Monday, May 20, 2013

Embracing Death

I've been thinking a lot about death today.

An acquaintance of ours is terminally ill.  He will die...and soon.  It's only a matter of time.

This man is more of a friend of a good friend than he is a close of friend of mine.  But the good friend (who I have written about before) is in prison and cannot visit his dying friend, and so Jonah and I have been visiting in his stead.

The dying man has been somewhat of a tortured soul.  As long as I have known him, he has been very cynical and seems to have a lot of pent up anger, bitterness, and resentment.  He certainly has not been much of a believer in God as long as I've been acquainted with him.  I know he grew up in an abusive home and he has also been plagued with HIV for much of his life.  He was once a physically handsome individual, but the side effects of his medications have distorted his appearance, and I think that is one thing he has been unhappy about.  He has had a somewhat empty life.  To the best of my knowledge he has no family and is alone.  He has had no serious relationships that I know of.  He was not particularly well-liked or even well-understood by many who know him.

Let's call him Jack.  When Jack's health took an especially sharp turn for the worst, Jonah and I visited him.  He asked why God would play such a cruel trick on him, and then immediately apologized for it as if he feared that same God.  This was especially interesting since he seems to be an atheist.  But it also signaled to Jonah and me that maybe Jack was entering a new phase of his life.
 Jack also talked about what a wasted life he had had and lamented that he had very little to show for it.  I don't think that's true.  I think he made many good contributions to his life.  He also talked about feeling remorse for never forgiving the father who abused him.  This was interesting coming from a man who had held on to so much bitterness and anger about many things (not just his father).

As the weeks have passed, Jonah and I have noticed great changes in Jack.  No longer do we see a guy so racked with pain and cynicism, but someone who is witnessing things he probably never believed in.  Jack has made a conscious choice to stop eating.  When Jack was in great pain, he had talked about committing suicide.  In a way, I think Jack is still committing a sort of suicide, although since his prognosis is terminal, I don't necessarily blame him.

I've talked about my attitudes about death before in this blog.  I've never been particularly afraid to die nor have I really ever thought of death as a negative or bad thing.  I think it's just part of life; a transition we go through as part of our greater spiritual life.

Certainly the temporary separation it causes can be painful and sad, especially for those who have no faith or belief in an afterlife.  I, however, do believe that life continues on after the separation of our body and spirit, and in fact, don't believe in a "death" at all.  The spirit is and always will be.  What we call death is simply a temporary separation, and I do indeed believe it is only temporary.

I notice as I get older, the more people I know who die.  That's the same for many.  And I do think of my own mortality and realize that I could, in fact, die tomorrow if that is what happens.

I also think of the blessings of death.  Jack has suffered a lot.  I sense that he has not known much peace in his life.  I think of the love and understanding he will come to know on the other side of the veil, and I think that will be a great blessing to him.

I think of my cancer-ridden friends, Melanie and Marlyse; or my tortured friend, David, who committed suicide; and I think of my own dear father who basically suffocated in his own liquids for a month before he died and how miserable he was during that time.  I think of my dad's mother, who was so unhappy after her husband passed away that she kind of gave up on living life.  I think of the corruption and evil of this world and the fact that death is only a return to a love and understanding that we don't fully comprehend here.

Now before you get the wrong idea, I am not in any way, shape, or form saying that I wish to die.  In fact, I have a great deal to live for.  When I was buried deep in the closet trying to be a good Mormon boy, I longed for death.  I longed to be taken away from this mortal existence so that I wouldn't have to deal with it anymore.  Finding Jonah and coming out changed all that.  I'm very happy in my life and happy with Jonah.  I have somebody else to live for, not to mention family and friends that I love and need and who need me.  I like my life very much and feel I have a lot of it I'd like to live and hope Jonah and I are together for a long time.

At the same time, if God called me home tomorrow, I am not afraid to die.  I feel like I have a lot more left to do, but when it's my time to die, I'd like to believe I'm ready for it and would face it without guilt, fear, trepidation, or regret.  And I believe there is a peace and love finds on the other side that some people have a harder time finding on this side.

I, myself, feel quite peaceful about my life and the direction it's heading and the choices I've made.  I'm far from perfect and certainly always have room for improvement, but I have honestly striven to be the best and most loving person I can be.  Some days I fail, but it isn't from lack of trying.

I remember a song my choir sang in high school by Johann Sebastian Bach with a vocal smear (where individual singers in the choir sing one note at a time on their own breath, thus creating a cacophony of sound that is both dissonant and beautiful).  In fact, I believe it was this arrangement:


I thought at the time that it was so beautiful and haunting.  For some reason my thoughts today reminded me of its lyrics:

Come, sweet death, come blessed rest!
Come lead me to peace
For I am weary of the world.
Oh come!  I wait for you.
Come soon and lead me,
Close my eyes.
Come, blessed rest.

While at the time I thought the music wonderful, I found the lyrics to be depressing.  Today I think I understand why someone might be compelled to write such lyrics.

Death is a friend, not an enemy; something that releases rather than takes or steals; something to be embraced, not feared.  Even those who are taken too young or "in their prime" or "before their time" are only separated from their loved ones for a season.  And admittedly, that season can be very painful and hard and seemingly unfair, but it is a temporary state.

As I've dealt with my own mom, who is very much alive, I have been struck by the circle of life.  We start as infants, and when I look at newborns and babies who are unable to speak, I sense that their connection beyond the veil is still intact; that they see and hear things we are not in tune enough to see or hear ourselves because mortality has tainted that connection; that their connection with God is very strong.  Then as I look at those who are getting old, I witness that same childlike quality and dependence I see in children.  Whereas our parents once took care of us, now we in turn must take care of them.  Likewise, I witness that same spiritual connection in those who are getting ready to die, like Jack.  They begin to see and hear things we don't recognize, but I believe they are very much real.  They are getting ready to make the transition, and it is a good thing, not a bad one.

