I’m a leaf on the wind, watch how —
When I die, I hope my last words are memorable. You know, something clever or haunting, not anything silly like ‘turnip’. Doesn’t quite have the same ring to it as “I go to seek a Great Perhaps”, does it? If I had the chance to choose, I think I’d go with darkly comedic, like Henrik Ibsen: His nurse turns to him, lying in his sickbed, and says, ” ‘You seem to be feeling better this morning,’ and Ibsen looks at her and says, ‘On the contrary,’ and then he dies.”
If either of those sound familiar, you’re either inordinately fascinated with last-words, or a fan of John Green’s Looking for Alaska. I’m the latter, and if you are, too, then you probably know that mothers don’t react well when you start enthusiastically sharing peoples’ final words around the dinner table. My mother certainly wasn’t what you’d call pleased. And when my stories picked up darker moods – venturing into abuse, rape, mental disorders, and the like – I’m sure she started having the most pleasant dreams about chopping Looking for Alaska into little pieces and feeding them to the neighbor’s cat.
I don’t blame her. The shades-of-grey, wrenching-your-gut, sides of life are certainly disturbing and morbid, but I never thought it was horrible or silly to write about them, and I certainly never thought it was negative to contemplate death. I think it makes you live more fully. That said, all I’ve ever been able to give to that vague term is a connect-the-dots outline. Death is a stranger shrouded, something and someone and someplace that I can only draw a hazy silhouette of. Death is commonplace, and death is outrageous, and death is something expected, and something shocking. There’s no doubt it exists, there’s no doubt that we all have a little expiration date tattooed in our blood, and yet we never expect it to hit anywhere close to home.
My grandmother died this week, and I didn’t see it coming.
I had just come home from the airport, I’d been in the house for maybe 2 hours, when the call came. I was holding the remote, about to play the 2nd episode of Young Justice, begging my mom to ignore the phone, grumbling when I heard it was from India. I was busy being absurdly frustrated that this stupid cartoon about superhero sidekicks kept getting interrupted, when my mother started crying. The timing was so ridiculous, so comical, I almost laughed. Imagine this: a family gathered around the kitchen table, sobbing, holding each other, and in the background is Boy Wonder’s face, frozen on the line “Why isn’t anyone ever just whelmed?”
It was insane. I’m still not sure that night really happened. It feels more like a seriously shitty movie sequence. Shells of us went to bed, got up, kept going, but I don’t think that it was until my neighbor knocked on the door just to give us a bowl of plums that our bodies gained any substance. Paraphrased to the best of my ability, she said:
When someone dies, you don’t understand how the world can still be spinning. Your existence has been shattered, but the sun is still rising. There are still cars speeding by, the same mundane shows are on TV…and, you get a little angry. You want to yell at them, shake them, ask them what the hell they’re doing. STOP. Someone just died. This is important.
But I also think that’s what saves you, in the end. The world’s gonna keep going, and so must you.
Her simple words captured the confusion and sadness we were feeling in a way symbols and metaphors can only dream to do. So, I’ve kept going. I ate, I cried, I ran (literally, not emotionally, I promise). And, most importantly, I wrote – this and other things.
This, I’ve written to help excise my thoughts. I’ve written this to send out a heartstring to anyone else out there, hurting. The lump may not go away, but maybe it shouldn’t; if you’re on artist, you can always tug on it – and if you’re not, then it’s a way to keep a memory, to sow it into the heart of you.
And I’ve written this because, what else do I do? I can’t bring her back. Crying can only do so much. So, I’m practicing what I preach. I’m making art. And I’ve found – I can now attest to it – that it helps. Every word you put in front of the other is a little step forward. I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again:
Put one foot in front of the other
And soon you’ll be walking ‘cross the floor.
You put one foot in front of the other
And soon you’ll be walking out the door.
You never will get where you’re going
If ya never get up on your feet.
Come on, there’s a good tail wind blowin’
A fast walking man is hard to beat.
– Santa Clause is Coming to Town