April 13, 2019

Chapter 17 - Death and Math

Death and Math

Growing up, I loved to learn just about everything schools and libraries had to offer. In Jamaica Plain, an eclectic, multicultural and identity confused community, the educational options were somewhat limited. But the schools did their best to force feed the required knowledge with the scarce and out-dated resources they had. One of the subjects they seemed to like to teach most was math. Over the years one thing that didn't change was the fact that 2 + 2=4. But I believed it was because it was akin to the authorized abuse that the teachers were permitted to inflict on the students.

Like most kids, I had a serious aversion to math and all things related. Math was something that lost its appeal after the second grade. That's because, unless you're an aspiring accountant or tax-preparer, everyone should have learned all the necessary math they'll ever need in life by then. Once they get the fundamentals down, most kids stop thinking about math entirely. It wasn't a subject discussed for any reason unless and until some teacher brought it up in class.

But it was because of the fact that I learned all the basic math functions, how to add, subtract, multiply, etc, that I had the tools early enough in life to put them to good use on a bad topic.

Death isn't something kids think about much. Since most parents hope they never have to talk about death until their children are out of the house, they generally keep such news away from those too young to need to know. So unless someone really close to a kid dies, "Death" is out there lurking as a taboo topic just waiting for the indirect events that result in a child's first questions.

With mom and dad keeping mum, that leaves older siblings the job of enlightening the younger. Then of course, having been introduced outside the realm of cartoons and fables, it becomes a major topic of curious, furtive discussion.

I was swinging on the handrail on my front steps when I remember hearing for the first time that someone I knew had 'Passed Away'. I can't recall who brought the news, but I'll give the credit to my sister Rosie. She was the Town Crier in the family and brought me every important piece of Cannata news worthy of reporting. If Rosie said it, it was as good as Walter Cronkite's word. I remember the very moment I was told because it had the obligatory stupid question to go along with it.

Completely certain I knew what she meant, the first thing I did was turn around looking for the person that had just passed our way. Seeing no one, and never being one to shy away from asking a stupid question, I innocently asked who went past.

"Grandpa did," Rosie said.

I turned around again and still didn't see my grandfather; a skinny, tall, ancient looking Italian guy who never spoke a word I understood in my life. He moved pretty slowly so he must have been practically running to get out of sight that fast.

"I didn't see Grandpa go by," I repeated.

Rosie looked at me like I was making a joke and scolded me angrily. 

"That's not funny. You shouldn't joke about dead people."

"Who's dead?" I asked still confused.

"Grandpa is," she said. Puzzled, my stupid meter kicked up a notch.

"You said he just went past," I replied, feeling more unsure of just who Rosie saw go past.

:"I said he 'Passed Away,'" Rosie repeated.

"So where did he go?!" I asked again! 

By now I had the stupid needle pegged to the limit.That was when my sister realized I had no idea what the phrase "Passed Away" meant. Recognizing that I had reached a point of personal stupidity, she then explained the whole "Passed Away" vs. "Dead" concept to me for the first time.

As it turned out, once my sister finished explaining the concept, "Passed Away" had nothing to do with someone walking by somebody. Announcing that someone had "Passed Away" was the socially polite, emotionally vague and less than accurate description for the state of being "Dead." Having witnessed my fair share of movie and cartoon carnage I was pretty sure I knew what "Dead" meant. But "Passed Away" put a whole new spin on the state when it came to real life.

When it came to giving someone the news, it allows one to think that it's better for someone to just "Pass Away" instead of going straight through to that unpleasant state of being just plain "Dead."

It makes it sound like the person gets to go somewhere first before finally reaching the point where they are actually "Dead." They aren't really "Dead" until after everybody talks about it for awhile and they all take a last look to be sure. After a short time people can then officially declare the person "Dead."

After giving the matter considerable thought I decided I liked the word "Dead" myself.
Being 'Dead' was a concept much easier to grasp and way more accurate when it came to describing someone's physical state. Because it declared unequivocally that someone was no longer alive. They had ceased living and died. They were alive... Now they are dead. Tell me someone is "Dead" and I don't have any questions.

When I hear that someone has "Passed Away" I am left with irksome questions regarding that person's actual condition. Maybe the person delivering the news had misspoken and I didn't hear them clearly. Maybe they have adopted a new religion and the state of 'Passed Away' means something different to them now. Like when someone is 'Born Again'.

Maybe it means they get to 'Pass Away' once before they actually die. Much in the way they get to be 'Born Again' after they have been born for real the first time. When I'm told that someone has 'Passed Away', it requires me to at least utter a shocked and serious 'What?!' I always need a confirmation before I am sure that I heard it right the first time. Even then I am still only 99% certain of the departed person's state.

My grandfather's services were going to be the first wake and funeral for my sister Rosie. She seemed genuinely excited about the ceremonies. The honor was something that made it clear that she was way more grown up than I was. I wasn't required to attend the funeral or wake. I was still pretty young. The next time someone "Passed Away" would most likely be when I would get to go.

