This summer I met an old man on a Greyhound bus leaving Biloxi, Mississippi who said something so obvious I had never before stopped to think about it. “Honey,” he said, “there is something every single human-being on this planet is guaranteed, and that is that there are twenty-four hours in a day.” I sat there in the darkness as we rode to Memphis and thought about it. Obviously, he's right. That is, unless a person does not know how many days or how many hours are left. As soon as we realize our “guaranteed time” is up, everything changes. Our sense of immortality crashes and we realize how fragile each individual life is.
Obviously, I have never died, but I have dealt with the death of someone close to me. My Uncle died suddenly of a heart-attack this July. No one could believe he had died because he didn’t have any symptoms and he was healthy. My life was as it always had been, and I was absorbed in my petty, daily problems when I got the call that was so undeniably permanent. That was what made me realize the finality of death.
During the first week of his death I stayed with my Aunt and watched everyone’s reactions. My Aunt would drift between moments of stability (“We are women of strength, Amber. We have to be practical.”) and moments of such painful sobbing I was afraid she would suffocate. My Grandparents were angry because he was their “helpful, good son.” He was only forty-seven years old, with a left ventricle that blew out. My mother cried the whole time, more often than my Aunt. My cousin, their only child, disappeared. He would be with his girlfriend until everyone had gone to bed, and then leave early in the morning only to work all day. He needed to keep busy.
I was not surprised at anyone’s reactions but my own. I could not cry. I could not even make myself cry. I ran errands, I microwaved the pot-luck that had arrived, and I ran miles and miles at night with the dog just to get away. I was calm, but concerned with my own rigidity. Uncle Larry was dead. He had lived well, and I knew it. There wasn’t anything to be done but move on. I was afraid my austere reaction would get noticed. Everyone talked about him being in heaven, and how he’d “gone home.” I didn’t think of his spirit being in any specific place. He was just dead. On the Fourth of July, three days after he died, we lit tons of firecrackers. As they exploded beautifully into the stars, my Aunt yelled out, “how do they look from up there, Larry?” It startled me. She really thought he was in heaven. I became afraid to let anyone know what my feelings were because it would hurt their image of him and of me. As I walked around the house on glass, I wrote down how I felt. After the memorial service, my mother and I drove back home to South Carolina where we were able to conveniently continue on with our lives and with our twenty-four-hour days.
What should a person do when someone else dies? I could never answer that question. I know how I reacted, but only in that situation alone. If my own father were to die it would be different. I do not believe anyone can prescribe a label to anyone’s manner of grieving. Every single member in my family reacted differently once they were over the initial shock and disbelief. They all dealt with his death as they needed to, on an individual basis. This way, they have been able to move on. Everyone recognized Uncle Larry would want them to have a good laugh and remember him doing just that. My Aunt Linda is alone now, and is certainly not happy, but she will live. It’s what we do when we’re not dying.
When the man on the bus talked to me it had been over a month since Uncle Larry died. I thought about him and how he spent his hours. I thought about myself, and the hours I have left alive. Now I think about death often, and I know it’s coming to everyone I know. Why must we die? I do not know. I do not have any beliefs that explain that. Sometimes I wish I did. What happens when people die? I cannot say, and I don’t think anyone can. It cannot be proven, so far, that anything does happen, and in reality, there is no use thinking otherwise. While we’re alive I believe we should remember the dead by how they managed to weave themselves into the pattern of life, and into humanity. We waste time thinking anything could have been avoided. We cannot bring them back.
Again I ask, why must we die? If we did not, we would not be a part of this Universe. Everything in it has a span of life, and on our planet we have hours. Am I callous if I think this way? I sound unemotional, but I am an emotional person. I love life, and I attack it like a hungry person does the feast. I have faced death myself, twice, and I was calm. I was also totally numb from anything, most likely to protect myself. Now, I am as full of fire as Lance Armstrong. I know I will die. I also know that right now I feel invincible because I have, as I said, started to attack life. I am happily gluttonous. Uncle Larry was as well, and it was that much easier on everyone else to know his life was full. He cannot come back, but it hurts less knowing he loved his life. I want to be like him. Every moment I have, even if I’m sobbing in the loneliness of my darkened hours, I will be living. It’s what I want to do.