Tuesday, March 21, 2017

How Death Animates Us

Perhaps this blog will become: life as animated by literature.

I couldn't fall asleep last night, as happens when I'm newly off alcohol and back to the gym, so I read this graphic novel that's been sitting on my coffee table for about a year: Unknown by author Mark Waid and illustrator Minck Oosterveer.

It's about death. Since Molly's it's become clear that every piece of art and literature is about death. I knew this at fifteen and twenty-one. Just forgot.

The main character, Cat Allingham, is a detective with a brain tumor whose last mysteries involve learning if there is or is not an afterlife. It was only the first in a series, so the jury's still out.

On Sunday, Sonia and I had lunch with my parents and they acted like themselves for the first time in her presence, teasing one another relentlessly, engaging with us and actually showing some joy. It felt good.

We met at the Cheesecake Factory in the suburbs. My parents bravely tried the thai lettuce wraps and loved them. We shared two pieces of cheesecake (all chocolate) at the end and moaned about the indulgence. We walked around the mall together afterward and went shoe shopping, where Sonia impressively saved me $30 on a pair of $105 shoes at DSW.

Who knows why people do what they do? Given time or traumatic events, my parents seem to have turned a corner. They seem more open, more accepting, lighter. I have two theories and they both have to do with death.

A few weeks ago on the phone, my dad told me about a 26-year-old boy who had gone missing from the bar a few miles from their home. It was the same bar my brother and I frequented in our twenties, the closest one to our childhood home. The boy had suffered from mental health problems and substance abuse. He'd joined my mom's church to get help with the drinking and the drugs.

Then one evening, he left the bar, threw his phone and his keys in his car and walked into the woods. It took them a few weeks to find his body, but everyone knew what had happened. My dad told me that path led to an overlook where it would be easy to jump into the river. He didn't tell me that the boy was gay.

The boy who killed himself was or was not gay. In any case, he was in working class Pennsylvania where some combination of lack of opportunity, lack of options and lack of mental health services led to him finding this way out. His options were religion or alcohol. If he was gay, a religion that despised him wouldn't cut it.

Another thing happened this winter. Driving home from the high school where he's been substitute teaching since he got laid off 12+ years ago, my dad did a 360 on an icy two-lane road and narrowly missed an 18-wheeler. Says his life flashed before his eyes. He is increasingly the kind of man who will say things like that, although it's a new look for him.

My mom texted me about the incident the night it happened. She expressed thankfulness for Sonia and my brother's girlfriend. In their shock after that near-miss, they knew what mattered. They knew that Sonia and my brother's girlfriend were the people that their children would come home to if something similar happened.

In The Unknown, death is a chalky-faced stranger with the build of Herman Munster. In my life these days, it seems to be animating a little empathy among my family from a still-safe distance. The empathy is motivating -- it feels like all I've ever wanted -- and makes me want to spend as much time with them as possible. Help them keep their monsters at bay.

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