writing to survive
. . . only the retelling counts

Death wish

We spent yesterday at a regional park on the site of former coal and sand mines, located in the place where two towns once sat. Some of the sand mine remains, well-maintained for tours, cool and clean and somewhat claustrophobic. The rolling hills of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River delta are beautiful. The buildings of the towns are gone, many dismantled board by board and relocated after the sand mine closed down in the late 1940s, but the cemetery remains. It was vandalized over a period of years, so many gravestones are missing or broken. But what is left gives the bare bones of tragedy writ small again and again and again. There are many children in that cemetery, infants, toddlers, children my son’s age and slightly older. Life was more dangerous then, children less protected, too. But I can’t imagine that losing them was any less devastating despite the commonality of death.

So I was reminded of death this weekend (the collapsed and missing gravestones of a dormant cemetery), of how lucky we are to be alive now, despite all the problems of the world (the graves of infants and children who died before the era of vaccines and modern medicine), the way danger lurks anyway (the young rattlesnake nestled in a tree in the cemetery). Two days with my family, two hikes in new places, two glorious stretches of sunshine and blustery winds reminded me of life. My thoughts of school were mainly musings on when my grades would all come in (all A’s so far). I have so much to be grateful for: the day, my family, the time, health insurance, money, the lovely box of celebratory chocolates from the even more lovely

I’ve been stuck in recovery from my first year in grad school. I’ve had very little to say. I’ve had moments of transcendence that feel perfect and then they are gone. I’ve had dreams of death, of decay, that worry me and I wonder if I should trust my gut. I have a Round Robin partner who writes beautifully about loss, though the loss may be hers or it may be fiction. I am with her at Mirror Lake, see the tall man who keeps on appearing out of the corner of her eye, the man who cannot be her husband because her husband was reduced to ashes six months ago. He is everywhere and nowhere all at once.

This is life. This is the thing I’ve both tolerated and don’t want to end. I don’t want the dance to end – with my husband, with my parents, with my friends. How did those women do it back in the days when diphtheria, smallpox, scarlet fever snuck in and stole away their babies? How did the men respond, the fathers and grandfathers, the brothers and uncles? How were the grandmothers, the aunts, the sisters? The friends? Does the omnipresence of death make it easier? Or does it just make everything worse, a never-ending slog of grief and depression?

In the U.S., today is Memorial Day, a day set aside to honor men and women in the armed services who died while in service. I don’t often write about holidays. I am not always in agreement with the military policy of our country and I don’t want to use a holiday to gloss over the causes of war and what people give up to fight it. I think about those men and women and the loved ones they left behind, the lives they lived and exited prematurely, the pain that reverberates from their deaths, and I sit in silence. I wish for peace, for the end of war. In my utopian world, we are all free from painful disease and violent death, we are all equally lucky -- or our societies are set up so that there is no need for luck. There is no destructive war, no one dies for someone else’s political gain or power grab, and no one dies because they can’t afford to leave a violent neighborhood or afford health care.

My idealism is unlikely to be realized in real time. How do we make the world a better place while we are in it? How can we help those who put themselves out there to fight in service of our country (a loaded term, I believe, but it can fit many different viewpoints)? How can we help those who are left behind when these brave men and women don’t come home? What about the survivors of war? How can we make sure every child grows up in a safe neighborhood, gets access to health care, that every adult in need does, too? As a future counselor, how can I ensure that my services are available to those who can’t afford them and may need them the most?

I don’t know the answers to my questions, though I do think the government can play a role in answering some of them. Soon I’ll be helping people more directly through my MFT placement. In a few years, I’ll be able to help more, by either working for agencies who serve those with low income or by taking on pro bono clients. As for honoring the fallen, I will think about those who have died in service, help those who are left behind, and participate in the political process to help end what should be ended (or should have never started in the first place, depending on your viewpoint).

In the middle of life, in the push up steep East Bay hills, in the sounds of rowdy children climbing a pepper tree in a dormant cemetery, playing right next to a tree in which a venomous snake lounges, there is always the threat of death. Many of us are not familiar with death on a daily basis. We may see it play out in long, painful dramas in old age or in the fight against disease. It is so often a slog, a struggle, not just the flip of a switch, or something sudden, violent, and bloody. We hear about it happening in far away places to the unlucky or to those who have to take their chances. We wait for it to happen to us and the people we love. In the middle of life, it is good to keep death in mind, to remind ourselves to enjoy what we have today, and to help others share in our luck, if we have the luck to share.


Top image of the little rattlesnake by me.
Bottom Image of a Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve reflection by
big hairy monkey.
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