times before. Mom always hugged me when we said goodbye.

That was on an Easter Sunday. Mom was killed less than three weeks later.

Maybe it was for the best the way it turned out.

But I will always wish I told her all the things I wanted to tell her. They all came down to one simple sentence. It was one I said to her often, and I always meant it. I just wish I could have told her one more time.

I love you.

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