Ed note: Dudes...notice how death has been an inspiring theme lately? It's nice to have a place where I can express some of these thoughts/fears/weirdnesses that I have noticed and dwelled on far too much in my life. If you're in San Francisco or the surrounding area, I can't recommend You're Going to Die enough.
They say the best kind of wine for your meal is the wine in front of you. I think the same can be said for crying. The best kind of tears for your goodbyes are the tears you have — or maybe don’t have.
For my doggie friend Louie’s last walk, my tears were lighter than air, bubbling up and floating away. For being laid the fuck off the week after, I had delayed reaction tears — the kind that require three and a half mimosas to release (give or take). For saying goodbye to my dying aunt, the tears burned. My cheeks bloated with roses, my eyes were so wet they were dry. I didn’t want anyone to see those tears, least of all my brother. It was only when we looked at each other after leaving her room that I saw he had the same pairing idea. As for bidding a final farewell to my teenage sanctuary, a failing Hayward bookshop full of brittle paperbacks, the tears took after some of the clientele, creeping up, unwanted, but mine to deal with.
Of course, not all goodbyes warrant tears.
I recently saw a little girl stand more under a sink than at it. Her shoulders barely brushed above the bottom of the basin. Her mom smoothed powdered soap onto the girl’s grimy hands. The girl looked warily at the faucet, then back at her mom.
“Do I have to?” She wasn’t quite defiant, and not quite fearful, but she wasn’t quite neither about saying goodbye to the dirt.
“Yes,” the mom said. No nonsense. No context.
I left, my hands clean, but I couldn’t stop thinking about that motherly lie rolling off her tongue, teaching her child something much bigger than cleanliness is next to godliness. Like so many parents before her, mine included, Mom taught Daughter there’s no choice. A person has obligations. You have to do things. To fit in. To get through this world. To live.
When really, the only thing we have to do in this lifetime is die. (yay)
Even breathing is optional. I mean, you’ll wind up dead if you don’t. But...case in point.
I know. You’re thinking, “Wait. They say, or at least someone famous said, nothing is certain but death and taxes. Where do taxes fit into this?”
My brother and I don’t have to visit my Aunt Bonnie as she entered hospice. But we do. We book tickets to the Windy City, my brother texts me in all caps “DYING PERSON ROAD TRIP,” I take an Ambien, an Ativan, have four drinks, and then we’re there, in her room, and everyone around us is talking about tax codes. Literally. As if she gives a fuck about taxes right now.
I lean in close to her. She doesn’t smell like anything anymore. “This conversation is boring me,” I say.
Bonnie looks at me out of the corner of her eye — it hurts her to move her head — and she smiles. “Me too.” Her voice, which commanded kindergarteners for over three decades, is now like a thin ribbon of steam rising and disappearing from a cup of coffee.
“What would you rather be talking about?” I ask.
“The past. Good memories.”
I don't know where to go with that, so I ask, “Do you have any tattoos?”
“God no.” There's a short pause. “But if I did, I wouldn’t care what anyone thought of them.”
My brother and I have to leave after a few days: our lives await. As I pack up, I can’t shake the knowledge that only death awaits Bonnie. I think that guy was wrong about taxes being certain.
My mom calls to tell me Bonnie passed away. “At 8pm, Chicago time.”
“No,” my dad barks over her shoulder, plenty loud for me to hear. “At 7:45.”
My mom says the time again, the right time. My dad repeats it. They sound like they’re figuring out when a movie will end so I can meet them for dinner and take home their extra popcorn.
I don’t cry at this news. Instead, my mind goes through the rolodex of dead people I know. A flip book of ghosts. Great Aunt Adeline, Grandmother Betty, Uncle Ando. My mom’s best friend Gay, my dad’s best friend Gene. All those little paper fliers (what are those, death calling cards?) with smiling photos of the deceased, and start and end dates. Like a resume, noting that time when you had the job of living.
I guess that’s the lesson I wish moms taught daughters: that you don’t have to do anything besides die...and also live. Not live in the obligatory sense we’ve all internalized, a world of rights and wrongs and standards to meet...but rather to live like your life is a science experiment, to find out what you like and don’t like, to try not washing your hands and see what happens, and to not care what anyone else thinks.