Friday was an emotional day, much of it spent memorializing those who have passed on. The day began with the awful news that my sister-in-law made another failed suicide attempt the night before. Then while the rest of the house readied themselves for one memorial, I got myself and baby ready to attend a separate one. The first event was an annual golf benefit for cancer held in memory of my brother-in-law who succumbed to lung cancer while I was in Iraq. I don’t really golf, so I went on behalf of the family to pay respects at the funeral mass for my elderly neighbor who passed of natural causes earlier this week.
My brother-in-law married my sister when I was just a child. They had been married more than 20 years and had four healthy boys together. My father always said my brother-in-law worked like a dog to support his family. He was a mason, but he was not rough around the edges at all. He was mild mannered and easy going and always a kind face at family functions. This means a lot in a giant family where the feelings between people can sometimes be contentious.
His fight against cancer began before I left for Iraq, and I prayed for him every night. When his lung cancer appeared to be gone, I thought God really did answer prayers. But then they discovered that it had spread to his brain. When he died, no one told me. They didn’t want to upset me. It was only a week or so before my tour ended, and we were scheduled to come home. I learned he had passed from my nephew’s Myspace status. It read: “Loosing your dad really sucks.”
I hated not being there for my sister and my family while they were grieving, but the worst part was I never got to say goodbye. I only saw my brother-in-law once since he was diagnosed, and he was reeling from chemo and radiation therapy. I never got a chance to talk to him during his remission. I never got to talk to him at all really after he got sick. His last Christmas happened to be the first Christmas in 10 years that all of my brothers and sisters were together, celebrating with my parents on Christmas Eve, but I was in Iraq. It’s nobody’s fault. That’s just the way it happened. If I had just had the opportunity to spend that last Christmas, or a family function, or some other holiday with him, I think I’d be more at peace with being in Iraq when he died. It was a somber note to come home on.
I never really got a chance to say goodbye to my neighbor either. He was an elderly man and also a veteran. I didn’t have too many conversations with him, but my husband, who was very fond of him, had many. When we first moved here, my neighbor was lively and energetic. On warm days he was always outside tending to his flowers and his landscaping. He was a pretty spunky old guy who sort of grouched out everything he said in a way that made you laugh. But after his heart attack, everything changed for him. He made a strong recovery at first, but then he had a back operation that left him permanently paralyzed in one leg.
A man like him was never meant to be wheelchair bound. EMS made frequent visits because he often fell down trying to do things without help. My husband finally told his wife to call us before calling the ambulance, and he generally ran next door about once a week to help pick poor Charlie up off the floor. Once, when my husband was at work, I went in his place. Charlie’s wife was doubtful little old me had the strength to pick him up off the floor, but I assured her my combat load was much heavier than little ole’ Charlie.
We knew the end was near when hospice started making house calls and their out-of-town children came up to visit. It was one of those awkward situations where I wanted to stop by but I didn’t want to intrude. One morning, shortly after his children left, I woke up and saw out my window a dark station wagon backed up to their garage. I knew then he had passed.
The funeral service was held at the church by a priest whose services are always eloquent and inspiring. Refreshingly, he talked a lot about how at the official level, the church doesn’t pretend to know what happens to us after we die. He said a few kind words about Charlie, but I had a hard time focusing on why I was there. In basic training, even the atheists found a Sunday service to attend. It was the only hour or so out of the entire week you could escape the drill sergeants and think about something other than training. For some reason, these services were very emotional for me, and it was the same whenever I attended a service in Iraq. Ever since, for reasons I can’t entirely explain or put into words, church services feel almost overwhelming to me. All I could keep thinking at the funeral service was that there had to be something after this, because if there’s not, what’s the point?
My father believes when you die, you shut off like a light switch. Everything goes dark and that’s it. You just cease to exist. I can’t fathom that. Maybe it’s just the limits of my rational mind, like my inability to conceive of infinity even though I know, by logical necessity, either the universe itself or the original cause must be infinite, but I simply cannot imagine it anymore than I can imagine the end of my own existence. If there’s nothing after this life, why bother doing anything but trying to feel good while you’re here? If in the end, I will simply cease to exist, what difference does it make if it happens today or 50 years from now? What difference does it make what kind of legacy I leave behind me if we are all just some random cosmic accident that will eventually go the way of the dinosaurs? Anyway, this is where my thoughts kept drifting to while trying to honor my neighbor’s memory.
In between the funeral and the benefit dinner I attended after the golf tournament, I made a stop home to put the baby down for his nap. There were only two stories bouncing back and forth on the news: Mayor Bloomberg called for the first mandatory evacuation of flood zones for the first time in the history of NYC, and Former President George W. Bush gives an exclusive interview with the National Geographic Channel discussing his thoughts for the upcoming 10th anniversary of September 11th. In a clip, Bush described how walking onto Ground Zero was like walking into hell. In one big rush, I remembered how in the days following 9-11, walking through the city, how seeing my fellow New Yorkers and the looks on their faces was like bearing witness to each individual’s own personal hell, and I choked back tears. I don’t know why everything seemed to intersect on one random Friday last week, but it made for a very heavy day, leaving me with the thought that there has to be more than this, that this life must be part of some bigger plan we just aren’t privy to, because if it’s not, what the hell is the point?