I have a feeling people like Mom and Jonah will hang on to life for a while.  Death will not come swiftly to them.  Whereas I suspect (and hope) death for me will be quick and sudden.  Or, at the very least, will be something I embrace without trying to hang on to life.

 But who knows?  Only time will answer that question.

The fact is, death is something we will all experience.  It's simply a part of life.  As we get older, more people we know will die and eventually we will, too.  Jack has anywhere from a few days to a couple of months.  I may have years to go.  I may go tomorrow.  But I will go someday and so will you.

Mom always seemed afraid to talk about death.  She found it depressing and would change the subject.  I don't dwell on the subject, but it's certainly not one I fear nor does it bother or depress me.  In fact, it fascinates and intrigues me.  Yes, I miss loved ones when they pass, but death is just a phase of the never-ending existence we all have.  It's just part of our progression.  I'm not wishing for it or wanting it, but neither do I fear it, and when it happens, that's just the next step in this glorious life that I have the privilege to call mine.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Of Journals and Genealogy and History

I was never much into genealogy as a kid.  Genealogy was quite prevalent in Mormon culture when I was growing up, and perhaps it still is.  I was interested in the history, but the collecting of names and dates never really struck my fancy. 

I had relatives who were quite active in genealogical pursuits, including one if my aunts on my mom's side, my mom's aunt, and my dad's cousin.  I figured they could do the work since it was something that didn't really interest me.

As I've been reading Mom's journals and going through old pictures, I realize there is so much I don't know about my ancestors and sadly, much I will probably never know because the parties involved are deceased.  I have a great aunt and uncle who are still alive and quite sharp, and I hope to interview them before they die to get more information about my dad's side of the family. 

I have come to realize I know very little about my mom's dad's side of the family; virtually nothing about her stepfather's family, and very little about my dad's mom's parents.

Dad's dad's family is quite well researched, and I do know a bit about Mom's mom's family.

Some things I have learned which I never knew before:

Mom's dad's mother died a week after he was born, and his father remarried, and that was the grandmother my mom knew.

One of Mom's aunts from the second marriage is still alive and in assisted living.  She's in her 90s, I believe.

Dad's mom worked in a ribbon shop and also worked for a photographer before she got married.

There is a slight chance that Dad's mom got married because she was pregnant, although she insisted this was not the case.  However, she and my grandpa lived separately with each of their parents for the first few months of their marriage.

My great-grandmother on my dad's side said she wouldn't marry my great-grandfather unless they had their own home, so he built her one.

My mom's stepfather, the only grandpa I ever knew, didn't want anyone informed of his death until after he was cremated.

My mom's stepsister died of an aneurysm about 13 years ago.

Mom' uncle's boss accidentally backed over over Mom's uncle's toddler son with an automobile and killed him.

It's also interesting reading Mom's journals and getting new perspectives on things that perhaps I didn't recognize as a child.  For example:

I didn't know that Mom's relationship with her mother-in-law was sometimes strained.  It is well known in my family that Grandma showed blatant favoritism towards her youngest daughter, and you can sense that Mom was jealous of that and bothered by Grandma's unwillingness to live life after the death of her husband.

I did not realize Moms' frustrations with her church service.  In what I've read thus far, it is clear that she finds serving as a Primary teacher frustrating and she really didn't want to serve as a Relief Society nursery leader.

I never recognized how much Mom and Dad really sacrificed for us.  When I read about Mom shuttling us kids around everywhere, and how domestic she was when I was younger (cleaning, cooking, housework), taking classes on speech therapy so she could better understand my sister's speech problems growing up, Mom's church callings, family trips, sewing outfits for my sisters even though it wasn't her strongest talent, working at night, etc. I am exhausted by how much she had to do and fully recognize that her motives were based on how much she loved her kids and wanted them to succeed.

Anyway, a desire to trace my family's history has been kindled in me.

Here are some of the coolest photos I'v come across so far:

These are my great-great grandparents on my dad's side.  The little girl standing between her father's legs is my dad's dad's mother.
This is that same little girl as a young woman with my great-grandfather (Dad's dad's parents)
My great-grandfather is at far right on the front row.  The man in the middle with the mustache is my great-great grandfather.
This is my dad's dad (left) and his two brothers.  The one in the middle is still alive and actually looks the same (only much, much older - lol)
This is my great-grandfather with his daughter (my dad's mom).
This is my great-grandfather with his daughter (Mom's mom).
Grandma (Mom's mom) as a teenager is some production.  She's in the second row, fifth from the left.
My dad is the boy in the middle.  His mom (my grandma) is between the two boys (the younger boy is my uncle).  Her mother (my great-grandmother) is in the middle.  The other ladies are aunts.

Mom's dad as a young man.
Really cute picture of my dad and his brother at Forest Lawn Cemetery in 1947.  I had never seen this before.

 Dad with his brother, parents, grandparents, and uncles.
 Mom's mom's mom.
 Mom on a pony in San Francisco.
Mom and her mom in San Francisco.
 This kind of blows me away.  This photo was taken in 1947 at a Stake Center in San Francisco while my dad and his family were on vacation, I think.  They lived in Provo, Utah at the time, I believe.  Pictured are my dad and his brother.  Dad's mom has her arms on his shoulders.  To the right of her are her parents.  I believe the lady behind her is her mother-in-law, and I presume my dad's dad took the photo.
This picture was probably taken 10 years later.  Mom is far right, front row.  Note it's the same steps of the same Stake Center.  This was a stake center Mom would have frequented as a youth in San Francisco.  I don't really believe in coincidences.  It's kind of fun to think Mom and Dad were in such even close proximity years before they met.