I remember thinking for the first time about death as something real and personal. And I wasn't sure that this whole Wake, Mass and Funeral ritual was something I would enjoy. I hated everything about church. Put church and dead people together and it didn't seem like the kind of party I would enjoy. I decided that maybe I shouldn't be in such a hurry when it comes to being eligible for wake duty.

And that was when my math skills kicked in and suddenly I realized just how much I would have to deal with "Passing Away." The whole situation left me with some serious doubts about just how I was going to deal with the unpleasant but completely unavoidable issue. When it occurred to me that, regardless of how hard we tried to avoid it, we were all going to die, I found myself wondering about the whole process.

There were dozens of Cannatas that I knew personally and probably a lot more that I didn't know lurking around on the edges of my immediate family. I had already decided that wakes and funerals were something I should do my best to avoid attending. But if my parents made me go I would have to comply. I started thinking about just how many wakes and funerals I would have to attend in my life just as a matter of family obligation.

Thinking about death is one thing, participating in the associated rituals was something entirely different. My grandfather's death was the first death I became aware of. Thinking about the first led to the obvious conclusion that there was going to a second and a third, and so on. There were going to be more funerals in my future. A lot more!

In a family as huge as mine, when you 'do the math' and 'run the numbers', death and its related activities was going to be a big part of my life. I found myself creating a mental checklist of the good and bad points of wakes and funerals.

I started to put a list of pros and con's together and the pros were big losers. On the Pro side the only plus to attending a wake was you didn't have to bring a gift; unless you think of flowers as a gift.

The Con side was much worse. There would be a lot of Cannatas there, so a funeral seemed too much like a family party and wasn't something I looked forward to. Funerals meant being on your best behavior and having to remain quiet and well behaved, which made them a form of torture for young Cannatas. The idea of standing around chatting with people with a dead guy lying around in the middle of the room seemed genuinely creepy; doing it in a room full of Cannatas seemed seriously disturbing.

The fact that you had to get dressed in your best clothes was always a bad sign when it came to family gatherings. Kind of like how you had to dress up for a wedding. For the most part my best clothing looked a lot like my worst clothing only newer. I always went dressed as I would normally. I always considered funerals and weddings pretty much the same kind of event. At one someone was dead and at the other someone's life was over; a tragedy, in my opinion, on both counts.

In my immediate family alone, if we all died in proper order, I would have to attend at least ten funerals before it was my turn. That wasn't even including all the aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, cousins and other assorted relatives. My parents and the eight oldest siblings were all on schedule before it would be my turn. With all the Cannatas surrounding me and their families expanding in size daily, the sheer number of potential wake eligible deaths seemed enormous. Based on those aforementioned math skills, it was clear that once I got older, if I wanted to have any free time, I was going to have to limit my attendance to the wakes of the well connected people among my immediate family and friends.

I decided that someone was going to have to be pretty damn close in order for me to even entertain the thought of attending their wake. Co-workers and casual friends, In-Laws and people related by marriage didn't qualify. Eliminating relatives that never sent a card or hadn't called in the last year thinned the list considerably. Ultimately, I didn't even attend the services for my own parents.

I vowed to never attend services in the church or at the grave-site. I am vehemently anti-religious and religious services frighten me. At both the Mass and the graveside service there's too much religious prayer and promotional activity being tossed around. Listening to that malarkey always affects me in a seriously negative way. The urge to start heckling the priest is too strong. I will almost certainly say something offensive if I'm forced to listen to the chants and holy hosannas for too long a time.

Unless some untimely tragedy strikes early in their lives most people don't have to experience the loss of a sibling or parent before they are mature enough to handle it emotionally. With a little luck we get to spend a lot of time with our families before someone dies. Unexpected deaths are a shock and can be hard to deal with without some perspective and experience to lean on. With the size of my family I fully expected to lose one or two of those close to me sooner than I would like.

Coming from a large family means that in your later years, death will be something you will get a lot of exposure to. The more family you have to love, the more family you have to lose. As I entered my twenties and was pretty sure there were no more siblings lying around unaccounted for, after doing the math, I calculated that I had a good 20 years before things started to go bad on the death watch.

Regrettably, my math projections as to just how soon and how many people would die unexpectedly over the foreseeable future were off in a major way. I went to a lot more funerals then I planned on in my twenties than I anticipated. It was a time in my life that changed everything about life for me. Everyone close and important to me up and died on me in my 20's. In what seemed a great rush of mortal brutality, Death became a regular visitor in my life.

Over a couple of the longest years of my life, I got some early, first rate experience that would help to prepare me for a lifetime of close losses. In a rapid and unexpected series of misfortune, between the ages of twenty and twenty something, I lost my mother, my best friend, my brother and my father. My family and my future, in a great fit of karmic hostility, disintegrated before my dumbfounded eyes.

