I’m sitting on my bed, with the peachy-sour aftertaste of my S’mores Frappuchino (?) a thin layer on the back of my tongue. It’s late afternoon, and the weather’s a nice, balmy 65 degrees, partly cloudy. I’m thinking about death.
No, not Death in the metaphorical capital D sense, but simply, death.
Fact of life number one: people die.
Yesterday, my high school held a special assembly for the upperclassmen. It was a simulation of the consequences of a DUI, acted out by our classmates and the local police and fire departments.
“This might be a simulation,” one of the officers said, “but we don’t consider it a simulation. This is what really happens when we have an accident like this.”
Remembering my driving school lessons from the summer before, my instructor had drilled into my and my classmates’ heads that “there are no such things as accidents. Only wrecks.”
And, looking at the two cars, with the acrid smell of machine-generated smoke in the air, I couldn’t help but agree more with my instructor as the screaming started.
My classmates screamed in agony, dragged themselves out of the cars, and cried. As the officers narrated the procedures, I tried to feel something for the scene in front of me. I knew some of those people, some better than others. The officers made sure that they were all humanized, sympathetic, even the guy with his head bashed open in the driver’s seat and the girl who was forcibly ejected through the windshield. The dead ones.
Even though the officers told us it wasn’t a simulation, that it was an accurate portrayal of what they would do in a real wreck, I couldn’t help but think that the more the actors screamed in agony, screamed for help, screamed in despair, the more it seemed like playacting. That it wasn’t real or believable. I couldn’t help but think about the graves that I passed everyday on the way back to my home, and the chunks of road dedicated to families. The fresh flowers and the candles left over from the vigil the night before, changed nightly as families continued to mourn.
I couldn’t help but think back to the three car pile-up I saw on my way to school one rainy January morning, where police had cordoned off the only route possible to go to school and other drivers were cutting across private parking lots to get to work on time. I knew, that day, that there were probably people who’d died. Visibility was poor, we were in an area known for its midnight drag races. It wasn’t the first time something like that had happened at that location, or at all. And when I came home that afternoon, the wreckage was cleaned up. In its place was a wooden cross tied to a tree and the fresh candles and flowers that marked the death place of yet another victim.
That’s reality. People die because of decisions they make. People die because of decisions other people make.
We had a presenter in that assembly who, with a voice trembling with barely contained emotion, told us about the death of her baby brother. It was fairly obvious that the memories were still fresh in her mind.
“My uncle killed himself,” someone offered freely. “How do you deal with that grief?”
“I–I deal,” she said, laughing a little bit. “I drive every night, and I’ll do it until the day I die.”
“Do you regret not doing anything?” someone else asked.
“Every day,” she answered honestly. “I’m full of what-ifs.”
It was heart-wrenching. Some people cried. I couldn’t help but think about grief.
That night, my father’s last remaining parent died. Passed in his sleep a scant few hours after my father finished his nightly phone call to him. I’d fallen asleep in my parents’ bed that night, until my mother persuaded me back into my own bed at two in the morning. At that time, I didn’t think anything of it. It wasn’t uncommon for my parents to be awake during the odd hours of the night.
I found out that morning, five hours later, at the breakfast table. And now I’m thinking about death.
My first time out of the continent was to participate in a Buddhist ritual honoring my maternal grandfather’s passing. It was hot and itchy, and I remember wondering if it would be appropriate to cry.
Death happened several more times after that. An older classmate killed himself in middle school. Then a teacher died. My viola teacher suffered a miscarriage. There was a car crash in my freshman year of high school, killing one, severely injuring another. We didn’t hold a memorial. Another, this time younger, classmate killed herself. We held a memorial for her.
“I’m sorry if I’m a little out of tune,” her guitar teacher had said. “I’m still in shock, and I pray to God that I don’t start crying.”
I didn’t even know her. It was intensely uncomfortable.
Somewhere between those times, I lost a grandmother as well. I didn’t leave the country for her–it was a simple Muslim ceremony, nuclear family only. I don’t know what happened, but when my dad came back, he was a little quieter, a little more resigned.
I’d never thought particularly deeply about grief before. It was always a fact of life. But between the death of my grandfather and the demonstration, I felt, for the first time, an immeasurable gap between the two cultures that I’d been raised in.
We don’t wail in mourning. We don’t scream when someone dies. Our lives don’t stop, though we might drop everything to go plan a funeral. We go on.
Death is, simply, a fact of life. Emotions, however, are not.
We don’t talk about death. We don’t have the words for it. It seems sad now that I think about it, but really, what’s the use? When people die, we can mourn, and we always mourn. But life goes on.
Classes still happen. People still get married. Children are still born. Between the assembly and my grandfather’s death, my sophomore English teacher wedded his partner of many, many years. He used six exclamation points in his explanatory e-mail. I saw two animals dead on the side of the road, and cheerleaders practicing lifts.
A fact of life is, it goes on. We might stop, but the world doesn’t. The world keeps moving forward, and I see no reason not to follow.
I’d never realized how long I expected my grandparents to live. I’d wanted them to be there when I walked down the aisle. I’d wanted them to be able to meet their great-grandchildren. I simply couldn’t comprehend the lengths of their lives and the years they’d lived through. They were living relics of history, important figures in the shaping of the Chinese/Taiwanese relationship with the rest of the world. But more importantly, no matter how unfamiliar I am with them, they were family.
When I saw my father’s eyes in the morning, they seemed so sad. Sadder than I’d seen them in a long time. I wanted to comfort him somehow, but I couldn’t find it in me to do it. It’s just–not–done.
Because, in the end, no matter how many people die, no matter how much pain and sadness we feel, we have to keep moving forward. We have to remember that there are still people out there who love us and need us.
Death reminds that life is short. It tells us that we only have so much time to spend, and so we have to remember to spend it wisely. That it’s not worth going to bed angry and waking up miserable.
The last thing I told my grandfather was that I was going to Dartmouth to study policy. Now, while I’ve never been sure of what I want to study, I know for a fact that I don’t think he’s really left. Perhaps I’ll never be able to talk to him again, but at least I know that he was proud of me. And I can carry his pride, the family legacy, knowing that he’d want me to succeed and he’d want me to move on.
Will I forget him? No. Probably not. I will probably never be able to eat chicken soup and croissants again without thinking about him or his wife. But will I dwell on his memory? No. Not at all.
It might seem cold and detached, but I simply don’t see any reason why people get so worked up about death. I don’t think it’s horrible. It is, simply, the end.