Thursday, March 25, 2010

Two Recent Deaths

It is a commonplace with my people to send obituaries to distant loved ones. We believe in the day and evening viewings, home for lunch, flowers at the funeral home, smoking in the parking lot. The service is the next day, just family, behind a curtain in the parlor and not church, where we never much went. The clergyman, if required, is usually hired for the day and tends to read the names from notes. The flowers go on the grave, but only the pallbearers take them there. Home, since we don't drink much, is all about blank exhaustion, bitter grief, ham and funny stories. We eat what people left on the porch, if the weather's cool, what they left at the neighbor's if it's not. The neighbor doesn't stay, and nobody would think of calling us after ten that night. The grown ups usually stay up until all hours and say things they'd never have said otherwise, or in front of the deceased. We let the kids fall asleep in our laps or cover them with blankets in a chair. And in a day or two, depending on the day someone died, the local paper, which is published twice a week, runs the obituary somebody in the family wrote out and to which a photograph has been paper-clipped. The picture's always formal, which, if the dead person was old, usually means the picture's old too; from an anniversary, or a big birthday or the like. Couple of weeks after the obituary runs, when everyone's flown home, a card comes in the mail with a copy of the obituary, laminated, as a keepsake.

Now and again, I might still get just a clipping in a letter, if the dead weren't close family; a distant cousin, say, or someone I went to school with, or a favorite teacher. Just once, my mother sent me an obituary with a note written across the top:

"Knew you'd want to see this."

It was the notice for my seventh grade algebra teacher. My mother's note was an example of my people's sense of humor. I did laugh. Miss P. was a miserable woman. She was a nasty, shrill old woman with sharp teeth and no more patience than a barn-cat between meals. Standardized testing finally filtered down to the local educators right around my time, though they'd no real idea what to do with it. That's what put a bunch of us into algebra who ought not to have been there. Miss P. did not approve of these new ideas and did not appreciate that her algebra class was no longer an elective. She made a proper Hell out of algebra for anyone she, quite rightly, thought ought to be elsewhere. She was a horrible teacher, perhaps the worst I ever knew, and that, friends, is saying something about a school teacher in nineteen-seventy-something in a small American town.

I have to say, her death brought not a single tear into the world, so far as I've ever heard.

I didn't keep her obituary.

Another person I did not like, died a few days ago. I heard about this the same day, coincidentally, that I learned that a dear friend at the bookstore had to have one of her beloved dogs put down. Everybody mourned that dog.

The woman who died was someone I had no choice but to see regularly, for some years. She was someone to whom, sooner or later, everyone in the neighborhood was exposed. I can think of no better way to say that. She was not nice. She was regularly, outrageously, unthinkingly and unapologetically inappropriate. She lectured, she buttonholed, she bullied, so far as I ever saw, everyone. I never had, or witnessed an interaction with her that she did not manage to make into a test of patience and politeness. (She even poked me right in the gut once, to illustrate a point she was making about how fat people were nowadays. She wasn't wrong, I suppose, but I do think she was damned lucky that I didn't knock her on her elderly ass. ) The truth is that she was neither amusingly caustic, terribly interesting, nor kind. What she was, was a bore. She was impervious to dislike and took even the most pained silence as yet another opportunity to say something more she shouldn't have said at all. For a time, when I'd only just met her, I assumed she was just another harmless, lonely, talkative old soul. Usually, I rather like most lonely, harmless talkative old souls. I was warned that she would prove an exception, but I did not pay much mind. As I say, I like most of the lively, opinionated old parties in this world, as I intend to be just such a one -- my heart willing, and with medical science constantly advancing -- someday myself. Then she cornered me, more than once, and I learned that discomfort was all the same to her as kindness and that it was not so much attention she required as response, any response, to her provocation. Absent that, she would eventually just move on, though never before she'd made a real effort. Antagonisms were to her the happiest of her acquaintance. Just as everyone had warned me I would, had told me not to let her engage me unduly if I could possibly avoid doing so, I did indeed eventually learn to avoid her. That I came to genuinely dislike, even dread the woman, I have not a moment's hesitation in saying even now. I'm convinced that she took no more notice of me, of other people, than she did the birds of the air or the beasts of the field, so far as I could tell. She invariably addressed creation, no matter who or what stood before her. Did no one any good to think otherwise. I can't imagine she remembered my name, though she asked it every time we ever spoke, for even the length of the breath it took for her to repeat it. She was one of the very few human beings I've ever met for whom, I can honestly say, I ultimately felt no more than she considered me.

That the news of her death elicited from me not a kind thought, would not I think have mattered to her at all. It bothers me. I don't think, as I say, that it would have bothered her, and I suppose then it shouldn't bother me.

But it does, a little.

Death doesn't do a damned thing to improve one's opinion of the people one dislikes. The last time I saw this old woman was when I passed her, some months ago, on the opposite side of the street. She was not doing well even then and I make no claim for my own soul in saying that I found her pitiable, but was glad at almost the same second to see that she was walking away from rather than towards me. Just the way things were, between us, and with that woman and the world, I should think. She could not help but be offensive any more, it seems, than I could help finding her so. Still, seeing the difficulty with which she was taking that hill, seeing the hesitation in her step, how small a figure she was, moving slowly against a cold November wind, I can say I was at least a little ashamed to feel no more than I did.

It is a shock to recognize that indifference to even the mortality of another human being is not only possible, but may be familiar. I should like to think it unlikely hereafter. But then, there are now some precedents, so I suppose it must be admitted that the possibility exists hereafter. Don't know why I should ever have thought myself otherwise than entirely fallible. Still, it's a little shocking.

I can only hope to avoid being so remembered myself. I am then, I guess, a little chastened, if nothing else, by the news of her passing.

If my people taught me anything about death, it was to observe the proper way of things, say what you will, after, so:

Rest in peace.

And KZ, let me just say again here, I could not have been more sorry to hear about your dog.

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