My mother passed away from liver and kidney disease from her years of drinking. For all my dislike of the expression I realized it is so much easier to say than 'Dead'. Shortly after my mother was gone my best friend, Kevin, successfully committed suicide after a series of botched attempts over the past few years. My second oldest brother, Nick, who I liked the best of the four older brothers, hung himself from a tree after years of battling depression. It was his second attempt. No one in my family ever mentioned his first attempt to me. My father died after a stretch of physical trauma that included diabetes, embolism, the amputation of a leg and several heart problems. In my entire life I could never recall him even being sick.

Having to deal with the plethora of sudden deaths early wasn't easy. My mother was the first of my parents, the first in my immediate family and the most important person in my world to 'Pass away.' It was dealing with the impact of her loss that most of my habits and opinions regarding the rituals of death were cemented. I was too confused and affected to try to do what was right as far as my participation in her funeral. I had to do what was right for me.
I was too afraid to go up to the coffin and look at my mother when she died. I never got to see her dead in the coffin. It was a picture that I didn't want to have to remember. It was a decision that would be validated later and a good one as it turned out.

Avoiding looking at anyone in their coffin was a decision I made for all time after attending the wake of my best friend Kevin. The sight of his twisted rumpled body in his casket after his mother had tried to pull him out of it during the wake is still the first picture that rushes to mind whenever I think of him. Since that minute I determined I would never enter another viewing room on the rare occasions that I attended wakes. The last thing I ever want to see again is a loved one lying dead in their coffin.

During both of my parent's wakes I sat uncomfortably alone in a downstairs room at the funeral home and stood outside the church during their mass. I stayed in the car at the cemetery while the grave side rituals were performed. It wasn't until after the crowd had paraded out of the cemetery that I was able to go to the grave and say my own goodbyes. Once the priest was done and the prayers finished I was appalled at the way everyone just started chatting and laughing, lighting cigarettes and basically hobnobbing with those present. Hanging around a grave is a sick and totally repulsive action.

After the emotional massacre of my youth in my early twenties things settled down. What I was sure was a sample of things to come turned out to be a bad stretch I hit early. Since then I've been pretty lucky as far as deaths in the family. I lost a lot of family at a young age. Since then, for the most part, my family has been blessed with good health and longevity. We are all over fifty and the oldest is in his 70's. Best estimates say the bulk of us will make it past our seventies. But that good fortune is in itself a bad thing. A mere decade separates the 6 oldest and of course, mathematically speaking, that's a problem.

If we all live to a ripe old age we're going to start dropping off the tree just about the same time. I live in fear of the great decade of death ahead. There are still six siblings older than me. The closeness in our ages dictates that if death comes by natural causes in a timely fashion they will all be keeling over almost simultaneously.. I am prepared to deal with the emotional impact of the deaths of my family members over time. But I have no idea what I am going to do about dealing with my death.

I have never given serious, responsible thought or consideration about my own death. Aside from making some plans to have fun with those still living, in case there is an afterlife, I have been pretty irresponsible as far as funeral plans go. I haven't scoped out a plot. I haven't prepared or made the usual arrangements people are expected to make. I don't have life-insurance. I think it's crazy to pay for something so that someone else can get the money after I'm dead.

I don't care how much money I owe and look forward to dying as deep in debt as possible. I have no intention of paying one more bill or doing one more chore after I die. I see death as a release from my mortal obligations.

I don't believe in burials. It seems like a good waste of land and resources. I would cremate myself but once I'm dead I won't be able to strike the match. Wherever I fall dead will be my final resting place. If I'm in someone's way or a public or inconvenient location I will leave it to the living to do what they think best with me. I don't care what they do with my body. Bag it up and toss it on the trash... sell it to a lab... stuff it and mount it in the Idiot Museum... I don't care. I have instructed those who might be asked to cough up the money to cover the costs of my disposal to simply deny knowing me.

I don't believe in heaven or hell but I do believe there is a life after this one. I have my ideas and as such I have prepared some experiments and planned some haunting just in case I'm right. I'm not afraid of death... But the nasty injuries and illnesses that often precede it are cause for concern. I intend to take control when the time is right and exit this life on my terms. As long as I can get up, dress myself, feed myself and wipe my own ass, there will always be reason to see what tomorrow brings.

The day when a young nurse has to wipe my behind and feed me because I can't do it myself, or the pain of some condition becomes too much a drain, will be the day I face death on my own terms. I want to live as long as my body can bear the load I impose on it. In the end, it is my body that will give out and die' not my life or being. But, when my body becomes dependent on others to function and I become a burden to those around me, I have decided that I will end my own life in a fashion that will be swift and as pain free as possible. I won't see it as suicide. Death will not take me. If I can, I will embrace death. To me it has always represented both and end and a beginning. And I won't want to have people think I “Passed Away.”

I want them to understand that, at that point, I didn't "Pass Away". I will have "Moved On."

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